Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers (-3, 36.5 o/u)
Excuse me while I summon my inner-Rock… Finally, the NFL has come back – sorry, I’ll stop there.
The NFL preseason didn’t kick-off until Thursday night (thanks, Tom Benson Stadium!) but we’ll get to see the last of this (extended) weekend’s games Sunday night (7:00 PM Eastern) when the Houston Texans (9-7 in 2015) travel to Levi’s Stadium to battle the San Francisco 49ers (5-11 in 2015).
Watching Jeff Driskel take on Brandon Weeden isn’t going to draw many eyes, but unlike many preseason NFL games, there are actual reasons to tune into this one! Maybe some of these headlines will tickle your fancy: the 49ers’ quarterback competition, DeForest Buckner’s NFL debut, Chip’s offense, the beginning of the Brock Osweiler era in Houston.
A new quarterback isn’t the only change for this year’s Texans squad. The club also has a new running back in Lamar Miller, giving the offense a completely different look. Osweiler and Miller will join one of the best receivers in the league, DeAndre Hopkins. Head coach Bill O’Brien will be relying on this trio to turn his offense, which was below average in both yards and points in 2015 (19th and 21st), into a legitimate unit.
The last two seasons have seen the Texans waste the efforts of their top-ten defense because their offense has been lacklustre at best. I guess that justifies spending $72 million on a quarterback who has only started seven games in his four-year career?
Heading into Sunday night, it’s sounding like Brock Osweiler will play more than the usual “couple of series” that most starting quarterbacks are limited to in the first week of the preseason. This makes sense, as Osweiler could not only use the extra snaps for his own good, but there are a lot of new parts to this offense, and it will take some time for them to build chemistry and perfect their timing.
One player who won’t be suiting up for Houston is J.J. Watt, which should come as no surprise. Why would you risk injury to the NFL’s most dominant defensive player in a meaningless game? Instead, we’ll get a closer look at which guys are leading the race to line up on the opposite end as the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
The Texans’ offensive line may be the centre of attention in Sunday night’s tilt. They struggled mightily in 2015 and will be anchored by rookie second-round pick Nick Martin. None of the aforementioned three names will be able to do much if the offensive line doesn’t take care of business in the trenches.
Flipping to the 49ers, they may just be the most intriguing team entering the 2016 season. San Francisco is coming off a horrendous season that saw them finish last in the NFC West for the first time since 2005. Their offense finished last in the league in points and second-last in yards, so major changes were necessary.
These major changes have come in the form of hiring the most polarizing coach in the league, Chip Kelly. They also opened camp with a good, old-fashioned quarterback battle on their hands.
As of right now, Blaine Gabbert is listed as the starting quarterback for their preseason opener, but you can be sure the competition for the top spot has yet to be settled. Although he has been dealing with some arm fatigue, Colin Kaepernick is expected to see at least some action on Sunday night. With such a tough decision looming, you can bet Chip will want to get as good of a look at both his quarterbacks as possible, which could mean the team doesn’t turn to Driskel and Thad Lewis until late in the second half.
When the eyes of the coaching staff aren’t on the two quarterbacks, they’ll be on the running game. We all know the kind of offense Chip Kelly is bringing to San Francisco, and how Carlos Hyde fits into it will be a huge factor in the team’s offensive success. The third-year back had his 2015 cut short due to injury, and has been vocal about 2016 being a crucial year for him. Sunday night will provide us with our first glimpse of Hyde in the spread offense.
Although it doesn’t serve much of a purpose for Sunday night, as both teams have changed dramatically since, these two teams have met in the preseason each of the last two seasons as well. Both games were in Houston, and the Texans took last year’s bout 23-10, while the 49ers won 40-13 in 2013.
What is useful for Sunday night is the fact that one team will turn to Tom Savage after their starter has had enough, while the other will throw in Colin Kaepernick in an offense that seems to cater to his every strength. Along with that, San Francisco has a ton of high to mid-round draft picks from the last few years filling out the bottom of their depth chart, and the competition will be fierce.
I generally stick to the over/under during the preseason, but I’m going out on a limb here and bet on the spread.
Pick: San Francisco 49ers (-3).
(Photo Credit: Mike Morbeck (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/])