CAMP COUNTDOWN

Texans training camp preview: Linebackers

Bernardrick McKinney anchors the middle of the Texans defense. Bob Levey/Getty Images

If I had to pick one position group as my favorite it would be this one. These players represent all of the right pieces to control the game near the line of scrimmage and keep a lot of what happens in front of them. They have pass rushers with double digit sack potential, they have thumpers in the middle who can clog the rush lanes, and they have guys with coverage ability on tight ends and running backs. With this group on the field the defense can really help every part of the team.

Yes, 2017 was a down year for the Texans pass rush. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus went down with season ending injuries and took about 15-20 sacks away from the defense. That left the team exposed and the bulk of the work to Jadeveon Clowney. He played every spot in the front seven last year as a creative way to get him in position to make plays. Not knowing where he would line up kept the opposing offenses off guard on the protection calls. That will continue this year where he will probably play a lot more snaps standing up at an outside linebacker.

Mercilus is back and he will apply the pressure that helps Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel use his personnel with maximum effectiveness. Having him and Clowney on the field at the same time is going to make it hard for offenses to set the edge. But Clowney won’t always be standing up on the outside with Whitney so it’s good that the Texans still have Brennan Scarlett to hold down a back-up role. He is entering his third season and has developed well for an undrafted free agent.

Also returning to the team this year is Ufomba Kamalu, the NFL’s largest outside linebacker at 6’6” 295 lbs. He’s a former defensive end who got some starting experience due to injury last year. He did well in his nine games overall and can continue to learn the position while serving as a pass rush specialist when called upon. He will be back on the field with LaTroy Lewis, another young player who saw game action last season and seemed to make the most of it.

The Texans are also bringing in a few rookies to add some competition for depth. They drafted Duke Ejiofor from Wake Forest in the sixth round this year. Later in the same round they selected Peter Kalambayi from Stanford. Late round picks don’t always work out but taking two of them in the draft is another example of Brian Gaine sending a clear message that there is room for the young guys to fight for a position. That includes undrafted rookie Davin Bellamy, who played his college ball at Georgia.

If the outside linebackers have the talent and depth to do their jobs well then the inside linebackers should be free to terrorize the middle of the field. That starts with the proud holder of a new contract, Benardrick McKinney. His ability on the inside has been a constant for the defense in his time. He will continue to get better and boost the play of those around him.

Second year man Zach Cunningham will benefit the most from playing alongside McKinney and vice versa. Cunningham was a stand-out rookie with 90 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 6 passes defensed. He’s versatile in this defense and is key to making the starting linebackers the best position group on the team.

Returning to fill out the inside position are Brian Peters and Dylan Cole; two able-bodied players who did well last year. But when you have starters like McKinney and Cunningham it gives you leverage to bring in plenty competition in training camp. That’s why the Texans have Ben Heeney, Josh Keyes, and Kennan Gilchrist on the team. The back-up role will be important for the long season ahead and if they have it right the defense can reclaim its spot near the top of the rankings.

Getting the most out of the linebackers is essential to Romeo Crennel’s defensive scheme. But the new NFL is requiring a lot more out of the position. The versatility of Jadeveon Clowney as an outside linebacker and Zach Cunningham on the inside are in line with the new way. Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus represent the old way of playing the position, and they do it at a high level. The linebackers will be all over the field and be a big part of the reason the team wins the close games they lost in 2017.


 

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Houston now trails in the fall classic

Astros fall in World Series Game 1 as Braves come out swinging

Framber Valdez had a forgettable start in World Series Game 1 as the Braves tagged him with five runs. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a dominant end to win the ALCS and American League pennant, the Houston Astros welcomed in the National League champion Atlanta Braves for World Series Game 1 at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. With Houston favored to win not just this game but the entire series, the Braves shook up those expectations by finding early success at the plate to build a lead they would hold to take a 1-0 series lead.

Final Score: Braves 6, Astros 2

World Series (Best of Seven): Atlanta leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: A.J. Minter

Losing Pitcher: Framber Valdez

Valdez unable to replicate ALCS Game 5 success as Braves mount early lead

For the optimist, not having home-field advantage in an MLB postseason series affords you a benefit: you can score first and take captive momentum first in the series. The Braves did that against Framber Valdez, as Jorge Soler became the first player in league history to hit a homer in the first plate appearance of a World Series, putting Atlanta out to an immediate 1-0 lead. They would get another in the first frame, getting a one-out infield single by Ozzie Albies, who would steal second to get in position for an RBI double by Austin Riley.

Houston had the chance to respond in their first inning against former teammate Charlie Morton, getting a single and two walks to load the bases with no outs. They'd strand all three runners, though, as Morton made it through unscathed but having used 26 pitches. Atlanta kept putting stress on Valdez, extending their lead to three runs with back-to-back singles to start the second before later getting an RBI groundout.

Valdez gave up two more in the top of the third, once again allowing a leadoff single, this one setting up a two-run homer to make it a 5-0 Braves lead and forcing Houston's starter out of the game early. Yimi Garcia entered and was able to retire the three batters he faced to end the frame.

Braves lose Morton to injury as both bullpens begin long night

After stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the first to keep the Astros off the board, Morton followed it up with a 1-2-3 second. He started the bottom of the third by retiring his fifth batter in a row, getting a strikeout of Jose Altuve. He would immediately call trainers to get him out of the game, though, as he would later be diagnosed with a fractured fibula, presumably from a ball that ricocheted off his leg in the prior inning, ending his season in a disappointing turn of events for the Braves.

That set up a long night for both bullpens, and next up for Houston was Jake Odorizzi. He started with a scoreless fourth, working around a two-out error to keep it a five-run game. The Astros began a rally in the bottom of the fourth, getting runners on the corners with one out on a Kyle Tucker double and Yuli Gurriel single. Chas McCormick brought in the first run of the board for Houston, but that's all they would get as Atlanta's lead remained four runs.

Astros drop Game 1

Odorizzi kept going on the mound, tossing a 1-2-3 fifth, then getting one out before a one-out single in the top of the sixth would prompt Dusty Baker to move on to Phil Maton, who finished the inning. Maton returned in the top of the seventh, getting a strikeout before a double and a walk would result in the call to bring in Ryne Stanek.

A double play against his first batter allowed Stanek to finish the seventh, and then he returned in the eighth. He faced three batters that frame, getting one out before a walk and a single would put runners on the corners as Houston moved on to Brooks Raley. A sac fly by Freddie Freeman off of Raley made it a five-run lead again, but a leadoff triple by Yordan Alvarez in the bottom of the inning would set up Carlos Correa for an RBI, a groundout to make it 6-2.

Atlanta's bullpen continued to do well, though, limiting the damage to that one run in the eighth, then returning to hold on to the four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to give the Braves the upset win to start the series. The loss extends their home losing streak in the World Series to five games (having lost all four at home in the 2019 World Series against the Nationals) and puts them down 0-1 and in need of a win in Game 2 to try and reset the series into a best-of-five.

Up Next: World Series Game 2 will be another 7:09 PM Central scheduled start time on Wednesday from Minute Maid Park. The expected pitching matchup is Max Fried, who is 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three postseason starts, for the Braves, and Jose Urquidy, who went just 1.2 innings while allowing six runs (five earned) in his start in the ALCS.

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