Four Downs; Texans 16, Buccaneers 23

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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It was pretty clear that the best unit on the field on Saturday was the Tampa Bay offense. Tom Brady, perturbed by a three-and-out on his first series, quickly engineered back-to-back drives full-field drives against the Texans starters. 91 and 93 yards. The Tampa running game was barely involved in them. Brady no-huddled his way through the entire second series, and he carved up the Texans defense in a way that had all of them paraphrasing the idea that, well, of course he did, he’s the greatest of all-time.

And, well, it wasn’t very surprising that the Texans defense struggled against starters and Brady. They just don’t have a lot of top-tier talent. They need to win four-man pass rush situations to be able to create the amount of negative plays for them to make an impact on the game. The open question is how many offenses and bad quarterbacks they will be able to take advantage of by playing a steady defense, because “hey, get turnovers” aside, there’s not a lot of complexity in what Lovie Smith is here to do.

I would simply run play-action against Smith’s unit on every down, if I’m being honest with you.

Other than that typical Brady stuff, this game was extremely drunk. To give a taste if you missed it:

– The Texans played without a placekicker after Kai Fairbairn pulled a muscle in warm-ups, they used safety Justin Reid on kickoffs and went 2-for-6 on fourth downs.
– The Texans actually ran the ball really, really well after two poor games. They ran better on the second unit, sure, but Mark Ingram and David Johnson showed some burst. They ran for 209 yards as a team and lost, which as far as the regular season goes, has only happened 30 times since 2011.
– Blaine Gabbert and Davis Mills gave us a second-string slap fight that saw them finish the half with 26 and 6 passing yards, respectively. Gabbert took a safety, and Mills was picked twice in the second quarter.
– There were eight total turnovers in this game, and that does not include the Texans safety, their blocked extra point (Vincent Taylor), or their blocked field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter (Tavierre Thomas).

David Culley is here to get you off his lawn and his lawn is penalties and turnovers, so as you can imagine he was not quite as thrilled with this one as he was with Week 2’s turnoverless win.

1) The run game comes alive — is it real?

Texans backs finished the first half with 21 carries for 91 yards. A lot of that was about David Johnson’s one untouched run where he showed off the speed that made him a big deal back in the day.

But the Texans also were grinding out some repeatable four-to-six yard gains, mostly with Mark Ingram, and pulling a lot of linemen. The best snap for me was the first one, because you can see how Justin Britt and Tytus Howard got some actual push:

It’s also worth noting that the Texans played their starting line into the second quarter with Ingram and Davis Mills, and the Bucs were playing second-string guys at that point.

This was necessary, because you can’t focus on running and be as bad as the Texans were at it the first two preseason games. But — not to spill too much tea on my read of where this team is going — they’re going to have games like this. Bad NFL running games don’t generally fall off the entire face of the earth. They have four or five games a year where they look pretty good, and then everyone asks why that doesn’t happen more often. That happened to the 2020 Texans, and I’d bet big cash on it being what happens to the 2021 Texans.

More to the point, you can’t pass as poorly as this team did this preseason without drawing bigger boxes. And that is a factor that won’t really be touched on much in the preseason with mostly vanilla defenses. It was good to see some push from the offensive line! I don’t know how to feel about it long-term. Particularly because we have no real understanding of what the starting line will look like together if a Marcus Cannon or Lane Taylor rejoin the lineup.

2) Davis Mills explodes, Tyrod Taylor stopgaps

I got some pushback about Mills not being ready when I posted about that last week, and this was a game that would lead to me victory lapping if I gave a crap. Mills didn’t get to 100 passing yards until the fourth quarter. He looked so utterly locked in to his No. 1 read that even Spencer Tillman had to mention it. The touchdown pass to Jordan Veasy was the one true flash of stardom — the link to his college days — but wow, outside of that drive, what we saw was the worst bits of the scouting report come to life. Some floaters were picked. He had a few floaters that his receivers had to absorb a lot of punishment on (Brevin Jordan and Alex Erickson’s catches), and he looked lost in the pocket often. Two balls were batted down.

Again, I can’t see how putting Mills into an NFL game this year based on this sample of play is going to end well for anybody. It might have to happen, because Tyrod Taylor is a stopgap who does tend to have a dark cloud of injuries following him around, ready to pounce at any moment. But barring massive improvement on the sidelines over the next couple of months, this isn’t NFL-level quarterback play.

Taylor might technically be a mobile quarterback. But when he is pressured off of his spot, or when they move the pocket, there’s not a lot of reason to believe he’s going to reset and throw well. He is, bluntly, not in Deshaun Watson’s league as a passer. The Texans need to get that through their skulls quickly. They need to make this system easy for Taylor without making it a passing game that basically focuses on curls and digs. Right now, it feels extremely horizontal. Like violently horizontal. And that’s not going to help with that whole thing about teams wanting to stack the box. Good luck.

Taylor played three preseason games and best I can remember at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, he did not attempt a single deep pass. He might have some categorized as “deep” as in more than 15 yards, but no bombs, no testing anything with Brandin Cooks.

