THE RUNDOWN

Redemption Tour continues: David Johnson will be tested against the Ravens

Photo via: The Houston Texans.

HOUSTON — The Houston Texans stood on the 19-yard line on 2nd-and-1 when Deshaun Watson completed an inside handoff to running back David Johnson. Offensive tackles Zach Fulton and Tytus Howard opened a right-side gap that led to a 19-yard touchdown run for the one-time pro-bowler (2016).

An energetic Johnson celebrated with Kenny Stills and the rest of his new teammates. His first touchdown of the season put the Texans ahead 7-0 over the Kansas City Chiefs late in the first quarter.

The first stop on the Johnson Redemption Tour ended with a total of 109 yards — 77 yards coming on the ground for 11 carries in his Texans debut — but it wasn't enough. Houston would find themselves on the wrong side of a scoreboard that read 34-20 inside Arrowhead Stadium late Thursday night.

Johnson's first game was not perfect nor an unforgettable performance. But it severed as a building block in a game that featured Houston's ineptitude to stop Chiefs' rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the lack of production coming from their receiving corps. It's the foundation of what will be an integral part of the Texans' offensive schemes this season.

"I felt great being out there, and our line did a great job blocking for me," Johnson said in a post-practice interview via Zoom on Monday. "I think to myself I still had a couple more yards I left on the field and I've just got to improve on that aspect. And then just in the passing game, a couple routes I wish I could've got back where Deshaun [Watson] was looking for me and I just ran the wrong route. So, continue to correct those mistakes and building from that."

It is no secret that the Texans will rely heavily upon their running game in 2020. Houston ran the ball 22 times against the Chiefs, in comparison to the 20 passing plays called. The former Arizona Cardinal contributed for 50 percent of the Texans running plays, with Watson (27 yards on six carries) and Duke Johnson (14 yards on five carries) splitting the latter.

This trio of runners will usually lead the Texans in rushing yards over the next 15 weeks, with The Johnson Brothers leading the way. However, what's supposed to be a two-man tandem may end up featuring David as a solo act coming out of the backfield this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

In hindsight, it may seem like the Texans will struggle to run the ball against Baltimore. In 2019, the Ravens only gave up a total of 1,494 rushing yards (93.4 YDS) — finishing the year with the fifth-best defense at stopping the run. But their defensive performance could be misleading when breaking down their opponents from the previous season.

Out of the 18 games — including the playoffs — the Ravens only played against two premiere running backs and came up short in each contest.

Nick Chubb recorded 165 yards and three touchdowns, as the Browns handed Baltimore their worst defeat of the regular season in a 40-25 loss on their home field. Despite being favorites to represent the AFC in Miami this past February, the Ravens' postseason run ended earlier than expected in a loss to the Tennessee Titans. Derrick Henry's stat line in the AFC Division Round victory: 195 yards (6.5 AVG) on just 30 carries.

Albeit they came out on the winning side this time around, the Ravens gave up 138 yards on the ground in their Week 1 victory over Cleveland on Sunday. Chubb and his new backfield mate Kareem Hunt registered a combined 111 rushing yards on eight carries.

"I think the league definitely front-loaded the schedules and we have a pretty tough schedule," Johnson said. "Going against the defending champions and then against the Ravens whose always been up there with Lamar (Jackson) in the playoffs and stuff. I think it's going to be a good measurement for our team. "The last game was my first real game, no preseason, so I still have a lot to improve on."

Houston only experienced a small dose of what a rejuvenated Johnson can bring to the gridiron. According to Johnson himself, there is a lot he can build on heading into his second game with the Texans with more responsibility than in his debut.

Duke sustained an ankle sprain during the second half of Houston's season opener and is considered day-to-day, according to head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien on Monday. After sitting out of practice, Duke is unlikely to play Sunday in their home opener against the Ravens.

O'Brien says he "feels good about their depth" in an event Duke is not available. Although true with the talents of Buddy Howell and Scottie Phillips, Duke's potential absence will open the door for David to receive more touches heading into Week 2 — as the Johnson Redemption Tour makes its next stop inside NRG Stadium in Houston.

Coty M. Davis is a reporter for ESPN 97.5 Houston/SportsMap covering the Houston Texans. He is also the co-host of Locked On Texans, apart of the Locked On Podcast Network. Follow Coty on Twitter @CotyDavis_24.

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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