WHO: Houston Texans
WHERE: The Greenbrier
WHEN: Sunday, July 29
HOW: A five-hour drive from Spartanburg, S.C., which included a very pleasant final stretch on the Byway Farm Heritage Road, where the scenery is exactly how it sounds.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — “Choo Choo!” This was not the sound of an Amtrak train weaving its way through the Allegheny Mountains, here in this scenic setting that’s about 30 degrees cooler than back in Houston. Instead, it was a large man on the football field (which large man in particular was difficult to discern) bellowing as the Texans gathered on the goal line.
There were plenty of other grunts and hollers. This was the Texans’ second padded practice of training camp, and, as the Choo Choo! call perhaps portended, this was a full-steam-ahead, full-contact team period. Alfred Blue took the first handoff from QB Deshaun Watson and surged toward the end zone, but was stopped short. Cue the entire defense rushing the field. On the next play, Blue burst forward and this time made it in, triggering a similar celebration from the offense. The practice period ended when rookie running back Terry Swanson ran right into a wall of Texans defenders, headed by linebacker Brian Peters, who pushed him back at least 15 yards. The offense dropped onto the grass field, paying its penance in push-ups.
The Texans ran a total of just six goal-line plays, and that in itself was something notable. Last year, coach Bill O’Brien says, they would have probably run 14 plays during the goal-line period. During the offseason the NFL warned teams about the spike in preseason concussions: up from 26 in 2016 to 45 in 2017, an increase that the league said largely occurred in 11-on-11 drills in the first two weeks of camp.
“Last year, in the beginning of camp, we had two or three concussions,” O’Brien says. “What we’ve tried to do is, these guys haven’t been in pads since January, so we are trying to keep the physicality of practice but maybe not overcook them with a bunch of reps.”
Along those same lines, O’Brien said the Texans already showed their players video of how to be compliant with the new helmet-lowering rule, which will penalize players who lower their head to initiate and make contact with their helmet against an opponent. There’s some concern about how the rule will be officiated, as referees may find themselves judging intent, but O’Brien’s emphasis with his players is simply practicing safer behaviors on both offense and defense.
“We showed them video about seeing what they hit, not ducking their head, not hitting with the top of their head,” he says. “These guys are trying to play with their hands better, look blocks in, take blocks on the proper way, shoulder tackle, keep your head up. We pointed it out on film, and I usually never speak for coaches in this league, but I know every coach in this league is trying to do a great job of coaching up the safety of the game.”
The goal for the Texans is quality of reps over the quantity—an outlook that makes sense for multiple reasons. Two of their best players are returning from season-ending injuries, even if you might not know it from a quick glance at practice. Three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is full go 10 months after his tibial plateau fracture, leading the defensive linemen in bag drills and slicing past blockers during team periods. And, Watson is leading 11-on-11 drills as though he didn’t tear his ACL in practice in November, dancing around in the pocket to buy time to get a throw off, and fitting the ball to favorite target DeAndre Hopkins.
Watson played brilliantly as a rookie, throwing 19 TDs and eight INTs in his seven games before his injury, but this is his first chance to enter an NFL season as the starter. Because of the timing of his injury, and the fact that he’s healthy in time for the start of camp, O’Brien doesn’t see a disruption to his learning curve from year one to year two.
“Our offense is a game-plan offense, so what we were doing with him last year were things we felt really fit his skill set,” O’Brien says. “What we tried to do in the offseason is build on that and talk to him about things he’s comfortable doing; use the spring to experiment a little bit. And in training camp, drill down a bit, get more specific and really get good at what we think we can be. We don’t know what we can be yet, because we are real early in training camp, but every day is a building block and we kind of figure it out as we go along.”
But, they're not going to rush that building process. "We made an emphasis to come into training camp and have quality reps, but not overdo it, and make sure we are as healthy as we can be for the start of the season," O'Brien adds. "So far so good, but we still have a ways to go."
“OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT": There’s a big change around the Texans this season, and that’s the hiring of Luke Richesson, the Broncos’ former strength and conditioning coach, as Houston’s senior director of sports performance. He revamped the team’s weight room back in Houston, has input on the team’s camp schedule and, as his title suggests, established a program that goes beyond strength and conditioning to cover nutrition, sleep, etc. O’Brien mentioned him on multiple occasions during a conversation, including when talking about Watt, noting, “our new strength program has really helped him” return from his injury.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: Jadeveon Clowney is still easing his way back into practice after arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason. The Texans are looking forward to having him, Watt and Whitney Mercilus back on the field together on opening day. But for now, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft (who is in the final year of his rookie contract) is spending the second half of practice working off to the side with trainers, doing things like conditioning and core work.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: There will be a competition for reps at running back. Lamar Miller, coming off a season in which he averaged a career-low 3.7 yards per carry, reported to camp lighter and leaner to try to regain the step he felt he lost last year. Blue is also working with the first-team offense, and the Texans are also awaiting the return of D’Onta Foreman, who tore his Achilles in November and began camp on the PUP list.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: For some 20 minutes after practice ended, the football field turned into a fútbol field. A competition broke out, led by Watt, to kick a soccer ball through the goalposts. Receiver Bruce Ellington made a good showing, but then Watt drilled a kick from some 30 yards out. “I’m a football and basketball player,” Ellington shouted. “Not a soccer player!”
PARTING THOUGHTS: One of Watt’s favorite places in the world to visit is the Colosseum in Rome. He visited the ancient amphitheater with his two younger brothers a few years ago and again in January with his girlfriend, professional soccer player Kealia Ohai. The fact that nearly 2,000 years later, Watt can stand on the site of the gladiatorial contests and envision the competition that took place there captivates him. “I think about how our stadiums are crazy big and awesome, but I always wonder if in 1,000 years, are any of them going to be standing, and are people going to trek to them like we trek to the Colosseum?” Watt says. “Just to think about how they built it back then—they had none of the technology we have today. To be able to build something so spectacular that lasted so long is incredible.”
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