| Schaub wasprolific but hadhis troubles insidethe red zone.|
|Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMI |
13 N.Y. JETS
20 at Tennessee
11 at Arizona
18 at Cincinnati
25 SAN FRANCISCO
1 at Buffalo
8 at Indianapolis
23 TENNESSEE (M)
6 at Jacksonville
20 at St. Louis
27 at Miami
3 NEW ENGLAND
|Steve Slaton, Running back: As a rookie last season Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards (more than anyother first-year player), averaged 4.8 yards a carry (the same as AdrianPeterson) and ran for nine touchdowns (tied for 13th in the league). But whenthe ballots for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year were counted, Slaton was shutout. The panel of 50 sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league cast 44votes for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, three for Titans running back ChrisJohnson, two for Broncos tackle Ryan Clady and one for Bears running back MattForte.|
Slaton doesn't need the snub to make him a better back this season -- his variedgifts as a runner are sufficient. His speed (4.44 in the 40) combined withtoughness between the tackles makes him an ideal threat carrying the ball aswell as an excellent decoy to set up the play-action. If Slaton had a weaknesscarrying the ball in 2008, it was inside the red zone, where he sometimes showedimpatience by not following his blockers.
To better handle the rigors of pass protection and blitz pickup, the third-round pick out of West Virginia reported to training camp a muscular 215pounds (up from 203 as a rookie). If he still has his burst, the Texans'offense, which ranked third in the league in '08, will be even more dangerous in'09. And then Slaton might be on the minds of voters for NFL MVP.
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
With the core players hitting their prime, this bunch is (finally) ready to reach the top in a daunting division.
Gary Kubiak gets up in Houston every day knowing that Peyton Manningis a world-beater in Indianapolis, Jeff Fisher is loaded with talent inTennessee and there is no such thing as a soft team in Jacksonville. This maysound like a heavy burden for Kubiak, but the fourth-year coach has learned toembrace his membership in the AFC South. "I tell our guys all the time, we'renot going to wait for these great teams to come back to us," he says. "We've gotto get them."
The Texans are finally in a position to do just that. Houston has beenlanguishing in the middle of the pack for the last three years (six wins 2006,eight in both 2007 and '08), but now its key starters are entering their primes.Defensive end Mario Williams, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end OwenDaniels -- all of whom have been to a Pro Bowl -- are heading into their fourthseasons; quarterback Matt Schaub is starting his sixth; and his primaryreceivers, Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, are going into their seventh. "We'reready to take that next step," says Schaub. "A lot of guys are in their thirdand fourth years in [Kubiak's] system. It's time to make that jump."
Schaub, 28, who came from Atlanta in 2007, appears primed to join thequarterback elite. Despite missing five games last season (four to an left MCLinjury on a low hit by Jared Allen that earned the Vikings defender a heftyfine) he still threw for 3,043 yards and completed 66.1% of his passes. TheTexans had no trouble moving up and down the field; punching the ball into theend zone was the issue. The offense was third in the NFL in yards per game(382.1) but only 17th in points (22.9). Houston was also 29th in the league inturnover margin, with a -10. "We could have put ourselves in better situationsif we'd taken care of the football and were better in the red zone, not settlingfor [field goals]," Schaub says. "If we'd done those things, maybe we would havewon more games."
The talent is there. The 6' 3", 223-pound Johnson led the league incatches but still flies mostly under the radar. He says he's never felt betterentering a season, after giving his body more rest than usual in the spring.During the year he faces the opponent's best corner every Sunday, not to mentionextra coverage from safeties trying to keep him from beating them over the top.But for all his gifts -- and those of his team -- he has grown weary of the annualdiscussions about the Texans' impending breakthrough to the postseason. "Lastyear we talked about it so much," says Johnson, "it took the focus off of whatwe needed to do."
Kubiak, who joined the Texans in 2006, feels a particular kinship with thedraft class from that year, which brought Houston's key defensive players:Williams, taken first, and Ryans, picked 33rd. Few people now question draftingWilliams ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young: After getting just 4 1/2 sacksduring his rookie season, he has 26 over the last two years. As for Ryans, hisability to deliver hard hits and run sideline to sideline is surpassed only byhis desire to take charge. "I don't want to come off the field at any cost," hesays. "This is my defense -- no ifs, ands or buts about it. Our performancereflects my leadership."
Ryans and the Texans know that performance, not potential, will determinetheir fate in 2009. Every victory is precious, especially in a division thatnormally produces two teams with double-digit wins. One of them is the club withthe horseshoe on its helmets. "As long as number 18 is on their side," Schaubsays, referring to Manning, "the Colts are going to be a team to be reckonedwith."
They might be saying the same one day about Schaub and his number 8. Butfirst he must show he can regularly take the Texans to the end zone -- and theplayoffs.
-- Damon Hack