Houston Texans: Running backs, linebackers and tight ends shine

The Houston Texans defeated the Detroit Lions in Week 2 of preseason play. Which standouts made statements and impressed?

After a couple of days of joint practices with the Detroit Lions, the Houston Texans made their home debut of the new season. NRG Stadium was rocking as superstars Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins also made their 2019 debuts as they enjoyed quite the homecoming.

Following a loss last week to the Green Bay Packers in the preseason opener, the Texans came out in Week 2 looking like an improved football team. The execution was much improved from start to finish and everyone was making plays. Especially between the receivers, defensive line and secondary, every unit were out there making an impact. Reports from the joint practices indicated the Texans defensive front dominated.

Looking ahead to next week, the Texans take on the Dallas Cowboys in their annual in-state preseason affair. Houston has won the last two meetings. Before we get too far ahead, let’s review the developments from Saturday’s preseason game against the Lions.

Star players pick up where they left off

The Texans gave us flashbacks of last season, minus the trauma of invisible pass protection. Watson came out and engineered a crisp touchdown drive which ended with a touchdown to Hopkins. He looked locked-in and spread the ball well with good protection in the trenches.

Upfront, the offensive line held their ground and provided Watson with ample time to make throws from the pocket. While their offensive line is still among the worst in the league, what they’ve accomplished through two weeks of preseason play is encouraging.

On the other side of the ball, Whitney Mercilus recorded a strip-sack. With Jadeveon Clowney’s 2019 future remains murky, Mercilus will have to step up more than ever this season. It’s great to see the star players of this team pick up right where they left off. While they were only out there for a drive or two, they made it count.

Unheralded running back a lock for the 53

An enigma since the start of summer, the running back depth battle is still wide open. The acquisition of Duke Johnson cleared things up a ton and was a much-needed addition. It’s been evident for years now that the Texans needed to adapt and bring in a pass-catching specialist. What do they do in their first major move since dismissing Brian Gaine? They go out and acquire the running back with the most receptions since 2014.

Essentially Johnson replaced D’Onta Foreman in the RB hierarchy. Thus, the depth spots in the backfield remain wide open. However, there’s one guy in the mix who I’m calling as a lock to make the final 53.

Buddy Howell moved the chains on seemingly every carry against the Lions. He brought tons of energy and impressed with his determined running. Displaying patience picking his holes, Howell also has burst to escape into the second level. It’s his special teams prowess which may ultimately give him the upper hand. Claimed off waivers early last season, Howell quickly became a mainstay on Houston’s kick coverage units. Looking as impressive as any Houston back has this preseason, it’s safe to say Howell claimed his spot on the roster.

Assuming the Texans elect to keep four running backs on the roster, that leaves four guys vying for one spot. The undrafted rookies Karan Higdon and Damarea Crockett have each been solid and there isn’t much separation between them. However, it could be Higdon’s special teams ability which gives him the edge.

Then there are veterans Taiwan Jones and Josh Ferguson. Jones fumbled last week but has looked better than Ferguson toting the rock. The acquisition of Johnson all but shatters Ferguson’s hopes of making the roster as his main enticement was his ability to catch the ball. This leaves the Texans with two options.

  1. Give the job to one of the young backs
  2. Give the job to a back with special teams experience

It makes tons of sense to instill more youth into the backfield whether that guy is Higdon or Crockett. However, I think they go the latter route. The Texans are a team who obsess over their special teams play. Therefore, it’ll come down to Higdon and Jones.

Tight end conundrum

The Texans are going to have to make an arduous decision at tight end. They have five capable TEs worthy of snaps, but they’ll have to cut at least one. The wildcard remains rookie Kahale Warring. The third-round pick out of San Diego State has dealt with a combination of hamstring and concussion injuries. He previously spent time on the Non-Football Related Injury list. Most recently, his preseason status is pending as he awaits to clear concussion protocol.

Activated from the Non-Football Injury list a few weeks ago, Warring would count against the 53 man roster. It’s hopeful that he’s able to suit up at least for the final preseason game. However, you don’t want to rush him back especially with the positional depth in mind.

Meanwhile, veterans Darren Fells and Jerrell Adams have taken advantage of every opportunity. Considering Warring’s medicals, it’s likely the Texans elect to carry four tight ends. At least until Warring is at full strength. Adams has especially dazzled and leads the team in yards after catch through two weeks of preseason play. However, the team may favor Fells’ superior blocking in their depth TE. Whatever the case, the veteran who gets the chopping block should be coveted by a tight end needy team.

 Linebacker depth emerging as a strength

In the opening preseason game, Dylan Cole made his mark and solidified himself as the backup linebacker to Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney. As Cunningham sat out another preseason match-up, Cole opened with the ones alongside McKinney. Through both games, he’s looked 100% after missing nearly all of last season due to a dislocated wrist. Cole’s elite athletic profile has been on full display. His speed in the open field makes him a pesky run and chase linebacker. Plus he has the strength to work downhill and get off blocks. The future is bright for the former undrafted free agent.

Battling for the backup spot to Cole is 2018 sixth-round pick Peter Kalambayi and Tyrell Adams. The duo went tick for tack with big plays on a couple of drives against the Lions, following each other up with big plays. Kalambayi especially stood out.

He showed off his ability to diagnose and flow downhill where he blew up a couple of runs. He made a good play against the pass where he hit his key and picked up a late wheel route from the running back with urgency. On special teams, Kalambayi’s presence was also felt as he laid a big smack in the first half. He’s a safe bet to make the roster, although Adams has provided respectable competition.

Other Saturday Texans snippets

    • As A.J. McCarron continues to heal from injury, it was the Joe Webb show for most of Saturday. However, Watson, of course, made his debut, but so did Jordan Ta’amu. The undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss attempted just one pass. However, we should see a heavy dose of him in weeks three and four. Not likely to make the roster, if he shows out in these next couple of weeks he could earn a spot on the practice squad.
    • With Keke Coutee’s ongoing injury concerns, DeAndre Carter stepped into the slot as his understudy. Carter looked comfortable and caught a couple of balls from Deshaun Watson on the opening drive. He’s a lock to make the roster as the team’s fourth or fifth receiver with Vyncint Smith.
    • Taron Johnson is making his case for a roster spot. If the Texans elect to keep six wide receivers, he has to be the guy. Johnson has showcased blazing speed to take the top off the defense. He’s garnered a handful of deep targets in the past two weeks and has the longest catch of the preseason.
    • Matt Kalil was held out of Saturday’s contest and is the presumed Week 1 starter at left tackle. Roderick Johnson started in his place and held it down at the blindside. He impressed last week as well and has seemingly secured a backup tackle job.
    • Unlikely to make the roster, Rick Leonard delivered two devastating blocks as a run blocker. He figures to have the best chance to make the practice squad among the young, depth tackles.
    • The defensive line reportedly dominated the joint practices, and that carried out onto the field. Recently acquired off waivers, Tracy Sprinkle made some plays in the backfield including a big blowup against the run on a combination stop with Kalambayi. Fifth-round pick Charles Omenihu looked much improved compared to last week. He flashed his pass-rushing ability and generated a few pressures on the final drive of the first half. Undrafted rookie Albert Huggins also made some big stops and had an impressive bull rush to collapse the pocket late in the game.
    • Austin Exford had an up and down game with the big miscue coming in coverage. Known for his run defense, the Texans flirted with him as the single-high safety. Still, he’s been one of the more active reserves on defense and deserves a practice squad spot.

Jonathan Valencia is an AFC South writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter @JonValenciaPFN.

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