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T.J. Yates's tips for success as an unknown, untested playoff starting QB

Former Texans playoff starter T.J. Yates knows all about what it's like to be an unheralded QB playing into January. Take notes, Connor Cook and Brock Osweiler.

Five years to the day that the Texans captured the franchise’s first playoff win, Houston will host Oakland on Saturday in what is sure to be this postseason’s least-hyped and least-watched contest. The Texans will be gunning for their third postseason victory, while the resurgent Raiders are in the playoffs for the first time since Houston’s franchise was in diapers. But good luck to ESPN trying to make a promo out of this matchup.

Brock Osweiler, the $72 million clunker of a quarterback, will start for the Texans over currently concussed Tom Savage, Houston coach Bill O’Brien announced Tuesday. Rookie Connor Cook is the likely starter for Oakland now that Derek Carr is out with a broken leg and backup Matt McGloin is nursing an injured shoulder.

T.J. Yates knows about nationally unheralded postseason games like this one. He was under center for the Texans’ 31–10 wild-card victory over the Andy Dalton-led Bengals in 2012. It was the first playoff game for both, a battle of relatively untested and unknown rookie quarterbacks.

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No matter who starts this Saturday, the game will feature opposing QBs who have never thrown a playoff pass. Osweiler didn’t play last postseason during the Broncos’ run to a championship. Savage was on injured reserve last year when Houston lost in the first round. This is Cook’s first season as a pro, and McGloin has spent his four-year career as a backup for the playoff-less Raiders. Yates, now a Dolphins backup in his sixth NFL season, has some advice for them.

“Preseason has a certain speed, and then regular season has a certain speed,” said Yates. “And the Sunday night and Monday night games have a different speed. And then playoffs is a whole other level. Everything’s just juiced up. There’s hype all around the game. You have to manage stuff during the week. Those guys are going to have requests from family members they’ve never heard of that want to come to the game. Family members coming into town. Dealing with all the logistics of getting your family situated is one thing. Block out all the noise and prepare like you’ve been preparing every week. Don’t make anything different than what you’ve been doing.

“At the end of the day, once the whistle blows, it’s just a football game. Just go out there and let it loose. Let it fly.”

While this week’s game is close, there’s no exact parallel to Yates’s experience. Yates, a fifth-round pick in 2011 out of North Carolina, became Houston’s starter late in that season after injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. By the Bengals game, Yates had six games—five as a starter—and 134 pass attempts under his belt. Osweiler is, of course, the most experienced of the four quarterbacks, while Savage enters the playoffs with five game appearances and 92 career attempts and McGloin has seven NFL starts and 277 attempts.

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Yates suffered a separation in his non-throwing shoulder the week before that 2012 playoff game. The extent of the shoulder injury McGloin suffered against Denver is unclear, but early indications are the Raiders are preparing to roll with Cook, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan State whose first and only NFL action came Sunday in the 24–6 loss to the Broncos where he went 14 of 21 for 150 yards, one touchdown and one interception and also lost a fumble.

“It was fast, obviously, going the whole week not getting a lot of reps and just being thrown out there. It’s just the name of the game,” Cook said after the loss. “When you’re playing the quarterback spot, if one man goes down then it’s next man up. I was frustrated I didn’t get out there and get some reps. I was trying to get the timing down with the receivers, but it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go.”

That sounds about right to Yates.

“I’m obviously a little biased because it’s a situation I’ve been in most of my career, but I think being a backup quarterback is one of the hardest things to do as far as coming into the game and performing at a high level with the offense,” Yates said. “No. 2 quarterbacks don’t see reps. Reps are limited as is, as far as you get further down in the season and you can’t be banging away all day long or else the guys won’t be able to perform on Sundays.

“You’ve got to do as many mental reps as you can. You’ve got to stay after and throw with guys who are willing like practice squad guys. Throw to equipment trainers who are willing to catch balls with you. There are a lot of things you have to do to stay in it. As far as some of the situations that the Raiders have on their hands, this guy probably hasn’t been taking anything but scout team reps all year long. He probably hasn’t been throwing many routes to the receivers.”

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No matter the starter, though, the offensive strategy should be balance. Yates dropped back 22 times in his playoff game five years ago, while Houston ran the ball 35 times. Oakland’s rushing offense is sixth in the league, averaging 120 yards per game, and Houston is two spots behind at 116 yards per game. Neither team’s rushing defense is in the top-10.

Yates offered one last bit of advice to the quarterbacks who are playoff neophytes.

“Handing the ball off to Arian [Foster] and throwing to Andre [Johnson] made my first playoff experience super easy,” Yates said. “If all else fails, get the ball to your stud playmakers.”