Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos: Texans Preseason Week 3 Game Preview

Brian McDonald@@sackedbybmacContributor IAugust 22, 2014

Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos: Texans Preseason Week 3 Game Preview

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    The embarrassing loss at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1 of the preseason left the team and its fans with questions about the potential of the Houston Texans.

    Maybe that shutout loss was a bucket of ice water over the head because it sure seemed to wake them up from whatever funk they were in and got them moving.

    Suddenly all the areas of concern, like the pass offense and pass defense, became strengths as the Texans took it to the Atlanta Falcons for all 60 minutes in what was a truly dominate performance. However, all those tests they passed against Atlanta are about to look like midterms in comparison to the final they're about to take.

    The Falcons are thought of as a team capable of having a big bounce-back season for good reason, but all the things they do well are done much better by the Texans' next opponent.

    Preseason games are all about measuring yourself, working to improve specific areas and finding out where your team's strengths and weaknesses exist. If you want a litmus test for the potential of the Texans during the 2014 season, not one will push their limits and provide more answers than the Denver Broncos.

    This game will also give the team and especially the rookies their first test in dealing with distractions. With Houston practicing on the road all week and then having to deal with questions about J.J. Watt's contract situation and the injury to Jadeveon Clowney, how it responds and reacts will be key.

    Despite it still being "only the preseason," if the Texans are as impressive against the Broncos in Denver, considering all the circumstances as they were against Atlanta, you can start to get excited and hope that they're capable of a bounce-back season like the Kansas City Chiefs had in 2013.

Houston Texans Week 2 Recap

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    What a difference a week makes, huh? Just seven days after looking like an expansion team against Arizona, the Texans flipped the switch to dominate their opponent just like they were dominated the week before.

    The Houston Texans played a complete game with a solid effort in every area, but three areas in particular need to be pointed out with how much they improved from last year through the first preseason game and into last week.

    Those three areas are of course the pass offense, pass defense and special teams.

    Starting on offense, no single player took more heat after the Texans' Week 1 performance than Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Fitzmagic, as he's called after a good performance, had just that. Fitzpatrick used his legs to extend plays—even had a run for over 20 yards—and completed passes that were picked off the week before. 

    FUN FACT: Ryan Fitzpatrick had more rush yards (25) on his 2 scrambles last night than Matt Schaub had in his last 3 seasons COMBINED (24).

    — Sean Pendergast (@SeanCablinasian) August 17, 2014

    For the game Fitzpatrick finished an efficient 9 of 12 for 97 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers gave him a 126 QB rating for the game, a surprisingly great effort considering what happened the week before.

    My big concern with Fitzpatrick when the Texans signed him was his decision-making, which often led to too many interceptions. More than any stat from the Falcons game I was impressed by him making the right decisions with where to go with the football and knowing when he should tuck the ball and run.

    With the offensive talent around him he doesn't have to play great; he just needs to continue to play smart, protect the football and make good decisions.

    On the other side of the ball the Texans defense also had a much better game than in Week 1 when it was torched for over 300 yards and three touchdowns by a very average group of Arizona quarterbacks.

    In Week 2 it held Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan to just 3-of-7 passing and Pro Bowl wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones to just one catch each. The game with Atlanta was an important measuring stick for the secondary, and with few exceptions it passed with flying colors.

    The defense that the previous year finished dead last in interceptions also got a pair of picks off former Texans quarterback T.J. Yates, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Andre Hal.

    The non-offensive touchdowns didn't stop there because the special teams, who were anything but great the last several seasons, had a huge game. 

    #Texans set a new preseason record tonight with touchdowns by offense, defense, and special teams. #TexansPreseason

    — Deepi Sidhu (@DeepSlant) August 17, 2014

    Obvious statement coming, but if the special teams unit can continue to either produce touchdowns or set up the offense with good field position, that will greatly help out a unit led by a quarterback with many question marks surrounding him.

    I feel confident in saying that the rush offense, rush defense and pass rush will all be solid to very good this year, so it was nice to see big performances from the three areas of concern. With Denver up next, the pass defense will face another big test as will the pass offense when facing two great pass-rushers.

News and Notes

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    Brandon Brooks Added to the Active Roster

    The Houston Texans have missed the services of several key veteran players recently, including offensive guard Brandon Brooks. What exactly was wrong with Brooks was a bit unclear, but either way he's back, and if he's healthy he'll make a big impact.

    Brooks will move back to his spot at right guard and should make a noticeable difference, especially in the running game. 

    Brandon Brooks participated in individual drills only during today's #Texans practice vs. #Broncos.

    — Deepi Sidhu (@DeepSlant) August 19, 2014

    Brooks has Pro Bowl talent in my opinion, so getting him back on the field in time for the regular season is huge.


    Jadeveon Clowney Left Wednesday's Practice Early

    First overall selection Jadeveon Clowney has had an impressive start to his preseason campaign. In very limited snaps against Atlanta last week Clowney had both a sack and another tackle for loss, but his status for Saturday's third preseason game in Denver is up in the air.

