AFC South: Lestar Jean
HOUSTON -- Last season it was against Miami that Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt had his swat-ridden coming-out party.
Sure, Watt had already started to become a star as a rookie, when he returned that interception for a touchdown against the Bengals in the 2011 playoffs. But he tipped three of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill's passes in the 2012 season opener and completely changed the complexion of the game.
It seemed like a series of flukey plays. We all learned shortly thereafter that tipped passes by Watt were no fluke.
This time around, in their preseason meeting, the Texans opted to limit Watt, who departed the game much earlier than most of his defensive teammates. Watt said that was the Texans' plan heading into the game. He played two snaps.
"I like not showing everything I'll have during the season," Watt said.
He also said he felt like a caged animal.
"I missed the whole preseason last year," Watt said. "So I'm not worried about missing a couple snaps here and there."
Here are a few more observations from Saturday night's game, which the Texans won 24-17:
- I've gone as long as I can without mentioning the backup-quarterback battle. Case Keenum played first after starter Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates played next. Keenum had a solid outing. Statistically, he threw 18 passes, completed 11 and threw a beautiful 38-yard touchdown pass to Lestar Jean midway through the second quarter. Deep balls have been one of Keenum's strengths this preseason. He finished with a respectable 150 yards and a 106.2 passer rating. Yates looked better when he came in next. The Texans ran the ball a little more with Yates in at quarterback. He threw half as many passes but completed 7 of his 9 attempts. He was smooth under pressure and played like a guy with more experience. Yates finished with 84 yards, a touchdown and a 142.6 passer rating.
- DeAndre Hopkins caught two passes for 22 yards before leaving the game with a concussion. Texans coach Gary Kubiak doesn't seem overly concerned about Hopkins. "I don't know exactly what play it happened on, but I thought something was wrong," Kubiak said. "I told [receivers coach Larry Kirksey] to get him out of there and then we checked him out. He's fine now, he's doing fine. But we're obviously going to put him through the protocol."
- An underrated matchup in this game from an entertainment standpoint was Miami offensive lineman Richie Incognito vs. Texans defensive end Antonio Smith. Last year when the two faced each other, Smith complained about Incognito's tactics; he said Incognito twisted his ankle. The film supported the fact that Incognito was doing something to Smith's ankle. The league responded by fining Smith, not Incognito, a hefty $21,000 for kicking Incognito. The fine was later reduced after Smith appealed, contending he had no choice in order to get Incognito off his leg. Tonight they met again and grappled a bit. Incognito grabbed Smith's facemask during one play and held on, then at one point appeared to swing his arm at Smith. Smith, clearly frustrated, ripped off Incognito's helmet and swung it at him. Asked about the meeting after the game, Smith said, "Next question. I kind of took a blow to the head. I can't remember."
- The Texans have a strange attraction to tight ends from the University of Wisconsin. And it's working out pretty well for them. "It's great, it's great," said Owen Daniels, the elder statesman of the Wisconsin tight ends. "We've got three on the roster right now. Myself, G and Byrnie. It's great having those guys contribute." G, of course, is Garrett Graham. Byrnie (and I have no idea how that nickname is spelled) is Jake Byrne, a first-year tight end. Graham had a fantastic game and is going to be a really good player for the Texans this year. "Oh, he's picked up where he left off last year," Daniels said. "He helped us out a lot last year. This year he's going to get more opportunities to make plays without James [Casey] being here. He's grown a lot the last couple years. You see what he's doing out there, he's working really hard."
- After a disappointing training camp, fourth-round draft pick Trevardo Williams seemed to release some frustration in the fourth quarter when he notched sacks on consecutive plays. Williams and fellow outside linebacker, third-round pick Sam Montgomery both fell behind during camp. Two undrafted rookies, Justin Tuggle and Willie Jefferson, jumped ahead of them on the depth chart. Tuggle started and played nearly the entire game. Kubiak talked after the game about Williams needing something to regain confidence. "Sometimes as a rookie you are just swimming in information. When you just throw them out there, sometimes their talents take over."
- This quote from Kubiak stood out to me and is not good news for cornerback Brandon Harris, who was a second-round draft pick in 2011: "I would say Bouye, Roc and Brandon, that is a very competitive environment going on right there." Harris played a little bit of safety Saturday night after the Texans lost safeties Shiloh Keo and Eddie Pleasant. Now he's apparently competing with A.J. Bouye, a standout undrafted rookie, and Roc Carmichael, who was inactive for the first 10 games of last season.
Doesn't sound like a failed season, does it? But as the franchise has grown and checked off accomplishments, failure has begun to mean anything other than a Super Bowl win.
“We weren’t the last team standing last year, so ultimately we all failed,” quarterback Matt Schaub said. “We all didn’t accomplish our goals.”
