Four Downs: Texans 20, Cowboys 14

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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The one thing that I think reasonable minds could agree on as an area of optimism for the 2021 Houston Texans is the defense. What they have done in the preseason deserves a huge caveat: The best quarterback they’ve faced is Jordan Love, who has not started an actual NFL game yet. I do believe that throws like this completion over Christian Kirksey will remain a bugaboo as we cull the weak quarterbacks out of the games.

However, I think one area that I may have underestimated in a way that can help in the regular season: the ability to get a pass rush with four solid-average players on the line. The 2020 Houston Texans did many poor things as a defense, but one of the ones that they did the most often was “let poor pass rushers eat snaps.” Whitney Mercilus, Carlos Watkins, and Brandon Dunn were among their top six pass rushers last year. This year, Mercilus would probably be an easy release if he were not in the protective veteran cocoon. The interior line in particular has a lot more juice and even though he didn’t join in the sack brigade that Jacob Martin and Charles Omenihu did, Maliek Collins was dazzling from a pressure-created standpoint.

I think if you’re looking for one rock-solid, Rivers-approved optimistic thing to take away from the 2-0 preseason start, it’s that they have a variety of pass rushers that are not going to embarrass themselves one-on-one. Obviously that carries a lot of weight in the preseason, but there are weak links along most offensive lines when the regular season starts as well. The cap has forced this team to have a bad right tackle, and this one to start a rookie center, and Next Man Up has placed a bad guard here or there. The Texans won’t get five sacks, like they did tonight, often. But they could get three. If they can generate the kind of havoc that Lovie Smith has established his brand around — particularly with inexperienced or bad quarterbacks — I think that is a rallying point of optimism.

Now, on to the things that are not quite as optimistic

1) The starters have been abysmal as a run offense in both preseason games

The Texans ran 28 times for 89 yards in their victory, and even that number oversells the amount of damage their proper run game did. If you take out Davis Mills’ seven-yard scramble and Jeff Driskel’s rampant Driskeling in true garbage time, Texans backs ran 22 times for 59 yards. 2.6 yards per attempt. They were able to score a touchdown when Mark Ingram busted off an eight-yard gain in Cowboys territory, and they set that up by actually running the ball on fourth-and-1 to the chagrin of everyone who crucified David Culley’s “analythics” playbook:

Great seal by Antony Auclair on that one. Anyway, the Texans ran another fourth-and-1 in Cowboys territory later in the game with Mills, and again tried to show a quarterback run threat. Both Taylor and Mills were ignored on those. The play was not quite so successful that time.

The Texans ended the first half of the game against Green Bay last week with 14 carries for 33 yards, before they ran roughshod over the Packers’ end-of-roster youth with their older, vet-heavy second and third teams. It’s worth noting that this is the preseason and that the plays may be more vanilla than usual, but this team has shown no aptitude for zone blocking so far and that’s not really something that gets spiced up. Tim Kelly has no history of success running the ball. They can want to run all they want, but if this is the running game they get from go, they’re going to need to win the turnover battle by four every week. You could win games with 2.9 yards per carry when you ran the ball 30 percent of the time and have Deshaun Watson. It’s exponentially harder when it’s Tyrod Taylor, Will Fuller is a Dolphin, and you want to run to stay balanced at all times.

2) Davis Mills looked nowhere near ready to play this season

On the surface level, you look at Davis Mills’ stats and they tell a fairly pleasant story. 10-of-16 for 115 yards and one sack would be a solid enough half for most starting quarterbacks. But when you break down what happened on those dropbacks, it’s a little more murky.

Mills hit Keke Coutee in the middle of a zone in the fourth quarter for 25 yards. Outside of that, his other two big plays were off of play-action, going for 30 more yards. So that’s 55 yards on three passes, all of which were not particularly hard. That means on his other dropbacks, he went 7-of-13 for 50 yards and a sack. Several of the throws were either easy dumpoffs or not particularly impressive. And, I think in the biggest vote that you can possibly show in the preseason, the Texans ran the ball twice while trailing to start the two-minute drill, while ultimately Mills attempted no deep passes on the drive. The play above on third-and-4 may have developed into one if he had better sniffed out the blitz, but he very much did not do that. 0-of-10 on third downs, not all of that was Mills, but most of it was.

Listen, I’m not saying Mills is a lost cause. I’m not saying that he can’t play in the NFL. But this current version of Mills that we saw tonight, if he were dropped into play in Week 10? He would put up a Ryan Finley box score. He’d take sacks by the bushel, he’d make bad throws, and he’d sink whatever chance the team actually has to win a game.

What that means is: He’s got about two or three months to get much, much better than this. This won’t cut it as an NFL starter. He’s very new, improvement shouldn’t be considered out of the question. But if he remains this guy, I don’t see how the Texans can start him in a real NFL game this season.