    From Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com, Clowney was injured during a nine-on-seven drill against Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme.

    Houston Texans rookie outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney's practice was cut about 45 minutes short on Wednesday when he retreated to the medical tent at the Denver Broncos' Dove Valley facility.

    Clowney departed practice early after colliding with Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme during a 9-on-7 drill. Clowney sat in the tent for the remainder of the team's joint practice, but it didn't appear he was being examined by trainers while he rested.

    Clowney felt OK afterward, according to a source, but the team wanted him to undergo additional testing.

    My opinion: If there is any concern at all, there's no point in taking a risk for a preseason game. We've all seen how dominate Clowney can potentially be, so let's make sure he's ready for Week 1 against the Washington Redskins.


    Keshawn Martin Happy and Comfortable with the New Coaching Staff

    Often-criticized wide receiver Keshawn Martin has been disappointing over his first two seasons, but it looks like that could change under Bill O'Brien.

    The previous offensive scheme didn't really fit Martin's skill set, but O'Brien wants something different from his slot receivers, which could benefit Martin, according to P.D. Starr of State of the Texans.

    On Saturday night, Martin was given a chance to use his skill set that made him successful at Michigan State. A player who is able to create in space and make players miss, Martin was able to continue building upon being the team’s best punt and kick returner on the roster. Totaling 114 all purpose yards against the Falcons, Martin showed how much he has matured over a summer. 

    Head Coach Bill O’Brien is taking notice of Martin, “He’s one of the most improved players on our team from the time we arrived here until now.”

    I've been skeptical in the past about Martin's chances of making the roster, but after the earlier injury to Alan Bonner and the improvement shown by Martin, there's a great chance he makes the final 53.


    J.J. Watt Doesn't Have Time to Fight After Making Plays in Practice

    Just like he did last week to Falcons first-round pick Jake Matthews, Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt has put a hurting on the guys lined up across from him and won most of the one-on-one defensive drills during practice with the Broncos.

    Defeat apparently caused things to get chippy from the Broncos players who were tired of getting whipped, but ever the professional, Watt didn't bother getting involved with their shenanigans. 

    "I have no interest in fighting someone when I beat you. ... That's why I don't normally get into fights." J.J. Watt. #Texans

    — Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) August 21, 2014 

    "You guys saw what happened yesterday. You win on the field. You don't have to fight if you win on the field." J.J. Watt #Texans

    — Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) August 21, 2014


    Arian Foster Looks Good in his Return to Practice

    One of the biggest questions from the fans who I've talked about on this site is the health status and what to expect from Arian Foster this season. Foster is nearing the end of his prime as a running back, so naturally there are concerns about his durability and if he's lost a step.

    My gut feeling has always been that Foster has another big year left in the tank, but after he went down with an injury early in training camp, those doubts started to creep back in.

    Reason for a sigh of relief, according to Drew Dougherty of HoustonTexans.com, is that coach Bill O'Brien has been impressed by the work Foster has done during the joint practices with Denver this week.

    Very impressive," Bill O'Brien said on Thursday. "He’s a smart player, he’s an instinctive player, he’s a good runner, good pass protector."

    "When we put him out there, he’s a matchup problem for people because he can run routes and he can run all different kinds of routes," O'Brien said.

    Very few players will impact the Texans' win-loss record this season more than Foster. The Texans will need to lean on the running game this season to help out whoever is under center, but Foster is more than that, as evidenced by how they want to use him in the passing game as well.

    Jonathan Grimes and Alfred Blue are very nice, complementary reserve players, but only Foster has star ability at the position. If Foster is a threat, opposing defenses will have to commit to stopping the run by putting more players in the box, which will of course give Fitzpatrick easier and less contested throws.

Injury Report

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    Arian FosterProbable
    Brian CushingQuestionable
    Andre JohnsonQuestionable
    Johnathan JosephProbable
    Jadeveon ClowneyQuestionable
    Brandon BrooksProbable 
    Louis Nix IIIProbable
    Chris MyersQuestionable



    Chris Myers watching teammates in 11-on-11s during final practice w/Broncos. His status for Sat. #game still TBD. #Texans

    — Deepi Sidhu (@DeepSlant) August 21, 2014

    Brandon Brooks off the Non-Football Injury list. Louis Nix off the PUP. And Johnathan Joseph back at practice. Productive week for #Texans

    — Paul Gallant (@PaulyGSays) August 19, 2014  

    Louis Nix is on track to return against the Broncos according to O’Brien. #Texans

    — PDS (@PatDStat) August 17, 2014


    Injury status is as of early Friday morning and was provided by CBSSports.com.

X-Factors and Matchups to Watch

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    Peyton Manning vs. the Texans Secondary

    After a miserable performance in their first game against Arizona, the Texans secondary rebounded well in the Week 2 preseason game against Atlanta. The game with the Falcons was a big test for a secondary that was still missing key players and appeared to have lost confidence.

