NFL team preview: Houston Texans
After last season when the Texans finished 9-7 and lost a playoff berth to the New York Jets on the last day of the season, coach Gary Kubiak said one objective would be to get more physical on both sides of the ball.
By the time the Texans got to training camp, Kubiak was ready for his players to take the next step toward meeting his goal.
"Our No. 1 focus in camp was to get more physical," said Kubiak, who enters his fifth season. "We hit in camp more than any time since I've been here. We tried to create a tougher environment. We want to be more physical on both sides of the ball because we think that'll help us finish (games) better.
"I'm very pleased with the results. I'm happy with the way our guys have done what we want. Now, we have to carry that over to the field."
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The coaches believe the Texans have to become more physical to improve in the AFC South. They were 1-5 in the division last season.
"It's time for somebody else to win the AFC South, and we believe we have the team to do it," Kubiak told fans at a Texans luncheon this week.
The defense became more physical over the last 13 games last season when it ranked fourth, including second against the run. The offense is getting more attention this season, and it begins with the running game.
Injuries hampered the running game last season when the Texans ranked 30th against the run, including 3.5 yards a carry. Now they have new starting guards and a running back, Arian Foster, who picked up where he left off last season.
Foster, 6-1, 227, is a power back with the speed to get around the corner. He gouged Miami and New England for 216 yards and three touchdowns in his only two starts at the end of last season.
In a 23-7 preseason victory over Dallas, he rushed for 110 yards and averaged 6.1 per carry. The offensive linemen were much more physical, and it's something Kubiak hopes will become a habit against the Colts.
"I have high expectations for myself," Foster said. "I think highly of myself. I think every successful player in this league does. What I've done hasn't surprised me because I set high goals."
Foster was undrafted last year. The Texans signed him to a two-year contract to keep him away from the Saints and Jets. He began on the practice squad and worked his way on to special teams before getting to start in the last two games, both victories.
"It wasn't instantaneous by any stretch of the imagination," Foster said about his success. "They let me go, but they brought me back on the practice squad. That showed they saw something in me. When the opportunity came, I made the most of it."
COACHING: Gary Kubiak, 5th year, 5th with Texans (31-33).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 9-7 (2nd in AFC South).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record 10-6 (2nd in AFC South); lose in wild-card round.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Texans drafted running back Ben Tate in the second round and receiver Trindon Holliday in the sixth because they thought both could add to an already explosive offense that ranked fourth, including second passing.
Tate suffered season-ending ankle and fibula injuries in the first preseason game. Holliday, who was supposed to be a game-changing return man because of his 4.2 speed, suffered torn ligaments in his thumb. Tate and Holliday were placed on injured reserve.
All the news hasn't been bad, though. Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels was cleared to return to practice 13 days before the opener against Indianapolis. Daniels underwent knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, then suffered a setback during his rehab in May when he developed a stress fracture on his kneecap.
Daniels passed the Texans' physical and was taken off the active/PUP list. He practiced with his teammates for the first time since he suffered the injury in the eighth game at Buffalo. He was on a pace for 60 catches, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Daniels wanted to play in the last preseason game against Tampa Bay, but coach Gary Kubiak told him no. Ideally, Daniels will take 15 to 20 snaps against the Colts. He's quarterback Matt Schaub's second-favorite target behind Andre Johnson and excels on the bootleg plays on which he runs crossing routes, usually wide open.
--RG Mike Brisiel, who took every snap two years ago but suffered a season-ending foot injury last season, has been backing up on the right side and at center. He's putting pressure on Antoine Caldwell for the starting job at right guard.
--C Chris Myers kept his starting job for a third consecutive season by playing exceptionally well in the 23-7 victory over Dallas. Myers played last season with a high ankle sprain, but he's healthy now.
--P Matt Turk is coming off a good preseason. He's 42, but last season, he punted well enough for the Texans to rank second in punt coverage. Turk gets good hand time, and his direction is uncanny, especially at his age.
--DT Amobi Okoye dropped from 295 to 282 because he wanted to increase his quickness. It worked in preseason. He had a sack and came close four other times. The weight loss hasn't affected him against the run so far.
--RB Jeremiah Johnson signed with the Texans last year as an undrafted free agent, then underwent shoulder surgery and was placed on injured reserve. He went to camp as the fifth back and is now third. In his first three games, he carried 16 times for 87 yards, a 5.4-yard average.
--FS Troy Nolan, a seventh-round pick last year who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, was the most impressive of the unheralded defensive players going into camp. At 6-2, 206, he's got good size, but he showed range and hitting ability. He's no threat to take Eugene Wilson's starting job, but Wilson better stay healthy.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/20, CB Kareem Jackson, Alabama -- Was placed in the starting lineup as soon as he arrived in Houston. He played very well.
Rd. 2/58, RB Ben Tate, Auburn -- Suffered season-ending foot and fibula injuries and will spend the season on injured reserve.
Rd. 3/81, DT Earl Mitchell, Arizona -- Ran a 4.78 40 at the combine and has shown quickness and explosiveness. Has been elevated to become part of the inside rotation.
Rd. 4/102, OLB Darryl Sharpton, Miami -- Had an outstanding camp and preseason. Has been the backup at three spots.
Rd. 4/118, TE Garrett Graham, Wisconsin -- A sure-handed H-back type who runs good routes, works hard but needs to get stronger and improve as a blocker.
