Houston Texans eye Super Bowl

The pieces seem to be in place. All the Houston Texans have to

do is go out and prove they’re championship contenders on the

field.

Houston had a breakthrough season in 2011, winning the AFC South

and then battering Cincinnati in the expansion franchise’s first

playoff game. The magical year ended in Baltimore, and the Texans

walked off the field feeling like they were a handful of plays from

advancing even farther.

Every key player is back, running back Arian Foster and left

tackle Duane Brown signed long-term deals and the Texans think they

filled most of the gaps through the draft and free agency.

”I appreciate the fact that people are saying a lot of good

things about us,” coach Gary Kubiak said. ”I think we’re going to

be a good football team, but we want to be great and I think we’ve

got some work to do.”

Wade Phillips also returns to guide a defense that made one of

the biggest single-season turnarounds in NFL history in 2011,

ranking second in 2011 (285.7 yards per game). Career sacks leader

Mario Williams bolted for big money in Buffalo and linebacker

DeMeco Ryans was dealt to Philadelphia, but Houston used its

first-round draft pick on Whitney Mercilus and signed veteran

Bradie James, who’s well-versed in the defense after playing for

Phillips in Dallas.

Kubiak had questions about the team’s depth at tight end,

fullback and in the secondary heading into the final preseason

game. Otherwise, the Texans have no reason not to aim for the

biggest prize of all in 2012.

”We took the next step as a team,” quarterback Matt Schaub

said at the start of training camp, ”and the only next step after

that is to get to the Super Bowl and win it. So anything short of

that will be a disappointment in our eyes.”

Schaub fractured his right Lisfranc joint in Week 10 last year,

the most crippling of several in-season injuries. He completed 15

of 18 passes in the third preseason game in New Orleans and seems

to have rekindled his chemistry with Andre Johnson. The five-time

Pro Bowl receiver is also healthy again after missing nine games

last year with injuries to both hamstrings.

”You can see them, in practice, starting to come together a

little bit,” Kubiak said. ”That’s very important because that

gives confidence to our whole offense.”

Johnson turned 31 in July, and Kevin Walter enters his seventh

season in Houston. The depth behind those two has been bolstered by

the emergence of Lestar Jean, an undrafted free agent in 2011, and

fourth-round draft pick Keshawn Martin. DeVier Posey, a third-round

pick, has been slower to develop.

Backup tight end Garrett Graham sparkled in the first three

preseason games, sharing the team lead in receptions (seven) with

Jean and Martin. Graham, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, looks

to be a capable backup to Owen Daniels, who’s back for a seventh

season.

Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison says versatile fullback

James Casey ”can play darn near everywhere,” and Foster and Ben

Tate offer one of the league’s most potent 1-2 punches in the

backfield. Foster rushed for 1,224 yards last season and Tate ran

for 942.

Houston’s offensive line paved the way for the duo, and the

Texans finished second in rushing (153 yards per game). Right

tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel signed with other

teams in free agency, and Kubiak staged competitions for

replacements in the preseason.

Derek Newton, a seventh-round pick in 2011, started the third

preseason game at the tackle spot ahead of Rashad Butler, who spent

most of last season on injured reserve with a triceps injury.

”Newton’s a big, powerful guy,” Kubiak said. ”He’s younger

than Butler, he’s probably making a few more mistakes than Butler,

when it’s all said and done. Butler’s played a lot more football

than Newton has, he’s been in this league a lot longer, went

against some good players.”

Antoine Caldwell seems to have the edge at right guard over

Brandon Brooks, a third-round draft pick. Center Chris Myers made

his first Pro Bowl last year, Wade Smith is back for a third season

in Houston at left guard and Brown anchors the left side after

signing a six-year contract.

”We’ve seen a lot as an offensive line but the continuity,

having new faces, isn’t the main problem,” Brown said. ”We’re all

still pretty young players and have to get better individually and

continue to grow as a unit.”

The defense, meanwhile, made the third-largest single-season

improvement since 1970, allowing 91 fewer yards than it did in

2010. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning

provided instant stability in the secondary, and rookies J.J. Watt

and Brooks Reed made immediate impacts.

Outside linebacker Connor Barwin made 11 1/2 sacks, defensive

end Antonio Smith added a career-high 6 1/2 sacks and defensive end

Tim Jamison has stood out in the preseason with three sacks.

”The defense is never where you want it to be, you always want

to make it better,” Smith said. ”Wade’s got us on the track of

doing that. I think each and every week we won’t be satisfied with

where we are. I’m not satisfied at all if the defense ain’t at its

best.”

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