    However, to the surprise of many the Texans held Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan to an ugly stat line of 3-of-7 for 37 yards passing. Pro Bowl receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones were also held in check with only one catch each during the game.

    Facing the Falcons was an important measuring stick, but no bigger test exists for NFL defensive backs than facing a team led by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.

    Manning was as sharp as ever during the Broncos' Week 2 game as he tore apart the San Francisco 49ers during his limited snaps to the tune of 12-of-14 for 102 yards and one touchdown.

    While stopping the Falcons was impressive, their threats in the passing game almost exclusively come from their outside receivers; the Broncos attack is much more varied.

    Manning will get the ball to Demaryius Thomas on the outside, but he'll also work the ball to the slot with Wes Welker, to the tight ends over the middle of the field and even get the running backs involved if the defense turns its attention away from them as they try to slow the other weapons.

    If the Texans perform well again—which will likely come over three quarters instead of two—then I'd say it would definitely be time to get excited about the potential of this defense.


    Texans Offensive Tackles vs. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware

    We often talk about how big of a challenge it will be for Texans opponents to block both J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, but a similar concern and challenge awaits the Texans offensive line on Saturday when it faces the Broncos' pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.

    I'm not too worried about Duane Brown, who as a two-time Pro Bowl tackle can handle himself, but the same can't be said for Derek Newton.

    Newton has been the worst starter on the Texans offensive line over the last two seasons but was pushed back into the starting role again for 2014 after David Quessenberry had to leave the team with an illness.

    The former seventh-round pick is healthier and in better shape, but he is still likely to be the biggest limiting factor on the Texans offensive line. His performance against two elite pass-rushers this weekend will be worth watching.


    Chris Boswell Needs To Have a Big Game

    I've thought since the beginning that veteran kicker Randy Bullock would have to perform poorly during the preseason in order to lose his job, but after the game against Atlanta he appears to be a lock.

    The Texans signed Chris Boswell out of nearby Rice University as an undrafted free agent to push and compete with Bullock, who struggled badly during the first half of the 2013 season. However, Bullock finished last year strong, and Boswell hurt himself with two missed extra-point attempts against the Falcons.

    Neither kicker attempted any field goals or extra points during his Week 1 game as the Texans were shut out by Arizona, so after Bullock clearly outperformed Boswell in Week 2, his spot on this roster is on very thin ice.

    I'm sure the team would like to let the competition play through the end of the preseason, but if Bullock clearly outperforms him again, then it would be in the best interest of Houston to go ahead and let Boswell go.

    That way when it makes its first round of roster cuts, it'll be able to give his spot to another player who has a better chance at actually making the roster.


    Texans' X-Factor of the Week: Whitney Mercilus

    The Houston Texans need more from their former first-round pick, Whitney Mercilus. He was drafted to be a hell-raiser as a pass-rusher at outside linebacker but has too often disappeared when watching the game during his first two seasons.

    If Mercilus starts to play like a first-round talent, the Texans pass rush would be unstoppable with him complementing J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. There weren't many visible signs of improvement during the Texans' Week 1 loss to Arizona, which concerned P.D. Starr of State of the Texans

    Mercilus played in 23 snaps in the last preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals with the majority of those defensive snaps coming against the 2nd and 3rd offenses. His play looked uninspired at times and more than anything he looked like he was overthinking what he needed to do on the field. 

    Mercilus explained what he needs to do to get back to his former self, 

    Just being able to be consistent in my pass rush. Also playing the run game and setting the edge and things like that. Just not a whole lot of thinking, that’s it." 

    Having to worry about the effort level from a first-round pick during his third year is a big red flag.

    While drafting Clowney isn't necessarily an indictment of what the coaching staff thinks of Mercilus—his talent was too much to pass up—the fact that he's playing with the second- and third-string players should be viewed as such.

    The struggle and underwhelming performance from Mercilus has been made even more glaring with how quickly Clowney has been able to make big, flashy plays on the field during just his first and second games.

    I don't believe Mercilus is in danger of losing his roster spot, but he needs to perform very well over the next two weeks. If he doesn't, his snaps could end up being limited this season and make him a candidate to be released before the 2015 season.


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    The Texans looked like a different team in Week 2 compared to Week 1, but they still have a ways to go before reaching whatever their potential for the season might be. On the other hand, the Denver Broncos arguably improved their roster over last year's team who won the AFC.

    More than the score at the end of the game, the coaches and the fans want to see the Texans play hard, physical and be competitive against the best team in the conference for at least as long as the starters are playing. If they can do that, the game will be a success regardless of the final score.

    However, the Broncos have the better offense and have an equally scary duo of pass-rushers, so unless the Texans surprise us again I expect the Broncos to be victorious.


    Prediction: Broncos 30, Texans 20


    Follow me on Twitter for more Texans opinion and analysis: @sackedbybmac