By Brien O’Donal
The Texans kicked off the preseason tonight against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. It was the first game action for Deshaun Watson and a welcome return of J.J. Watt after missing most of last season with a back injury. The Panthers were without Cam Newton because he is still recovering from off season shoulder issues but they did have one of the more anticipated players; Christian McCaffrey. Most of the excitement surrounding this game stems from it’s role in marking the return of the NFL to our living rooms. It’s been all over the place today: the Texans are back and Houston is ready for football. It may be a scrimmage, but watching two teams square off against each other let’s us all know the regular season is just around the corner.
The good thing about the preseason is the ability to shake off the training camp rust before it really counts. The Texans needed to do just that with a slow start to the first quarter. They began with two three-and-outs that didn’t look good at all. The protection just wasn’t there, especially when they allowed the first drive to end with Kawann Short sacking Tom Savage. The defense looked bendable early allowing the Panthers into FG range on their first drive where they were saved by the ball hitting the upright.
The defense wasn’t so lucky on the next drive when Derek Anderson started off with a big throw to Greg Olson and then Christian McCaffrey followed it with a good run up the middle. In just a few plays, the Panthers capped the drive off with a great catch and throw from Anderson to Kelvin Benjamin for a touchdown, putting the Panthers up 7-0.
That must have given Bill O’Brien the courage to get more creative because the Texans seemed open up the playbook a little more on the next drive. Big plays by Alfred Blue in the run game ended the drive with a touchdown to tie it 7-7 after Savage showed strong pocket presence on passes to Braxton Miller and Jalen Strong. Penalties by right tackle Breno Giacomini and fullback Jay Prosch almost hurt them though, something that needs to be cleaned up if they want to get more wins.
The second quarter looked like it was going to be all Panthers as they got out to a 17-7 lead on key mistakes by the Texans. First, the punt coverage unit committed the gravest of errors by interfering with the punt return giving Carolina great field position at the 50 yard line. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Joe Webb connected with Demiere Byrd on a touchdown pass after he got a step on cornerback Robert Nelson Jr.
Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson’s third drive of his young NFL career ended in a way he didn’t want to see, a fumble by tight end Evan Bayliss. That gave the Panthers enough field position to move the ball into makeable field goal range moving the score to 17-7. It wouldn’t stay that way though as the Texans moved the ball down the field in a good late drive before stalling in the red zone and settling for a field goal that sent the game into halftime 17-10.
Whatever was said during the break didn’t help the Texans defense. Carolina came out firing in the second half with Joe Webb using his mobility to keep the chains moving. Their first drive once again ended in a touchdown to Byrd over Nelson Jr.; increasing their lead 24-10. It may be the first preseason game but he is getting exposed on the outside and may really be fighting for a roster spot tomorrow.
The Texans came right back with Watson making some really good throws and D’Onta Foreman showing why he was drafted in the third round. But the spotlight truly belonged to Watson as he used his legs to get the Texans within one score on a 15 yard touchdown run, 24-17.
His run pretty much wrapped up the third quarter as the Panthers got the ball and began a time consuming drive that took the game into the fourth quarter before eventually punting deep to pin the Texans back. The offense did little with it and gave the ball back to the Panthers with the defense needing to make a play. For a moment it seemed like they did just that.
On a short pass from Webb to Austin Duke, it appeared that Texans corner back Denzel Rice forced a fumble that was recovered and returned 34 yards for a game tying touchdown by inside linebacker Dylan Cole. Upon review, it was ruled an incomplete and the Texans would settle for a forced punt to get the ball back, still down 24-17. There they started with a 41 yard run by Foreman but ended with a bad read by Watson ending the drive with a sack.
The Panthers would continue to move the ball effectively against the Texans defense that by now was pretty much all depth chart players. The Carolina passing attack continued to eat away at the Texans’ secondary until they eventually stalled; settling for a 51 yard field goal to go ahead by two scores 27-17. With less than 5 minutes left in the game we saw the first action for Brandon Weeden as the Texans hoped to climb back into the game. A failed 55 yard field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn would leave the score where it was.
The last few minutes of the game were about what you would expect. Desperation play by Weeden almost resulted in an interception and the Texans were forced to punt. Carolina simply moved the ball enough to wind down the clock and end the game. The final result of 27-17 was not quite what the Texans wanted, but not a true measure of where they can be when the season starts on September 10th.
In the end we didn’t see a lot of what this team will be this year. The back up players were on the field a lot and even though defensively they need improvement, the offense looked like a steady hand. As the preseason moves along we will see more from the guys most likely to make the roster and they will look like a better team. There isn’t too much concern about the defensive starters that earned a #1 ranking last season. Everyone’s hopes are on an improved offense and after tonight there might be some optimism. I was impressed with the play at quarterback from both Savage and Watson but more tape is needed to determine if it was just a preseason mirage.
I like the way Savage stood in the pocket, but he didn’t face many blitzes. I like the way Watson used his mobility, but he needs to grow as a pocket passer. The running back group looked good with Miller, Blue, and Foreman all running the ball well. IF the receiving group can continue to be steady then they will offer reliable targets for the quarterback. I don’t doubt that Hopkins will be ready to show that last season was an outlier in terms of production. We will just have to tune in and see how the rest of the preseason grows this team.
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