Weird doesn't even begin to describe the feeling driving home after 70 minutes of football at NRG Stadium on Sunday. It was a little "never seen that before" with "well, seen that before a few times" and the result was the first tie in the history of the Houston Texans. Yes, a tie - and not a Brooks Brothers or Tie Bar tie - a 20-20 tie. Lots of layers to this one so let's take a dive into the Harris Hits from Week 1.
I'll be honest, I'm not even sure where to start after a tie, but how about a guy that showed up last week that scored two touchdowns? When the Texans signed the former Alabama star TE, I remember thinking that if O.J. Howard had anything left in the tank, he could really give that unit a boost. He spent training camp in Buffalo, a team that returned nearly everyone, especially at the tight end position. Then, he became available and joined the Texans last week. When I saw him running routes and catching the ball in practice, I thought even more so that he could have a chance to do positive things for this offense. NO ONE saw two receiving touchdowns in the opener coming. Then again, maybe we should have. It was downright Danny Amendola-esque. Amendola, as you remember, showed up just after training camp last year and scored a touchdown in the win over Jacksonville. Howard went one better, scoring twice on the same exact route on each side of the field. It's hard to miss the 6-6 pass catcher down the seam and QB Davis Mills threw two laser shots to him for those scores.
Mills had some absolutely brilliant moments in this game and some that he'd like to have back. After the hit that Colts LB E.J. Speed put on him in the fourth quarter, Mills never really got his groove back for the rest of the game. He was sacked a couple of more times and he had to throw the ball away on a key 2nd and one play in overtime, in which there was really no one open. There are some bright flashes and Davis stepped up at key times against a team that had skunked this offense in 2021. But, he'd tell you that there's more meat on the proverbial bone heading into Week Two at Denver.
It certainly wasn't the best game for a completely revamped back four, but the secondary showed a ton of growth and I'm excited for what it can be down the road. Four new starters, two rookies and there were a million questions heading into this one against a former league MVP. Now, Colts QB Matt Ryan did throw for 352 yards in five quarters but when a play was needed, especially in the end zone or deep down the field, that quartet helped make it.
Let's start with the two safeties - Jonathan Owens and rookie Jalen Pitre. The duo combined for 26 tackles, which is alarming for sure. However, those two didn't seem to miss many tackles and that's a great sign. Owens, known more for his physical striking, made just a tremendous play on a ball near the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter. Ryan made a top notch throw to the back of the end zone to WR Ashton Dulin but as he was reeling the ball into his body, JO punched at it and knocked it out of Dulin's hand, saving four points.
Pitre wasn't just Johnny on the spot; he was Johnny at every spot. I felt like Pitre's mantra was sort of like mine when I played safety - make sure the camera catch me near the tackle spot or pass thrown spot as much as possible. Not the TV cameras, man, the All-22 camera. Vanity aside, Pitre arrived at the spot throughout the game. He knifed into the backfield to slow Colts All-Pro RB Jonathan Taylor on the first drive of the game to halt his progress on third down. But, he seemed to really change the tide of the game, physically, when he dropped the hat on Colts rookie WR Alec Pierce. Seeing it in slow motion or on TV really didn't do it justice and I hate that he got up a little high which created the penalty. That said, the hit really woke up the Texans sideline and it helped send a message that these Texans are a little bit different. That was Kareem Jackson-esque. That's the kind of play that other teams see, other receivers see, and it leaves an impression. I'd rather Pitre not have to make 11 tackles again, but, then again, given how, and where, he plays on the field, it's not outside the realm of possibility that he can do it many times in his career.
There's plenty of discussion of targets and touches and all that sort as it relates to the running backs in the stable, but I'll say this - it ALL needs to improve. Yes, the Colts possess one of the best front sevens in the league, but the run game didn't take the steps ALL of us wanted with a revamped OL and offensive backfield. Now, it is game one of the 2022 season and a long season at that, but for the fans of this team, they've seen this run game struggle for a LONG time. I'm not breaking new news by saying that short yardage efficiency must be better at key times. I don't care if Troy Hairston gets the rock on second and one or third and short. Shoot, give it to Jeff Driskel for all I care. Hammer Davis Mills…wait, okay, let's not get crazy here; just get those key yards. As such, I completely understand fans, players, coaches and analysts wondering why there wasn't a better performance from the running game; 77 yards and a 2.8 yard average just won't get it done. Lovie Smith, Pep Hamilton and the entire coaching staff want that run game to flourish so we'll see what the Texans coaching staff dials up in week two at Denver to help it improve.
