The Texans have several position battles going on during the preseason, starting with quarterback and the replacement for Andre Johnson at starting wide receiver. Running back had been a lock until Arian Foster's groin injury re-configured the depth chart. We'll take a look at their first preseason game, a 23-10 win over San Francisco last Saturday, with an eye toward those position battles and other observations.
Quarterback: All three quarterbacks experienced success, including third-stringer Tom Savage, who led the Texans on three second-half scoring drives out of five possessions. It was a nice game for the second-year pro, but the real QB battle is between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. Hoyer got the start in Preseason Week 1 and looked sharp, leading the Texans to a touchdown in his only series. He went 2-for-4, including a 58-yard touchdown catch-and-run to Cecil Shorts. He had one pass deflected, but the other three were on target. He hit Shorts in stride on a crossing route and converted a 3rd-and-9 to tight end Garrett Graham. Mallett finished up the first half and was effective, completing 10-of-11. Next week against Broncos, the script will be flipped. Mallett will start while Hoyer comes off the bench.
Running Back: The Texans brought in three veteran backs after learning Arian Foster would miss time with a significant groin injury. They opted not to sign any of them, though there was interest in Pierre Thomas. As it is, head coach Bill O'Brien is comfortable heading into the regular season with Alfred Blue as the lead back. Blue had 59 yards on nine carries Saturday, including gains of 32, 14 and eight yards. Jonathan Grimes was the first back to get carries after Blue while Kenny Hilliard also saw action in the first half. All three backs had red-zone carries, but couldn't push it in the end zone… Chris Polk, a free-agent signee from Philadelphia, got most of his work in the second half, rushing 10 times for 29 yards and catching three passes for 36 yards. When Houston acquired Polk, they considered him a third-down back. That still may be the case, but Foster's injury has the coaching staff re-thinking roles in the backfield... One semi-interesting note was fullback Jay Prosch getting three carries, including a failed red-zone attempt from the 1-yard-line. Prosch did not having a rushing attempt all last season. His usage in preseason Week 1 is a sign that all backs will get opportunities due to Foster's injury.
Wide Receiver: Houston is looking for a wideout to start opposite DeAndre Hopkins, with the main competition between two veteran wideouts, Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts. Both got on the field during the first quarter with the first-team offense. Shorts started and had a nice catch-and-run on a crossing route coming out of the slot for a 58-yard touchdown, which featured an old-school stiff-arm. Washington was not targeted, but this battle is not over. The two veterans were signed as free agents from Houston's fellow competitors in the AFC South – Washington from Tennessee and Shorts from Jacksonville. For four games this season, either one of the duo will be extra motivated. And since each is replacing Andre Johnson, a franchise legend, perhaps both will be extra motivated against Indianapolis, who signed Johnson in the offseason… Going a bit deeper, rookie third-round pick Jaelen Strong had a touchdown catch in the second half. Hopkins, Washington, Short and Strong will comprise the first four roster spots at wideout. The fifth, and maybe final spot, has eight competitors. Alan Bonner should be considered at the top of list. He got on the field during the first quarter, but had a drop on Brian Hoyer's first attempt. He also returned punts and kickoffs. Other wideouts making an impact included rookies Keith Mumphrey (one catch, a punt return and kickoff return) and Chandler Worthy (two punt returns and two kickoff returns). Incumbents from last year's team, Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson, each had three targets and two catches. Both Martin and Johnson have experience as returners. The inference to draw here is that a fifth wideout will double as the team's main return man on special teams.
Tight Ends: One of the more surprising elements of Saturday's preseason game was the number of targets for tight ends. The tight end position was targeted just 54 times (35 catches) in 16 games last season and three of those targets went to defensive end J.J. Watt. That's a little more than three targets per game. It looks like 2015 will be a different tune. During the first drive Saturday night, Garrett Graham was targeted twice in seven plays. In all, Houston tight ends were targeted six times in 29 passing attempts.
Special Teams: Randy Bullock booted two field goals and an extra point. The one thing that jumps out is that head coach Bill O'Brien went for two points after Houston's first score. The rule change that moves extra-point kicks out to the 33-yard line may reduce kicker scoring in 2015. We'll need to re-calibrate projected kicker scoring if going for two points becomes a regular habit. O'Brien's had the team working on its two-point plays every day during training camp… There's competition to see who will be the main kickoff and punt returners. Rookies Chandler Worthy and Keith Mumphrey were given chances Saturday, along with third-year wideout Alan Bonner. Veteran holdovers from last year's team include Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson.
Miscellany: On Houston's second drive of the game, they moved the ball smartly down to the 49ers 1-yard line. After two unsuccessful rushing attempts – fullback Jay Prosch for no gain and running back Alfred Blue lost three yards – they got a defensive pass interference call in the end zone, giving them another four shots from the 1. The 49ers defense stiffened again, stopping Kenny Hilliard twice, Jonathan Grimes and Blue once again. In six rushing attempts from one yard away the Houston offense was unable to gain an inch. A combination of blocking breakdowns and better execution by the 'Niners were a factor. The Texans had shuffled their personnel on the o-line for the drive, so there may have been some position unfamiliarity at play as well. Starting left tackle Duane Brown was removed from the game and three other starters were shifted to accommodate. There were many positives to take away from the game, but head coach Bill O'Brien is paid to see the negatives. And this first-quarter sequence was the biggest one on which to dwell. They'll be working on the goal-line offense this week.