NFL

2009 team preview: Houston Texans

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Inside Slant
The Texans went to training camp with six priorities: running more effectively in the red zone, committing fewer turnovers, stopping the run better, putting more pressure on the quarterback, forcing more turnovers and improving the red zone defense.

The Texans have run better in the red zone, but their running game overall has been poor. The big reason is that coach Gary Kubiak didn't want to overwork Steve Slaton, who carried 22 times for 64 yards in preseason.

The search for a complement to Slaton was won by veteran Chris Brown, who has been injured every year he has been in the league, including all of last season. If Brown stays healthy for the first time, which isn't likely, he's the ideal big back (6-feet-3, 237 pounds) to go with Slaton (5-9, 215).

Until the third preseason game against Minnesota, a 17-10 loss, the offense missed left guard Chester Pitts (shoulder) and center Chris Myers (ankle) because of injuries. Once they get return to 100 percent, it should help the running game.

"We have to run the ball better," Kubiak said. "I want us to be a 50-50 team. The running game is the key to our offense."

What Kubiak doesn't want is for quarterback Matt Schaub to be dropping back 35 times a game. Schaub suffered an ankle injury in the third game against Minnesota while running for a first down. He stayed in the game and led the Texans to their only touchdown, then got his ankle wrapped and led them to a field goal before leaving at halftime.

Schaub, who has missed 10 starts in each of his last two seasons, is supposed to be ready for the opener against the Jets. He wasn't going to play against Tampa Bay, anyway. Schaub has assured the coaches that he'll be ready for the opener, but he may have to do it without much practice. Kubiak called Schaub's practice status as "day to day."

Schaub's inability to stay healthy is another reason Kubiak wants the emphasis to be on the running game.

One of the biggest weaknesses during the Kubiak era has been the team's inability to force more turnovers than it committed. In the first three preseason games, the Texans committed five turnovers - three by quarterback Dan Orlovsky - and forced three.

Looking deeper, in the last two home losses to New Orleans and Minnesota, they committed five turnovers and didn't force any. A big part of that success or failure depends on the pass rush. That's something the Texans have done better, but they've been so pathetic at stopping the run that the pass rush has been wildly overshadowed.

In three preseason games, the defense allowed 156 yards a game rushing, including 176.5 in the last two games against the Saints and Vikings.

The defense missed three starters from last season - cornerback Dunta Robinson (contract dispute), cornerback Jacques Reeves (injured) and tackle Travis Johnson (injured/since traded). And first-round pick Brian Cushing, who was starting at strong-side linebacker, didn't play in the first three preseason games because of a knee injury.

Mike Bell (Saints) had a 46-yard touchdown run. Adrian Peterson (Vikings) had a 75-yard touchdown run. Both were caused by weak-side linebacker Xavier Adibi overpursuing, which is one reason his starting job is in jeopardy. Watch for Zac Diles to beat out Adibi once Cushing returns and Diles can move back to the weak side.

As bad as the run defense has been, Travis Johnson was traded to San Diego for a conditional sixth-round pick that could be a fifth-rounder. Johnson, a first-round pick in 2005, had been out after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia. He had just returned to practice and was going to play for the first time in the last preseason game when he was shipped out.

The pass rush improved in preseason even though opponents didn't need to throw that much against the Texans. With seven sacks in the first three games and only one on a blitz (middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans), new defensive coordinator Frank Bush was satisfied.

When regular season begins, Bush figures to be much more aggressive on blitzes and playing games up front.

COACHING: Gary Kubiak, fourth year, 22-26.

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 8-8 (3rd in AFC South).

PREDICTING: 2009 record: 10-6 (3rd in AFC South), missing playoffs.


Notes and Quotes
--Mario Williams and Antonio Smith, the starting defensive ends, get around Reliant Stadium on Segways.

--DT Jeff Zgonina, 39, was the oldest defensive player in the NFL last season. The Texans are his eighth team. He has two sacks in preseason.

--LB Chaun Thompson is in danger of not making the team because of a sore foot he injured while punting on the practice field.

--QB Dan Orlovsky, who spent his first four seasons with Detroit and was 0-8 as a starter last season, is keeping a close eye on his former team. "I wish them nothing but the best," he said. "I still have a lot of friends there, and I hope they do well."

--OLB Cato June was placed on injured reserve because of a broken forearm. He was going to have a difficult time making the team because he also suffered a knee injury early in camp.