This year's Texans are more businesslike. Most of this year's team was around for the slide at the end of last season, which coincided with a linebacking corps that took one hit after another even after taking its biggest hit in early October, when it lost Brian Cushing. They shook their heads at three losses in the last four games of the season. The offense mustered only 12 points per game in those three losses -- less than half its season average.
“Everybody was so excited and couldn’t wait for the next season to come around,” receiver Andre Johnson said. “As you can see, we came out of the gate smoking, but at the end we just didn’t finish it the right way. At times, maybe we could have been feeling ourselves or something. I think, I’ve told people this before, I think the game in New England, our last playoff game, it just showed you what kind of team you have to be in order to accomplish that ultimate goal. That was definitely a humbling experience, and we’ll be looking forward to the challenge again.”
Now they return with Cushing back and an additional offensive weapon in first-round draft pick DeAndre Hopkins -- the receiver with the massive, red-gloved hands. They should have more stability on the offensive line and more depth at safety with the additions of a future Hall of Famer (Ed Reed) and a college enforcer (D.J. Swearinger). They have healthy cornerbacks and the reigning defensive player of the year in J.J. Watt, who is sure he can play better than his unreal 2012 season.
They return with an edge they didn't have last year.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Hopkins' impact: It is impossible not to be impressed by Hopkins' skill and athleticism, owed in part to his unusually large hands. Particularly adept at scoring in the red zone while he was at Clemson, Hopkins is expected to help the Texans, who didn't struggle scoring in the red zone last season but did struggle at scoring touchdowns in the red zone relative to the best offenses in the NFL. Hopkins provides a dimension the Texans didn't have in 2012 -- a second receiver defenses should fear, taking some attention from Johnson. The rookie is at his best on contested catches and spends his practices learning from cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Hopkins struggled early in organized team activities, but as training camp has progressed, he has grown more comfortable with just about everything. If he plays in regular-season games like he has in camp, the Texans' offense will improve significantly.
“When Cush rushes, which we try to rush him a lot from the inside, if they have to pick up a back on him they are in trouble,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We got a big advantage, so they try and pick him up with a lineman. Well, if they do that then the outside guys get a chance to get a back or a better matchup.”
Cushing's return brings back a maniacal, focused intensity that intimidates opponents.
“Brian Cushing is back,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “He's going to bring the attitude back.”
3. When will Reed be healthy? Reed signed with the Texans amid great fanfare. The owner sent his team plane to Atlanta to collect the future Hall of Famer, and the team's official Twitter provided updates along the way. Reed met with coaches, underwent a lengthy physical and then left Houston for a family engagement before returning to sign a three-year deal worth $5 million a year. About a month later, Reed had arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum that he thinks he suffered during the Ravens' AFC Championship Game win.
This week, Reed was out of town rehabilitating with a specialist after having spent training camp in Houston working with Texans trainers.
“No, absolutely not,” coach Gary Kubiak said when asked if that meant Reed had a setback. “It’s just something that we’ve made our progress here for a couple of weeks. [Head athletic trainer Geoff Kaplan] has been in contact with this guy. He’s worked with us before, so we wanted him to go see him for a couple of days and basically make sure we’re doing the right things. We’re going to do that for a couple of days each week.”
So far there hasn't been any clarity on when Reed will be available to the Texans or whether he will be able to play in the season opener.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about Schaub, but I expect him to be a lot better this season with the changing personnel around him.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The abundance of linebacker injuries last season hurt the defense and special teams. The Texans still are vulnerable there. A rash of linebacker injuries in training camp has caused players to miss some time. Though none of these injuries were significant, a collection of linebacker injuries that keep players out for even two or three games at a time could be damaging.
Reed's health also could be troubling. Swearinger isn't ready yet, and safety Shiloh Keo has started in Reed's place during camp. Keo has improved since last season and has had a good camp, but he would be a downgrade from departed safety Glover Quin.
- Earl Mitchell had about the loudest debut as the Texans' starting nose tackle as one could have. Sure, it was a preseason game, but in 10 snaps Friday against Minnesota, Mitchell had four tackles, three of them for loss, including one sack. He also had one quarterback hit. Mitchell is quick on his feet, powerful and has a new confidence this season. The Houston native says that comes from knowing he entered this season as the starter -- a position well earned.
- Foster remains on the physically unable to perform list. He initially landed on the list with a calf injury, but that has healed. Now, the Texans are being cautious because of a back injury. I wrote it before and will again: There's no sense in pushing Foster too much right now, especially given the load he takes on during the season.
- With one full NFL season accrued, receiver Keshawn Martin has made a dramatic improvement on both offense and special teams. It has caught the eye of teammates. Last season, Lestar Jean joined Martin on the active roster. Jean is an incredibly hard worker, but he finds himself back on the bubble two years removed from being an undrafted rookie.
