Defense key to Texans’ success in ’11

Mario Williams plowed through a line of blocking dummies in one

of the Houston Texans’ first practices, slamming each of them

sideways with powerful punches.

After another workout, he peppered linebackers coach Reggie

Herring with questions about hand position and footwork.

The Houston Texans are counting on Wade Phillips’ new 3-4

defensive alignment to finally lift them out of mediocrity and into

the playoffs for the first time.

And the 6-foot-6, 295-pound Williams may be the most pivotal

player in the switch, moving from end to outside linebacker.

The top overall pick in the 2006 draft, Williams has led the

Texans in sacks in each of his five seasons – even last year, when

he sat out the final three games because of a sports hernia. But

Houston’s coaches envision Williams morphing into the kind of

unstoppable force that 2010 NFL sacks leader DeMarcus Ware became

in the same position when Phillips was the head coach in

Dallas.

Coach Gary Kubiak saw more glimpses of what Williams could

become in the Texans’ second preseason game, a 27-14 win over New

Orleans.

”Reggie and Wade are trying to get him settled down on

everything he’s doing,” Kubiak said. ”It was just a big step

forward. I think he’s really taking to what they’re trying to teach

him, it is something totally different, but you see him get better

each day.”

But the Texans’ defense, last in the league against the pass in

2010, is showing in the preseason that it’s more than just

Williams.

Houston has 11 sacks from eight players and has generated four

turnovers in its two exhibition games. All of last season, the

Texans got only 30 sacks and 18 takeaways.

”I’m pleased with the progress,” Kubiak said. ”The thing I’m

excited about is I think we have more playmakers than we’ve

probably ever had around here. Like I said, we are getting our

hands on the football with the emphasis of turnovers and stripping

the ball. You can see that showing up on the field.”

First-round pick J.J. Watt has made a big impression in camp,

earning a starting nod at one defensive end position. Antonio Smith

will man the other end after recording four sacks in 2010.

Defensive line coach Bill Kollar says Smith’s skills are better

suited to the 3-4 than they are to the 4-3 defense that Houston

played last year.

Nose tackle is another key position in Phillips’ defense, and

Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell have been sharing reps in training

camp.

DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing will play the inside linebacker

spots, book-ended by Williams and Connor Barwin, who’s also making

the switch from defensive end. Barwin dislocated his ankle in the

first game last year and missed the rest of the season.

Houston needs a bounce-back year from Cushing, who served a

four-game suspension last season for testing positive for a banned

substance. He’s missed extended practice time due to a

slower-than-expected recovery from offseason knee surgery, but made

two tackles in about 20 plays in the second preseason game against

the Saints.

”He did a good job, he moved around very well,” Kubiak said.

”I thought his conditioning level held up.”

The Texans signed free agent cornerback Johnathan Joseph and

safety Danieal Manning to bolster a secondary that struggled in

2010. Joseph intercepted nine passes across his past two seasons in

Cincinnati. He’s been slowed by a groin injury in training

camp.

All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson said the additions of Joseph and

Manning were the two most significant in his eight seasons in

Houston.

While the defense is undergoing a facelift, the Texans’

high-powered offense returns virtually intact. Arian Foster, the

NFL’s leading rusher in 2010, is back, along with the entire

starting offensive line.

Houston lost All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach in free agency, but

versatile James Casey has played well at the position in the

preseason, and the Texans also signed veteran Lawrence Vickers.

The Texans ranked third in total offense (386.6 yards) and ninth

in scoring average (24.4 points) in 2010. Houston was hampered by

slow starts last season, something Johnson said has been a focus in

training camp.

”When you look back at the season last year, we weren’t

consistent,” said Johnson. ”That’s the thing that cost us a lot

of games. That’s something we’re trying to change. We’re just

trying to get better every week and every time we’re on the field.

I think we’ve done a good job of that the last two weeks.”