One of the things that has kept the Houston Texans from a Super Bowl berth, despite an estimable roster, is the franchise's middling performance in the red zone. It's something that has been corrected to a point, but in 2012, the Texans ranked 16th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics in the red zone after ranking 17th the year before. They ranked seventh in yards and eighth in points last season, which is certainly better than 2008, when they ranked third in yards and 17th in points, but a disconnect lingers.
And it was an issue on Sunday, when the Texans set a franchise preseason record with 496 yards -- they've gained more than 400 yards in each of their three preseason games -- but managed just 23 points. Making matters worse, the Saints scored 31. Houston got inside the Saints' 20-yard line on five drives and managed just two touchdowns -- a one-yard run by Ben Tate in the first quarter and an 11-yard pass from T.J. Yates to Alec Lemon in the third. Two drives ended at the Saints' 10- and 1-yard lines ... on downs. This Houston offense is loaded for bear, but as head coach Gary Kubiak said after the game, that's not enough if you don't consistently score touchdowns.
"We have to be better in the red zone and those types of things,” he said. “We’re moving the ball well. We have to keep the focus. We get off to such a good start. We missed a couple plays on the first drive. I think we had a 280-yard half in this league, which is excellent, but you’ve got to have some points to show for that. That is a disappointing thing. We jumped offside one time, dropped a couple balls. But we got the ball moving. We’ve just got to get more out of it right now."
Simply put, the Texans are too good for a repeat performance in this regard.
First Down: The New Orleans Saints' cadre of Kennys.
Part of the Saints' mission to get past the remnants of BountyGate is a draft class that is impressing on both offense and defense, particularly with two guys named Kenny. Fifth-round receiver Kenny Stills is the man on the offensive side of the ball, and built on a preseason in which he's already gained momentum with a breakout game against Houston's defense. In the first quarter of New Orleans 31-23 win over the Texans, Stills beat both of Houston's starting cornerbacks for impressive gains. There was a 40-yarder over Kareem Jackson, and then a 14-yarder when covered by Johnathan Joseph.
"It was a go route down the field and just fighting for my territory out there -- the ball is up in the air, and I gotta go get it,” he said of the Jackson play. And the touchdown? "It was just a double move. Work on it all the time. Got the corner kinda sitting on the outside, and was able to get inside, and the ball was there. Great protection. Great ball.”
And a great day for Stills, who wrapped up a starting spot.
As for the Kenny on defense, that's Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints' first-round pick. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knows he has a player in Vaccaro that he can line up all over the place, and that's just what he did. The rookie was reasonably impressive in deep coverage, good in the slot, and he led the team in tackles on the day. Vaccaro reminded me of Troy Polamalu based on his tape at Texas, and he's a perfect fit in what Ryan wants to do.
Fourth Down: Most of New Orleans' first-team defense.
As for the rest of Ryan's defense? Well, not so good. Not only did the Texans riddle the Saints through the air for a total of 355 net passing yards (yet another franchise preseason record), but also Houston's 141 yards on the ground seemed particularly embarrassing, because New Orleans was getting out-muscled at the point of attack -- especially when Ben Tate was running the ball. He sliced through the Saints' first-team defense for 74 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, and for a defense that set all kinds of records in the wrong direction under Steve Spagnuolo in 2012, this was not an auspicious performance.
First Down: San Francisco's quarterback situation.
The 49ers knew that they had Colin Kaepernick as their starting quarterback going into their Sunday game against the Minnesota Vikings, but everything else was up in the air. Since trading Alex Smith to the Chiefs in late February, Jim Harbaugh has seen a few entrants for the spot behind their starter. Former Browns starter Colt McCoy was acquired in an April trade, veteran Seneca Wallace was signed last week, and youngsters Scott Tolzien and B.J. Daniels have been on the fringe. But after a decent performance in San Francisco's 34-14 win over the Vikings (and on the same day he agreed to reduce his 2013 base salary from $1.5 million to $630,000), McCoy was awarded the backup spot. The third QB spot is equally intriguing -- both Daniels and Wallace can run a lot of the things Harbaugh does with Kaepernick, and Daniels looked especially shifty on the ground.
Fourth Down: Drawing flags, Minnesota-style.
In one seven-play stretch against the 49ers, Vikings offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt cost their team 40 yards by way of three penalties. Loadholt was busted for holding with 12 minutes left in the first half, wiping out a six-yard run by Toby Gerhart, but it was Kalil who needed to slow his roll. With less than a minute left in the first quarter, Kalil was flagged for unnecessary roughness when he pushed a 49ers defender out of bounds on a scramble by Christian Ponder. That one looked a bit ticky-tack on the part of Carl Cheffers' crew, but the second flag was all on Kalil. On the fourth play of the second quarter -- one play before Loadholt's hold -- Kalil escalated a post-play fracas and earned himself a one-play benching.
"I think that was just to calm me down a little bit because I was getting too upset," Kalil said after the game. "Maybe got a little too aggressive. But that's what preseason's for. You learn from your mistakes. You don't repeat them in the regular season."
Head coach Leslie Frazier said that one of the officials even asked him about Kalil's uncharacteristically chippy game.
"That was uncharacteristic of him. That’s not usually the case with Matt, picking up personal fouls. Two in one ballgame, so that is something that we can sit down and go through on the tape, and talk to him about it and get corrected, but he’s one of those guys we are counting on to play well for us every game. We’ve got to make sure that he is consistent in his play. And as a team, we’re not doing things to set us back where we have to overcome ourselves. He knows that, and I think he’ll learn from this.”
First Down: Andy Tanner's fight to make it.
Throughout his NFL career, Tanner has been released and reclaimed 33 times by the league. He is the very definition of a "bubble guy," and while there's no guarantee he'll make the current Saints roster, the product of Midwestern State (who ranked 166th in NFL Draft Scout's receiver ratings for the 2010 draft class) caught two touchdowns against the Texans and provided some plays on special teams as well. He's been a practice squad guy, but with New Orleans' receiver corps in flux, Tanner has an outside shot to stick this time.
Saints coach Sean Payton seemed impressed.
“Those guys are all competing well and certainly Andy [is]," Payton said after the game. "Andy’s been with us a while, so he knows what we’re doing. He made some really good plays tonight; he’s smart and he’s someone that really has good feel for the game. That group in general, we’ve seen some younger players step up so that’s good.”
Fourth Down: The brilliant "fans" at Candlestick Park.
At least three idiots ran onto the field during the 49ers-Vikings game, and Minnesota receiver Jerome Simpson took one of them out with a hit at the two-yard line. We are unaware of the fan's overall red zone performance. Eventually, the San Francisco Police Department brought cops on bikes onto the field from their original duties in the parking lot, because hey -- it's a long season, and injury prevention is important.
First Down AND Fourth Down: Lavelle Hawkins, both great and terrible.
It was an up-and-down day for Hawkins, the six-year veteran signed by San Francisco on Aug. 2. He returned a Blair Walsh kick 105 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, but he was also busted twice for taunting on the same play -- first on the kickoff return (that penalty was declined because he was also flagged for removing his helmet); then after he brought in a 22-yard reception and celebrated by flipping the ball at the feet of safety Mistral Raymond and head-butting linebacker Desmond Bishop.
As Harbaugh said after the game, the second penalty really didn't help Hawkins' case.
“Especially, after you point it out -- one strike, two strikes, probably the two-strike level. He did score a touchdown and had a big catch. He’s definitely got to do a better job of not getting emotionally hijacked after doing something great.” And if Hawkins can't keep his head on a Harbaugh team, he won't be part of it for long, no matter how many impressive plays he makes.