- The Texans' third-string running back battle took an interesting turn Friday in Minnesota when Cierre Wood, who progressed more slowly at first, seemed to have a better night than fellow undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson. It's far too early to determine a winner in that battle, but those two are ahead, with veteran pickup Deji Karim threatening from a special-teams standpoint.
- There were times last season when starting cornerback Joseph didn't feel like himself. He had two sports hernias that he didn't even properly identify until after playing in the Pro Bowl. Joseph had surgeries to repair both, and feels healthier than he did all last season. That is great news for the Texans, who pair him opposite the constantly improving Kareem Jackson.
- It's unclear exactly how long left guard Wade Smith will be out after having his knee scoped Tuesday morning. What's certain, however, is that Smith's absence will give the Texans a chance to test the versatility of sixth-round draft pick David Quessenberry, who started out the offseason playing mostly tackle. Quessenberry made news during the summer because his truck was stolen, then recovered in East Texas with police saying it was being used for human trafficking. More relevant to our purpose is that Quessenberry has been really impressive in camp and willing to learn. Kubiak said he expects both Ben Jones and Quessenberry to see time there with Smith out.
Receiver Lestar Jean is relishing a chance to compete for time, says Drew Dougherty of the team’s website.
Battle Red Blog plugs into a preview of the Texans' Week 1 opponent, the San Diego Chargers.
Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott are the guards on Mike Chappell’s all-time Indianapolis Colts team, from the Indianapolis Star.
Where the Colts’ key veteran newcomers can get better, from Tyler Brooke of Stampede Blue.
The Jaguars have signed their “offensive weapon” Denard Robinson, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.
Running through the cornerbacks in advance of training camp with Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country.
Kendall Wright is No. 26 on the list of players who could make a jump, from Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
Chase Stuart of Football Perspective on Kenny Britt: “The optimist would say that now two full years removed from surgery, Britt could be finally ready to emerge as a star receiver. The pessimist would focus on Britt’s inability to stay on the field and the laundry list of off-the-field issues.
I don’t care what the Houston Texans wide receiver has lost if he’s producing like he did last season.
In a recent column at the National Football Post, Len Pasquarelli wrote of how the Texans have worked to restock the receiving corps.
Sure they’d like to have the next Johnson before the actual Johnson enters his twilight. But drafting four receivers over the past two seasons hasn’t been primarily about replacing Johnson. It’s been about, as Pasquarelli pointed out, finding an “explosive complement” to him.
“… [T]here has been no real discernable drop-off. But some opponents suggest that Johnson has lost perhaps a half-step, and isn’t as explosive. Johnson had only four touchdown catches last season, his fewest since 2002 in a season in which he played at least nine games. So while the bigger emphasis has been on (DeAndre) Hopkins, who should provide Houston and quarterback Matt Schaub a quality No. 2 starter, the club has privately allowed there is a need to start developing one of the other young wide receivers as well. Second-year veteran DeVier Posey had some flashes as a rookie in ’12, and fellow youngsters Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean have promise as well. One of them needs to step up as a viable No. 3, and possible Johnson replacement in a few years.”
It will be difficult for Posey to do it this season, as he’s likely not ready until midseason after shredding his Achilles in the playoff loss at New England. Hopkins should be the eventual replacement for Johnson as the No. 1, while the Texans need one of the others to emerge as a No. 2.
We talked a year ago about the possibility that Johnson's legs were starting to go as he had multiple issues in 2011. He responded with 112 catches for 1,598 yards -- the second most productive yardage season in the NFL. Johnson’s never had more yards, and has only had more catches once.
The Texans were overly reliant on Johnson last season, and need some of the new guys, particularly rookie first-rounder Hopkins, to help change that.
As for Johnson's four touchdown catches, I don’t see them as an indicator of some drop-off in play. Rather, they speak to where he caught the ball most of the time.
If the Texans are to be a more threatening offense, Johnson has to have chances to score and more balls aimed at him in the end zone. That’s on Gary Kubiak and Schaub more than Johnson.
(Four links in four graphs there to previous posts about Johnson and the Texans' passing game. That's a new record I believe. Shall we have a parade)?
Today, we examine wide receivers.
Williamson’s AFC South wide receiver rankings:
1) Texans (Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, DeVier Posey, Keshawn Martin, Lestar Jean, Alan Bonner)
2) Colts (Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen)
3) Titans (Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Kevin Walter, Justin Hunter, Damian Williams)
4) Jaguars (Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts, Mohamed Massaquoi, Ace Sanders, Jordan Shipley, Mike Brown)
I go in a different order here, but let’s talk about that after we discuss Williamson’s rationale with him.
My questions for Williamson based off of his list:
What was your overall thinking with your rankings?
Considering the lack of experience the Texans have beyond Johnson, I'm presuming you're giving him a ton of weight?