--TE Owen Daniels and MLB DeMeco Ryans turned down contract extensions in the offseason. They were hoping to get new deals before regular season begins, but there's nothing new. General manager Rick Smith doesn't like to negotiate contracts during the season. If they don't sign in a hurry, it'll be the next offseason before they have another chance.

--Since Gary Kubiak became head coach, he's been looking for a deep snapper who can contribute at another position. He prefers not to carry a snapper who does nothing else. Backup TE Joel Dreessen has done well snapping in preseason, putting Clark Harris in jeopardy.

--DT Travis Johnson, who hadn't participated in the offseason program or preseason after undergoing hernia surgery, was traded to San Diego for a conditional sixth-round draft choice. The pick can become a No. 5 depending on how much playing time Johnson gets with the Chargers.

--C Chris Myers (ankle) and LG Chester Pitts (shoulder) made their preseason debuts in the 17-10 loss to the Vikings. Neither is 100 percent, but they'll play themselves into shape. Kasey Studdard, a third-year guard who started in place of Pitts, is pushing him for the starting job.

--Second-year CB Antwaun Molden, a third-round pick who played special teams as a rookie, played well under the circumstances in his preseason debut against Minnesota. He was on the field or 20 plays and did well enough, according to the coaches.

--CB Jacques Reeves, who missed preseason because of a fractured fibula, is hoping to return a couple of weeks into the season. When he's healthy, the Texans will have their starting corners for the first time since last season if Dunta Robinson reports and signs his one-year tender as the franchise player.

BY THE NUMBERS: 112 - Consecutive regular-season starts for LG Chester Pitts, who has missed only one series in the team's first seven seasons.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our secret weapon? We're going to unleash our secret weapon at tight end, fullback and on special teams." - Coach Gary Kubiak, when asked if rookie TE James Casey was going to get more playing time in the last preseason game at Tampa Bay.


Strategy and Personnel
Starting quarterback Matt Schaub is out with a sprained ankle that is keeping him off the practice field. Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman are sharing time in the last preseason game and preparing to start the opener against the Jets just in case Schaub can't play. Schaub has assured the coaches that he'll be available for the Jets.

PLAYER NOTES

--FS Eugene Wilson has a sore knee that could keep him out of the opener against the Jets. He suffered the injury when Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre drilled him with an illegal crack-back block.

--DT Shaun Cody has moved into the starting lineup on the nose next to Amobi Okoye. Even though Cody is only 310 rather than the road-grader type, he's been the most consistent defensive tackle in camp and preseason.

--SS Dominique Barber, in his second year, is trying to hold off veteran Nick Ferguson for the starting job. Ferguson played well last season when paired with FS Eugene Wilson.

--FS Eugene Wilson is nursing a knee injury and is day-to-day for practice, so Brandon Harrison and John Busing are trying to capitalize. Harrison, entering his third year, is being pushed by Busing. Harrison is 6-2, 220, runs well and is smart but doesn't make many plays.

--WR/PR Jacoby Jones scored two touchdowns on returns last season. He hasn't been able to get going in preseason because the blocking has been terrible.

--WR Kevin Walter, who scored eight touchdowns last season, has a hamstring injury that could make him questionable for the Jets opener. If Walter can't play, Andre Davis will replace him.

PLAYER TO WATCH: FS John Busing - He spent his first three seasons playing special teams for the Bengals. When they dumped him, the Texans signed him in May. As soon as he arrived for the offseason program, the coaches started pumping him up. He continued to do well in camp and has played well in preseason - at safety and on special teams. He's pushing Brandon Harrison for the backup job at free safety. At 6-1, 217, he's got good size, and he packs a pop.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/15, OLB Brian Cushing, Southern Cal - Starter on the strong side who missed preseason because of a sprained knee. Is expected to start opener against the Jets.

Rd. 2/46, DE Connor Barwin, Cincinnati - Comes off the bench in passing situations and plays the right side, freeing Mario Williams to move to the left side. Had two sacks in his first two preseason games.

Rd. 3/77, C Antoine Caldwell, Alabama - Backup at center and right guard has impressed the coaches with his quickness and intelligence.

Rd. 4/112, CB Glover Quin, New Mexico - Has alternated between starter and nickel back. Has good size, and the coaches love his toughness.

Rd. 4/122, TE Anthony Hill, North Carolina State - At 6-6, 269, he's a blocker with inconsistent hands. Excels on special teams.

Rd. 5/152, TE James Casey, Rice - Plays tight end, fullback and special teams. Makes more acrobatic catches in practice than any player on the team.

