The Houston Texans return to the gridiron versus the Kansas City Chiefs Thursday evening. Plenty of players will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact, but sometimes, it’s not a particular player that makes a change, but a match-up that settles a game.
Most starters on either side will have little to no impact on the outcome of Thursday’s game, but there’s still plenty to watch with players looking to make an impact and the final 53 man roster. Let’s take a look at the top five battles fans should be intrigued to see come the first whistle.
1. Dylan Cole vs. Spencer Ware
Benardrick McKinney recently signed a long-term extension to stay in Houston as the team’s starting middle linebacker. The weak side linebacker position is a bit more tricky moving forward. Second-year defender, Zach Cunningham, will be given the first chance to stay in the starting lineup after a successful rookie campaign. While Cunningham’s cover skills and reliable tackling skills should keep him in the good graces, fellow second-year linebacker Cole could carve himself out a role as well with another successful preseason.
One way to stay in the limelight is attacking the run head-on. Kareem Hunt will likely only play a small role Thursday, so expect to see plenty of carries given to Spencer Ware. Reading the proper gaps and finding holes in the offensive line could lead to another high tackle performance by the former Missouri State linebacker.
What will solidify another stellar performance from Cole will be how he attacks the pass out of the backfield. Expect these two to be paired up all evening with one player besting the other.
2. Kevin Johnson vs. DeMarcus Robinson
While starters aren’t expected to play more than a drive or two, Johnson might not fall into that category heading into Thursday’s showdown. Veteran Jonathan Joseph should have one cornerback position locked down, but the other spot could be up for grabs between the fourth-year corner and recently acquired Aaron Colvin. Both players should see at least a quarter of play, switching from the slot and playing outside.
Johnson will need a better outing after three inconsistent years in coverage. The best way of showing his improvement would be limiting DeMarcus Robinson in the open field. Both players have underwhelmed since joining their respective teams and need promising preseasons to carve out playing time. If Johnson can be physical in press coverage and limit Robinson from making plays deep downfield, it could be the spark that keeps him on the positive side of the Texans training camp.
3. Kareem Jackson vs. Blake Mack
In today’s pass-happy league, it’s easy to see why multiple defenses have transitioned over to a more nickel and dime formation rather than stay traditional. Having a player who can excel at two positions also is a nice touch for the long-term future. That is the hopeful case for Jackson this season as he looks to transition from productive nickel cornerback to full-time strong safety.
Strong safeties are expected to be effective against the run but also play top coverage against tight ends in man coverage. With Travis Kelce perhaps only playing one series, it will be detrimental for Jackson to show his improvement against Mack when the Chiefs go to the air. A strong performance in man coverage could be the deciding factor between Jackson and rookie Justin Reid for starting reps come September.
4. Greg Mancz vs. Derrick Nnadi
With Nick Martin fully healthy, it will be hard for the Texans not to give their former second-round pick starting reps. While the Notre Dame standout center struggled in his first year of play, there’s still plenty of positive traits when looking at his size and blocking ability moving forward. With Martin staying in at center, this could be an opportunity to Mancz to step in and perhaps battle it out for a chance to impress and gain reps at potential guard.
One way of doing that is opening wide running lanes in the backfield. With the experience of facing stronger defensive linemen, it will be an exciting match-up to see Mancz take on the rookie Nnadi. In college, the former Seminole was known for his ability to close running lanes and swallow tailbacks behind the line of scrimmage. If Mancz can be productive in the running game, he could see his role expand if another lineman struggles to impress with the first team reps.
5. Braxton Miller vs. Kendall Fuller
This match-up might be limited due to their roles, but it should be the best battle of the evening. Miller might have struggled thus far to become a reliable weapon in the Texans passing game, but so far, it seems he’s impressed during training camp. His biggest obstacle, however, might come Thursday evening as he will face one of the league’s top slot defenders in coverage.
Fuller was traded over to the Chiefs in part of the Alex Smith trade. While he’s been practicing on the outside, Fuller excelled in coverage against slot receivers and running backs out of the backfield. If Miller can beat Fuller with his speed and improved route running skills, it should be another step in the right direction for him. If he’s unable to win any battles, more questions will arise on his long-term future with the organization.