One day off doesn't always make a difference, but a day off on Sunday and the return of a veteran helped out one side of the ball. The other side of the ball continued to make plays that, as a unit, didn't in 2020. Here are my Harris Hits: Training Camp Observations Day #5.
Yes, it was #5 who returned on Monday after an excused absence Saturday and the day off on Sunday. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor consistently exudes calm, cool and poise, and even though he didn't say or hasn't said the exact words, today felt like Taylor's "it's cool, I've got this" vibe permeated the entire offense. After a difficult offensive performance on Saturday, for multiple reasons, Taylor's presence seemed to soothe frayed nerves, so to speak. I'll reiterate, the offensive performance wasn't completely and totally game ready, but Taylor had it rolling much more effectively than it had been in the previous days.
Running back Rex Burkhead has always been a north/south runner, dating all the way back to his days in high school in Plano, TX. However, one thing I've seen him do even better than I ever thought he could do - have defenders chasing ghosts with his change of direction. I've seen at least three shake 'em down/spin 'em around moves over the past few days, including one today. I mean, he's even more slippery and sudden than I ever remember. Covering him on his pass routes out in space? Forget it.
Oh man, sorry, I just spent the last 20 minutes going down a Rex Burkhead Plano Senior High School wormhole on Youtube. Alright, I'm back, let's go.
I mentioned on Saturday the competition that defensive back Justin Reid and tight end Jordan Akins have going every single day in practice. I haven't seen every single rep, but the ones that I've seen are competitive as all get out. Akins won the first rep of one-on-ones, catching a short route with Reid draped all over him.
Every day I watch defensive back Desmond King do work in the slot, he gets more and more comfortable facing the twitchy inside Texans receivers. Receiver Keke Coutee is as tough to cover one-on-one out in space as any inside receiver out there, but King did a tremendous job on a crosser that gave him trouble earlier in camp. He was able to stay on Coutee's inside hip and force the incompletion. King also forced another incompletion later during one-on-ones as well.
Defensive back Eric Murray seems to be playing with more confidence than he did in his first year with the Texans in 2020. He had a pass breakup facing tight end Kahale Warring and has made at least one play each day of that magnitude.
Warring, though, was able to rebound and make an excellent catch on a corner route for a touchdown a few reps later during the same one-on-one drill.
Tight end Ryan Izzo had an outstanding catch, skying to snatch one out of the air over the head of a defensive back.
Receiver Alex Erickson was open again and he just consistently finds a way to get loose every time he's running a route. During one-on-ones, he lost a couple of defensive backs for nearly uncontested catches. It's sort of mystifying, but he has been ultra-difficult for the defensive backs in one-on-one situations.
It should be illegal for 6-4, 215 lb. men to change direction or run double moves like rookie Nico Collins. Yes, he hasn't done it against other teams yet, but it's clear when a guy has "it." Collins clearly has been a guy that the quarterbacks love throwing to in any situation. During one-on-ones, he threw a smooth double move on a defensive back to get wide open for a touchdown toss during one-on-ones. More on Collins a little later in team drills.
2nd year receiver Isaiah Coulter looks like a different player in 2021 than he was in 2020. Much. Different. Smooth in his routes. Snatches the rock out of the air. More physical than he appears. I like the progress he's made and those three preseason games are going to tell his story this year. That said, he's run pristine routes to get open in one-on-ones and he's made a number of catches, with or without a defensive back on his back.
Rookie tight end Brevin Jordan has moments where he is ultra-difficult for any defensive back to stick with in coverage. He was able to shake free for a corner route touchdown catch during one-on-ones that would've been difficult for a lot of tight ends. Keep in mind, this guy is a rookie. He could be a really exciting young player if he can stay healthy and focused as a first-year player.
I don't envy the linebackers having to cover these running backs in coverage. I mean, how do you cover a back with receiver skills/acumen and tight end size like David Johnson? DJ31 just tore up a poor linebacker on a deep route during one-on-ones.
That said, the linebackers would get theirs during team drills later in the day. Don't worry, I'll get there in a bit.
