It is time for our first question-and-answer session of the year. As I have done before other recent Titans-Texans games, I got in touch with Steph Stradley.
Stephanie Stradley is a Houston lawyer who writes about the Houston Texans for the Houston Chronicle's Ultimate Texans blog. You can find her personal blog at StephStradley.com. You also can (and should) follow her on Twitter @StephStradley. In addition to her answering questions I sent, I answered questions she sent and you can find those over at her site. On with the Q&A.
Total Titans: For the third straight season, the Texans look like they're probably the class of the division. Are the 2013 Texans better than, worse, or roughly the same as the 2011 and 2012 Texans?
Steph Stradley: Overall, I think this is a better team than the 2011 and 2012 Texans teams. But then again, this team is currently mostly healthy, and those previous teams devolved into having injuries at key position. Injuries are always the biggest question mark of any reasonably good team that has stability with coaches and players.
On offense, by my eyeball view, Matt Schaub has had a sharper training camp than last year. He missed the 2012 minicamp and OTAs rehabbing/protecting his lis franc foot injury that ended his 2011. When he was available for camp in 2012, you could see some rust due to his time away from games.
Both Arian Foster and Ben Tate are healthy, and the Texans have obtained a true fullback in Greg Jones. Schaub has another weapon with DeAndre Hopkins, and the other young wide receivers have another year of experience in the system.
More experience for the inexperienced offensive linemen as well. Unlike the Oline rotation of 2012, for week 1, the starting five linemen played the entire game. Ideally, the Texans would prefer not to rotate the linemen.
As for defense, having Brian Cushing back healthy makes a huge difference. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves the flexibility that Cushing allows him to bring to the defense because he is good at doing a lot of things. No matter when or if Ed Reed takes the field, I'd expect this to be a very good defense.
Special teams likely will be better than 2012. Since they were 32nd in the NFL last year per Football Outsiders measures, it would be hard for them to be worse. New punter Shane Lechler already looked to be a difference maker in the first game. In training camp, reports were that his punts are particularly difficult to field. Second year field goal kicker Randy Bullock is an unknown. In practice, I've seen him making a 60 yard kick with room to spare, but also have seen him miss distances you should always make.
Total Titans: Got outscored by San Diego 28-7. Outscored San Diego 24-0 the rest of the way. What absolutely definitive and sweeping conclusions can the Texans draw off their season opener?
Steph Stradley: Don't throw an interception on the first play of the game? Don't let your experienced defensive lineman Antonio Smith get baited into a suspension?
It was a weird game. First week, late night, west coast, on the road, with above average number of penalties and with a worst case scenario start. The Texans had 345 yards offense to the Chargers 195, 100% red zone efficiency, and dominated time of possession with 36:31. Neither the Texans offense nor the defense would likely be happy with their third/fourth down performance.
Not sure how many sweeping conclusions should be made from it. Things that game one and the previous year invites you to look for include: 1. Special teams coverage on returnable kickoffs; 2. Whether teams can take advantage of inexperienced safety play or target CB Brice McCain; 3. Where WR DeAndre Hopkins targets end up being even in games where they aren't playing from behind, 4. Whether the Texans can decrease the number of run stuffs which was a problem last year and was a problem at a key time in the last game; 5. Whether the offensive line can provide better protection to Schaub. He was getting hit a lot after the throw; 6. Whether the penalty numbers stay high. Last year they were above Kubiak averages, particularly on the road; 7. Will the Texans pass rush continue to be mostly J.J. Watt?
Total Titans: Wax grandiloquent, if you wish, about first-round wideout DeAndre Hopkins, second-round safety D.J. Swearinger, and other new additions to the Texans or players who will be playing larger roles in 2013 than they did in 2012.
Steph Stradley: DeAndre Hopkins has been wonderful to watch in training camp. There have been three players that alums have enthused to me as being great players before they came to the Texans: DeMeco Ryans, J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins has huge hands, a large catch radius, and is aggressive in getting catches in traffic. Very physical player. I know there was a lot of hype in camp last year with the wide receivers the Texans drafted then. And I didn't buy that hype because I saw the day-to-day inconsistency. But from what I've seen, Hopkins is the perfect fit for the Texans offense. They value hands above just track speed. I think after their Jacoby Jones experiment, I don't think they wanted to spend their time developing an athlete. Hopkins is a real wide receiver. Some longtime observers believe he had a better rookie camp in terms of hands/route running than Andre Johnson did.
D.J. Swearinger has gotten high praise from camp, but I am more wait and see. The NFL tends not to be kind to rookie safeties. Most Defensive Rookies of the Year don't come from safety or corner because all rookies make mistakes, and safety mistakes are obvious and aren't countered by big number stats. He's known for his hitting, doesn't have unusually great measurables for the position, and at this point in his career, exhibits confidence but doesn't know what he doesn't know. He is going to be a target until he proves he shouldn't be a target.
The player I'm most interested in seeing in his new role is right guard Brandon Brooks. Even before minicamp, I had heard rumors about what great shape he was in, and the rumors were all true. He is a first guy off the bus looking guard who can move, and barring injury, has the potential to develop into a special-type of player. He's still pretty inexperienced, so it will be interesting to see whether better defenses will end up giving him problems.
In the last game OLB Whitney Mercilus was in for 53 out of 55 snaps and had a decent game. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said it was Mercilus' pressure that resulted in the throw that Brian Cushing intercepted for a TD against the Chargers.
Last year, Mercilus sometimes struggled as his number of plays increased due to injury to Brooks Reed. But then again, most of the defenders not named J.J. Watt struggled after Brian Cushing suffered his season ending surgery. More snaps sometimes exposes a player or lets them shine. Given that they picked him in the first round, they want some shine.
Total Titans: If you were an opposing coach playing the Texans, what would you try to do to beat them?
Steph Stradley: What the Titans used to do. Don't let the Texans run the ball at all. Have a respectable pass rush with only four, with well-timed delayed blitzes mixed in. (Easier said than done with most teams' personnel). Hit Matt Schaub early and often, including hard hits after the throw, even if you get a penalty. Take him out of any rhythm and proper footwork. If Schaub feels comfortable, he can dismantle opponents.
The Texans have inexperienced players at OLB, so opposing offenses need to run plays that punish over-pursuit. Stay away from the 1-2 corners, and attack the nickel corner and the safeties.
Keep the game close. If the game gets out of hand, the Texans will time of possession the opponent to death.
Thanks again to Steph for some great answers to my questions. Don't forget to check out Steph's Texans blog for my answers to her questions and lots of other great Texans content