Training camp news and notes

Texans training camp report: David Johnson continues to impress

Photo Courtesy of the Houston Texans

The Houston Texans stood on the 40-yard line when Deshaun Watson received a snapped to initiate the play. With his eyes set on his target, Watson threw a 15-yard pass attempt to tight end, Darren Fells. Instead of making the completion, Watson's pass attempt fell short as safety A.J. Moore Jr. came away with the interception.

Moore's pick on Watson was the first of two interceptions by Houston's secondary. A few possessions later, cornerback Cornell Armstrong picked off A.J. McCarron's pass attempt to Keke Coutee in a similar fashion.

"I think it's hard because you don't want to throw interceptions, but you also want takeaways in the game," head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien said. "Again, at the end of the day the turnover-takeaway battle is a huge part of the game and I think it's going to be a huge part of the game early on here. Penalties, tackling and then turnovers and takeaways – your ability to take the ball away – those things are going to be huge. It was good to see our defense – they work hard at those drills and then it carried over ... today a couple of times."

The Houston's Training Center marked the Texans' return to practice for their third day of action in full pads. Wide receiver Kenny Stills and inside linebacker Dylan Cole made their first appearance in training camp, but noticeably missing from the group was star defensive end, J.J Watt. The five-time Pro-Bowler did not participate in any of the team's on-field practice, but Watt's absence was apart of O'Brien's new management plan for his seasoned veterans.

"J.J. has played a ton of football for us and at a very high level," says O'Brien. "He's on a different type of plan. I'm not sure how much you'll see him out there this week. He'll be out there eventually, but he's on a different type of plan just like a lot of other guys."

David Johnson continues to impress:

David Johnson recently told Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report that his personal goal in 2020 is to recapture his potential as a running back who is capable of recording 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiver yards on the season. Albeit Johnson has yet to live up to his 2016 All-Pro status, the Texans appear to have put the 28-year-old running back in a position to succeed.

Stepping in as the primary back, Johnson took part in several reps showcasing his productivity as a dual-threat option coming out of the backfield. Johnson had some quality plays rushing the ball for a few yards, but what stood out the most was his proficient hands as a receiver. He capitalized on four out of his five pass-catching plays coming out of the backfield — demonstrating the harmony of the Watson-to-Johnson collaboration.

Since the beginning of training camp on July 25, Johnson's new coaches and teammates have gushed at his expertise, and the Texans' endless offensive possibilities to attack with him on the field. Johnson has impressed nearly everyone through his first few weeks of training camp. Everyone, except for his new backfield-mate, Duke Johnson.

"Absolutely nothing," Duke said. "Everything I see from David, I kind of expect. We came out the same year, so I kind of knew what he was capable of. I watched him when he was in Arizona. I think what has surprised a lot of people is the way that he's able to move at the size he is and what a great receiver he is out of the backfield."

Steven Mitchell Jr. plays with starters:

Last season, wideout Steven Mitchell Jr. spent most of 2019 as a member of the Texans practice squad. The most amount of snaps he received took placed during Houston's season finale against the Titans. As a starter, Mitchell recorded 37 yards on five catches in 65 snaps — as the Texans fell 35-14 to their AFC South rivals.

Coming into camp, the possibility of Mitchell solidifying a placed on the Texans' 53-man roster seemed far-fetched — but the former undrafted free-agent is making a strong case.

Mitchell ran nearly all of his reps with the starters during the Texans' 11-on-11 situational drills, where he completed three receptions from Watson in the process. O'Brien credited Mitchell's reps to managing his primary receiving core, but was impressed by the development the USC prodigy showcased Monday morning.

"I really like Stevie. He works so hard. When you look at the GPS numbers, he can run all day. He works really hard. He made a couple good plays today, he had a touchdown catch today. I think he's gotten better every year here. I think he's really improved. Relative to his role, he does things on special teams, he does things on offense. He's always trying to improve and he's always embracing his role." says O'Brien.

Special teams rotation:

The Texans have a plethora of speed on their roster. So much so, special teams coordinator Tracy Smith mentioned that he feels comfortable using anyone from Will Fuller to Keke Coutee as Houston's primary returner. Perhaps Fuller maybe the latter given his offensive responsibilities, but Smith explored with a combination using of Coutee, DeAndre Carter and David Johnson.

From the looks of it, Carter and Coutee have reprised their role as the Texans' primary choice in both kick and punt returns — with Carter as the main option. Followed by Johnson, who only received reps with kicks.

"We have to take pride in it and I think we have a bunch of people who do that," Johnson said. "Once you establish a core group of special team players, it's up to that core group of people to lead the teams and believe that third phase of the game is really important. That's how you win football games and close football games at that."

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Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After dropping the middle game to the Rangers to split the first two games, the Astros looked for an improved offensive showing in the finale on Thursday night to take the series. Here is a rundown of the rubber game:

Final Score: Astros 2, Rangers 1.

Record: 25-25, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Framber Valdez (4-3, 3.82 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Jordan Lyles (1-5, 7.07 ERA).

Valdez another Houston pitcher to thrive against Rangers

Much like Jose Urquidy on Tuesday and Lance McCullers JR. on Wednesday, Framber Valdez put up an excellent pitching line on Thursday against the Rangers. After allowing two singles in the first and a single in the second, he would settle in and hold the Rangers to just one baserunner, which came via a walk through six frames.

He would try to get through the seventh, but after a long at-bat and one-out double, Dusty Baker would stop his night and go to the bullpen. Unfortunately, that double would end up scoring as Josh James would allow an RBI-single, charged to Valdez, before finishing the inning. Along the way, Valdez was able to ring up eleven Rangers. His final line: 6.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 0 HR, 100 P.

Kyle Tucker gets the big hit of the night

Luckily, Houston was still in the lead after the Rangers' run, thanks to a big hit by Kyle Tucker back in the second inning. After Alex Bregman reached base on a walk to become the first runner for the Astros, Kyle Tucker would break out of his recent slump with a two-run home run, putting Houston ahead 2-0 at the time.

Jordan Lyles was otherwise handling the Astros just like Kyle Gibson the night prior, who threw a complete-game shutout. Other than the Tucker homer, Lyles allowed another hit in the second and one in the third before retiring the next 12 Astros in order before an error in the seventh broke that streak, giving Houston their first baserunner since two outs in the third.

Houston takes the series and moves back up to .500

Josh James returned to the mound to start the eighth, and he would get a 1-2-3 inning against the top of Texas' lineup, including back-to-back strikeouts to end it. After another scoreless inning by Houston at the plate, that would set up a save opportunity in the top of the ninth. The opportunity would go to Brooks Raley, and he would notch the save with a scoreless inning, giving Houston the series and moving them back up to .500 at 25-25.

Up Next: The Astros' final three regular-season games played at Minute Maid Park in 2020 are this weekend in a series against the Diamondbacks. In Friday's 7:10 PM opener, Zack Greinke (3-2, 3.77 ERA) will be on the mound for Houston while Zac Gallen (1-2, 3.15 ERA) will be the starter for Arizona.

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