The San Francisco 49ers travel to Houston for a game Saturday night that many are predicting will be a Super Bowl preview. Both teams look to be loaded and play very similar styles of football which should make for an interesting matchup. Most preseason games lack excitement, but I think the match-up and several players needing to impress the coaches will make for an interesting game.
J.J. Watt is still out and likely will be until week 1 of the regular season. However, fellow stars Andre Johnson and Brian Cushing are expected to play for roughly a quarter and a half along with the other starters. A lot of good story lines to watch, here are a few that I'll be focusing on.
Five Players To Watch:
1. Derek Newton - The 2nd year player will start at right tackle on Saturday with Rashad Butler coming off the bench. Butler was the assumed starter coming into training camp, but the performance of the offensive line has slipped a little and it seems coach Kubiak wants to get a look at some other players. Newton has played well so far during training camp and gives the Texans a little bit better run blocker over Butler who excels in pass protection, but isn't as strong. Newton was the Texans swing tackle last season after Butler went down with an injury and has progressed quickly since being drafted in the seventh round in 2011. As of now I still think Butler will be the starter, but if Newton plays well on Saturday against Justin Smith and a very strong 49ers defense, he could steal the job.
2. Garrett Graham - One of the questions this off-season is who would replace the production of Joel Dreessen, who went to Denver as a free-agent. Most expect Owen Daniels to be solid once again, but he's had some injury issues and the Texans like to run two tight end sets; leaving a hole on the other side.. James Casey will probably see sometime at tight end, but he's also needed at fullback. The Texans need their fourth round pick from 2010 to step his game up. Graham isn't a great blocker but scouts loved his route running and hands coming out of college; almost a clone of Owen Daniels. Graham looked good in the Texans first game against Carolina, but after never getting on the field during his first two NFL seasons, he'll need to continue to prove himself worthy of playing time. The Texans offense and Matt Schaub do a great job at exploiting the middle of the field, having another reliable target to fill that role would be a huge asset.
3. Kareem Jackson - The Texans 2010 first round pick has correctly been criticized over his first two seasons for below average to awful play at times. Jackson seemed to play a little better last season, but only marginally and that could have been a result of an improved pass rush and better safety help. I'm still not sold on Jackson being a legit starting corner, but he did play very well last week vs. Carolina. In particular he had a pass breakup on the first drive when he jumped a short route on 3rd down, and later was right in Steve Smith's pocket on an out route and would have picked the pass off had it not been thrown wide and out of bounds. Jackson has size and speed, it's been his poor technique, reaction time, and blowing assignments that caused him to get burned so often early on in his career. If Wade Philips has coached those mistakes and problems out of Jackson, it'd be a huge benefit to the Texans pass coverage giving their safeties more freedom to roam the field and Philips more freedom to blitz.
4. Trindon Holiday - Bottom line he needs another touchdown return or at least a very long return to have a chance to make this team. At best Holiday is the Texans 6th best receiver; he has no chance to make the team as a receiver. The only chance he has at making the team is as a return specialist, and even that is a long shot because I believe the Texans have too much talent on this roster to cut a reserve in favor of a five-plays a game specialist. To impress Kubiak enough to keep him, he can't just be good, he has to be great and I think that means another return touchdown.
5. Brandon Harris - Like Graham, Brandon Harris didn't get any meaningful playing time during his rookie season. This was a disappointment to many after the Texans moved back up into the 2nd round to draft him last year. The idea was for Harris to be their slot corner, but he was beat out by Bryce McCain and wasn't even on the active roster for over half of their games. Harris has looked liked a different player during training camp and played well against Carolina last Saturday, so he might have turned the corner. The 49ers have improved their receiver core with Mario Manningham and Randy Moss so this will be a good test for Harris if he gets any reps in nickel or dime packages with the starters. If Harris does take a step forward and become the player they thought they drafted, it'd be a huge help against teams on their schedule this year like the Patriots and Packers who use a lot of four and five receiver sets.