“To me, Andre Johnson is still clearly the best wide receiver in this division. He remains studly, but Houston is very light on other options at the position. However, Hopkins most likely will be my rookie of the year prediction.”
Can you rank the depth team by team?
“The Texans’ depth is the worst -- well, tied for the worst with Jacksonville. The other two have excellent depth, some of the best in the NFL. I would give Tennessee and Indianapolis an A grade for depth and Houston and Jacksonville a D grade for depth.
Who’s best off in the slot?
“While I see the Titans having great depth, I don't see a true slot receiver on the roster -- although I am sure Britt/Wright/whomever can do it. Therefore, I would say Indy is the best off at slot receiver with Hilton.”
What -- or who -- is the biggest variable here?
“Biggest variable? It has to be with the Titans. Namely Britt. He could challenge to be the best receiver in this division if Andre Johnson and/or Wayne tail off a little and Britt steps up huge in a contract year. I am not taking into account the quarterback play, which obviously favors Houston and Indy, but Britt, and to a lesser degree Hunter, are wild cards with a ton of ability. I also think Shorts is a vastly underrated football player overall.”
As for me ...
Clearly having an established No. 1 is very important, and Houston and Indianapolis are one-two there. While I like Hopkins, rookie receivers can be rolls of the dice in their first years. I fear too many Colts faithful are counting on big things from Heyward-Bey. He should better with Andrew Luck throwing to him, but his hands and reliability are not solved by a change of address.
Britt is hardly a sure thing, but even if the Titans only have him for 10 games, their group is the deepest. (Even if they get little from Hunter, who is less of a known quantity than Hopkins as a rail-thin rookie.) As surprised as I am to be writing this, I think I’d put the Titans first. Tennessee will always have guys on the field who can make plays. For me, the Colts are second and the largely unproven Texans third. I’m with Williamson on the Jaguars being last, though. Once Blackmon returns from a four-game suspension, he and Shorts should be a solid one-two punch.
Posey is coming off a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the Texans' playoff loss in New England. He has to be considered gravy this year, when he's unlikely to emerge before the halfway point. That hurts Houston here for me right now as well.
I didn’t take quarterbacks into account here either, and the Colts' and Texans' receivers are far better off from that standpoint.
Here are the 31 names on the list, with their overall rank and their position rank.
2. Arian Foster, HOU, RB2
23. Chris Johnson, TEN, RB15
27. Maurice Jones-Drew, JAC, RB16
33. Andre Johnson, HOU, WR10
43. Reggie Wayne, IND, WR16
67. Ahmad Bradshaw, IND, RB28
68. Cecil Shorts, JAC, WR26
77. Andrew Luck, IND, QB11
81. Vick Ballard, IND, RB32
86. T.Y. Hilton, IND, WR34
94. Owen Daniels, HOU, TE9
102. Kenny Britt, TEN, WR40
120. Ben Tate, HOU, RB45
122. Kendall Wright, TEN, WR47
123. Texans defense, HOU, DEF3
124. DeAndre Hopkins, HOU, WR48
132. Shonn Greene, TEN, RB49
157. Randy Bullock, HOU, K7
169. Justin Blackmon, JAC, WR57
177. Matt Schaub, HOU, QB22
181. Justin Forsett, JAC, RB62
187. Darrius Heyward-Bey, IND, WR61
190. Coby Fleener, IND, TE19
197. Justin Hunter, TEN, WR66
201. Dwayne Allen, IND, TE21
230. Denard Robinson, JAC, RB79
232. Nate Washington, TEN, WR80
240. Donald Brown, IND, RB83
243. Jake Locker, TEN, QB26
256. Delone Carter, IND, RB92
264. Marcedes Lewis, JAC, TE28
278. Cierre Wood, HOU, RB100
279. Delanie Walker, TEN, TE31
293. Ray Graham, HOU, RB105
297. Lestar Jean, HOU, WR99
The inexperience of the team’s options at receiver beyond Andre Johnson is apparent to everyone. A high draft pick obviously won’t come with NFL experience.
But he will give the team its best potential opposite Johnson.
Per Stats and Info: The Texans were one of four teams in the NFL where their most-targeted receiver had more targets than all other receivers on the roster combined. The Lions, Chiefs and Bears were the others.
Johnson’s 158 targets made up 58.1 percent of Texans’ pass attempts to wide receivers, the highest rate in the league.
The Texans need to get the ball to Johnson a great deal. But there is a point at which it’s too much, and that would seem to be beyond that point.
There will be days when a defense can slow Johnson and they need better alternatives who won’t be a big drop-off for quarterback Matt Schaub.
Here’s Schaub last season throwing to wide receivers:
- To Johnson: 70.9 completion percentage, 10.1 yards per attempt, 10 plays of 30 or more yards, 31.6 attempts per interception.
