A new era of Texans football started on Saturday with a resounding 26-7 win for the good guys up in Lambeau Field. Both squads sat a number of players out of this one, but the ones in Liberty White that did take the field against the Packers made a physical statement, to say the least. Here are my Harris Hits from the win over the Packers on Saturday night.
The Texans running game has been a much talked about facet of this team throughout training camp, in large part due to the lack of success in the run game last year. As such, I want to start with the running backs on this particular squad. I've said for a few weeks now that this is, overall, the deepest group of backs I can remember since I've been covering this team (dating back to 2007). One through eight, each back has made an impact throughout the first two plus weeks of camp and on Saturday night. Mark Ingram and Rex Burkhead sat out completely against Green Bay and David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay were out after a series or two. However, Scottie Phillips, Buddy Howell and the recently signed Darius Jackson POUNDED the rock against the Packers. The three backs each ran for 37+ yards with Phillips leading the way with 66 yards on 13 carries. Each of those three reeled off a 12+ yard run as well. Phillips ran through a gaggle of Packers defenders to punch in the Texans' first touchdown of the preseason that gave the Texans a 10-7 lead. Later in the game, Jackson bounced a run outside, got a block from his quarterback Jeff Driskel and dove for the end zone for the second touchdown on the night. All night, it felt like the run game was a series of body blows that eventually took its toll in the second half.
I'll say this, 170 yards on 37 carries has a nice ring to it and I could REALLY get used to seeing that production in the run game on a consistent basis.
A major reason for the success in the run game was the offensive line's physicality. Down at field level, I got a GREAT feel for the ferocity the offensive line, tight ends and fullback Paul Quessenberry displayed throughout the night. Trust me, there were some serious collisions up front and the Texans came out on the winning side of many of them. Even with three key offensive linemen out after being placed on the COVID-19 reserve list, the group that took the field on Saturday night picked up the slack, if you will, led by offensive line coach James Campen and assistant Robert Kugler.
The pass protection execution was absolutely on point. The only sack came about as the result of a mishandled snap by quarterback Davis Mills. Other than that, there was just one other quarterback hit throughout the night. One. Look, I get the fact that it was preseason game number one, but I've seen my share of preseason openers and none were anywhere near as clean, up and down the offensive front, as it was in this one.
During the week, Marc Vandermeer and I discussed how much quarterback Tyrod Taylor would play. My exact response was "one drive and/or ten plays." Lo and behold, Taylor played 10 plays, all coming on one drive. Four passes. Four completions. Taylor found something early picking on the right side of the Packers defense with receiver Chris Conley. The Texans pass catcher came up with three catches (two of them for first downs) on that drive and finished with a team leading four receptions for 51 yards. That was that for Taylor - one drive, 10 plays. Hit that one on the nose…then again a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and again.
Then, it was time for rookie signal caller Davis Mills to come on to the field. By the end of the night, Mills threw 22 passes and found increasing comfortability in the offense after each snap. The one thing that we've been able to see in training camp was something I saw a few times clear as day on Saturday night. I've been standing directly in line of a Mills throw where there's been no receiver seemingly in sight. Then, as it appeared a pass was headed to nowhere's-ville, a receiver flew into the picture for the reception. In the second quarter, he threw a slant route to running back Scottie Phillips for ten yards and I'm telling you he threw that thing before Phillips even thought of making his in breaking move. That ball was headed right at me and I saw this clear lane between Mills and me. Initially, I thought it was a blown assignment and the receiver ran the wrong route. Then, Phillips slid into the catch for the first down. It's clear that Mills learned how to throw receivers open while at Stanford.
A couple plays later, Mills threw a dart to fellow rookie Nico Collins across the middle for a catch-and-run 24-yard gain. What's the old adage…you are what you practice. I don't know, I think that's right, but maybe I made it up. Either way, that completion featured a route that Collins has seemingly perfected. Those two have linked up on that same route numerous times over the past week in training camp practices.
Those two throws were excellent tosses, but Mills' best throw was a third and 13 conversion to receiver Chris Conley on the following drive. Mills couldn't have put that ball in a better spot and Conley exquisitely used his body to shield the defensive back from making a play on the ball.