3) Just serve the youth, please/playing time observations

I am not going to be extremely mad about playing Tytus Howard at guard in this post. I think it is stupid, but at least the idea of putting Charlie Heck on to the field — barring a very predictable Marcus Cannon recovery and seizure of the job — leads to a younger offensive line. I think Mills is a special case in some ways because terrible quarterback play can tank evaluations up and down a roster, and I’m not advocating for say, John Reid to start if the team has clearly better players. But if there’s any question about whether a young player can still be a full-time starter, just start the young player. That’s all I ask.

The major gripe

Starting Eric Murray over Lonnie Johnson is something that seems idiotic on paper. Johnson has been electric in the first two preseason games and shown a ton of range. Murray very well may be more competent as a safety than he was when the previous defensive corps made him a mismatched nickel corner, but that’s not reason enough to start him in my book. Johnson may make more mistakes than Murray, but ultimately the goal of this Texans team is to develop some core players, and Eric Murray will never be a core player.

The rotations

As I go over the major playing time eye-openers for me, I think we saw most of the surprises last week. David Johnson was rarely on the field at all. (Eight total snaps in two preseason games.) Shaq Lawson was playing in the fourth quarter. The Texans brought on Scottie Phillips earlier than Rex Burkhead, but Burkhead was also used during the two-minute drill.

Geron Christian got the start for COVID-listed Laremy Tunsil and played into the third quarter, where he was joined by Justin McCray, Carson Green, Danny Isidora, and Cole Toner. McCray and Toner got some play with Max Scharping and Heck in the second quarter. Slot receivers, defensive linemen, and tight ends continued to alternate in different patterns relative to the rest of the team because of personnel groupings and rotations. (So I’m not necessarily dying that Keke Coutee was playing in the fourth quarter again, although yes, he was playing in the fourth quarter again.)

Tremon Smith got time earlier in the game because of the trade of Keion Crossen, and he drew 2 DPIs for his trouble. Terrence Brooks also played earlier than he did last week, as AJ Moore did not play at all. Neville Hewitt appeared to join as the main second-team linebacker next to Kamu Grugier-Hill in the second quarter. Cornell Armstrong and Tavierre Thomas were the corners after halftime, with Joe Thomas taking snaps next to Hewitt and Grugier-Hill on run downs.

Post Lonnie Johnson’s pick-six third teamers started getting run. Garrett Wallow and Tae Davis were on at linebacker with Hardy Nickerson Jr., John Reid got in the series before, then was replaced with Shyheim Carter in the fourth quarter. Fourth quarter also gave us: Ryan McCollum at center, Buddy Howell and Darius Jackson at running back, Hjalte Froholdt at guard, and Jordan Steckler at left tackle.

Interestingly, after getting 134 and 124 snaps on specials in the last two years, Zach Cunningham did not get a single special teams snap. Leaders there were Kevin Pierre-Louis, Tavierre Thomas, Joe Thomas, Jonathan Owens, Terrence Brooks, and Cornell Armstrong.

I don’t remember seeing a single Kahale Warring non-victory formation snap. (He wound up with four total.) Sorry Matt Weston. Drake Jackson also got in only as the game was clearing out.

4) Our new Texans theatre

I’ve been trying to understand why I am so captivated by David Culley’s head coach demeanor on the sideline over the course of the preseason. Of course, the easy headline is “I’ve never seen a head coach attack their own tongue like David Culley does.”

But trying to dial down on it, it’s not that he doesn’t seem to be communicating much with the rest of the staff, though that is also kind of part of it in a way. Where I finally wound up was: I think David Culley coaches like a living embodiment of impostor syndrome. He believes he’s going to be found out after this play, and someone’s going to tell him he can’t have the job anymore. There’s a nervousness to his energy, but there’s also a resignation.

Anyway, in other very normal news, we managed to viral a post where Spencer Tillman said of Nick Caserio: “I don’t think I’ve seen a better job by a GM in the last decade, or more.” There’s a level of hyperbole I’ve come to expect from Spencer, and I can understand why optimistic fans don’t share my level of disinterest in some of what he’s done, but that was a wild heat check.

I think what actually deserved to go viral is this:

Have you seen a lot of executive vice presidents of football operations roaming the sideline of a preseason game, dapping players up? How about when the guy with two sacks who everyone wants to talk about goes up to the podium to speak about getting the game ball, which name comes out first?

Jack, and Nick, and Culley, eh? In that order?

There’s nothing normal about this team, and in some ways that might wind up being a good thing. You all seem to enjoy rubbernecking, so maybe this will get some reads even though the team isn’t all that great. There’s still some potential for a good defense, and for it to blossom in whatever this environment can be called is fascinating. But then there’s also the reasons that this team remains so weird, and they just hit you smack dab in the face when you least expect it.

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