3) The other rookies — Nico Collins’ first touchdown pass comes, but the rookie left some yards on the field

Collins played a lot in this game — he was on the field on snap one — but he was less impressive on a consistency basis than he was on a highlight basis. It was, admittedly, a beautiful touchdown catch because he bowled over the safety:

Collins was about 18 inches on two plays from having a game that would have Fantasy Football Twitter gushing. Here’s one of the other two:

The thing is, Collins very well may play right away, but the training camp raves haven’t matched the actuality of what is happening on the field. He’s going to flash and he’s very impressive when he does flash because he’s impossibly tall and long, so much so that when he does catch a ball it looks natural that he’d just beat everyone up on the field for their lunch money. But he finishes the preseason with three catches on seven targets, and there is inconsistency here right now.

The good news for fantasy players: They just get to target volume. There should be plenty of volume! And I’m not saying Collins can’t be a long-term fixture for the team either, he just hasn’t really shown a lot of the upside in games yet.

Roy Lopez wound up with a credited sack, finishing the preseason with three. I don’t think he really deserved the sack he was awarded, but a) nobody asked me and b) they didn’t show him salsa dancing so why did the sack even exist? Lopez played from the second quarter on and seems like he’ll be part of the defensive line rotation. I didn’t see Garret Wallow on any non-special teams plays before the final drive of the game, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. As I noted in the Mills section, Jordan caught one ball:

I think Lopez and Collins are probably surer bets at playing time/roster spots at this point than Wallow and Jordan. Jordan I’m about 90 percent sure makes the roster. I have no clue what to think about Wallow, who has pretty much always been with the threes. One of the major bits of the Easterby experience has been a devaluation of the young players on the roster. Has Nick Caserio joining changed that so far? Not judging by the number of UDFAs. But! Has Nick Caserio changed that for players he actually drafted? That’s a question we’re all awaiting some data on.

4) Playing-time observations

Bradley Roby, Zach Cunningham and Lonnie Johnson didn’t play. Jeremy Fowler reported that the Texans were shopping Johnson, so some dots got connected there for some people. I kind of think the Texans just had so much to figure out at these positions that they needed the run for their other players. Can I be optimistic enough to hope it means Johnson starts? I can delude myself for a few more weeks, sure, what else am I doing with my life?

Vernon Hargreaves played with the first team. He’s not very good! I’m sorry, I also hope for things to go better. But he’s not! Terrence Mitchell, Desmond King, Eric Murray, and Justin Reid also started. Brady picked on the zone coverage of Mitchell and King mostly, as well as the natural Cover-2 seams. Kamu Grugier-Hill played with Christian Kirksey in Cunningham’s place. Whitney Mercilus and Shaq Lawson were the edge players on that abysmal second series. Jaleel Johnson got a surprise start, while Maliek Collins appears locked in at three-tech.

The Texans continued to play mostly 12-personnel (two tight ends, two wideouts) with their early offense. Pharaoh Brown and Jordan Akins did most of the tight end work, Chris Conley was the third wideout. With Laremy Tunsil out, Gerod Christian was starting at left tackle with Justin Britt at center, Max Scharping and Tytus Howard at guard, and Charlie Heck at right tackle. Howard has played almost all of his preseason snaps at guard, but I’m sure we’ll get to hear more about how he “hasn’t moved yet.” Chris Moore took over for Brandin Cooks in a hurry.

Cole Toner played with the first string offensive line on the first series of the third quarter. Jonathan Owens took over for Justin Reid in the third quarter. Terrence Brooks played for Eric Murray after Murray left with an injury, which is why he was on to pick Blaine Gabbert and avoid Jack Easterby high-fives.

Second team line (second series of third quarter) was: Jordan Steckler, Danny Isadora, Ryan McCollum, Hjalte Froholdt, and Carson Green. Second-team defense had Kevin Pierre-Louis, Derek Rivers, Neville Hewitt, DeMarcus Walker (star), Rasul Douglas, Tae Davis, Jordan Jenkins, Tremon Smith, with Brooks still playing. Tavierre Thomas played nickel. Vincent Taylor played well into the fourth quarter which was prety interesting. I kind of figured he was ahead of Jaleel Johnson, maybe that’s not so. Or maybe they just wanted to see how Johnson played with the firsts. The defensive line otherwise just rotated all over the place as usual.

Buddy Howell played only late in the third quarter, he’s been the last guy off the running back bench the whole preseason. 🙁

Ex-Packers trade acquisition Ka’dar Hollman got in on the last two drives of the game. He was clearly behind Douglas.

Players that had the most special teams snaps that I think are competing for a rsoter spot: Tavierre Thomas, Brooks, Joe Thomas, Jonathan Owens, Hardy Nickerson, Garret Wallow, Tae Davis, Chris Moore. I think the main question out of that group is probably how much (Joe) Thomas’ and Nickerson’s special teams play moves the needle for the Texans as far as a backup linebacker spot. And remember, the Texans have already brought in more linebackers for workouts in the last couple of weeks, so those guys don’t necessarily have to be the answer. The Tae Davis/Neville Hewitt grouping was pillaged by Kyle Trask.


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