The offense gets all the headlines and I fell right into that trap, no doubt, but the story of the night was, without question, defensive coordinator Lovie Smith's defense. Three takeaways. A paltry 49 rushing yards allowed for 2.3 yards per attempt. Just 242 total yards allowed. A second half shutout. Just one touchdown allowed. Five three-and-outs. The numbers tell an exciting story, to be honest.
The first fumble came courtesy of a strip sack from defensive lineman Jon Greenard. The second year pass rusher caught an edge off the right side of the defensive line with a sweet swipe move to gain leverage. The Packers' offensive tackle tried to ride him upfield past quarterback Jordan Love, but Greenard proceeded to rip underneath the tackle, his eyes set on Love. Once he got to the Packers quarterback, Greenard chopped down on Love's throwing hand, knocking the ball out onto the Lambeau Field turf. Defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson jumped on the pigskin and then brought it to our postgame interview. In fact, he brought both fumble recovery trophies to our interview as he recovered both Packer fumbles. Having a player bring his football "trophies" was a new one for me, preseason, regular season or playoffs, not that I minded in the slightest.
Unfortunately, Mills threw an interception on the very next play which drew the ire of head coach David Culley. As we walked in together before the half, Culley still had a bit of steam coming out of his ears because of that pick. However, overall, it was the one mistake that Mills made that he'd love to have back and his only one of the night.
The second sack of the night was the first in what will hopefully be a long career for rookie defensive lineman Roy Lopez Jr. During training camp, the sixth round rookie flashed one day after the next, especially when the pads went on a few days into camp. When I got asked throughout the past two weeks who should be on fans' radar screen, I immediately responded with "Roy Lopez Jr." When he blasted through for his first sack, the sideline went absolutely bonkers. This team seems to love this young dude. He has such a calm demeanor off the field and this switch that gets flipped when he's on it. I really, REALLY hope it's the first sack of many for Lopez in Houston.
Defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker had the most sacks of any player on this roster back in 2020 and it's clear to see why. He has a knack for getting to the quarterback in a number of different ways. He hit the edge with some speed-to-power to disrupt a throw. Walker's such an interesting guy because he can win inside and outside as he showed vs. the Packers.
Throughout training camp, I felt like the linebackers were having as good a camp as any unit on the squad. After sixty minutes of action on Saturday night, that feeling is even stronger. From Kamu Grugier-Hill's shot through the backfield for a tackle for a loss to Joe Thomas' play against the run to rookie Garret Wallow's leadership in the second half, the linebackers brought a level of physicality that could truly define this unit in 2021. Now, there is some work to do in pass coverage, but that's fairly common for any linebacking unit. In my estimation, the entire unit played well and Zach Cunningham, Christian Kirksey and Kevin Pierre-Louis didn't see the field on Saturday night.
The third takeaway of the night was the first interception of the season. Defensive back Tremon Smith may not get an easier interception, but he'll take it. I've always been a massive fan of Smith. Speed. Length. Ball magnet tendencies. I've always thought Smith could stick in this league and I hope it happens here in Houston.
Defensive back Desmond King II may have only seen the field for half of the first quarter, but he was instrumental in breaking up a pass on a crosser when he was in man coverage. Then, after a second consecutive three and out, King II took his first punt return of the year 43 yards to the Green Bay 38-yard line. I've said this before about King II - he's just a ball player. Turn the lights on, kick the ball off and watch him ball. Some guys just have a knack and King II has that playmaking ability that I hope truly comes to fruition this year and beyond.
Marc and I sat next to each other on the plane ride back and had the same thought - the 2020 and 2021 draft classes really stepped up on Saturday night. One guy that caught both of our attention was defensive lineman Ross Blacklock. On two consecutive plays late in the first half, Blacklock looked like the Blacklock that I studied at TCU. On the second play of the series, he whipped the blocker and chased down the Packer ball carrier for a one yard gain. On the next play, he did the same thing but held the back to no gain. The images from those two plays stuck with me throughout the night. The strength. The quicks. The relentless pursuit. Blacklock's flashes are pretty darn bright, that's for sure.
Alright, I know I'll have more thoughts and observations after I go back and watch the film, but our plane is just about to touch down in Houston. Training camp returns next week and we'll be there to cover all of it. Let's GO!!