CAMP COUNTDOWN

Texans training camp preview: Defensive line

J.J. Watt has not been seen since getting helped off the field early last season. Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Texans are hoping they can return to their former defensive glory in 2018 under coordinator Romeo Crennel. That means they need to get back to being stout up front against the run and penetrating against the pass. Really, they need J.J. Watt back and healthy. They’ve got enough pieces around him to make a pretty good group. If healthy though, his intangibles can put them over the top.

So, let’s start with his situation. Watt is expected to be available at the start of camp and should avoid any injury designation. He is coming back from a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg after playing only five games in 2017. That comes after playing only three in 2016. He and the team are counting on a bounce back year.

He’s probably going to be on a snap count early in the season to make sure there are no lingering issues. It will be up to a group, mostly the same players on the team last season, to keep the defensive rotation solid. That group will be led by versatile playmaker Jadeveon Clowney.

He’s not just a defensive end out there. Last season he lined up all over the front seven and will do so again. He plays defensive end, outside linebacker, middle linebacker and even defensive tackle. Anywhere they think he can be disruptive he will play. Both he and the Texans are going to need that as he goes into his fifth and final year of his contract. A new deal isn’t done yet and if he doesn’t get one soon, he will use this season to leverage an even bigger payday in the spring.

Christian Covington is going to be the other anchor at defensive end. But he too will be returning from injury. He played in the first seven games last season before tearing his bicep and going on the disabled list. Before that he was a solid piece up front and I expect him to be so again, providing more flexibility to the line.

But competition will be fierce. Second year man Carlos Watkins is going to do everything he can to take a big leap in his development. If he can, the rotation at that position will be what it needs to be to stay fresh for a full 16 game schedule. But he’s going to be in a dogfight with the guy he was on the field with a lot last year, Joel Heath. Watkins and Heath should make this team easily, but nothing is guaranteed.

Like any good team, Watt, Covington, Watkins, and Heath aren’t the only defensive ends in camp. Rotation player Angelo Blackson is returning after getting in nine games in 2017 and former Houston Cougar Nick Thurman will be there as an undrafted free agent. They will have their shot to make the roster, but I see them being on the outside looking in.

On the inside, plugging up the middle at nose tackle once again is D.J. Reader. He’s had a great first two seasons in Houston and with a little help he can probably do even better this year. Reader is exactly what a nose tackle should be in the NFL. He can hold the point of attack and leverage himself well in the pass rush.

But after Reader’s injury, Brandon Dunn was the man who stepped up to fill his shoes. He returns this season to be a piece of the rotation. A solid group in the trenches might help the Texans be better than the 13th ranked run defense they were last year.

Rounding out this group are three guys hoping their long shot to make the team isn’t too long. Darius Kilgo and Marcus Hardison will be looking to make their second rosters since being drafted in 2015. Kilgo saw game action his rookie year in Denver but wasn’t an impact player. Hardison made the final roster for the Bengals in 2015 but was never active for a game.

The last nose tackle on the roster for camp is undrafted rookie Kingsley Opara from the University of Maryland. He’s an upside player who needs to develop more of his game as an inside pass rusher. He can benefit from some good coaching in camp and will be a candidate for the practice squad later.

All in all, this group can be a great asset for Houston. Getting back Watt and Covington can be the biggest difference in a defensive turnaround from one year to the next. It was just two years ago that they were the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL. A big part of that was a tough defensive line and the ability to get a great pass rush. If they are healthy expect big things all around for Romeo Crennel’s group.


 

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Houston is back in the win column

McCullers Jr. spins a gem as Astros get a much-needed win over Giants

Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

After getting swept by the A's in Oakland to end a road trip with a five-game losing streak, the Astros returned to Houston to try and get back on track. To do so, they'd need a win against the Giants on Monday night. Here is a quick recap of the series opener:

Final Score: Astros 6, Giants 4.

Record: 7-9, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (2-1, 6.10 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Logan Webb (1-1, 2.81 ERA).

Houston builds up an early lead

The early goings of Monday's game went very similar to the last time Lance McCullers Jr. took the mound. He would have a terrific first three innings while his offense gave him an early lead. The first run came in the bottom of the second, with Yuli Gurriel reaching base on a one-out double, moving to third on a wild pitch, then scoring on an RBI-single by Carlos Correa.

Correa would take part in a four-run inning in the third, as Houston would score two on a two-RBI ground-rule double by Michael Brantley, another on an error, then Correa's second RBI of the night, a groundout to bring in a run and make it 5-0. Unlike the last start in Arizona, where the roof opened and McCullers Jr. fell apart in the fourth, he was able to make quick work of his opponent for a 1-2-3 frame. As he kept recording scoreless innings, Martin Maldonado added another run to the lead with a one-out solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, making it 6-0.

McCullers Jr. takes a no-hitter into the seventh

While the Astros were building their lead, McCullers Jr. was spinning a gem on the mound. He allowed just one baserunner through the first six innings, which came on a hit-by-pitch. He entered the seventh with a no-hitter in progress, but the Giants would get their first hit of the night to end the no-hit bid.

Regardless, the start was precisely what McCullers Jr. needed to restore his confidence after the disastrous inning he had in his last appearance. He would go on to complete the seventh inning before Houston would go to the bullpen with the large lead in the eighth. His final line: 7.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K 0 HR, 1 HPB.

Houston gets back in the win column despite more struggles by Josh James

Josh James entered out of the bullpen for the top of the eighth but allowed the first run of the night for San Francisco via a solo home run with one out to make it 6-1. He would complete the inning and then return for the top of the ninth. He would have another rocky inning, issuing a leadoff walk before a single and double would make it a four-run game at 6-2, still with no outs in the inning and runners on second and third, prompting another call to the bullpen.

Dusty Baker would bring in his current closer, Ryan Pressly, to try and finish the game, now in a save situation. Pressly would retire the first two batters he faced before allowing a two-RBI single to make it 6-4, but would eventually get the final out to get Houston the much-needed win. With the victory, the Astros moved back into second place in the AL West standings.

Up Next: The middle game of this three-game set will start Tuesday at 8:10 PM Central. The Giants, working with a fluid rotation, have not yet fully decided on their starter, while the Astros will get another start from Brandon Bielak (2-0, 0.87 ERA) who will look to repeat the success of his five-inning, no-run start in Arizona last week.

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