The last practice before the first day off in Training Camp is always an interesting day to watch. The grind is starting to set in a little bit, but the true bumps and bruises aren't quite piling up without the pads on. So, how fresh and how sharp the team can be through the sweltering Texas sun is something of which I always take note. It was clear that the defense wasn't aiming to just get by; it was dialed in all day long. Let's talk about that and much more in Harris Hits: My Training Camp Observations from Day 2.
I love weekend practices because I can watch every single play of practice as opposed to weekdays when I'm spending a lot of time on radio. So, I chart every play in unit or team periods to remind myself later of what happened when I'm putting these observations together. I try to note something key about that play - did the QB make the right read? What was the coverage? Who made THE play in that particular instant? Finally, what was the result? Comp for completion. INC for incompletion. You get the point. One thing I also do is note the word "checkdown" as a win for the defense. I went back to count how many times I wrote that exact word or a version of it on Saturday - 12 times. I might have missed one here and there and I might have labeled one a checkdown that wasn't. Regardless, the overall point was that the coverage was ON POINT throughout the day. Clamps for days. I don't remember seeing the defense give up a deep ball or leave a receiver open beyond the intermediate area of the field in any drill that took place on Saturday. After practice, Texans head coach Lovie Smith mentioned that he'd like to see more takeaways from his defense, but they didn't really give the offense opportunities to challenge them where the defense could pick the ball off. The defense was in lockdown mode.
It was great to see rookie Derek Stingley Jr. out on the field during team periods. Man, he is the epitome of what a cornerback is supposed to look like. I love the individual period where I can watch his feet, his hip turn, man, so, so smooth. He's so fluid. His change of direction is outstanding. During team drills, it's clear he's still getting his feet, literally and figuratively, underneath him, but one thing that stood out watching him at LSU was his football IQ. He sees things happening based on motions, shifts, WR alignments. One play during a team period, the offense motioned a receiver toward his side, putting two receivers in close proximity. As the ball was snapped and the route started, I saw Stingley Jr point outside as one receiver went to the flat and one went up the field. He was alerting the underneath defender that the receiver out in the flat was the LB's responsibility because the deep route needed Stingley's attention. It's just one of those small things that let you know, yeah, he sees it, he gets it. That, perhaps more than anything, made my heart flutter today.
Oh, I didn't start with the absolute fire Battle Red helmets but I should have. I don't know that I've seen anything the Texans have ever done so universally praised (other than Andre Johnson going in the Ring of Honor). Now, about 45-50 guys were wearing the newly required Guardian Caps, but the RB/DB/WR/QB looked SWEET in the red lids! White jersey, blue jersey, red jersey? Didn't matter. Those red bonnets fit all those jersey schemes. I just love them and I know I'm not alone.
During the first group drill in practice, the half-line seven-on-seven, the very first route of the day seemed to send a message that the defense wasn't having it today. As QB Davis Mills took his drop, he and WR Chris Conley read zone so Conley settled into the zone between the safety (who started to drive on the RB in the flat) and LB Garret Wallow. It's not stealing yardage, but it really is - it's the key against zone coverage - find the open area, settle in and play pitch and catch. But, just as QB Davis Mills let go of the ball for what looked like a certain completion, Wallow took off like a shot when Mills' hand came off the ball and leapt into the path of the ball to knock it away. One thing that has stood out in the first few days is Wallow's coverage abilities. His speed and effort show up on every play, but he has a knack for reading QBs eyes, feeling the routes ahead, and behind him, and finding a way to impact the throw.
I love seeing film-watching translate to production and execution out on the field. Case in point, the second play during that same half-line drill came as a result of the previous day's film homework. On Friday, the first play of the drill, WR Brandin Cooks ran a brilliant deep out route but QB Davis Mills couldn't completely see him because of a dropping LB. Cooks was wide open but didn't get the target. So, what did the offense call on the first play today? Same thing, same exact route. This time, Mills drove a fastball over the head of the hook/curl player and put the ball on the money to his star WR for one of the best completions of the day.
I mentioned this a little earlier talking about Stingley Jr., but the communication from the defensive backs has really taken hold and it's evident in the overall results too.
On Friday, DB Terrence Brooks had a pass breakup that he was a bit disappointed didn't end up in an interception. On Saturday, he had another one during the half-line drill as Mills tried to squeeze one into WR Davion Davis. The Texans WR settled up between a LB and Brooks who moved into the picture just prior to Mills throwing the ball. As soon as the ball left his hand, Brooks jumped in front for the PBU.
