August 2, 2009
Cushing's Arrival Fortifies Defense
by Keith Weiland
Day 3 of Texans training camp saw the players pull on the shoulder pads for the first time, and the intensity soon followed. Noisy practices are good practices, and there was plenty to hear on the field Sunday morning.
Plenty to see too, as first round pick Brian Cushing made his first on-field appearance since inking a five-year contract. And while it's still so-so-so early, the early indications are that your new starter at strongside linebacker did not disappoint.
But enough of the pre-show. Time to get on with the training camp diary.
7:57 - DT Jeff Zgonina is the first player officially on the field, though he isn't yet in pads, a wardrobe malfunction soon rectified. Apparently there is no locker room big enough for him and his ginormous calves to get dressed before hitting the field.
8:05 - Still the only player in pads outside, Zgonina makes his way to the sled near the far field from the stands. All alone like Highlander or something, he then starts beating the ever-loving crud out of the sled. Call it Zgonina 1, sled 0.
8:15 - Three quarters of the team is on the field, but no sign of Cushing yet. Is the ink still not dry on the new contract?
8:17 - Ahh, there he is! Cushing opts to go without the ponytail today, and yes, hopefully this is my last hair-related update for awhile. God willing. As Cushing immediately takes his place as the starter at Sam, Zac Diles moves in for walkthrus as the Will with DeMeco Ryans as the Mike. Ryans and Cushing share a laugh, and I can only imagine it has something to do with general manager Rick Smith and not shampoo (crap!).
8:20 - Shhh... what's this? As a part of their walkthrus, Kevin Bentley joins the linebackers while Cushing drops down to left end. The move is specific to have Cushing cover the tight end.
8:27 - The air horn blows three minutes early to officially begin the practice. A formality here, of course, since the team really started about ten minutes ago.
8:28 - In a light warm-up, fullback Boomer Grigsby, looking a little smaller than his 5'11" billing, bobbles a light toss from a quarterback. Not a good sign.
8:29 - The team lines up for some high knee walking, then thigh pulls, and other assorted light stretching exercises, all done while on their feet.
8:37 - Positional drills begin, as the linebackers and defensive backs remain on the near field. The crashing pads here are a sweet reminder that game action is fast approaching. Defensive backs coach David (lil') Gibbs is doing all kinds of teaching in these drills. He has three or four other assistants out there standing around, but it is all Gibbs working his squad.
8:48 - The entire defense takes the near field for some scout team walkthrus to install some nickel defenses. The first team for this formation includes Antonio Smith and Amobi Okoye at defensive tackle, Mario Williams and Connor Barwin at end, Ryans and Cushing at linebacker, Eugene Wilson and Nick Ferguson at safety, Jacques Reeves and Fred Bennett at cornerback, and Glover Quin at nickel. Yes, that is three rookies with the first team! Think the Texans are trying to overhaul their situational pass rush this season?
8:59 - The defensive backs leave the near field to join the receivers as the rest of the team stays nearby for work on running plays. The first look at the offense shows a line from left to right consisting of Duane Brown, Kasey Studdard, Chris Myers, Mike Brisiel, and Eric Winston. Usual left guard Chester Pitts is not in pads and spent part of the morning pedaling the stationary bicycle.
And it doesn't take long for the first padded shoving match to explode! Ferguson and Myers spar this time. No clear winner here, other than the audience, of course. Back in action, Grigsby puts in an unconvincing lead block, but it is more than enough to neutralize Okoye. I don't recall much being wrong with Okoye following this contact, but then again, he doesn't seem to be back in the rotation in the second half of practice, either.
In what would later become an alarming trend, reserve left tackle Cliff Washburn is flagged for a foul start. Studdard, now working with the backups, throws a huge lead block to free running back Arian Foster for a big gainer. Studdard later locks up linebacker Xavier Adibi and generally looks like he has more strength than the previous season. Then again, run blocking has never really been the big problem for him, but ItB.com contributor painekiller later tells me Studdard showed a good anchor in 1-on-1 drills, too.
