Four Downs: Texans 26, Packers 7

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The David Culley era started with football-like sustenance for fans hungry for optimism Saturday in Lambeau field, as the Texans crushed a Packers team resting almost all of their starters 26-7 in a game that showcased that Houston’s prized competition mindset is a winning preseason strategy over the Green Bay UDFA/young player machine.

While Jordan Love’s final stat line looked good, his 22-yard touchdown pass to Kylin Hill was a screen that busted a team that looks to read quickly, and the only throw that really seemed difficult that was completed was a 34-yard Cover-2 gap over Neville Hewitt. The Texans held the Packers to 15 offensive yards or less in every other drive that Love played in, and once it got to halftime, Houston was able to really exploit the experience edge with their backups versus the Packers. DeMarcus Walker had to have been salivating for the entirety of Kurt Benkert’s shift, and the Texans were able to force two turnovers on horrific Packers plays to go along with the one that Jon Greenard popped out of Love’s hands:

And, well, yeah, when you put grown men who have played in NFL games against young UDFAs who will mostly be selling real estate, considering coaching, or going on to other careers in a few years — this can happen, yeah.

My main broad picture takeaway from this game was pretty simple: I think this coaching staff is going to be extremely conservative. Davis Mills had two deep tosses the entire game, they ran the ball 37 times and, more importantly, even had 14 carries in the first half despite not having any real success with it. They came up with just 33 yards and a touchdown.

When asked why the offense didn’t go for it on fourth-and-2 in Green Bay territory, David Culley said all the right things, but didn’t exactly paint the picture of a guy who was confident in gos:

If you don’t trust it enough to go for it on fourth-and-2 relative to the merits of going for it on fourth-and-1, that’s a very telling statement about your offense and how you view them. Maybe trying to read too much of this is preseason fool’s gold, and the Texans will be aggressive once they have a trust and read of who their most important five up front actually are (and healthy tackles), but it especially stood out as the Packers went for it on fourth down twice while the Texans had to settle for a myriad of Ka’imi Fairbairn field goals.

But when Culley fusses about the offense needing to be mistake-free, turnover-free, penalty-free — he was most furious about the mistakes in scrimmages, he harps on missed opportunities — he is creating a very narrow box for the team to play in. This offense might deserve that box! The only game-breaker that they can for sure count on right now is Brandin Cooks’ speed, and there’s no telling just how useful that’s going to be when it’s riding on Tyrod Taylor’s deep frequencies. They don’t really have space to settle for field goals on fourth-and-2 in close games if this is how they are going to play. Especially if they are running like that against a defense that isn’t even playing its starters…

1) Davis Mills takeaways

Somewhat surprisingly, Mills was the first quarterback off the bench on Saturday. I made a thread on Twitter of most of Mills’ throws (I excluded a Brevin Jordan drop and a couple other throws that just seemed safe/dull/weren’t interesting from an evaluation standpoint) — you can find that here:

My general takeaways are — I’m very happy that Mills has a “next-play mentality,” as the Texans keep promoting, but that mentality is kind of a prerequisite for anybody to be a starting NFL quarterback, so shouting that from the rooftops doesn’t do a lot for me. What he needs to do to play in the style of offense that the Texans rolled out yesterday is cut the easy mistakes. Other than his interception and the ball thrown on third-and-goal that could have led to a pick-six had the Packers had a more established defensive back reading it, Mills didn’t have many turnover-adjacent throws. What he had was the same thing holding him back in college — throws that seem like they should be wildly easy to make, yet ones that he could not complete:

He followed that screen pass up with whatever the hell this was on the goal line:

I’ve been pretty open about the pros and cons of the Mills pick, and I don’t have a lot of pre-conceived notions about how it’s going to play out. But if there’s a future in which he is the starting quarterback of the team, he can’t be blowing easy throws like those. They were hardly the only ones he put on the reel.

Tim Kelly reference Mills as a guy who hasn’t been making the same mistake twice when he talked about him earlier in camp. Well, he made the screen pass accuracy mistake about three times yesterday. The boom throws looked really good — a deep ball off Anthony Miller’s hands on his second dropback, a couple of nice third-and-long completions under pressure. I think this performance is about what I have expected from him based on what I watched of him in college.

But it is time to grow, and the easiest way for him to grow right now is very simple: You can’t miss the layups.

2) Other offensive takeaways

This was the first-team offense that rolled out on the field sans Laremy Tunsil, Tytus Howard, Brandin Cooks, Jordan Akins, and Marcus Cannon if you count him as a starter:

Anthony Auclair, Ryan Izzo, and Paul Quessenberry seemed like they were on a less fixed substitution pattern, and rotated in throughout the game as blockers when needed. Houston’s first-team offense started with Phillip Lindsay getting the bulk of the snaps over David Johnson, who played a total of three and, crucially, only appeared on third downs. That is one expensive third-down back! Joking aside, I don’t think we should be reading too much into this, particularly with Mark Ingram not playing, but it would not surprise me if coaches watched a bunch of Lindsay and a bunch of Johnson and figured out that Lindsay was a better back than Johnson.