Rd. 5/144, CB Sherrick McManis, Northwestern -- One of the surprises of camp and preseason. Fell behind in the offseason program but made a lot of improvement in camp.
Rd. 6/187, G Shelley Smith, Colorado State -- A backup with a nasty streak. He made progress as a pass protector in preseason.
Rd. 6/197, WR Trindon Holliday, LSU -- Was supposed to be a game-changing kick returner but was placed on injured reserve with ligament damage in his thumb.
Rd. 7/227, WR Dorin Dickerson, Pitt -- The combine star was placed at wideout behind Andre Johnson and told to watch and learn.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matt Schaub. Backup -- Dan Orlovsky.
Schaub is coming off an exceptional receiver with a league-high 4,770 yards and 29 touchdowns. He's become a team leader on and off the field. His receivers have confidence in him because he's extremely accurate. He's tough and can take a beating. Last season was his first as a 16-game starter. He'd like to reduce his 15 interceptions and improve in the red-zone offense. Orlovsky is a competent backup who runs the same plays as Schaub, but nobody wants to see him play after the last preseason game.
The Texans are 18-2 under Gary Kubiak when they run at least 30 times, so no wonder he wants to improve a 30th-ranked running game. Foster is a physical runner who plays with a chip on his shoulder because he wasn't drafted last season. He runs well between the tackles. Slaton is an ideal change-of-pace back because he's a tremendous receiver. As a former starter, he'll touch the ball 10 to 12 times a game if he can avoid fumbles. Leach is an outstanding lead blocker.
Daniels was on his way to a second consecutive Pro Bowl when he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He was on a pace for 60 catches, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was cleared to practice last week and will play for the first time in the opener against the Colts. He has good hands, runs precise routes, catches in traffic and wants the ball in clutch situations. Dreessen, who started in place of Daniels, is the team's most underrated player. He catches well, blocks hard and plays on every special team. Casey and Graham are young, fast and athletic, but they won't play much barring injury.
This is the most talented area of the team. Johnson, one of two receivers to post consecutive 1,500-yard seasons, might be the league's best. Jones has good size and speed. Kubiak said he considers Jones, currently the No. 3 receiver, another starter. He had 27 catches and six touchdowns. He'll get the ball a lot more. Walter is solid at everything but spectacular at nothing. Anderson is coming off a career-high 38 receptions. The one thing the receivers can do better is to catch the ball more consistently in the red zone.
Brown needs to be more consistent against the quicker rushers. Winston is the best lineman, but he doesn't get a lot of attention even through the running game has worked best on his side the last two seasons. Smith and Caldwell are new starters. Myers gets a lot of grief from fans and media, but the coaches love him. Butler is the swing tackle. Brisiel and Studdard are former starters. As a group, they've got to become more physical in the running game.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Mario Williams, LT Shaun Cody, RT Amobi Okoye, RE Antonio Smith. Backups -- LDE Connor Barwin, LDE Tim Jamison, LT Frank Okam, LT Earl Mitchell, RDE Jesse Nading, RDE Malcolm Sheppard.
Williams, Barwin and Smith combined for 18 sacks. Williams needs to be more consistent, and his motor needs to kick into another gear when he's blocked by one player. He had nine sacks and made the Pro Bowl. If he doesn't have at least 12 this season, fans will be disappointed. Barwin, who added 10 pounds of muscle and is up to 265, should be their most improved player. Smith, a physical player against the run, moves inside in passing situations. They need more inside pressure from Okoye, who had 1 1/2 sacks last season. Keep an eye on Mitchell, a rookie with quickness off the ball and a mean streak.
Cushing, the defensive rookie of the year last season, is suspended for the first four games. Bentley, a former starter on the strong side who backs up in the middle, is expected to replace him. The coaches don't want to move Diles, a former starter on the strong side, to his previous position. The idea is to change only one position if possible. Ryans, coming off a Pro Bowl season, is the team leader who covers a lot of ground and makes tackles in the backfield. Sharpton had an outstanding camp and preseason backing up at all three positions.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Glover Quin, RCB Kareem Jackson, SS Bernard Pollard, FS Eugene Wilson. Backups -- LCB Antwaun Molden, LCB Jacques Reeves, RCB Brice McCain, SS Dominique Barber, SS Torri Williams, FS Troy Nolan.
The coaches aren't afraid to go green at cornerback. Quin, a starter, and McCain, the nickel, enter their second season. Jackson is the first-round pick. Quin and Jackson are physical against the run and have the skills for man coverage. Pollard was their best defensive back last season. He's physical, plays the run well but also covers well. He brings another level of intensity to the defense. Barber is the best backup at both safety positions, but Nolan was a big surprise in camp.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Neil Rackers, P Matt Turk, LS Jon Weeks, KOR Steve Slaton, PR Jacoby Jones.
Rackers, signed as a free agent, has waged a battle with Kris Brown, the last original Texan, through the offseason program, camp and preseason. Both were excellent on just about every kick. Turk, 42, helped the Texans rank second in punt coverage last season and has done well in preseason. Weeks is a rookie snapper. Slaton, nursing a sore toe that kept him out of the last preseason game, is returning kickoffs because he's not starting. He's expected to be ready for the Indianapolis opener. Jones is a dynamic return man who's capable of scoring every time he touches the ball.