On the very next play, on a similar route to the one that Brandin Cooks ran on him, Stingley showed off all of his traits - feet, smooth hip turn, awareness - to keep Davis Mills from throwing in his direction. Checkdown completion. Win for the defense.
When the drill flipped to the other side, DB Desmond King II played a stack alignment out route about as well as could be. This one didn't even result in a Mills throw. He couldn't even throw it. Eric Murray darted in front of the sail route. Rookie Jacobi Francis stayed over the top of that same route and Mills had nowhere to go with the ball.
A little later, DB M.J. Stewart swooped in over the top of TE Brevin Jordan for another PBU. That was a tough play for Stewart to not get a DPI, but he went clean over the top and got a hand on the ball for the breakup.
As a quarterback, there are different ways to throw the same route to different receivers. I was talking about this very thing on the radio on Friday. Throwing the hole shot to Brandin Cooks might be different for QBs than how to throw it to Nico Collins. Case in point, on the second play in another team period, QB Mills had Nico in the hole down the field and he threw it almost out of bounds to keep it away from the safety. But, with Nico, that's the right spot to throw it because of his size and ability to tap the feet on the sideline. Throwing a ball out of bounds sounds counterintuitive but it's a great spot for a guy like Nico. Now, Mills threw just an inch or so too far out of bounds as Nico juggled the catch and couldn't get both feet in bounds. That said, I appreciated the approach Mills utilized in that situation - Nico's catching this or no one is.
One thing I loved about that particular play was Davis' recognition of just two steps which gave him the answers to the test, if you will. On the play, DB Jalen Pitre aligned near the line of scrimmage as he anticipated the snap of the ball. When he moved just two steps backward away from the box, indicating a particular coverage, Mills stood back up to reassess, now knowing what the coverage was. Pitre's two steps gave Mills a pre-snap answer that typically requires a post-snap analysis. The result was that throw to Nico, the perfect throw against that coverage.
On the next play, Mills threw a dart on an outside curl route to WR Chris Conley for one of the longest completions on the day. Then, Mills threw a dart to his college teammate Connor Wedington for a completion on the next play. Two excellent throws from Davis in that team drill.
One aspect that stands out with the secondary members that were added to this team in the offseason is speed. Kendall Sheffield was a track star in high school and college. Fabian Moreau was one of the fastest prospects at the Combine a few years back. That speed showed up in a one-on-one situation with WR Chris Moore. The Texas wideout started up the field on a go route and had a step initially on the route. However, Moreau's recovery speed got him back in phase to help force an incompletion. Dude, actually, a lot of dudes, can run.
It's not just the secondary either. On the next play, rookie LB Christian Harris hit mega boosters on a flip to fellow rookie Johnny Johnson. From point A to point B, man, CLOSING…SPEED. This Harris wishes he could've just been half as fast as the Texans' Harris. That type speed shows up all over his game and certainly on this play.
I've got to admit when I saw DL Jon Greenard blow up a run play today, I got football chills. Throughout the offseason, I saw the Texans leading sack artist out on the field, getting his legs back under him after offseason surgery. Monday is the first day in pads and I've gotta think #52 is hyped to bang for the first time in a while.
If the Rasheem Green (DL) that I've seen the past few days shows up like THAT this season, the defensive line is going to be in GREAT shape. He's done some good pass rush things from the inside, but a few plays after Greenard blew up that run, Green ran down rookie RB Dameon Pierce from an outside position. His inside-outside versatility is so key and, even in just that series of plays in the team period, he showed HOW it could impact opposing offenses.
I noted earlier in these observations that the defense forced a decent number of checkdowns on Saturday. But, BUT a checkdown isn't the end of the world for an offense and can provide profit when initially there's none. Here's a great example of what I mean. In the last team period, Davis went back to pass and properly deciphered the coverage. He had trips receivers to his left and he worked that side of the field to start the play. The defense, however, matched those routes perfectly. It took away all three options at all three levels. So, Davis scanned to the other side and saw RB Rex Burkhead unabated out of the backfield with a head of steam. He hit him in stride on the checkdown and it wasn't until five or six yards downfield that a defender tagged off on the Texans RB.
Davis' completion to WR Chris Conley on the next play was the best throw he made all day. Mills moved up in the pocket as his internal clock ticked away. As he did, an opening developed up front to give him a clear view of his receivers. On the run up into the pocket, he lasered one to Conley on the dig route for a first down.
Alright, that's going to do it for today. Probably a good spot for an off day, if I'm being honest, so we'll see you again on Monday! Thanks for reading as always.