A BIG WIN

Texans beat Cardinals 31-21, get their first win without Deshaun Watson

D'Onta Foreman (left) and Tom Savage led the Texans to victory. Tim Warren/Getty Images

Without Deshaun Watson, the Texans are forced to plan hard for all the games they have a realistic shot at winning. Sunday's home game against the Arizona Cardinals presented such a game.

And it all went the Texans way in a 31-21 victory on Sunday at NRG Stadium.

On a day where Texans legend Andre Johnson would be honored at halftime, two teams that look evenly matched on paper and were only one game apart in their record were ready to battle for an important win. The Texans' defense looked to contain Adrian Peterson and take advantage of Arizona's third starting quarterback of the season, the much-maligned Blaine Gabbert; while the Cardinals were hoping to force the Texans offense to rely on Tom Savage. The Texans got their desired result while the Cardinals did not.

Early on it went the Texans way. Bill O'Brien leaned heavily on his running game and their second drive went for 12 plays and 7 minutes on the way to a 7-yard touchdown pass from Tom Savage to Lamar Miller. The Texans ran the ball 10 times in their first 16 plays and now had an early lead. The Cardinals came back with a good drive but after crossing mid-field they stalled and punted the ball to pin the Texans deep for the third time. A 10-yard penalty would break the Texans' way and they started their next drive on their own 19-yard line. It would take only 2 plays for the momentum to swing.

One of Savage's weaknesses is his inability to get the ball out of his hand when the pressure is on. After a 5-yard run on first down by Miller, Savage was stripped of the football on second down and the Cardinals recovered at the 17-yard line. Gabbert threw a quick 20-yard touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald for a tie game, 7-7.

Punts were traded and then Savage did it again for the Texans. After a good start to a drive that began on their own 16-yard line he threw an off-target ball into coverage that was tipped and intercepted by Patrick Peterson, who returned it to the Houston 15-yard line. two more plays and Gabbert had his second touchdown of the day and a 14-7 lead. This time Ricky Seals-Jones caught his first career touchdown pass.

The Texans came right back just before the half and managed to eat up the rest of the clock, finishing with an important field goal and a 14-10 halftime score. They would get the ball after the break and they put together a quick, 7-play effort to go up 17-14 on a 28-yard pass from Savage to DeAndre Hopkins, his 9th TD reception on the year, the leader for the Texans.

After punts were traded, the Cardinals had the ball at their own 49-yard line. They managed to get a first down but a chop block penalty forced them into a 1st and 25. The Cardinals offense managed to get out of that tough situation. Then, on their next first down, Gabbert threw his career-high third touchdown of the game and his second to Seals-Jones. This time it was a 28-yard score to put them back on top 21-17.

Not to be outdone, the Texans offense came to life and Savage made some throws that made him look competent. Methodical passes and one good 22-yard throw to tight end Stephen Anderson gave them the ball at the Arizona 3-yard line. After a timeout D'Onta Foreman ran it in for a 24-21 Texans lead with just over 13 minutes left in the 4th quarter.

After more punts, the Cardinals took over with 8:36 left in the game with an important score needed to stay in the game. After a 13-yard play on first down the Texans defense settled in and forced them into fourth down. Arizona decided to go for it needing only 1-yard to keep the drive alive. The defensive hero for the Texans this season, Jadeveon Clowney, blew up the tight end on a run by Adrian Peterson and he and Zach Cunningham were able to make the tackle for negative yards and a turnover on downs.

With great field position on the Cardinals 34-yard line Bill O'Brien called a run over the right side to Foreman that went for a 34-yard touchdown and a 31-21 Texans lead. It wasn't all great though. After crossing the goal line, Foreman was seen immediately grabbing his lower leg in obvious pain. He was carted off the field and into the locker room.

Down by 10 points with five minutes left in the game the Cardinals were forced to press. The Texans could play with soft coverage on defense to make Gabbert win the game with his arm. The drive ended with Eddie Pleasant's first interception of the season and the Texans could now run the ball and the clock making it less likely the Cardinals could come back. After they went 3-and-out the punt coverage unit failed to down the ball near the goal line despite two players in the area. The touchback helped Arizona and the Cardinals were quickly moving the ball down field.

Their effort would come up short and Gabbert wouldn't get Arizona back into it. A first down throw on the Houston 40-yard line would be intercepted by Andre Hal and Houston would have the ball back at the two-minute warning up by ten points. Even though they punted one more time, it was enough to get the home win.

The Texans defense came up big today with interceptions and turnovers at the right time. The offense did their part by scoring 30 points for the first time since Deshaun Watson was lost for the season. Tom Savage--despite his two turnovers--finished the day 22 of 32 for 230 yards and 2 touchdowns. Foreman led the way on the ground with 10 carries for 65 yards and 2 scores.

The Texans will look to keep up the good defensive effort on the road next week against the Baltimore Ravens. They have another chance to show up against a beatable team and get back to a winning record. After today's win, they sit at 4-6 in 3rd place in the AFC South Division.

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The Astros will have some new rules to adjust to in 2023. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.

The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.

There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.

The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.

Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.

With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,

The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.

Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.

Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?

Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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