On Saturday night, while watching college games, I saw a coach call a timeout prior to a fourth and one down in the low red zone early in the first quarter. It sort of set me off because THAT was the type of decision, going for it on fourth down early in the first quarter, that's typically made early in the week. I can't tell you how many game decisions I made in my head driving to go get gas in my car during the week. Sitting at the pump, ruminating on the upcoming game, the scheme I thought I'd see, all that and I'd tell myself: "Heck yeah, we're going for it on the first drive, no matter what. If it's short, here's my play, if it's medium distance…if it's on the left hash…" Anyhow, the point being that in the first quarter of a game, a coach's 'Choose Your Own Adventure' novel hasn't even gotten past the foreword in the book. By overtime, though, the CYOA book is on page 356 and ANY one single decision takes into account a thousand different factors. I'm convinced that Head Coach Lovie Smith would've gone for it on 4th and one or less in overtime but when the Colts blew up the spot on third down, creating a TFL, Coach stared at the many factors on his invisible game whiteboard and realized the best decision AT THAT TIME was to punt to preserve the tie, especially after his short yardage play/personnel had just been stuffed on third down. I can tell you from experience, that's the type of decision in the CYOA book that a coach replays in his/her head for years, good or bad. It's also the type of decision that's going to come up again, but, perhaps, the factors near the end of the book are different, which could lead to a different situation, decision and ending.
What a return to Houston for DL Jerry Hughes! He finished the game with two sacks, a strip fumble, an interception and a forced false start. I want to make that last one a permanent stat going forward. Either way, Hughes was a problem off the edge for the Colts and RT Braden Smith. One play that Jerry won't get credit for was on third down on the first drive of the game. He knifed through on a run play and forced Taylor to hesitate just a split second before making his running decision. That allowed all the Texans pursuit to get to the ball to stop Taylor well short of the first down. On the strip sack, he just ran right by Smith and when he got to Ryan, he didn't take a big hit on the veteran QB, he literally dove at the ball to take it away from Ryan…and he nearly got it. So glad that the Fort Bend Austin star lit it up on Sunday for his hometown team.
I LOVED seeing OC Pep Hamilton dial up the flea-flicker on the first play of the third quarter - Mills to Rex to Mills to Cooks deep down the field. During training camp, Mills had overthrown Cooks a number of times so he made an adjustment to make sure that he got the ball to Cooks without overthrowing him. Now, Mills needs to find that happy medium between just getting him the ball and overthrowing him by a yard. If he finds that, it's one play drive time on deep shots like that. Either way, kudos to Pep for coming out the chute with that one.
Furthermore, I loved the way that Pep used personnel throughout the game. Hamilton's mixing and matching of WR groups, 13 personnel and Charlie Heck as the sixth OL was impressive and fun to watch.
One of the key sequences in this game took place when it was 20-3 as the Colts were driving toward the south end zone at NRG. On first down, Desmond King II knocked away a TD pass from Michael Pittman II on first down. Then, on second down, Jonathan Owens punched out a completion from the hands of Ashton Dulin. On third down, rookie Derek Stingley Jr. knocked one away from rookie WR Alec Pierce. Three straight PBUs on three straight plays from the revamped secondary that saved four points at a key time.
Speaking of Stingley Jr., he wasn't targeted often during the game but he made one of the most under-appreciated plays of the game. Late in the game, Ryan threw to Taylor on third and three with :30 seconds left in regulation. Taylor started upfield but immediately took a left turn to the sideline. I couldn't see exactly why Taylor took an abrupt turn then I saw the blur that was Stingley arriving on the spot to force Taylor out of bounds. Because of Stingley Jr, Taylor came up short, forcing the Colts to punt on 4th and one.
Texans DB/ST star Tremon Smith had three excellent plays on special teams and didn't touch the ball once. On two of them, he got some help from Colts K Rodrigo Blankenship, in which he kicked the ball near the sideline which Smith let go out of bounds. Then, late in regulation, Smith hammered punt returner Nyheim Hines deep in Colts territory which popped the ball out. Unfortunately, the ball bounced right into the waiting arms of the Colts Isaiah Rodgers. Fortuitous bounce but a great play nonetheless for Smith. I just wanted to see him get his hands on it one time on a kickoff, but he had two great returns, so to speak, and never touched the ball.
There's probably so much more to get into in this one, but that's about all I have the stomach for, honestly. Still trying to figure out how to FEEL about a tie, but there was progress and a lot of it. That said, it's best to leave it behind now and get better for week two at Denver.
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