9:06 - As the receivers and defensive backs work, David Pittman has a nice pass breakup in covering Glenn Martinez. Mike Jones, a first year receiver out of Arizona State, later jukes Matteral Richardson out of his shoes. Andre Davis then turns on the jets to blow past Pittman deep, and who else than Rex "I'm Goin' Deep!" Grossman nails him with the long pass.
Back on the near field, swing tackle Rashod Butler, playing right tackle this morning, has no trouble standing up Barwin, who should soon learn that his speed is better used going around the big fella rather than through him.
9:12 - Yes, now we're talkin'... time for some 11-on-11 work! Frank Okam has joined Deljuan Robinson as the starter on the inside with Williams and Smith flanking them on the ends. Cushing continues work with the first team.
Quarterback Matt Schaub starts off by overthrowing his target on a play action pass, but then he finds Andre Johnson brutalizing Reeves for a big touchdown pass. Wilson then steps up for a safety blitz to fill the gap on second team running back Chris Brown. Smith is then whistled for offsides before Ryan Moats takes the football and finds a way to turn the corner. Rookie cornerback Brice McCain shows off his speed in keeping tight coverage with Davis. Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky then makes a nice connection across the middle with Darnell Jenkins.
More backups join the fray as Grossman underthrows Jacoby Jones, allowing first-year corner Mark Parson to break up the pass. Jones had been able to create some space before his QB came up just a bit short. Foster then returns to make yet another dazzling downfield run between the tackles. Yum-may! Foster is a terrific fit for this offense. Bid! Grossman then finds a way to unload his cannon deep (yes, again), this time with Martinez running underneath it for the touchdown.
9:24 - Punt return practice. With just one punter on the roster (Matt Turk), the Texans wheel out a jugs machine, operated by none other than placekicker Kris Brown, to do the actual punting. Yes, this is the latest example of man being replaced by machine. The end is near! Skynet is smiling, somewhere...
Quin, Martinez, and David Anderson are fielding the Terminator's punts, but perhaps the most noteworthy item here is that Jones is not. After failing to slow down Mark Simmons in punt coverage, Jenkins receives some direct input from head coach Gary Kubiak on what he did wrong.
9:31 - After a team huddle, the players and coaches break for five minutes to cool off and get a drink of water. Temps weren't too bad outside, but this is possibly the longest scheduled water break I've seen in eight years of Texans training camp. Ryans and Kubiak use the time to share a laugh while lil' Gibbs uses it to do a little more teaching.
9:36 - The big uglies wobble off so the pretty boys can play some 7-on-7. Schuab hits tight end Owen Daniels in the short middle as Adibi is just a half step behind. On a play action, Schaub throws a high one, but rookie tight end James Casey brings it down after a little bobble. Wilson then has good coverage on an incompletion to Johnson before Casey hauls in another short pass, finding a seam.
More backups come in as Diles almost picks off Orlovsky. Anderson then makes a leaping catch to pull in a pass from the former Lion. Orlovsky looks quite a bit like Schaub, in a good way actually, but one can sense the game still needs to slow a bit for him. His release isn't trigger-quick, either, but his overall game still has promise.
Grossman relieves and is nearly picked by LB Chaun Thompson. He then chucks it deep and overthrows Simmons. Yeesh. Kubiak calls over Parson and Pittma for quick chat - - that can't be good, right? Quin then loses his man in short coverage, something that lil' Gibbs catches as yet another teaching opportunity.
Orlovsky is back on the field and he finds Davis on an out. Davis keeps both feet in bounds - barely according to the referee - a ruling that Ferguson playfully disagrees with from his vantage point on the sideline.
9:53 - Back to 11-on-11, and ho-ho-ho! It's Cushing free on a blitz, unabated to Schaub. Welcome aboard! Here's a high-five from defensive coordinator Frank Bush!