Let me start with linebacker Tae Davis. There's an old saying that defensive guys are defensive guys because they can't catch a cold, but on one play during a team drill, Davis SNATCHED a throw right out of thin air. He read the quarterback's eyes and when the ball was released, Davis reached across like an accomplished receiver to steal it out of the air. That ball was on a rope too, so even with that sauce on it, Davis was able to pull in an athletic interception.
Oh, I mentioned earlier that having Tyrod Taylor made a significant difference for the offense, but so did having Brandin Cooks the entire practice as well. With Cooks steadily catching everything in his direction from Taylor, the offense was much more effective throughout the day.
Cooks ran a beautiful comeback route on a play in which Taylor was moving out of the pocket. TT drilled a laser to Cooks for the catch on the sideline.
These two also hooked up during practice for one of my favorite plays. I didn't really see how the play started, but when I looked down from the opposite end, Cooks had the ball in his hands. Then, as if it was the fourth quarter of a playoff game, Cooks hit the gas up the field. As he did, I wrote down the word "motoring" because he was absolutely flying.
I thought that offensive lineman Jordan Steckler had an excellent period of pass rush protection. I have "70 good rep" written down three separate times. The one that stands out was when he held up against a spin move from one of the defensive linemen. He just never lost his base, never lost his foundation and kept the rusher in front of him. Clinic teaching type of stuff. I loved seeing that from him, a young guy relatively still new to the Texans.
In between reps of pass rush one-on-ones, I looked down to see receiver Nico Collins make another grab. I wrote down "tough catch," but that's what he's shown early in this camp - the ability to make that tough catch. He took his route back across the middle but the pass was slightly behind him, forcing him to reach back to get his hands on the ball. Then, he just sucked the pass up like a vacuum for the first down catch.
Another offensive lineman who has shown a ton of progress is Charlie Heck. I hated last year for so many reasons and one major reason was because of the hijacked season the rookies had. The difference in Heck at this point last year and today is like night and day. He faced defensive lineman Jacob Martin, who is a whirling dervish at all times but especially when he's pass rushing. So, Martin hit Charlie with a spin move and Heck just dropped his butt a bit, slid properly and stayed directly in front of Martin. I love seeing Heck's progress under new offensive line coach James Campen.
During team period, Justin Reid was "Justin on the Spot" to knock down the offense's first deep pass for a pass breakup.
A couple of plays later, the defensive line contain player got pinned inside, which forced Taylor out of the pocket. When he scrambled out, Taylor found Jordan Akins for the catch and run. Akins may not always be the number one receiver on any particular play, but he seems to always be available.
Linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill was one of a handful of linebackers who came up with an interception during team drills on Monday. He was playing out in the flat, but he read the eyes of quarterback Jeff Driskel and darted in front of the hitch route for a pick. Wonderful, high football IQ play.
Driskel came back with a rocket a few plays later. Rookie Damon Hazelton ran a curl route in between zone defenders. Where I was standing, I didn't see or couldn't see Hazelton running that route. I just saw Driskel wind up and fire one on a direct line right at me. Then, Hazelton ran into the open space for the first down catch.
Although I haven't really mentioned a particular play or moment with Vernon Hargreaves III in practice, he's seemingly been solid each and every day. On this day, he came up with a pass breakup on Anthony Miller who was trying to get open on a crossing route. Hargreaves III essentially stayed with Miller on the route and then made a play on the ball as it arrived. I've seen some progress in Hargreaves III's all-around game this summer already and it'll be needed this fall without question.
The last play of the day was a little tag team by two linebackers. The first was rookie linebacker Garret Wallow. He read a slant route perfectly and jumped in front of the receiver, but he was only able to tip the ball in the air. Coming right behind Wallow, though, was Hardy Nickerson Jr. who reeled in the tipped ball and went all the way for six.
That'll do it for day five out here at the Houston Methodist Training Center. See ya tomorrow, everyone!! IT'S PADS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2021!! LET'S GO!!
Check out the best photos from the fifth day of Texans Training Camp.