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The Texans offense got off to the fast start head coach Gary Kubiak had hoped for during Saturday night’s preseason 27-14 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Their new 3-4 defense didn’t fare quite as well.
It’s nothing to push the panic button over after just the second preseason game, of course. It’s just that some of the growing pains of learning a completely new system popped up Saturday night after Wade Phillips’ 3-4 debuted seamlessly days earlier against the New York Jets.
The Texans showed some susceptibility to the deep ball and allowing big plays, but the most alarming might have been the occasional break downs in the run defense. Saints running backs Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram all managed big runs against the Texans on Saturday night at Reliant Stadium.
Thomas broke a 13-yard run to start the game and Sproles popped off a 17-yard gain late in the second quarter, while Ingram did his damage in the red zone picking up tough yards that included his 1-yard touchdown.
Houston allowed the Saints runners to gain 113 yards on 27 carries for 4.2 yards per carry while giving up just the one rushing touchdown.
“They ran the ball pretty good on us,” Kubiak said. “We gave up too many yards just in general. So we are going to have to go back and look at that.”
Some of the big plays, especially defending the deep pass, might be eliminated once cornerback Jonathan Joseph, the Texans top free agent acquisition this offseason, gets back on the field. Some of the big running plays and the underneath passes that turned into big gains might lessen as many of the veteran players become more comfortable in their new roles.
Saturday night the first team defense kept one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses mostly in check through two quarters, allowing just two touchdowns. The Saints had the one impressive drive that ended with Ingram’s touchdown early in the second quarter. Then backup quarterback Chase Daniel hit receiver Joseph Morgan for a 56-yard touchdown on a three-play drive later in the first half.
The reserves came out in the second half and showed some bend but then found a way to come up with timely touchdowns to blank the Saints in the final two quarters.
Texans owner Bob McNair seemed to like most of what he saw from the defensive unit.
“We are headed in the right direction and of course Jonathan Joseph, getting him back in here will be helpful,” McNair said. “We are just going to keep working at it and keep getting better.”
But the tricky part to seeing marked improvement quickly is getting so many players to adjust to new positions. Everyone along the Texans front seven is in a new role going from the 4-3 to Phillips’ scheme and that has caused some uncertainty and breakdowns. There isn’t a player up front who isn’t having to make adjustments, but it’s most glaring with Mario Williams, who has gone from All-Pro defensive end to uncertain pass rushing outside linebacker.
Williams is adjusting to rushing the passer standing on his feet and then at times the 6-foot-6, 290-pounder has to drop back into coverage. He’s looked awkward and uncomfortable at times though he did make a few more positive plays Saturday than he did during Monday night’s preseason opener.
Williams nearly had an interception, while he actually got on the stat line with tackles and a fumble recovery during the first half.
“It’s a lot different, obviously, but it’s something that over time, it will become more and more second nature,” Williams said. “(Saturday) I felt a little like I ran around a little bit better, but I still got to bend a lot more. I’m so tall. I think that’s the biggest thing.
“I’ve got to concentrate on bending and once I do that, I think I’ll be a lot more fluid in what I do.”
Kubiak saw the progress in Williams’ play that wasn’t obvious to most observers.
“If you go back and look at the game of course he doesn’t have two or three sacks so that makes it easy to say that he wasn’t very good but if you watch he was very disruptive in the pocket,” Kubiak said Sunday. “They tried to keep a tight end on him a couple of times and he did a good job of just throwing him back in to (Drew) Brees’ hip, so to speak and pushing the pocket and he played better in space and just assignment-wise, everything, he’s doing better.
“Reggie (Herring) and Wade (Phillips) are trying to get him settled down on everything he’s doing. It was just a big step forward.”
Williams is far from being alone in going through the growing pains of a new scheme. Brian Cushing, for instance, has also not been himself since shifting from outside linebacker to inside this preseason. Cushing hasn’t been as aggressive and certain as he has in the past but he seemed to take some steps Saturday night, as well.
Also taking positive steps against the Saints were rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed, outside linebacker Jesse Nading, inside linebacker Xavier Adibi and cornerbacks Sherrick McManus and Brice McCain. But Reed, without question, was the biggest talk of the postgame after an explosive outing Saturday night.
Reed impressed with two sacks and two forced fumbles while also coming up with quarterback hurries during the second half. Reed, like Williams, is adjusting to playing outside linebacker after starring as a defensive end for the Arizona Wildcats.
Kubiak said Reed is definitely pushing for increased playing time behind Connor Barwin.
“No doubt, probably the one player right now showing the most vast improvement from day-to-day, practice-to-practice and game-to-game,” Kubiak said. “I’ve talked about how he’s changing position, but just watching that when you coach this guy the next day it’s fixed so it’s really impressive right now.
“He was very impressive in the football game and continues to not only be defensively but also very impressive for Joe (Marciano) I think he has the chance to be an excellent special teams player. He was a big bright spot on the defensive side of the ball last night and he played very well.”