NEWS AND NOTES

Texans training camp report: Running backs already impressing O'Brien

Photo by Getty Images.

The sound of Deshaun Watson under center inside the Methodist Training Center could only mean one thing — football is back.

J.J. Watt described the feeling as being similar to the first day of school. On Friday, the Houston Texans held their first practice in full pads since opening training camp on July 25. For the Texans, the next few weeks of camp will take on a different purpose, with preseason canceled due to COVID-19.

Here is my first Texans training camp report. I will be publishing one of these every day of practice, with observations and notes as the Texans prepare to open their 2020 season against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on September 10.

Scottie Phillips makes early impression on Bill O'Brien

In June, I called Scottie Phillips the most significant steal following the 2020 NFL Draft. Why? The 5-foot-8 running back may have the most upside out of his undrafted contemporaries, and many consider him to be one of the most talented players at his position.

Although he may not receive much playing time thanks to the likes of David Johnson, Duke Johnson and Karan Higdon Jr., Phillips is making his claim to become the Texans' running back of the future. On Saturday, Head Coach and General Manager Bill O'Brien raved at Phillips' talent as a back who possesses great ball security and explosiveness coming out of the backfield.

"I think he's getting better," O'Brien said. "I think that he's in a very competitive position. Karan Higdon (Jr.) has been practicing really well, too. He had a couple good runs yesterday [Friday] that you probably saw. It's a very competitive position, but I do think that Scottie is working at it and he's improving."

Duke Ejiofor tears ACL, out for the season

The first day of padded practice did not end on a good note for the Texans. Late Friday afternoon, Houston announced that OLB Duke Ejiofor will miss all of the 2020 season after he sustained an ACL injury at practice.

Ejiofor's latest injury is a continuous streak of misfortunes for the Houston native. After a promising rookie season in 2018, Ejiofor suffered a torn Achilles last training camp and missed his entire sophomore season. Bill O'Brien, for the second straight season, has encountered the daunting task of replacing Ejiofor's on-field production.

"Duke has a very unique skill set," O'Brien said. "You could use Duke in a lot of different ways. He wasn't just an outside backer. He could do some different things. I don't know relative to replacing that exact skill set. I think it's more about what can these guys do and how can we fit it to what we're trying to do."

Jordan Thomas is back to full health

Following a breakout rookie season in 2018, the Texans placed Jordan Thomas on IR following a rib injury he sustained last preseason. The 24-year-old tight end missed 11 games in 2019 and did not receive much playing time once he made his return in a Week 12 victory over the Colts.

Now healthy, Thomas will be in the running to become Houston's primary tight end — a position held by the likes of Darren Fells and Jordan Akins. And after his first two days of practice, no one is as excited for Thomas' return than Watson.

"He's a guy that's very talented and has so much potential," Watson said. "He's been working, you can tell. He came back ready and prepared for this camp. He's ready to go. Whenever he gets his opportunity, I'm definitely going to give him a shot. He's been capitalizing on those."

In 2018, Thomas appeared in all 16 regular-season games (10 starts) where he recorded 20 receptions for 215 yards (10.6 AVG) and four touchdowns.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

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Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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