It sets a tone as the defense begins to take control. Moats fumbles as Williams unleashes a giant swatting arms from the heavens upon him. Slaton saves some face for the offense on the next play, making an awesome backside cut. Nobody was home (Ferguson?), and Slaton is home free.
10:03 - After letting the backups play a bit, the first teamers return. Ryans makes the play of the morning, jumping a route in coverage of Slaton to intercept Schaub. Woohoo! Worth noting is that Cushing did a great job covering Daniels on the play. Then second rounder Barwin shows some athleticism tipping the next pass attempt. The defense is really turning on the heat here.
Schaub responds, finding Daniels. Moats though is slow to the hole on the next play, taking too many stutter steps. Orlovsky then somehow fumbles and is either unaware or uncaring to pick up the ball. Uh oh, this ain't the Lions, bud. Orlovsky is able to shake it off though as he hits Jones on a sweet bubble screen.
Taking advantage of Okoye's absence, Shaun Cody reads the play to stuff Foster for no gain. Grossman then bootlegs and attempts a long pass to Simmons, only to have cornerback A.J. Davis step in front to make the interception. AARRRGGGHHH!!
10:12 - The first teams are back as the team focuses on third down conversions. From three yards out, Schaub finds Kevin Walter on a quick hook, complete. Brown then rushes up the middle on failed linebacker blitz. Then from six yards out for a first down, Slaton runs untouched ten yards before someone reaches a hand to him. Daniels then pulls in a low throw by Schaub for the conversion, in spite of decent coverage by Barwin.
Then the second and third teams sprinkle into the game, and the offense is jittery. Diles draws Adrian Jones into a foul start, a K-State player getting over a Jayhawk. Then unexplicably, Jacoby Jones starts the play early. Groans ensue. As if that weren't enough, Washburn then jumps early again, making it three straight foul starts. Boos, yes boos, are heard from fans in attendance. Kubiak, watching from the deep secondary like a vulture, yells across to his offensive coordinator: "Kyle! Get 'em straight!".
10:22 - The down and distance markers become useful now, as the ball is placed on the offense's own 30-yard line, first and ten. It's the first team offense taking on the second team defense. Schaub starts play with a 7-yard completion to Johnson. On 2nd-and-3, Slaton runs just enough for the first, losing his helmet in the process.
From 1st-and-10 on their own 40-yard line, Slaton gains two yards up the middle on the ground. Then on 2nd-and-8, Schaub takes advantage of a small slip by McCain to nail Walter for the first down completion.
10:25 - The squads swap as the first team defense takes on the second team offense. On first down, Brown rushes up the middle for a 3-yard gain. Orlovsky then locates Anderson for a 24-yard completion. 1st-and-10 from the opponent 43-yard line, Orlovsky is incomplete to Joel Dreesen for two yards. On second down, the pass is incomplete to Andre Davis, but Dreesen still de-cleats Antonio Smith on the play. Orlovsky then finds Moats free in the middle on the next play for a huge gain that Moats takes deep into the redzone.
10:30 - It's the battle of third teamers as Grossman pulls a decent play action fake, allowing Jones to put an out-n-up move on the defender - - but ohhhhh Jacoby! He drops the wide open pass. Ugh!! Grossman passes to Jenkins on second down, picking up just enough yardage for the first. Foster then takes the hand-off for a crafty five-yard run. Linebacker Toddrick Verdell comes free on a blitz on second down as Grossman throws incomplete. The third down play comes up a yard short as Grossman finds Martinez.
10:34 - The final horn blows. The team huddles as Kubiak spends more time than usual discussing the workout with his team. The media hordes Cushing afterward as the three quarterbacks finish the morning running sidelines.
While the defensive performance is certainly encouraging, it's worth noting that the defense is usually a bit ahead of the offense this early into training camp. Still, given the struggles defensively the past couple seasons, one can sense that this year might be different.
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