As preseason games go, the third game is typically the one that gets the most attention because the starters are expected to play the entire first half and perhaps into the second half in what many teams use as a dress rehearsal for the regular season opener in two weeks. But, as the Vikings prepare for the Houston Texans on Monday night, the Texans are battling a rash of injuries that has changed the face of the team before the games actually count in the standings.
The Texans are a team a lot of analysts are viewing as one of the up-and-coming teams in the league. With young stars on both sides of the ball, there is reason for optimism in Houston, as the latest entry into the NFL is looking to make the playoffs for the first time.
Many of those hopes are being pinned on quarterback Matt Schaub. Acquired in a pre-draft trade with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, Schaub has missed nine games due to injury in his two years in Houston – four of those coming on a hit to the knee by the Vikings' Jared Allen last season. Schaub has looked strong this preseason. In the preseason opener against Kansas City, Schaub completed all seven of his passes and last week against the Saints, he completed 11 of 16 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. He has shown good control over the offense and is poised to have a big season. With former backup Sage Rosenfels gone to the Vikings, his role is being battled for by a pair of former NFC North quarterbacks – Rex Grossman and Dan Orlovsky. Orlovsky has the early upper hand in the competition because Grossman is sidelined with a hamstring injury that will keep him out the remainder of the preseason. In order to have three quarterbacks suited up, the team re-signed backup Alex Brink, who had been released when Grossman was signed. It is clear that head coach Gary Kubiak has confidence in Schaub, but, given his injury history, is hedging his bets with a couple of veteran backups.
One of the pleasant surprises last year for the Texans was the quick emergence of rookie running back Steve Slaton. Originally expected to be a backup to Ahman Green, Slaton proved he could be a workhorse, rushing for 1,282 yards, catching 50 passes and scoring 10 touchdowns. He has excellent speed and is especially dangerous on the stretch plays the Texans run so frequently. He will be the featured back, but the Texans have some other veteran running backs in their stable. Both Chris Brown and Ryan Moats have suffered through injury-plagued careers. As he proved when with the Tennessee Titans, Brown has the quickness to break off long runs and pile up yardage. Moats has a similar running style as Slaton, just not with the same speed, but injuries during his Eagles days hurt his career early on. Also in the mix is former Bronco Andre Hall, who fits in the kind of offensive system that Kubiak brought with him from Denver. At fullback, Vonta Leach is a prototype lead blocker in the Lorenzo Neal mode. He will likely play the first half before giving way to rookie Jonathan Evans in the second half.
The Vikings will face their stiffest challenge to date in the passing game because the Texans have a solid group, led by Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson. Blessed with an excellent mix of size, strength, speed and toughness, Johnson can make just about any catch and proved it last year by hauling in 115 passes for 1,575 yards and eight touchdowns. He had nine or more catches in eight games last year and will be the focus of a lot of defensive attention. He isn't the only weapon in the passing game, however. Seven-year veteran Kevin Walter benefited from the double coverage Johnson received so consistently, catching 60 passes and scoring eight touchdowns a year ago. Battling for the No. 3 receiver spot are eight-year vet Andre Davis, third-year project Jacoby Jones and fourth-year pro David Anderson. Anderson has been turning heads with some nice catches during training camp and many believe he has the inside track for the No. 3 job. With five spots likely set, the second half could see receivers Glenn Martinez, Mark Simmons, Darnell Jenkins and Mike Jones fighting for a roster spot that may not exist.
Tight end Owen Daniels has quietly become one of the most productive TEs in the league. Last year, he caught 70 passes for 802 yards, but remains somewhat anonymous. Backup Joel Dreessen has missed time in the preseason due to injury, which has opened an opportunity for reserves Anthony Hill, James Casey and Clark Harris to fight for a roster spot. The Vikings will have to pay special attention to Daniels, who can get downfield and create matchup problems with linebackers.
The Texans offensive line has been a jumbled mess for much of the preseason because starting left guard Chester Pitts and center Chris Myers have both been out due to injury – Pitts missing time with a shoulder injury and Myers out with a high ankle sprain. Both are expected to play Monday, joining left tackle Duane Brown, right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston in the starting lineup. This is a young group, with only Pitts having more than four NFL seasons under his belt. There is competition for the backup spots, with versatile rookie Antoine Caldwell seeing action at the three interior positions, Rashard Butler, Brandon Torry and Cliff Washburn seeing time at tackle and Kasey Studdard and Adrian Jones playing guard and Caldwell and fifth-year pro Chris White seeing time at both guard and center. The Texans have allowed too many sacks over the years and they believe this group, which is young but gaining valuable experience together, may be the best offensive front five they have had since joining the league.
