Texans expect defense to return to dominance

The Houston Texans advanced to the divisional round of the

playoffs the last two seasons.

That simply won’t do this year. The Texans are aiming much

higher this season and anything less than reaching the Super Bowl

will be a disappointment for a team loaded on both sides of the

ball.

”I think it’s obviously our main goal and our final goal, but

there are a lot of steps that lead up to that,” linebacker Brian

Cushing said of reaching the Super Bowl. ”It’s mentioned here and

there, but … there’s a ton of steps before we start talking about

the Super Bowl and it becomes a realization. It’s one of those

things that we have a lot of work to do before that’s real.”

The return of Cushing should be a boost to a defense that added

safety Ed Reed and features 2012 defensive player of the year J.J.

Watt. The unit was at its best early last season before Cushing

tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 5 and

missed the rest of the year.

Cushing is healthy and can’t wait to return to the field with

his teammates when Houston opens the season on Sept. 9 at San

Diego.

”Monday Night Football is a great stage to really perform on,”

Cushing said. ”It’s a chance to go back out there and really

establish our role as a dominant defense. To help with that is

going to be a tremendous feeling.”

Five things to look for as the Texans prepare for the season

opener:

WILL REED BE READY?: The Texans added Reed, a nine-time Pro

Bowler, in the offseason to shore up their secondary. But as the

season approaches, perhaps the biggest question for this team is if

he’ll be ready for the season-opener after April hip surgery. Coach

Gary Kubiak said Reed visited the surgeon who performed the surgery

to repair a partially-torn labrum this week and the coach said that

they should know more about his status for Week 1 soon. If he can’t

go, rookie second-round pick D.J. Swearinger could be forced into

action early.

ANDRE FINALLY HAS HELP: Andre Johnson has starred at receiver

since he was drafted in the franchise’s second season, but he’s

never had a big-time playmaker to line up on the opposite side. The

Texans hope that will change this season after they chose a

receiver in the first round of the draft for the first time since

drafting Johnson when they selected DeAndre Hopkins with the 27th

overall pick. Hopkins led Clemson with 82 receptions for 1,405

yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior last season. Hopkins sustained

a concussion in the second preseason game, but should be OK for the

opener. Houston is also excited about the development of Lestar

Jean, Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey, and Kubiak said that this is

the best group of receivers he’s had since he took over the

team.

WHAT WILL WATT DO NEXT?: Watt has vowed to be even better this

season than he was in 2012. It’s difficult to image how he could do

much more than he did a year ago after putting up eye-popping

numbers in just his second NFL season. Watt led the league last

year with 20 1/2 sacks and had 81 tackles. But perhaps most

impressive was his incredible knack for batting down passes, 16 in

all, which has earned him the catchy nickname J.J. Swatt (which he

doesn’t really like). He’s unhappy that team struggled down the

stretch last year, losing three of its last four regular-season

games to miss out on a playoff bye and homefield advantage in the

playoffs. ”We need to finish,” he said. ”Last year, we didn’t

finish at the end of the season and that’s exactly what we need to

do this year.”

FOSTER’S FEEL: Running back Arian Foster came off the physically

unable to perform list after struggling with a calf injury and back

soreness for most of camp. He did not play in Houston’s third

preseason game and Kubiak said he won’t play in the exhibition

finale, leaving questions about how he’ll perform in the opener.

Kubiak said he thinks Foster will be fine without getting a

preseason snap, and Foster agreed, saying he can get in synch with

the offensive line in practice. With just one other experienced

running back on the roster in Ben Tate, his health will be a key

for the success of the offense. Foster ran for 1,424 yards and 15

touchdowns last year for his third straight 1,200-yard rushing

season.

CAN SCHAUB WIN A BIG GAME: Quarterback Matt Schaub started every

game last season and threw for more than 4,000 yards with 22

touchdowns. Despite those numbers, some question whether Schaub is

the quarterback to take Houston to the next level. Last season was

his playoff debut after he missed Houston’s first playoff run with

a foot injury. The Texans season ended with a 41-28 loss to New

England. Schaub threw for 343 yards and two scores in that game,

but also had an interception in the fourth quarter ending a drive

which could have got Houston within a touchdown. That miscue had

many fans and media blaming the quarterback for the loss. Kubiak

has repeatedly expressed confidence in his quarterback and Schaub

said he ”puts blinders on” and ignores the outside criticism.

Online:

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org