By Brien O’Donal
Preseason game number 2 kicked off Saturday night pitting the Texans at home in NRG Stadium against the New England Patriots. After last week’s game, fans were ready to see the team at home with a chance to improve on the good things they did last week. This game, although still preseason; would be a good measure for how they are progressing. There is still time to determine who the starting quarterback will be, but seeing them both in action against a well coached team can help move that decision along.
The Texans offense looked solid right from the outset. Tom Savage picked up where he ended last week, consistently moving the ball down field and placing throws where the receivers had room to run. Bruce Ellington was the go to guy on the first drive while later drives would see Savage spreading the ball around more. Coach O’Brien was ready to test his players by not worrying about points, instead opting to practice a 4th and 6 conversion inside the red zone. The second drive of the game saw more of the same strategy, but ending in a good throw and catch for a touchdown giving the Texans a 7-0 lead that they held at the end of the 1st quarter.
The Texans defense started strong by forcing the Patriots to punt on their first drive. J.J. Watt showed he might not have a slow start to the year, busting through the line to stop a running play in the backfield on the 5th play of the game. It almost looked even better for the defense when Andre Hal made a leaping interception only to have it ruled incomplete. But Tom Brady is so good at exploiting match ups, which he did to end the 1st quarter and start the 2nd; culminating in a touchdown by Rex Burkhead that would tie the game 7-7.
RaShaun Allen caught a lucky break when his fumble was overturned to an incomplete pass, allowing the Texans to punt the ball away rather than surrender good field position. Special teams didn’t hold up their end of the deal though, allowing a 32 yard return by Cyrus Jones. The Texans defense was good enough to force Jimmy Garoppolo’s first drive to end in a field goal despite a short field, giving the Patriots a 10-7 lead.
Deshaun Watson’s night started a little shaky but O’Brien showed a good balance of run and pass that allowed him to settle into things; even though the Patriots were still playing their 1st team defense against the Texans 2nd string offensive line. It helped that newly added Ellington started the game playing like a man determined to earn a roster spot. His yards after catch gave the offense plenty of slack on the way to a game tying field goal, 10-10.
Big plays in the Patriots ground game would move the ball but a stiff Texans defense would hold them to a 51 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski for a 13-10 Patriots lead. The Texans offense would stall inside the 2 minute warning but a great special teams play by rookie Chris Thompson would pin the Patriots inside the 10 yard line. The Patriots would punt and the 1st half would end 1 kneel down later.
The Patriots got the ball first after halftime and were making progress before nose tackle Rickey Hatley came up with a 3rd down sack. A great punt and a penalty pinned the Texans at the 2 yard line where they managed only 2 yards before punting themselves. A critical muffed punt by the Patriots’ Justin Coleman almost gave the Texans the ball back near midfield. Instead the Patriots got it there and managed another field goal to increase their lead, 16-10.
Like any game, one big play can change the momentum. D’Onta Foreman gave the Texans just that with a solid run followed by a 63 yard catch and run down to the 4 yard line. Watson would capitalize 2 plays later with a 2 yard touchdown run. He now has one in each of the 2 preseason games. This time it put the Texans up by 1 point, 17-16. That momentum carried over to the defense where outside linebacker Tony Washington Jr. clobbered Garoppolo for a sack fumble recoverd by the Texans. That led to another field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn, extending the their lead 20-16.
That lead wouldn’t last. The Patriots came right back and got a 25 yard touchdown on a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to D.J. Foster, capping a 10 play drive that took the game into the 4th quarter. The lead was now theirs, 23-20. A Texans 3-and-out would follow but once again a big play would shift the momentum back to them. Cornerback Denzel Rice picked off the first pass of the Patriots next series and returned it to the 4 yard line where D’Onta Foreman would punch it in the very next play. Texans now held the lead 27-23.
Treston Decoud almost got the ball right back for the Texans with a precise form tackle of James O’Shaughnessey that jarred the ball loose. Brian Peters wasn’t able to recover the ball in bounds so the Patriots caught a break. Bill O’Brien decided to get some practice situations mixed into the game by challenging the play. He was hoping that the catch and fumble would be overturned and the ball would be moved back a few yards. An interesting use of the challenge for field position but ultimately the call would be upheld. It didn’t hurt though as the Patriots wound up punting the ball away.
The 4th quarter was time for all the bottom of the depth chart players to get their reps. There wasn’t much offense from either team, allowing the clock to just slowly wind down to a Texans win. It wouldn’t be without one more big play. Ufomba Kamalu would force a fumble after the Patriots managed to get their final drive into the red zone. It was initially ruled an incomplete pass but reviewed and ruled a fumble and touchback, Texans ball.
Brandon Weeden showed he is stuck as the 3rd string quarterback and most of the players on the field late in the game looked pedestrian as well. These guys will have two more weeks to make their case for playing time but after a night like that, the roster picture might be clearing up faster than expected.
The Texans walked out of NRG Stadium with plenty to be happy about. The defense looked a lot better than the 23 points allowed, causing 2 turnovers and holding the Patriots to multiple field goals when they started with a short field. Offensively, they looked like they are well aware of what they have to do to win the game. Control the clock and be a run heavy team. Big plays made the difference in the game and as expected, more of them came from the defense. Opportune sacks and turnovers kept the Patriots from getting too far ahead, while the ground and pound was able to help put up touchdowns instead of field goals.
Next Saturday the Texans travel to New Orleans for another 7pm kickoff. If they can improve this much from week to week, look for some excitement against a talented Saints offense. Quarterback is still the position to watch, but there are plenty of guys who made a case that they should be on the final 53 and look for things to get even more competitive as the weeks go on.