Redskins-Texans Q&A: On Ryan Mallett, de-Shanahaning offenses and the Vanilla Ice Curse

September 5

Texans linebacker Brian Cushing. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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In the two months since Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle’s Ultimate Texans blog and I last did a Texans-Redskins Q&A, quite a bit has changed. Sunday’s opener looked intriguing then, and looks even more interesting now, especially for two teams trying to get off the mat after disappointing 13- and 14-loss seasons.

Let’s start under center. Steph, for the Texans, what does the Ryan Mallett trade mean? That Ryan Fitzpatrick looks shaky? That Tom Savage won’t be ready to start this year, or ever? That Mallett became available and Bill O’Brien pounced? Some or all of the above?

Steph: I think that the Texans had their eye on Mallett for a while, but only at the right price. With an expiring contract, and not much of a sense of how he was going to play in real games, Mallett wasn’t an appealing choice to spend much of a draft pick on. By waiting, they were able to get him for basically a bucket of old tube socks. (a conditional seventh rounder). I think going into training camp, it was clear that Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates were not ideal options for O’Brien’s scheme. None of them can consistently make the throws that O’Brien demands of his system.

Yates was traded. Keenum was released after the Mallett trade. Tom Savage was drafted in the fourth round, and is a rookie in a system that is not easy for rookies. He has a very strong arm but is more of a developmental option right now. Mallett and Savage were both chosen for the system and would be ideal quarterbacks if the NFL were a just long drive contest and didn’t put a premium on accuracy. Ultimately, I have no idea how the quarterback situation will shake out this year.

O’Brien was hired in part due to a reputation in developing quarterbacks, and he will need to earn his money this year.

The Texans rested a number of their key starters during preseason games. They did so with the belief that they would be fresh and ready for the regular season. A number of the players were used a lot in scrimmages against Denver and Atlanta but were rested in the preseason games. So the team is pretty much at full strength but there may be some questions about their chemistry together. How did the Redskins use their preseason games, and are there injuries to any key players?

Keith: The Redskins got out of the preseason without any major injuries, but the player they’ll be missing most is safety Brandon Meriweather. They haven’t really had a pair of good safeties since Sean Taylor and LaRon Landry played together in 2007, and with Ryan Clark here to play free safety, Meriweather could return to strong, where his skills are best used. But his preseason hit on Torrey Smith cost him two regular-season games, and now Washington will be trying to wedge a second free safety, second-year player Bacarri Rambo, into the strong safety spot. If Duke Ihenacho had been on the team longer than a week (he was claimed off waivers from the Broncos), I’d say he’d be a good fit there.

As far as the preseason, Washington used it pretty traditionally, and for the first-team offense, it wasn’t pretty. They didn’t have any touchdown drives, and that’s caused lots of consternation locally and in fantasy football circles. But you have to imagine an offense with Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed will find ways to score points.

Defensively, the starters looked good in the preseason, with Jim Haslett free to cut his defense loose a bit more. A few names that Texans fans might not know but whose roles could be key are inside linebacker Keenan Robinson (a former Texas player taking over in the middle for the retired London Fletcher), Rambo and cornerback David Amerson, a tall, aggressive second-year player who’ll start for the first time.

Those who only casually follow the Texans know J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster. Are there a few less well-known Houston players who may influence Sunday’s game with either poor or strong play?

Steph: Though their defensive stars have some extreme speed, there are significant questions about the team speed and instinctiveness of the rest of the defense. It’s hard to remember a time where the defense has had a great performance against a quarterback who can move. Drafting 3-4 linebackers is an art, and neither Brooks Reed or Whitney Mercilus have taken advantage of that position where good players can excel.

Nose tackle is crucial to Romeo Crennel’s defense, and there’s a significant question whether the grouping of players they are using in that role will be able to do what Crennel needs.

Brian Cushing hasn’t played much in the preseason, and the collection of inside linebackers they’ve used since DeMeco Ryans left have been, um, non-good. The biggest question in the secondary is whether they can play smartly in a 2014 season where defensive holding/pass interference calls are being emphasized. Players like safety D.J. Swearinger and corner A.J. Bouye are more physical than technique players.

Offensively, this is the year where Texans fans would like to see second-year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins break out. Physical receiver, catches balls well in traffic. The offensive line as a whole has been a bit of an experiment this offseason, and it is unclear how this group of starters will work together as a unit under the new scheme.

Because of all the coaching changes, and very little time seeing the first team together in the preseason, it is hard to get a sense of what this Texans team will look like in 2014. No result would surprise. Expectations for the offense are low due to the quarterback position. My initial view is that the defense will likely be ahead of the offense, and that special teams will be improved because it would be hard for them to get much worse than 2013.

The Texans offense has been completely overhauled and de-Shanahaned. How de-Shanahaned will the Washington offense be, and what is your snapshot view of what you think might happen this season for the team as a whole?

Keith: Expect a half de-Shanahaning. Jay Gruden has been pretty up front about wanting to keep the stretch plays and zone blocking that Alfred Morris and the offensive line excelled at during the Shanahan era. He hasn’t used a fullback much in the past, but says he hasn’t had one as good as Darrel Young. Factor in Griffin’s struggles and it makes sense. The passing game I think will be a lot more wide open that they showed in the preseason. Griffin throws a nice deep ball (when he has time) and DeSean Jackson has that deep speed. I expect Gruden to put his stamp on the passing concepts.

For a snapshot view, I actually think the Redskins finish second in the division, and may be in the playoff chase in December. The defense and special teams really should be better, but overall it’ll probably be an up and down year. Some weeks they’ll score a bunch and look great, some weeks they’ll look like a team that’s trying to restart itself after going 3-13. Improving by four wins would probably be seen as moving in the right direction, and 9-7 would be pretty well received.

This first game is actually a pretty big deal. Sometimes the public overreacts to the opener, but so much was made of Griffin’s poor preseason, and he can wipe it all away on Sunday. If he doesn’t, the pressure grows.

What’s your feeling about how important Week 1 is, and what’s your snapshot view?

Steph: The Texans have not won a regular season game since September 15th of last year. It got so bad, there is something called “The Vanilla Ice Curse,” which suggests that after he did the ‘Ice Ice Baby’ halftime show in Houston, it cursed the Texans for the rest of the season. It’s a TMZ story, so it has to be true, right?

I don’t know about that, but I can tell you that the fans and the players are desperate to see a win, particularly at home. And are craving less predictability in their coaching after the shake up last year.

And less predictability, for good or bad, is likely what they are going to get.

After last year’s records, I think both team’s fans have the point of view that “If our team can’t beat that team, then who are they going to beat?”

The season isn’t decided in one game, but it would a good first step to shake off last year’s unwatchable football.

Opening Kick engages regular readers with a morning conversation starter, quick observation or poll. Click here for previous installments.

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Mike Jones · September 5

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