Sadly, for you and I, the “Hard Knocks” cameras have been all packed away. But if there is a bright spot to every football fan’s favorite show being over, it’s that the preseason is gone until next August and Week 1 of the NFL regular season is knocking on the door.
If there is one person who excited that the bright lights of HBO have hit the road, it is Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. O’Brien is starting his second season as the Texans’ man in charge after inheriting an underperforming squad in desperate need of a spark. While the Texans are set defensively, they remain a work in progress on the other side of the ball. O’Brien has named journeyman Brian Hoyer as his starting quarterback, but Hoyer might not be much of an upgrade over backup Ryan Mallett. How O’Brien manages to glue offensive pieces together throughout the season will be the main storyline to watch for the Texans in 2015.
On the other sideline is the established and the well-respected Andy Reid. Reid is in his third season as Kansas City’s head coach. Last season, the Chiefs regressed after a surprising 11-5 record in 2013. This season, the Chiefs are many pundits’ dark horse that could supplant the Broncos as AFC West champions. While the biggest storyline for the Chiefs last year was the inability for any of their wide receivers to catch any touchdown passes, the focus switches to the defensive side of the ball and the return of All-Pro safety Eric Berry after his successful and astonishing nine-month battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Kansas City at Houston
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Houston -1.0
Three Things To Watch
1. Chiefs’ Offensive Line versus Texans’ Front Seven
This game isn’t expected to be a high-scoring affair, so winning the line of scrimmage is going to be of upmost importance. This rebuilt Chiefs offensive line has a tremendous task to start the NFL regular season — the Texans’ front seven. Chiefs GM John Dorsey spent the offseason revamping the line that was the Achilles heel of the offense last season. Dorsey drafted center Mitch Morse in the second round, traded for left guard Ben Grubbs and moved left tackle Eric Fisher to other side. Donald Stephenson takes over next to Grubbs at left tackle and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff, a Canadian who also is in his third year of medical school, will be making his first career start at right guard.
This quintet has never played together, and the group’s first test will be against reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt and a revitalized Texans defense. “Revitalized” is a tricky word for a team that forced 34 turnovers last season, but in comes veteran tackle Vince Wilfork from New England to help stop the run. The Texans’ biggest defensive playmaker (outside of Watt) could be second-year LB/DE Jadeveon Clowney. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft, Clowney’s rookie season was riddled by injury and ultimately ended after just four games and seven tackles. He underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in December, and the hope is that the healthy return of Clowney gives Houston another defensive weapon to go with linebacker Brian Cushing, Watt and Wilfork.
2. Texans’ Running Game
The Texans will be without All-Pro running back Arian Foster after groin surgery sidelined him during the preseason. Since 2010, the Texans’ record with Foster in the lineup is 33-20, without Foster the team is a woeful 2-13. Foster is expected to return in the next few weeks, but until then second-year back Alfred Blue will handle the majority of the workload. Blue did have 169 carries last season for 528 yards and two touchdowns, but he lacks the vision and explosiveness of Foster. Blue may have to find ways to create lanes for himself as he is running behind an offensive line that has been less than impressive this preseason. Establishing a running game with Blue will be priority number one for Houston, as forcing Hoyer to drop back 30-40 times will only spell disaster for the Texans’ offense.
3. Limiting Turnovers
Reid joked earlier in the week that he was going to run the ball every single down against the defense that led the NFL in takeaways last season. While giving the ball to Jamaal Charles every single play might not be a bad idea, QB Alex Smith is going to have to make plays to win this game for Kansas City. Smith is known for protecting the ball, as his record is 45-15-1 in games he doesn't throw a pick. But Smith also is known for not taking many shots down field and the Chiefs are better when he throws less. However, the approach in the passing game could change this season with deep threat and free agent pick up WR Jeremy Maclin now in the fold. Whether it’s Maclin, Charles, or TE Travis Kelce, Smith is going to have to move the ball through the air, at least on third downs, against a Houston defense that is sure to load the box to focus on stopping the run.
On the other sideline, the Texans are going to rely on Hoyer to play mistake-free and make the right decisions even with a limited supporting cast around him. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has emerged as a difference-maker for the Texans, and he will need to make his presence felt against in this one. With no Foster, a so-so O-line, and the franchise’s all-time leading receiver Andre Johnson in Indianapolis, Houston will need to take care of the ball against a stout and deep Chiefs defense. Like Smith, Hoyer is better when he throws less, and like the Texans, the Chiefs will be loading the box just baiting the Texans to throw.
The Chiefs well-rounded defense will be too much for the Texans less-than stellar offense. With no Arian Foster running the ball, Brian Hoyer’s options will be limited once the Chiefs load the box to stop Alfred Blue. The Chief’s Alex Smith is going to have to make some tough throws downfield so that Jamaal Charles isn’t overworked against what could be the NFL’s best defense in 2015.
Prediction: Chiefs 17, Texans 10
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.