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DEAD IN THEIR TRACKS: Saints Defense Could “Stuff” Struggling Texans Running Game

When the Houston Texans visit the Saints at the Superdome this coming Monday Night, chances are pretty good that you won’t see their offense emphasize or try to establish the running game at any point; opting to throw the ball early and often to their deep corps of talented wide receivers instead.

But another reason simply could be that Houston’s otherwise normally-solid running game is currently in a state of flux; as they have been forced to deal with the loss of star #1 RB Lamar Miller and have attempted to replace him in their offensive line-up with not one but two veteran RB’s attempting to learn the Texans playbook.

Miller tore his ACL during the Texans’ 3rd Pre-Season game against the Dallas Cowboys two weeks ago; and had to be carted off the field in that contest following Houston’s 2nd offensive play in that game. Prior to his devastating injury, Miller had started 14 games last season for Houston, as he racked up 1,136 total yards and 6 touchdown runs on 235 touches. At the time, the 28-year-old Miller had been battling newcomer and former Cleveland Browns RB Duke Johnson for starting snaps in the Texans offense.

(Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle )

After Houston had cut their 2017 third-round draft pick D’Onta Foreman (who’s now since joined the Indianapolis Colts) at the beginning of the Pre-Season, the Texans executed a trade with the Browns to acquire Johnson’s services.

But the 25-year-old has since been dealing with a hamstring injury; which then prompted the Texans to execute yet another trade, by acquiring veteran RB Carlos Hyde in a trade with Kansas City last weekend. Hyde was originally selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and the 28-year old former Ohio State University star has rushed for 3,300 yards and scored 26 touchdowns in 43 starts. 

“I think that he’s had a good career and we were glad to be able to add him here,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said to the local Houston media following last week’s trade. “Obviously, losing Lamar (Miller), hard to replace Lamar, we’re not trying to do that, we’re just trying to add depth to that position and we think Carlos can possibly do that.”

Both Johnson and Hyde should see action against the Saints on Monday Night, but just how committed they’ll be at attempting to establish the run against what was a top-rated Saints run defense last season, remains to be seen.

(Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle )

Houston also has 3rd string RB Taiwan Jones on their roster, along with back-ups Buddy Howell and fullback Cullen Gillaspia; the Texans’ 7th Round draft pick earlier this year who since has made their final roster, primarily due to his special teams ability.

“I think we have a diverse backfield set, a lot of different skill sets,” O’Brien told reporters on Tuesday. “You mentioned Duke and Carlos, Taiwan Jones, he’s done a great job for us in the preseason on special teams.”

“Buddy Howell and Cullen Gillaspia, they’re special teams performers and they have a certain skillset on offense, so it’s definitely different than it was last year, there’s a little bit more there. Losing Lamar led us to have a chance to go get Carlos to help that loss a little bit, but a lot of different skill there and it’s going to be interesting to see how it all comes together.”

Johnson clearly is the better receiver among the two players. and he brings a great deal of experience in the passing game out of the backfield. Johnson has accumulated more receiving yards (2,170) and touchdowns (8) than rushing yards (1,286) and touchdowns (5) thus far, in his 4-year NFL career up to this point.

Hyde on the other hand is more of a traditional “power back” (similar to former Saints and now Baltimore Ravens starting RB Mark Ingram). and he might actually see more carries running the football. “Two totally different players, so I really don’t want to get into the details of that but definitely different players,” O’Brien said.

Seemingly, it possibly might even work out to Houston’s advantage, since the Saints defense more than likely will have no idea of what to expect Monday Night.

But then yet again, it also might not.

One can certainly envision the Black and Gold stopping the Texas running game dead in its tracks — and “stuffing” it altogether,

(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The Saints run defense last year ranked 2nd overall League-wide in total rushing yards allowed and average yards per opponent carry. And that elite ranking might be achievable again this season, and certainly will be a point of emphasis for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen on Monday Night.

That would then likely encourage O’Brien and the Texans offensive coaching staff to completely abandon the run altogether; and opt instead to allow QB Deshaun Watson “sling it” early and often in what many observers feel is a game that could become a shoot-out in a very high-scoring contest.

The Texans feature a deep group of wide receivers; led by All-Pro Deandre Hopkins, #2 WR Will Fuller, and recently-acquired #3 WR Kenny Stills (who played for the Saints in his first two NFL seasons); all of whom figure to be prominently targeted in the passing game by Watson.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

In a conference call with NOLA-area media yesterday, O’Brien was asked what the challenge will be for their staff to get both Johnson and Hyde prepared and ready to face the Saints run defense in Monday Night’s contest.

(Question): The Saints ranked second against the run last year and obviously you have two running backs in Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde, both of them joined the team late this year. What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced getting these two guys caught up to speed real quick with Monday Night Football coming up so fast?

“Both guys were in systems came from systems that were pretty similar (to our system). They have heard the same similar terminology, the same type of runs. I think both guys are smart. They both picked up on it really well. We have had a couple of good days of practice here. I think these guys understand what we want to do. We’ll continue to practice throughout the rest of the week and get them up to speed”, O’Brien said.

“The Saints are good. The Saints are tough up front, active linebackers. Alex Anzalone I’ve known since I was head coach at Penn state. He’s a great player. I talked about Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, we’ll see what happens with (Sheldon) Rankins, but they’ve got a lot of great players up front.”

Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

Enough good players to “stuff” the Texans running game, for certain.

If the Black and Gold Front 7 can limit the production of both Johnson and Hyde on Monday Night, it’s likely to change the complexity of the entire game. And for a Saints team looking for its first win in a season-opening game in the past 6 years (their last season-opening win came in 2013), that’s a likelihood they obviously will embrace.

Especially if they can stop the Houston running game dead in its tracks…..

Saints News Network featured columnist and Big Easy Magazine contributing writer Barry Hirstius is a 52-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 45 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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