- To all other wide receivers: 56.5 completion percentage, 7.6 yards per attempt, five plays of 30 or more yards, 21.6 attempts per interception.
The numbers are going to be better when you are talking about one of the league's best receivers. It's not healthy for them to be that much better.
Kevin Walter is gone. DeVier Posey is coming of a torn Achilles and won't be an option in the first part of the season.
Right now, the options after Johnson are Lestar Jean and Keshawn Martin. It's not close to enough.
The Houston Texans left Tennessee happy, for sure. They weren’t about to pretend that clinching a playoff berth didn’t mean something.
But after a 24-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans, the Texans talked about it as a first step.
A year ago they were a breakthrough team, earning a surprising division title thanks to the combination of solid play and the Indianapolis Colts' collapse as Peyton Manning missed the season.
This year, the Texans were big favorites to win the division and make some noise in the playoffs a year after making the franchise's first appearance and winning its postseason first game.
“We expected it,” said defensive lineman J.J. Watt, the first player in league history to record 15 sacks and 15 pass break-ups. “We’re happy about it. But we’re not satisfied by it by any means.”
Qualifying for the postseason is a big deal, and doing it in Week 13 is especially good.
“We know we’re a good team, it wasn’t just a fluke year and we can make a run at the whole thing, I think,” defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. “Our next goal is clinch [the division], then to get home field. We’ll knock down one at a time.”
A few developments of note for both teams out of the Texans’ semi-suffocating win:
Depth remains a primary feature: Outside linebacker Brooks Reed missed the first of what’s likely to be at least three games with a groin injury, which prompted a shuffle that put rookie Whitney Mercilus at weakside linebacker in the base defense.
He accounted for two of Houston’s six sacks. That pass pressure was a necessity considering the Texans started off without starting corner Johnathan Joseph and backup corner Alan Ball. They also lost Brice McCain, the guy who started on the right side, to a foot injury.
With Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael seeing the first significant and meaningful playing time of their careers, the coverage was softer in the second half. That disruptive front batted four of Jake Locker's passes, two of which turned into interceptions.
Linebackers and defensive backs stayed tight on receivers and tight ends when the game was in any doubt, and came away with an additional 12 passes defensed -- including two by Harris and one by Carmichael.
"Everybody’s in the same room, same meetings and we raise them a certain way,” safety Glover Quin said of the ability of young guys to step in. “That’s just what we do."
Rookie receiver DeVier Posey is not in that meeting room, and coach Gary Kubiak said he would have been next in line to play as a corner if the team needed someone extra.
A turn for the Texans' defense: In overtime wins in Week 11 and 12, the Texans were very reliant on the offense. A versatile team that’s capable of winning in multiple ways didn’t have a problem with that. But the defense was anxious to return to the form it has shown earlier in the year.
Houston took the ball away six times, thanks to three interceptions and three fumbles. Following two of those turnovers, the offense had to move all of 7 yards to collect 10 points. A fumble recovery by Antonio Smith was ridiculously blown dead or there would have been another 7, as he wasn’t going to have much trouble with a big return for a score. A 45-yard punt return set up a 20-yard touchdown drive.
“The defense played great,” Watt said. “It’s what we’ve been looking for the last couple weeks and obviously we had some struggles. But today is what we’re used to, the way we’re used to playing: turnovers, momentum swings, big plays. That was our defense.”
Said Kubiak: “You come in here missing some key defensive players and you think you have got to play really well offensively. And we turn around and may have played as good a defensive game as we have played this year.”
Locker was rattled: It’s great that Titans second-year quarterback Locker shows great resolve and toughness and that he doesn’t give up. And I completely understand why the Titans tout those qualities in a player who still deserves plenty of time to grow and mature as well as more help in terms of protection and guys making catches for him.
But he wouldn’t need as much resolve if he threw more accurately, ran more freely and did more well early on. Yes, there will be ups and downs in every game and you want your guy to survive the downs. You also need fewer downs.
Titans coach Mike Munchak said Locker was rattled early.
Locker was just 8-for-22 in the first half for 96 yards, with the two tipped-ball picks and a passer rating of 12.7.
“I think he was pressing,” said Dowell Loggains, who took over as offensive coordinator early in the week. “I think he wanted to play perfect. I think this game meant a lot to him, he was really invested in what we were doing and he tried to play too perfect.”
Killer mistakes: Tennessee obviously made far too many mistakes to have a chance to win this one. All week the Titans talked about how they couldn’t afford to let the Texans march to a touchdown right out of the gate, and head off to build a lead.
But on the sixth play, Titans safety Michael Griffin did what he does so often -- took a bad angle and tried to do more than he needed to. He could have shoved Lestar Jean out of bounds after a middling gain. Instead, he flew by and Jean raced 54 yards for a touchdown to give the Texans that game-opening score Tennessee wanted so much to avoid.
