Is Jadeveon Clowney poised to translate his prodigious physical gifts into an overdue breakout season in Houston?
He offered promising signs in a dominant performance versus the New Orleans Saints' overwhelmed offensive tackles Saturday night.
Reminiscent of a rabid Seattle Seahawks squad in the preseason of 2013, the Texans' defense was flying to the ball in a summertime home game. Clowney was the ringleader, steamrolling helpless tackles Zach Strief and Andrus Peat en route to Drew Brees, who was tossed like a dog with a chew toy.
Clowney's bull rush was simply too powerful for the twin 6-foot-7, 320-pound behemoths in an obvious mismatch. Still in the game late in the third quarter, he threw reserve left tackle Tony Hills like a rag doll to hit tailback Daniel Lasco four yards deep in the backfield.
The top overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft led a comprehensive stifling of New Orleans' first-team offense, as Brees managed just 3.6 yards per attempt to go with Mark Ingram's 1.57 yards per carry.
If a freakishly talented Clowney carries this powerhouse form into the regular season as a complement to the unblockable J.J. Watt, Houston's defense is going to be nightmare fuel for opposing quarterbacks.
Here's what else we learned in Saturday's preseason action:
- It was a small sample size, but the Indianapolis Colts had to be encouraged by Andrew Luck's performance in his first action since a lacerated kidney ended his disappointing 2015 season. Afforded solid pass protection, Luck showed 2014 form, looking comfortable in the pocket while moving the chains with short, quick throws. He also pulled the trigger on a sideline out route that seemed to be missing from his repertoire last year. Overall, it was a sharp performance for the NFL's highest-paid quarterback, finishing 8 of 8 for 69 yards.
- Although undrafted rookie Josh Ferguson started in the Luck-less backfield last week, it was all Frank Gore and Robert Turbin with the first-team offense versus the Ravens. Ferguson has averaged a minuscule 0.69 yards per carry on 13 totes while blowing blitz pickup on multiple plays. Turbin should be locked into the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
- Claimed off waivers from the Seahawks back in September of 2015, T.Y. McGill was the most disruptive of the Colts' defensive linemen for the second straight week. He has always possessed intriguing talent, but the Seahawks let him go because he liked to freelance rather than staying disciplined in his gaps.
- As impressive as Terrance West looked in the preseason opener, he was third in the backfield pecking order behind Justin Forsett and Buck Allen. Forsett started and handled the bulk of the first-team work, with Allen working as the receiving back. Rookie Kenneth Dixon remains fourth on the depth chart. Of the quartet, West had the best play of the game with a 19-yard reception.
- Rookie wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller appear to be locked in as the Texans' starters alongside DeAndre Hopkins. Play-caller George Godsey has done an excellent job of manufacturing touches to get the ball in Miller's hands. Fuller's blazing speed showed up on a go route that resulted in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brock Osweiler. With all the speed Houston has imported at the skill positions this year, Osweiler simply has to play like a point guard, distributing rather than forcing.
- The Broncos' quarterback battle remains "wide open" after Trevor Siemian and Mark Sanchez were bitten by the turnover bug versus the 49ers.
- Although Todd Davis is the favorite to replace Danny Trevathan next to Brandon Marshall at inside linebacker, Zaire Anderson is making a strong push for playing time in Denver. A practice squad member last season, Anderson forced a pair of fumbles on 49ers running back Mike Davis after scoring a touchdown on Bennie Fowler's blocked punt last week.
- Rookie tailback Devontae Booker played ahead of Ronnie Hillman, who entered entered along with No. 3 quarterback Paxton Lynch in the third quarter. Booker looked impressive on eight carries, ostensibly leaving Hillman's role up in the air.
- Blaine Gabbert's performance was unremarkable. He authored one three-and-out, had a second drive stall near midfield and led a five-play, 63-yard touchdown drive on his third series. Through two preseason games, tight end Vance McDonald has been Gabbert's go-to receiver, hauling in five passes for 92 yards. With Colin Kaepernickexhibiting renewed arm strength in pre-game drills, the 49ers' quarterback battle should continue into next week.
-- Chris Wesseling
- After going run-heavy last week, the Titans put the ball in Marcus Mariota's hands versus a stout Panthers front seven -- Tennessee's first-team run game averaged just 2.8 yards per carry over 10 rushes on the first four drives. The quarterback delivered, going 9-of-10 passing for 104 yards and a TD -- his one incompletion was a forced pass into heavy coverage that was intercepted. Mariota showed that "exotic smashmouth" will be more than just ground and pound. Mariota's pinpoint accuracy and playmaking on the run (with both legs and arm) on Saturday underscored the reasons we believe he'll make a major leap in Year 2.
