Overall, good effort from the Texans on Saturday. night against the Carolina Panthers. They didn't play a perfect game, there are plenty of things to work on, but they outplayed the Panthers in all three phases of the game and each string of players won their battle in the game. I'll be disappointed if I see the same mistakes against San Francisco this week and New Orleans in the third week dress rehearsal, but I'm satisfied with what I saw in their first game this pre-season.
Grading The Team:
Two turnovers and settling for a field goal on the first possession killed their grade. I could have gone lower, but I cut the starters a little slack since it was the first game and Andre Johnson was out. On the two turnovers, with Schaub's interception he threw it right to the defender but he did get hit as he released the football. He might have been attempting to throw it to Foster, but the hit changed the flight of the ball. Wasn't a good decision, but I don't think it would have been picked if he hadn't been hit from his blindside. Overall I thought Schaub looked accurate, he seemed to make the correct reads and make them quickly, so I thought he looked pretty good in his first game since November. Ben Tate looked pretty good, averaging 5.4 yards per carry but could have had even more but he tripped several times when running through the hole. Of the young receivers, I thought both Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean played well, especially Martin, but I'm still not sure why DeVier Posey was drafted in the 3rd round.
On Foster's fumble, that worries me a little more. I've never liked the way Foster holds the ball, he tends to hold it away from his body when he's in full stride and guys who catch him from behind can knock it away like what happened on Saturday. He fumbled six times last season, lost four which isn't a horrendous number, but it's too many for a running back of his caliber. I think it's a simple fix, carry it like Tiki Barber did toward the end of his career; he just has to make a commitment to make the adjustment.
With the failure in the redzone, I'm not going to kill them for it since neither Andre Johnson or Arian Foster were on the field. Johnson didn't dress, but I can't explain why Foster didn't get a carry after they were in a 1st and goal from the nine situation; he's money in the redzone. On the play calling, I would have preferred they ran it again after Tate got stopped at the two instead of the pass, but if they wanted to pass on 3rd down, I definitely hated the empty backfield look. Passing on 3rd and goal from the two is fine, but give them a look that makes them at least respect the possibility of the run and give Schaub an extra protector so he has an extra second or two to find an open receiver.
On it's own merits it was a good effort, but considering it was without J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, it became a great game from the defense. They forced a three and out on the Panthers first two possessions, holding them to only one total yard over those two series. The offense put them in a hole on the third possession with the Foster fumble giving the Panthers the ball at the 50 yard line. The Panthers got in field goal range with a 15 yard scramble on 3rd and long and a screen pass to Jonathan Stewart that I don't think would have worked in the regular season; they were running a very vanilla version of their defense on Saturday.
The secondary looked good except for one play on the third series when Johnathan Joseph got beat by Ajirotutu on a fade pass to the endzone (luckily the pass was too high and he dropped it). Kareem Jackson looked pretty good with one pass breakup on the first series and later he jumped an out route thrown to Steve Smith and would have picked it off if the pass hadn't been thrown wide and out of bounds. Once the backups came in, Brandon Harris made a couple of nice tackles in space and had tight coverage on his man nearly every play. Safety Troy Nolan isn't great in coverage, but always seems to find his way into a turnover; has a great nose for the ball. Nolan had one pick on Saturday on the bobbled ball he pulled away from the Panthers receiver in the 3rd quarter and nearly had another one on a deflected pass earlier in the game.
The linebackers played well, especially Brooks Reed and Tim Dobbins who each had sacks. Rookie 1st round pick Whitney Mercilus seemed to get lost a little in pass defense but did look great as a pass rusher with 1.5 sacks during the game including a great one-armed jab move that led to an impressive sack in the 3rd quarter.
Special Teams: A+
Randy Bullock and Shayne Graham made every kick going 2/2 each on four total field goals including a 52 yard field goal from Bullock that would have been good from 55 or 56 yards. Seeing Bullock nail the 52-yard field goal excited me, they haven't had a kicker capable of making 50+ yard field goals consistently in several seasons. The coaches will probably still insist that there is a competition for the spot, but I don't buy it. As long as Bullock doesn't self implode over the next two games; he's got the job. On kickoffs they kicked four of them into the endzone and held the Panthers return guys to an average of 23.5 yards per return, giving the Panthers bad field position to start nearly every drive; except after turnovers. One area that needs some improvement, Donnie Jones net punt average was a measly 30.7 yards per punt; not good enough. Brett Hartmann averaged 37.8 per punt last season, which is a lot better than what Jones did on Saturday night, but their net punt average needs to be at or above 40 yards to be considered good.
In the return game, Trindon Holiday looked great with the 90 yard return for a touchdown and a few other pretty good returns. He's making his case to be on the roster, but I believe he'll need another return touchdown to convince Kubiak to keep a return only specialist. Holiday has no chance to make the team as a receiver and at first glance this team has too much talent to keep a specialist, but if Holiday takes another kick back, Kubiak will have to consider keeping a guy who can change the game on one play.