Other mistakes that weren’t turnovers or sacks allowed killed drives, too, such as substitute offensive guard Kevin Matthews' penalty for holding Smith with 7:26 remaining in the game. Locker made a great run for a 28-yard gain that had the potential to rally his offense. But the penalty moved the Texans from the Houston 49-yard line back to the Tennessee 13.
“We’d gotten back into a rhythm and I think we all believed at that point we were going to win the game, get back into this thing, make it a seven-point game,” Loggains said. “He makes a heck of a run and it gets called back because of a penalty. That’s frustrating.”
Foster’s pace is fine: Remember early in the year when there was much hand-wringing about Arian Foster’s workload? He was going to wind up with 400 carries and that was going to prove catastrophic.
I suggested there would be days when the Texans didn’t need to rely on him so much, like this one. He had 14 carries, and so did Justin Forsett. Foster is now on pace for a reasonable 348 carries -- just 21 more than he had last season.
And odds are at least one game at the end of the regular season isn’t going to mean anything, which means he could get zero carries in that game and really reduce the total.
“We talked about kind of rotating a little more toward the end of the season,” Foster said. “But when they need me to carry the load, I’ll be ready to go.
“You always want the ball. I’m a competitor, I want to play. But I understand the big picture.”
It seems like at least once a game, QB Matt Schaub drops back, fakes a handoff, turns and rolls out. He sets himself with plenty of time and throws back across, usually to WR Andre Johnson running deep, hitting him for a big play.
The Texans make it look easy. But considering there is no lack of film of this play, should it be so hard to stop? Why does this Texans' deep bootleg throwback play create so many big gains?
“When they do put the ball out there and fake the handoff on the play-action, automatically a lot of the linebackers and safeties and corners and all step up and play the run,” said Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, who will help defend against it Sunday at Nashville’s LP Field. “Off that, they run a heck of a lot of boot and they are able to make plays off the boot.
“They give you the same exact action as the boot and make one cut off of the boot, and that’s kind of what screws everybody up. You see it and you’re like, ‘OK, I read the boot, I’m going to go make the play.’ And he turns up and goes the opposite direction. With a player as dynamic as Andre Johnson, you put the ball up in the air, as a DB you take one wrong step and he’s going to make you pay for it."
Johnson sees it pretty simply: “I don’t know how they [the coaches] set it up. It’s something that just works.”
Defenses come into the game wary of the Texans’ run game and wary of those play-action bootleg rollouts. They are aware of how often Schaub throws to a target moving the same direction he's going, which is the natural way for it to work.
The frequency of those runs and rollouts can lull a defense into a predictive play. A throw against the grain in such situations is almost counterintuitive. And the changeup not only can produce a big play but also can alter what a defense does going forward for fear of getting burned by it again.
It can work against man coverage and it can work against zone. The key is a single high safety.
“The only way to really stop it is to play tight man-to-man coverage, and that opens up a lot of other cans of worms,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s a zone-defense killer. It’s a lot like a 3-pointer against a packed zone in basketball.”
On Thanksgiving at Ford Field, the Texans had the ball on first-and-10 at their own 26-yard line, working from the right hash mark. Let’s look at how it worked in that situation.
The Texans lined up with three receivers bunched left, tight to the left tackle, with Johnson between Kevin Walter and Lestar Jean. Tight end Owen Daniels was in a three-point stance beside right tackle Ryan Harris. Running back Arian Foster was directly behind Schaub, who was under center.
Schaub took the snap, turned to his right and met up with Foster, faking the handoff wide of the right hash mark, with Foster angling off right tackle.
Cornerback Drayton Florence, one of the defenders lined up to cover the bunch of receivers, blitzed, bought the fake and ran down the line of scrimmage after Foster, rendering himself irrelevant in defending the play.
Walter veered to the right at the snap and tried to take out defensive end Lawrence Jackson with a low block but pretty much missed, yet slowed down Jackson's pursuit. Then Walter got up and positioned himself as a short target on the right hash.
Jean started to move right as if he’d be participating in backside run-blocking, then turned and ran a short route to the left sideline.
Daniels ran from the right side across the field, turning to face Schaub about 12 yards deep between Jean on the sideline and Walter in the middle of the field. The three targets form a triangle.
Meanwhile, Johnson ran down the left hash, and after about 15 yards he faked left, suggesting he too would move with Schaub, who rolled left after the play-action. Safety Louis Delmas was 5 yards deeper and turned to go toward the sideline behind Johnson.
The other safety, Eric Coleman, lined up like an off-corner on the left, and moved forward 5 yards when he thought Foster took the handoff. That gave the Texans Johnson against Delmas as that single-high safety they want on this play. Corner Jonte Green was up near the line of scrimmage on the same side, and looked to be ready to set an edge that would have forced Foster back inside. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy took five steps forward playing the run before he wheeled to chase downfield.
