First Impressions – Saints @ Texans

| August 21, 2011

The Texans were once again the “nearly” men of the AFC South last season. On the back of a season when the defense was the team’s failing, Houston has launched an overhaul of their system, bringing in Wade Phillips and his 3-4 plan. Questions abound as to whether the scheme suits the personnel but you cannot fault the ownership and front office for their aggressive work in bringing in a proven DC and the in-vogue system in the NFL. The system works, but can this personnel group execute it sufficiently well to bring that much wanted playoff spot to Houston?
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This pre-season game gave the Texans an interesting tune up against a Saints side that has invested wisely this offseason to bolster an already strong roster. Adding the likes of Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles to an already effective running game to complement Drew Brees’ explosive passing game is a daunting test, even in preseason.
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Houston – Three Things of Note
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● The Saints’ opening drive raised many a question about the Texans’ defense. Their blushes were spared by Antonio Smith’s sack of Drew Brees, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Mario Williams. Up to that point, however, it had been a tale of woe for the new Houston look. The first defensive snap of the game hit home the biggest concern there is about this Texans D: strength in the middle at power at the point of attack. On snap No. 1 and repeatedly throughout the drive, particularly on third and short, the Texans’ defense simply failed to stand up to a strong Saints’ offensive line and was easily controlled. First round pick JJ Watt struggled with both Zach Strief and Jahri Evans; nose tackle Shaun Cody was easily controlled by Olin Kreutz and Carl Nicks; and the lack of a true downhill linebacker to disrupt the running game was sorely exposed as well. Watt flashed some potential at one point on the drive, swimming past Strief from the back side to take down Mark Ingram. But again, this was small solace as without this solo play from Watt, Ingram and the Saints would’ve been off to the races.
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Arian Foster showed that he was ready to repeat his fine 2010 form in 2011 and came out running with a purpose. A fine cutback rush set the Texans up with 1st-and-goal, finding a crease and making a back-side defender miss – displaying all the qualities you like to see from a back in a zone scheme. Foster then finished the drive with a pair of strong carries, the last reaching the end zone. A revelation last season, runs like this for Foster will give Texans’ fans hope that they can load up on him once again to mount that much yearned for playoff charge.
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● The Matt Schaub-to-Andre Johnson connection remains in fine form and with Foster running the ball so well, they have an outstanding set up. Already in this game Gary Kubiak was working Schaub off of rollouts to find Johnson downfield, but the more Foster can suck defenses in, the more this passing combo can look for the big play. This unit doesn’t appear materially different from last season, still sharing many of the same frailties but will it come down to them consistenyly finding those big plays or will Wade Phillips’ new defensive scheme make enough of a difference? Only time will tell, but if pressure on the O is relieved by some D help, and the offense-defense balance can approximate the synergy from the ground / air attacks, this will be a tough team to get past each week.
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New Orleans – Three Things of Note
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● The Saints’ offense got straight into gear on the opening drive and it was their re-tooled running game that came to the fore. All three of their top-line backs (Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram) got carries and all looked in fine form. A weak Texans interior against a strong Saints run blocking line played its part but all three backs ran with a purpose. From Thomas starting the drive, through Sproles releasing to become a pass target, and finally to Ingram showing that he’s ready to carry his college form to the pro’s, each has something to offer. The opposition wasn’t the best they’ll face but the Saints are firing warning shots that they have a three-headed monster on their hands that should strike fear into the league.
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● If New Orleans’ offense was firing warning shots, then, on their opening drive, their defense looked like it was on the receiving end of them. As with their Houston counterparts, the Saints’ defense showed some age-old concerns early on. The Texans came out passing and, in full preseason mode, Greg Williams was very much keeping his powder dry in terms of blitzes despite a four-man rush that generated very little pressure. Whether the Texans targeted corners, safeties or linebackers it made little difference as, with no one getting to the QB, the Saints weren’t able to stay close or jump routes as they are so used to. The Saints have dealt with a lack of pressure from their base pass rush in the past and, while one drive is not evidence enough to claim a trend, it’s fair to say that this is a worry that Payton and Williams won’t want to see drag on into the regular season.
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● Foster’s second touchdown rush was somewhat of an embarrassment for the Saints’ D and again raised familiar questions. Paul Oliver will be the scapegoat for a truly horrendous effort in the open field as Foster just made him look silly, but the play up front will is what should be the focus. Aubrayo Franklin’s addition should help shore-up the run defense, but he couldn’t make the difference on this play as Houston opened up an all-too-familiar hole between the Saints’ D-tackles. That gap exposed another big question for New Orleans: can Jonathan Vilma stop the run effectively? Vilma was too aggressive moving laterally and was easy prey for Chris Myers. Foster took the plaudits for this play but the ease with which he was able to knife through should raise more eyebrows.
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This was a real pleaser for a pre-season game. Both units showed outstanding form for this stage of preseason and both are looking to rebound from disappointing campaigns last season. The distance either will go, however, will be dictated by the play of their defenses. Explosive offenses can mask deficiencies on the other side, but come playoff time the defenses will need to pull their weight –  something neither team’s group looked remotely capable of on Saturday night.

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