In many ways, it's unfortunate that the final preseason game tonight between the Vikings and Texans likely won't include most of the starters. By January, the Texans may be a team that is competing for the AFC South title in hopes of finally getting over the hump that has, to date, denied them a postseason berth.
The Texans were beset by injuries and a defense that struggled mightily last year. With offensive stars Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Matt Schaub and Owen Daniels, the team is loaded with Pro Bowl-quality players on offense, but defense was an enormous problem. The Texans spent 2007-09 in the wild card mix with records of 8-8, 8-8 and 9-7, but fell to 6-10 last year, primarily because the team gave up 27 or more points in a whopping 11 games and 24 or more points in 14 of 16 games.
Looking to fix that problem is one of the most respected defensive minds in the coaching game – former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips. An architect of the 3-4 defense and son of Houston coaching legend Bum Phillips, he has brought the 3-4 defense with him. It is a significant change to the 4-3 the Texans ran for years, but the team is said to be making a smooth transition – thanks in no small part to using the team's first five draft picks on defense to go along with established front-line veterans Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Johnathan Joseph on defense.
With a strong offense already in place, this Houston's best chance in years to knock the Indianapolis Colts off their permanent perch atop the division.
Head coach Gary Kubiak said Tuesday that the team will likely bench all of its starters for the final game, allowing the second- and third-team players to see all of the action, as some look to solidify their positions with the team and others battling to make the final roster.
"I don't think it's a matter of dividing [playing time] right now," Kubiak said. "We're going to play all young players. There's plenty [of playing time] to go around. I would say we're going to play [the second line of the depth chart] for a half, the threes for a half. But, body count-wise, we're down and going to hold [out] a bunch of guys. There's plenty of football to go around. You guys are going to see all our young guys play the entire game."
The Texans enter the season in with an injury to Peyton Manning that has created a wide-open division in the AFC South. While both Jacksonville and Tennessee drafted a rookie quarterback in the first 10 picks of last April's draft, each has a former Pro Bowl quarterback currently in charge of the offense [David Garrard in Jacksonville and Matt Hasselbeck in Tennessee]. With the Texans appearing to be the most complete team among those outside of Indiana, they have questions that need to be answered between now and Saturday.
According to Kubiak, the biggest issue facing the Texans isn't who is talented enough to win a roster spot, but who will have to go because there is too much talent.
"We're pretty deep at some spots," Kubiak said. "You look at the defensive back spot, we're very deep. Those are going to be some tough cuts. What we do at receiver, how that pans out, our running back situation – if they're all healthy – what goes on there? We've got some nice problems, but, at the same time, we're going to still try to make our football team better. We've got some concerns with our backup offensive line right now. Usually some of those things take of care of themselves that last game so we'll see how we come out of [Thursday's] game."
For most of the players who will be announced as starters when the Vikings and Texans play their respective season openers Sept. 11, tonight's game will be little more than watching the understudies perform a dress rehearsal for the big stage when the regular season gets underway in a week. You won't see Foster or Adrian Peterson. You won't see Schaub or Donovan McNabb. You won't see Mario Williams or Jared Allen. But, for the players who are on the field, it may be the most important game of their professional lives. NFL careers will "officially" begin for some. They will end for more.
In January, the Vikings and Texans both hope to be playing in the postseason. With each of them finishing 6-10 last year and nowhere within sniffing distance of the playoffs, they both face a tall order in getting back to the playoff party. However, if either of them is to do that, it might depend on a few of the players who are on display tonight. No team gets to the playoffs without depth on both sides of the ball. The Vikings and Texans are both looking to add the final pieces to the puzzle with stars already in place.
Preview: Stars will sit, depth evaluated
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