After faking left, Johnson cut back and was crossing the field from left to right at the Detroit 45-yard line. He was well behind Coleman, Green and Levy as they chased to catch up, and well in front of Delmas who was playing catch-up coming across and also bumped into back judge Greg Yette.
If Schaub had led Johnson more, it could have gone for more than 37 yards. Johnson slowed down to catch it and Coleman caught up to make the tackle. Even so, it qualified as the big play on a 74-yard touchdown drive.
And if Schaub throws an accurate ball to Johnson against guys who have changed direction three times, the odds of success are pretty good. On this play, he was nearly at the left hash when he threw it, and Johnson was nearly at the right numbers when he caught it.
“We work on those things quite a bit so that it all times out and meshes together,” Schaub said.
And the play can influence a game well beyond one big gain.
“If you hit one or two of those a game, it creates thoughts for a defense and they start to go to coverages that are a little softer,” Schaub said. “Then that allows for the run game to be open and creates more options underneath for catch-and-run opportunities.”
McCourty and the Titans' secondary will be on high alert for it Sunday, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be caught by surprise.
You see the same thing off bootlegs over and over, and you can start to think you know what’s coming, and that’s just what the Texans are looking for -- to hit a defense with a big play on the throwback like the one in Detroit.
“When he steps back and resets his feet and throws the boot throwback, that’s one of the toughest routes to cover,” McCourty said. “You’ve always got to have in the back of your mind when you are covering the boot that they can pick it back up and throw a boot throwback. …
“You have to have your eyes in the right places. They’ll be hitting you with the stretch play, hitting you with the stretch play, coming back with the boot, coming back with the boot. Then that one time in the middle of the game or late in the game, they hit you with the boot throwback. It’s tough to prepare for because they kind of lull you to sleep.”
I understand this concept. In many aspects of my life, I live by it.
But in professional football, the alternative is cast as an alternative for a reason. Backups don’t start because their coaches judge them as inferior -- my word, not theirs -- to the guy ahead of them.
Recently, I’m struck by how many readers ask me about changes to some of these alternatives.
Well, the young receivers may have more explosive capabilities than Kevin Walter, but Gary Kubiak loves Walter’s precision, dependability and blocking. Those aren’t qualities a first- or second-year player typically possesses, and so Walter is going to continue to play more than the kids and get more chances than them.
Mercilus has flashed beautifully in increased opportunities. But Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are big-time players. Which one are you going to sit to play the rookie? I’m not sitting either of them. I’m just rotating Mercilus in to get the two starters some rest.
For Tennessee, I actually get questions about quarterback Rusty Smith.
He’s got a big arm, so when the Titans are way behind, shouldn’t he play ahead of Matt Hasselbeck?
In a word, no. The big arm hardly assures consistent deep pass-play connections. A trailing team faces a big pass rush, and he’s got minimal experience handling that. You play a third-stringer very rarely. You don’t look for reasons to get him in, you see reasons not to use him.
I understand craving alternatives. But let’s remember backups are backups for a reason.
An ascending player like Mercilus is ready to contribute. He’ll just have to wait for his time. We’re not sure what Keshawn Martin, Lestar Jean or DeVier Posey can do yet, but they are at the front end of careers. They are more about contributing a bit later than now. Smith might graduate from third-stringer to backup in another year or two, but in Week 9 of 2012 isn’t the time to force-feed him work to get a better gauge.
Coaches are not sitting guys they believe give them the best chance to win.
Sometimes they do stubbornly stick with veterans, refusing to give kids a chance. That’s not the case in anything we’ve been talking about.
The young players in question need to show continued patience. As do the people wanting to see them play more.
In an attempt to solve a big problem, the Texans cut their smallest player, writes John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Trindon Holliday wasn’t the only one to blame for the return game issues, but Keshawn Martin is the returner now.
To which I say: Holliday always had the fluky feel to him, and I like the idea of Martin getting the ball in his hands more.
Running back Ben Tate and receiver Lestar Jean look ready to return from injuries, says McClain.
Tim Dobbins is uncomfortable with the media attention that comes with being the guy to step in for Brian Cushing, says McClain.
Statisticians took a sack away from J.J. Watt from the opening day win, says McClain.
Injuries are starting to catch up to the Colts’ defense, says Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star. “Five starters and a key backup did not practice Wednesday, when the Colts began the heavy work of preparing for a Sunday visit to the New York Jets.”
Running back Vick Ballard, who will start against the Jets, is not your average guy, says Phillip B. Wilson.
Left tackle Eugene Monroe has taken on some elite pass-rushers and fared pretty well so far this season, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union. When Gene Smith became GM in 2009, “Monroe became his first pick with the eighth spot in the draft and he may still be his best selection since Smith has yet to draft a player who’s made the Pro Bowl.” This piece includes a review (on the left side) of the entire 2009 draft class.