Defense was the buzz word on draft day for the Texans, who used three of their first four picks on the defensive side of the ball. When you talk Texans defense, it all starts with DE Mario Williams. Entering his fourth season, Williams has already vaulted himself to one of the elite defensive ends in the league. At 6-6, 283, he has a lightning-fast first step and multiple pass rush moves that almost require double-teams from opposing offenses. In hopes of taking some of the pressure off of Williams, the Texans made a splash in free agency by signing former Cardinal Antonio Smith to play the left side. He is strong against the run and made himself a lot of money by playing very well during the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl. On the inside, the plan is to have Travis Johnson and Amobi Okoye as the starters, but Johnson has missed much of camp with a sports hernia injury. As a result, it has given a chance to fifth-year man and former Lion Shaun Cody and second-year man DelJuan Robinson to see much more playing time with the first unit. There is no lack of depth on the line, with second-year man Frank Okam and 16-year greybeard Jeff Zgonia providing backup help at the tackle spots and rookie Connor Barwin, third-year man Tim Bullman and second-year man Jesse Nading providing backup help at the end positions. Barwin has been getting a lot of notice for his strong play in camp and, while he won't replace Williams or Smith, he is already getting more reps with the first teamers in the D-line rotation.
The linebacker corps has been suffering during the preseason with first-round rookie Brian Cushing sidelined with a knee injury and free-agent signee Cato June already placed on injured reserve with a broken arm. He only recently returned to practice and is questionable for Monday's game. When healthy, the Texans will boast one of the best young linebacker trios in the league, with Cushing, second-year man Xavier Adibi and fourth-year tackling machine DeMeco Ryans. Ryans slipped into the second round of the 2006 draft because he was viewed as too small for the MLB position, but he has proved his doubters wrong. Not only can he take on bigger men to get to the ball carrier, but when he arrives he hits with a tremendous amount of pop. There is competition for the backup spots as well, with former starter Zac Diles, special teamer Chaun Thompson, rookie Toddrick Verdell and recently signed veteran Khary Campbell competing for time as the outside linebackers, and eight-year veteran Kevin Bentley and second-year man Buster Davis competing for time in the middle behind Ryans. This is an athletic group that is quickly becoming one of the main strengths of the team.
The same was expected to be true at the cornerback position, but it has been in disarray much of the preseason. The Texans slapped the franchise tag on Dunta Robinson, who has refused to sign the contract unless the team guarantees that he won't be franchised again next year, making him an unrestricted free agent. With Robinson sitting out, the depth has been severely tested. Fellow starter Jacques Reeves is out until at least the regular-season opener as he recovers from a fractured fibula and nickel corner Antuan Molden has missed both of the Texans' preseason games with an ankle injury. The Texans have been cobbling together a lineup with third-year man Fred Bennett at one corner and rookies Glover Quin and Brice McCain at the other spot. Depth is questionable here, with veteran Deltha O'Neal batting with unproven players like David Pittman, Matterral Richardson, Mark Parson and A.J. Davis for roster spots. Until Robinson signs and the unit gets healthy, this could be a weakness the Vikings and Brett Favre can exploit. The safety spots seem pretty well locked down with veteran Eugene Wilson at free safety and former Gopher Dominique Barber at strong safety. Like the Vikings, the safety spots are pretty interchangeable, so 10-year veteran Nick Ferguson has a leg up on youngsters Brandon Harrison and John Busing for the third safety spot. Rookie Troy Nolan, who some thought might push his way into the lineup at some point during the season, was lost for the year after having wrist surgery earlier this month.
The Texans are a team that is dotted with star power on both sides of the ball and are a good test for a veteran Vikings team looking to start building momentum with Brett Favre at quarterback. The national TV audience will be getting what may be their first look at Houston, but those who follow the game closely know that this is a solid team on the rise that may take more than few teams by surprise this season. If the Vikings plan to remain undefeated, they're going to have to bring a sharp performance Monday night because these Texans are no longer pushovers.
Preview: Texans an emerging team
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