I thought Scottie Phillips acquitted himself well in his tenure with the second team, made the most of his carries even though he wasn’t getting a ton of help from the offensive line and had to make some yards after contact:

Imagine if he actually got snaps last year! Wow! If only someone had been calling for that the entire months of November and December! Guess we’ll never know how good he could be now that he’s buried behind 800 other running backs. Buddy Howell started rotating in about the end of the first half, and then Darius Jackson took over running in the middle of the fourth quarter.

Keke Coutee played in the first quarter but was also in through the fourth quarter, I’m wondering if that was a pure “slot receiver” thing with Anthony Miller injured in the middle of the third quarter, or if that was a negative vote that we should be eyeing. Chris Conley made more plays than any other Texans receiver and was the de facto No. 1 option. I would guess that Alex Erickson is viewed pretty highly in the building because I didn’t see him in the last couple of quarters, while Chris Moore continued to get a lot of playing time over them. Kahale Warring got on at tight end at the very end of the second half and was the target on Mills’ interception. Jordan Veasy and Isaiah Coulter were exclusively second half players.

The offensive line rotations were pretty clear — Max Scharping and Justin Britt were off fairly early for Cole Toner and Jordan Steckler. And then around the end of the half/start of the third quarter the third-team line that came in was Ryan McCollum at center, Hjalte Froholdt and Danny Isidora at guard, and Carson Green at tackle joining Steckler. New waiver claim Drake Jackson came on towards the middle of the fourth quarter along with Darius Jackson.

3) Defensive takeaways

Here’s who I had the Texans running out on the first snap sans Zach Cunningham, Bradley Roby, Christian Kirksey, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Justin Reid, Whitney Mercilus, Charles Omenihu, Brandon Dunn, and Maliek Collins:

The biggest surprise there from an outside perspective has to be Shaq Lawson not making it into the lineup. In fact, he played well into the third quarter. I haven’t heard a lot about him in training camp from the Texans themselves, and what I’ve heard from people who attend camp regularly is that he hasn’t looked great. Still, that’s a stunning fall from grace for a guy that a) they traded Benardrick McKinney for and b) restructured his contract this offseason to make himself a $5.4 million cap hit to cut in 2022. It’s hard to say that the Texans “committed” to anyone this offseason, but if they did, Lawson was on the front line of that. And he’s out there playing in the third quarter of a preseason game that’s well in-hand? That’s kind of astonishing.

The defensive line rotation continued for the majority of the game, with DeMarcus Walker, Jaleel Johnson, and Derek Rivers playing in the second quarter and the fourth quarter. I don’t recall seeing Ross Blacklock in the fourth quarter but he was definitely still out there in the third. Greenard sprained an ankle at some point so we didn’t get much of a look at him, and other than Auzoyah Alufohai, the Texans didn’t really bring in anyone fresh for the second half.

The linebackers were more of a set rotation, starting with Neville Hewitt and Kamu Grugier-Hill. Joe Thomas was the third linebacker in heavy sets. At halftime they seamlessly changed to Garret Wallow, Tae Davis, and Hardy Nickerson Jr.

Defensive back suffered from just having more active players than anyone else, but the team iced Vernon Hargreaves (ugh), Terrance Mitchell, Desmond King, and Eric Murray pretty quickly. Lonnie Johnson started and played well into the second quarter, delivering a nice hit on the first drive:

Tavierre Thomas, Keion Crossen, Tremon Smith, and AJ Moore came on during the fourth series to play with Johnson. Then at the start of the third quarter Jonathan Owens (Simone Biles’ boyfriend, just to put that shoe on the other foot) came on. John Reid, Shyheim Carter, and Terrence Brooks joined the party in the middle of the third quarter. Smith actually played more snaps than any other defender and picked off Benkert on an absolutely idiotic throw made under pressure.

4) So, the other rookies?

Nico Collins had a pretty quiet debut, with just one catch:

To be fair, he did play a lot of the first half, so he’s probably still in some form of major plan for the team this year. But I was surprised how he was paired with a quarterback who likes to throw receivers open and just wasn’t a focal point of the offense in any real way. At least, based on the camp hype.

Brevin Jordan drew three targets after coming on towards the end of the second quarter. He dropped one of them. It wasn’t exactly a dominant debut, but I was surprised how little I noticed him as a blocker considering what we heard about him coming out. Maybe that’s a good thing, or maybe they aren’t concerned about his blocking.

Roy Lopez played in the first half and played towards the end of the game as well — he got to clean up for Walker’s pressure for a Benkert sack. The Packers didn’t have much success in the run game and Lopez didn’t look out of sync with the other vets in the group, which is a good sign for him.

Garret Wallow had two solo tackles and, importantly for him, 10 special teams snaps. I think the last linebacker spot on the roster is going to be pretty special-teams dependent.

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