ReFo: Texans @ Cardinals, Preseason Week 1
A solid QB performance on one side and a highly anticipated rookie debut on the other, Ben Stockwell offers highlights from the Texans-Cardinals opener.
ReFo: Texans @ Cardinals, Preseason Week 1
Two teams headed in opposite directions met in Arizona to get their 2014 preseason slates underway.
The host Cardinals are looking to build on last year’s 10-6 mark and make a real statement in the NFL’s best division. Only topped by the two teams that contested the NFC Championship game in January, the clear need for improvement was on offense and the early indications hint at good things to come. With two quarterbacks hitting their straps and receivers beyond Larry Fitzgerald and the absent Michael Floyd showing their quality, Arizona fans will take away positive first impressions.
The Texans on the other hand came in off the back of 14 straight defeats and put in a performance to suggest that a speedy turn around may not be on the cards. Their dynamic duo on defense gave glimpses of great things, but from top to bottom their offense offered little initial optimism under new head coach Bill O’Brien.
Houston – Three Performances of Note
Tantalizing Glimpses from Clowney
The much anticipated NFL debut of Jadeveon Clowney (20 snaps, +1.8 overall) delivered, if nothing else, an early signature play. His tackle on Stepfan Taylor at the 8:48 mark in the first quarter was more than a little reminiscent of his signature play from his college career as he blew through the block of Darren Fells to spin down Taylor for a 5-yard loss. He added to this work in run defense with a couple of nice plays as a pass rusher even if he came up empty on the stat sheet. When J.J. Watt demolished Jonathan Cooper for a sack on the second play of the game, Clowney was hot on his heels. Having driven back Jared Veldheer on a bullrush, he was ready to shed and drive inside for the sack if his illustrious teammate hadn’t beaten him to it.
One of the few notes of caution for Clowney was an area many highlighted when it became clear the Texans would take him to play outside in a 3-4; his pass coverage. Though he was fine early on the first drive reading the play in front of him and closing on Andre Ellington for a short gain, later on the drive he was beaten badly on a wheel route by John Carlson for a touchdown wiped off the board by a penalty. The Texans were nearly caught on a similar play later in the game with only a slightly off-target throw by Drew Stanton and a desperate recovery by Jason Ankrah preventing a similar score. Clearly something for both Clowney and the Texans to work on moving forward, but this was a solid debut for this year’s top pick.
The Quarterback Conundrum Continues to Confound
Another option for the Texans’ atop the Draft in May was a quarterback and though Clowney may prove the better choice in time, right now they look short of a good option under center. New signing Ryan Fitzpatrick (30 snaps, -3.6 passing) took the start and was shaky from the outset. Missing Garrett Graham high and outside on his first throw things didn’t get any better from there with Jerraud Powers almost snagging an interception on the ensuing third down. Even on his usually comfortable short passes Fitzpatrick was off target hitting on only four of eight targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He rounded out his first half of work falling victim to a one-handed interception from Marcus Benard dropping unseen in front of a crossing route by Mike Thomas.
Things didn’t start any better for backup Case Keenum who drew a delay of game penalty immediately out of the half time interval and did little to suggest that he will buy himself time ahead of this year’s fourth round pick Tom Savage who registered only six snaps at the end of the game. As good as Clowney and Watt could make the defense, if no one steps up under center, the gains in the win column will be limited.
Corners Get a Workout
When one of the few bright notes to draw for a team is that their reserve corners looked decent in run support you know things haven’t gone well. To their credit the likes of Josh Victorian, Elbert Mack and Marcus Williams did do some good work, between them they registered six stops in the run game. However, generally speaking, you’re looking for your corners to cover and that didn’t go so well. Among the starters Brandon Harris (20 snaps, -3.2 coverage) and Kareem Jackson (20 snaps, -1.2 coverage) each gave up a completion on every target (three each) and a touchdown apiece. Meanwhile, Victorian’s solid work in run defense wasn’t carried over into his work in coverage where he let up seven completions on seven targets for a team-high 74 yards. Whether it was Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton or Logan Thomas, the Cardinals’ quarterbacks had little trouble going up and down the field.
Arizona – Three Performances of Note
Palmer Hits the Ground Running
After hitting the ground hard in the arms of Watt on his first drop-back of the game, Carson Palmer put in the sort of display (10 snaps, +2.3 passing) that will have Arizona fans salivating at the prospect of taking it to the 49ers and Seahawks this season. Palmer bounced back immediately from that sack to find rookie receiver John Brown open on an out route to convert a 3rd-and-16 with a 25 yard gain. He then rounded out his sole drive of the game with a touchdown pass, twice. First the play chalked off when he laid the pass out on a platter for John Carlson after he’d got past Jadeveon Clowney before hooking up for the score that stood on a slant to Larry Fitzgerald with Brandon Harris nowhere. The first week of preseason is all about getting a start and you’d struggle to get off to a better one than Palmer’s.
Solid Defense Everywhere
Picking out a really spectacular defender from the Cardinals’ defense last night is tough to do, but more importantly picking out a poor performance is just as tough. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell left things to the backups after only three plays and the likes of Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie lasted only three plays more. From there it just seemed like the Cardinals’ defenders were queuing up to make plays. Whether it was Marcus Benard’s one-handed interception (31 snaps, +2.1 overall) or Frostee Rucker and Ed Stinson (29 snaps, +0.8 overall) making a nuisance of themselves on the defensive line, there was rarely an opportunity for an Arizona defender to make multiple plays. Alex Okafor led the team in stops with three and only Rucker joined him with more than one. The Texans didn’t offer much resistance but the Cardinals were relentless in their control of this game.
Brown Lives up to the Hype
Every year, it seems, we get reports in June and July of rookies “tearing it up in OTAs” and being tipped for big rookie seasons. All too often nothing comes of those players when the action hits the field but the Cardinals’ third-round pick out of Pittsburg State, John Brown (32 snaps, +1.1 overall), made an early statement of intent to live up to the hype. On the receiving end of Palmer’s third-down conversion on the first set of downs, Brown would add another third-down conversion on the second drive hooking up with Drew Stanton on a post route and drew a pass interference penalty from Brandon Harris on the very next snap. Adding some solid work in the second quarter, Brown has shown in a game what has got so many onlookers excited in practice sessions.
– One of last year’s most dominant individual performers got his preseason off to a slow start. Justin Bethel was guilty of two penalties on special teams, almost as many (three) as he surrendered in the entirety of the 2013 season.
– Houston’s second-round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo split his time between left tackle (15 snaps) and left guard (12 snaps) earning a +0.2 overall grade in a solid debut.
– Logan Thomas showed some of the accuracy issues (notably on a very low screen that Brittan Golden rescued) that but outnumbered those with some strong throws in the intermediate range (6/6, 87 yards, 1 TD) that highlight the raw potential that Bruce Arians will look to mold into a starter down the road.
PFF Game Ball
The weight of expectations in Arizona rest heavily on Carson Palmer’s shoulders this season and this was an assured start from the Cardinals’ key man.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.