The Texans begin their 2022 preseason slate with a Saturday-nighter at home against the Saints. It's the first contest for the franchise with Lovie Smith as head coach. Here are five things to watch when Houston and New Orleans kick off at 7 p.m. inside NRG Stadium.
1) Go Deep
So much has changed in a year for Davis Mills. As a rookie quarterback last season, he entered the preseason and regular season as Tyrod Taylor's backup. Now, the team is his. He spent the early part of the offseason in Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton's office installing the new scheme, and then implemented it as the field general during offseason conditioning, organized team activities and now training camp. In between, he threw with many of his receivers and tight ends during sessions in Atlanta, Houston and even Oregon.
Head Coach Lovie Smith is a fan of Mills the leader, as well as Mills the quarterback. He likes the way the second-year signal-caller has improved upon completing the deep ball.
"We have the perfect guy for our football team to start that push down the field," Smith said.
How frequently, if at all, Mills and the Texans go deep against the Saints will bear watching. Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks, who led the squad with 90 catches for 1,037 yards in 2021, won't likely play much, if at all. Mills and Cooks have connected often on the deep ball throughout training camp.
Cooks and a few other frontline players will get sparse action, if they even play.
"Some guys aren't going to play," Smith said. "We have a snap count, whatever you want to say, play count, on what we would like to do with the game."
Cooks, Offensive Lineman Laremy Tunsil, Linebacker Christian Kirksey, Defensive Back Derek Stingley, Jr. and a handful of others won't likely suit up, according to Smith.
"Those guys won't play a lot," Smith said. "But those guys in those next slots, that's who we want to see play."
3)The New faces
Like last year, the Texans made a slew of roster changes. While there were just five drafted rookies in 2021, there are eight in 2022. Wide Receiver John Metchie III won't be around any time soon because of an Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia diagnosis in late July.
Defensive Back Jalen Pitre and Running Back Dameon Pierce are just a few of the rookie draftees who will likely see the field for the first time as professionals. Meanwhile, a combination of veteran free agent additions like A.J. Cann on the offensive line and Steven Nelson in the defensive backfield, along with veteran Defensive Linemen like Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison and Ogbo Okoronkwo, could suit up and see some action.
4) Run game revved up
Pierce and fellow running back Marlon Mack will get some carries Saturday night, along with backs like Dare Ogunbowale, Royce Freeman and B.J. Emmons getting action as well. 10-year veteran Rex Burkhead won't likely play.
Veteran Offensive Lineman Justin McCray is impressed with the stable of ball-carriers.
"Everybody is dynamic," McCray said. "We have a lot of good runners. I feel like a lot of teams have guys that are just good at one thing and they have another back for another thing. I feel like all our backs are good at everything."
Houston must improve upon its NFL-worst 3.4 yards per carry last season. Defensive Lineman Ross Blacklock has noticed the offense's commitment to getting better in that area.
"It's good seeing our offense want to be more physical," Blacklock said. "It's good seeing more running this year, and just the offensive line being a lot more dominant, a lot more physical."
A Smith-coached defense will always emphasize the need to get takeaways. The Texans vaulted from worst in the NFL in 2020 in that category with nine, to a tie for 10th in the league with 25 last year. Despite the improvement, that wasn't enough.
"Every time we step on the field, we're trying to get that ball out," Defensive Back Terrence Brooks said. "For the most part, that's what we harp on each and every day. It's just turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. We've all bought into it and it's been going really good."
In three preseason games last August, the Texans came up with multiple takeaways each time. It helped set the tone for the season to come.