- Get used to the Mariota-to-Tajae Sharpe connection. The rookie receiver caught all six targets his way for 68 yards. Sharpe continues to impress with his superb route running and receptions in tight windows. On Saturday, he also showed an ability to highpoint the ball against converging defensive backs. Sharpe worked over Panthers rookie corner Daryl Worley. For any Fantasy Footballers out there, it's probably too late to get Sharpe at a bargain rate -- or at least it should be that way.
- Tyrod Taylor continues to show why he was worth the pay raise. Despite not having his starting offensive line intact, Taylor escaped Giants pressure early -- often with ease. He highlighted the day with beautiful spin that made a blitzing Janoris Jenkins look silly and roped a 50-plus yard bomb to tight end Charles Clay. When Taylor is healthy, he's so much fun to watch and a handful for defenses.
- LeSean McCoy had zero yards on five carries, but proved he's the Bills second-best receiving option behind Sammy Watkins (who sat out the contest). Shady looked fresh and fast, and ran some superb routes against weak Giants linebackers. McCoy ended up with four receptions for 58 yards and a TD. With Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin currently the best options at receiver behind Watkins, offensive coordinator Greg Roman should utilize McCoy often in the passing game.
- It was a terrible game all around for the Giants. The first-team offense was a mess -- more penalties (three) than first downs (one) on four drives. Big Blue's offensive line was particularly terrible, getting eaten alive by a swarming Bills defense (Jerry Hughes whooped up on Marshall Newhouse regularly). Coach Ben McAdoo kept the first-team blockers in the game until halftime in an effort to build continuity and find a positive; it didn't help. Through three quarters the Giants' run game had 1.9 YPC on 17 totes. Woof. The D wasn't much better, highlighted by EJ Manuel leading a second-team Bills offense on a 10-play, 49-yard TD drive against the Giants' first-team defense.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo seems to have the preseason yips. A week after missing a PAT, the second-round pick missed two field goals wide right, from 32 and 49 yards, respectively (he also connected from 28 and 34 yards). It's rough on the young player, who has been subjected to a bevy of jokes at his expense after being drafted in the second round. We should remember former first-round pick Sebastian Janikowski struggled his rookie season. Hopefully Aguayo overcomes his struggles by the time games count.
On the plus side for the Bucs' rookies: First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves flashed with two interceptions playing in the second unit.
- We aren't going to get bent out of shape about Jameis Winston tossing an interception and failing to register a completion over his first six pass attempts (he finished 3 of 9 with an interception and a touchdown). His fade TD pass to Mike Evans was a thing of beauty, and we expect to see plenty more. There will be kinks to work out for the second-year quarterback, which is why preseason games are played.
- Blake Bortles looks much more poised this preseason, comfortable making pre-snap reads and going through his progression. The most evident change in the Jaguars' offense is a revamped offensive line. Bortles was barely touched all night and the group paved massive holes in the ground game. Luke Joeckel played well for the second straight week. It will be interesting to see what coach Gus Bradley does when Kelvin Beachum returns from injury.
- Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon continue to split reps with the Jaguars' first-team offense, but Ivory is getting the majority of the carries -- six totes to two. Yeldon added a 14-yard TD catch, which is where much of his early season production should come.
- Alex Smith's Death By Efficient Paper Cuts Offense was in midseason form with a 13-play TD drive to open the game. Receiver Chris Conley, however, is looking like a deep complement to Jeremy Maclin (who was ejected for a scrap). The 6-foot-3 second-year wideout caught a deep bomb from Smith for 37 yards on the third drive. Conley later showed off moves in space on an 18-yard catch and run. His improvement could help diversify the Chiefs' offense in 2016.
- Nick Foles got a looooong look as the Chiefs backup. It's likely that coach Andy Reid needs tape of Foles in K.C.'s offense to determine the pecking order entering the season. Or maybe Reid just wanted to troll Rams fans (please get a joke, internet).
- Todd Gurley played in his first preseason game ever. He looked like the offensive rookie of the year we remember, bulldozing defenders on four carries and a TD on his one and only drive. The battle for the few snaps behind Gurley between Benny Cunningham and Malcolm Brown is interesting. Cunningham will likely get the gig, displaying burst at the line and speed in space. Brown runs like a freight train. Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk -- calling the game on TV -- gushed about the power back's ability to bring the pain but also cut with speed in the hole. Brown later had a spectacular one-handed catch for a TD.
-- Kevin Patra