Safety Dwight Lowery is out two to three weeks with an ankle injury, writes Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.
To which I say: The defense has really missed outside linebacker Daryl Smith, who hasn’t played yet because of a groin injury. This is a big loss too, as backup Chris Prosinski will amount to a weak link.
The Jaguars’ opponent in London in 2013 will be the 49ers.
Reviewing the season up to the bye, with Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.
The Tennessean’s preview of tonight’s Steelers-Titans game at LP Field in Nashville.
Are the Titans the league’s worst team? They are running in some very bad company, says David Climer of The Tennessean.
Dunlevy’s preview of the game.
Such weather might hurt the Texans pass game, but the Texans run the ball more than anyone else in the league. So Houston won’t have a problem adjusting the play-calling if the elements dictate it.
But Ben Tate won’t be available to ease the workload of Arian Foster. Tate is out with a toe injury, meaning Justin Forsett is the No. 2 running back.
The Jets are far more banged up, with cornerback Darrelle Revis and receiver Santonio Holmes out for the year and four other starters out tonight. Rookie receiver Stephen Hill, tight end Dustin Keller, fullback John Connor and defensive tackle Sione Po’uha are all out.
A New Jersey native, this is my first time at the new Stadium.
Giants Stadium was still pretty new when my family arrived here, so I feel pretty old. It’s a nice building. That feels like a tighter, more vertical version of Giants Stadium. Of newer stadiums, it’s most in the style of Baltimore.
Here are the complete lists of inactives:
- WR Lestar Jean
- CB Roc Carmichael
- CB Brandon Harris
- S Quintin Demps
- RB Ben Tate
- T Andrew Gardner
- G Brandon Brooks
Kenny Britt is out with an ankle injury, putting a dent into Tennessee’s pass game, which will likely have to play well in order for the Titans to pull an upset.
The Texans remain healthy, and the only inactive of note is receiver Lestar Jean. His absence means DeVier Posey could get some chances, especially if they are ahead big.
The complete list of inactives:
- OLB Colin McCarthy
- WR Kenny Britt
- QB Rusty Smith
- RB Jamie Harper
- OT Mike Otto
- G Deuce Lutui
- DT DaJohn Harris
Gary Kubiak gained even more of a feel for Maurice Jones-Drew when he coached him in the Pro Bowl, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
Arian Foster left practice Wednesday because he was sick, says Tania Ganguli of the Chron.
How did the Texans use Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean? Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report takes a detailed look.
“There's no question the Colts need a player with (Trai) Essex's pedigree,” writes Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star about the new offensive lineman in town. “He's 29, in his eighth NFL season and spread his 75 career regular-season appearances -- all with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- among guard, tackle and center. He's been to three Super Bowls and was part of two world championships.”
The Colts run defense is bracing for another big challenge, this time in the form of Adrian Peterson, says Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan.
Though it didn’t win the game, the late TD catch by Cecil Shorts in Minnesota was a major sign that he’s ready to take a major step, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.
Derek Cox is staying optimistic, says Ryan O’Halloran of the T-U. The Jaguars need Cox this weekend and they need him to end his string of injuries.
How did the Jaguars lose to Minnesota? Dunlevy thinks safety Dawan Landry may have screwed up on a crucial play.
Jake Locker and Kenny Britt have never played in a game together, but the hope is they’ll develop quick chemistry when they finally do on Sunday in San Diego, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.
Locker (left shoulder) should be ready to go, but it doesn’t look as good for middle linebacker Colin McCarthy (ankle), says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
- Donnie Avery gets the start for Indianapolis with Austin Collie out. Rookie T.Y. Hilton (shoulder) is also a speedster who isn’t playing. The Colts brought in Avery, a reclamation project, as a guy they thought would help them stretch the field. They’ll need him to show he can today.
- With Colts left guard Joe Reitz out, we’ve already said: Seth Olsen is a major drop-off and could be a major issue.
- While Arian Foster (knee) is active, he could see his role trimmed a bit since the Texans are completely comfortable handing the ball to Ben Tate and Justin Forsett.
- DeVier Posey didn’t make the opening day cut. So the Texans are comfortable with four receivers in Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean. They could use returner Trindon Holliday in a pinch. Holliday's presence could keep Posey from dressing for a while.
- Undrafted rookie Ben Jones can play center or guard, so he’s the interior backup for the Texans. Brandon Brooks, who was competing for right guard during camp, is inactive.
- Jaguars undrafted rookie receiver Kevin Elliott is playing and veteran Brian Robiskie is not. I hope Elliott gets some chances.
- With Daryl Smith out, Kyle Bosworth will start for the Jaguars and undrafted rookie Julian Stanford looks to be the fourth linebacker.