With their starters on the field, neither defense–Houston’s fresh off of a 2011 that saw them rise by leaps over their 2010 standing, and New Orleans’ that was not a strength and has seen its middle re-tooled more than once this offseason–appeared up to speed.
In this third week of preseason that is expected to be the final significant tune-up opportunity for most teams, these two offenses at least are ready to open seasons that will see each team listed as a contenders from the start.
Houston Texans – Three Things of Note
1) Variety and Precision
Houston’s offense in the early portion of this game was what we’ve come to know of them when at their best. Spreading the ball around through the air and biting off chunks on the ground, they executed with precision and gave the New Orleans defense too much to cover. Mixing in the variety of play calls the way they did put on display their ability to attack seams upfield, soft pockets laterally, and creases in the interior D. Matt Schaub had no problem identifying and connecting with open receivers, tight ends, and backs and doing so at all depths of the field. With a pattern of attack as diverse and unpredictable as this was, defenses tasked with slowing a clicking Texans offense will be stressed on each snap.
2) Zone Done Right
A lot is made of Houston’s zone blocking scheme and the runners that enjoy operating behind it. If run properly, the lanes created are not only simple to spot, but easy to burst into and out of. Arian Foster did that on two particularly excellent examples in the first half of this game. With 3:14 to go in the first quarter, Foster started right behind the moving wall that was the Texans’ O-line. Foster’s eyes fixed on flowing defenders who were soon caught in the wash, spectators to the coming cutback that led to an 18-yard scamper down the middle of the field. In the second quarter (9:00), Foster and the line went left, again with blockers latching on to whatever presented in their path. However this time there was no cutback, only a beeline to the goal line through a lane that probably looked exactly as it had on the whiteboard when it was drawn up. With this line executing in top form, the Houston run game is on track once again.
3) Quin Around the Ball
Houston safety Glover Quin forced the game’s first of five fumbles with a forceful hit on a stumbling Chris Ivory who had just squirted through the middle of the line. Quin also recovered the ball on the dangerous looking play and went on to break up a pair of passes and was a part of two of other tackles in the run game. After moving to safety last season, Quin didn’t rate particularly high in any one area, though his coverage grade was up from his time as a corner. Judging by this active performance, perhaps a year to get comfortable in the safety role in Houston’s improved secondary has him on track to take another step forward in 2012.
New Orleans Saints – Three Things of Note
1) Brees Being Brees
As with Houston’s, the early New Orleans offense was crisp and in control, especially through the air where Brees was repeatedly on the money to many of his favorite targets: tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receivers Lance Moore, Marques Colston, and Devery Henderson, and back Pierre Thomas. Brees’ ability to hit his receivers on time and on target when he is given time is tough to match (his perfectly-placed ball to Moore in the middle of the first quarter was an impressive example), but buying time with his feet when needed, he’s equally dangerous on the move. Forced to step up and then flushed on a second-quarter attempt, Brees had no issue with dropping a ball to Graham up the right sideline when lesser QBs would have been content to throw it away. Our top-ranked QB from a year ago, Brees has nothing to prove, but is showing no signs of letting off of the gas.
2) Graham’s Game
Adding muscle hasn’t slowed Jimmy Graham–and it could certainly make him even more dangerous than he was in 2011. Graham’s game has been built around skills translated from the basketball court: moving without the ball to create space, walling off defenders to gain position, and out-fighting everyone for jump balls. If he’s coming in stronger than last season, he’ll be even tougher to handle and that much more of a comfortable target for Brees to look to…not to mention it couldn’t hurt his run blocking which was the obvious downside to his 2011 play.
3) Cameron Coming Up
Second year defensive end Cameron Jordan was outstanding against the run in 2011 (+12.1) and made a couple of plays from his left end spot in this game to support that idea. With 9:35 remaining in the first, he took Houston right tackle Derek Newton four yards into the backfield to disrupt a run headed to his side, turning it back to the left for an eventual loss. A bit later in the game, he strung out a second-down run and brought Foster down near the sideline. Able to hold the edge and provide contain as well as playing down the line on wide runs, Jordan’s game only needs some pass rushing boost–an area where he didn’t grade out quite as well as a rookie (-4.4), though he did add a sack of Schaub in this game.