Rd. 6/188, CB Brice McCain, Utah - The fastest player on the team is only 5-9, 179, but he's started two preseason games and played well for a rookie.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Schaub. Backups - Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman.

Schaub is nursing a sprained ankle but should be ready for the Jets. He must stay healthy for the first time for the offense and the team to get where it wants to go, the playoffs for the first time. Orlovsky is making too many mistakes as the backup. Grossman isn't 100 percent recovered from a hamstring injury but still appeared in two preseason games.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Steve Slaton. Backups - Chris Brown, Ryan Moats, FB Vonta Leach.

Slaton is up to 215 and is prepared for a lot of punishment for a second consecutive season. He's shifty and plays well in the zone scheme. He's also an excellent receiver. Brown is 6-3, 237 and has ideal size for their system, but he's got to stay healthy. Leach is an excellent lead blocker because he's physical as well as talented.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Owen Daniels. Backups - Joel Dreessen, Anthony Hill, James Casey.

Daniels made the Pro Bowl last season and should be a candidate again. He fits well with the crossing routes they love to run, and he's good after the catch. Dreessen is adequate on the line and as a receiver. Of the two rookies, Hill is a better blocker and Casey a better receiver. Casey also is the backup fullback.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter. Backups - Andre Davis, David Anderson, Jacoby Jones.

Johnson led the NFL in catches and yards. He had eight touchdowns, the same number as Walter, who's entering a contract season. Davis, Anderson and Jones are in their third seasons as backups. Anderson is best on short and intermediate routes. Davis is solid all-around. Jones has big-play ability but is too inconsistent.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Duane Brown, LG Chester Pitts, C Chris Myers, RG Mike Brisiel, RT Eric Winston. Backups - C Chris White, C/G Antoine Caldwell, G Kasey Studdard, OT Rashad Butler.

Every starter but Brown played every play of last season. He started every game as a rookie and has been terrific in camp and preseason. Myers and Pitts are coming off injuries. Winston has quietly become one of the league's best at his position. Pitts has started every game in team history, but if he slows down, Studdard is ready to take his place. At some point, Caldwell could challenge Brisiel.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Antonio Smith, LT Shaun Cody, RT Amobi Okoye, RE Mario Williams. Backups - RE Connor Barwin, LE Tim Bulman, LT DelJuan Robinson, LT Frank Okam, Jeff Zgonina.

As a group, they've played the run poorly in preseason, but they've provided a pass rush, thanks to two sacks each by Barwin and Zgonina. Barwin is a pure edge rusher who explodes off the ball and turns the corner in a hurry. Smith needs to improve against the run and on the pass rush. Okoye has been a disappointment and would be pushed by Cody if he hadn't worked his way into the lineup on the nose. Williams is their best lineman against the run and pass. He's looking for double-digit sacks for a third consecutive year.

LINEBACKER: Starters - LOLB Zac Diles, MLB DeMeco Ryans, ROLB Brian Cushing. Backups - LOLB Xavier Adibi, MLB Buster Davis, ROLB Kevin Bentley.

Ryans was outstanding in preseason. He's the team leader and the face of the defense. Cushing is the starter who missed preseason because of a knee injury. He'll start in the opener against the Jets and allow Diles to switch back to the left side, where he should replace Adibi in the lineup. Adibi and Bentley would give them quality depth with two former starters. As a group, they must improve against the run by being smarter and more physical.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Fred Bennett, RCB Dunta Robinson, SS Dominique Barber, FS Eugene Wilson. Backups - LCB Brice McCain, RCB Glover Quin, RCB Antwaun Molden, LCB Jacques Reeves, SS Nick Ferguson, FS John Busing.

Robinson hasn't participated in the offseason program or preseason because he didn't want to be the franchise player. But the game checks start next week, and he's due to make $586,000 a week as the franchise player. If he's ready to go, he'll start against the Jets. McCain and Quin are rookies who got a lot of valuable playing time in preseason. Quin is more physical. McCain is faster. Quin will be the nickel back. They need better and more consistent production from the safeties. Expect Barber to hold off Ferguson as the starter.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Kris Brown, P Matt Turk, LS Joel Dreessen, KOR Andre Davis, PR Jacoby Jones, LS Clark Harris.

Harris did an outstanding job of snapping over the last four games of last season but doesn't play a position. Dreessen is the backup tight end. Brown gets better with age and has proved he can kick game-winning field goals in any conditions. Turk is 41 and has a strong leg in the first half but seems to give out in the second.

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