2 Houston TEXANS

This team has talent, but does it have toughness? If so, the playoffs are in reach
September 05, 2010

ON PAPER the Texans would seem to have the makings of a Super Bowl contender. Prolific passer Matt Schaub and gifted wide receiver Andre Johnson trigger one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. A trio of first-round draft picks—end Mario Williams (first overall in 2006), tackle Amobi Okoye (10th, '07) and linebacker Brian Cushing (15th, '09)—propel a defense on the rise. Electric returner Jacoby Jones and a stout punt coverage unit anchor one of the league's steadier special teams units.

But the surplus of talent belies the lack of a killer instinct. Mental mistakes proved to be Houston's undoing on more than a few occasions last season in which the team lost six games by eight points or fewer. (What's worse, the Texans were either tied or had the lead in the second half in all but one of those losses.) The depth of the team's errors was on full display in a key Week 12 home matchup against Indianapolis. After jumping out to a 17--0 lead, Houston got burned for a pick-six and fumbled in the last nine minutes of the game on the way to a 35--27 loss.

The defeat was just one of five in the AFC South that kept the Texans from claiming the first postseason berth in franchise history. (They did finish above .500 for the first time, at 9--7.) "It's hard to get to the playoffs when you're 1--5 in your own division," says Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels, who is slowly returning to the offense after suffering a season-ending right ACL tear in Week 8.

It's even harder to win games with a running back who fumbles as consistently as Steve Slaton. While not yet on the level of former Houston quarterback David Carr (who fumbled a franchise-record 21 times in 2002), Slaton's seven cough-ups in '09 were still the most by a nonquarterback in team history.

The main culprit for Slaton's poor ballhandling was a pinched nerve in his neck that worsened with the punishment he absorbed in practices and games. "Week in and week out I would just get weaker in my right arm," says Slaton, adding that the pain grew so severe that he could barely turn a doorknob or pick up his kids. "It just reached a point where I wasn't strong enough to hold anything."

The Texans shut him down with five games to go, and in January he underwent cervical fusion surgery, a procedure that relieved pressure on the nerve. In the interim, he watched his grip on the starting job slip. Leading the race to replace him is 6'1", 229-pound Arian Foster, a physical second-year back out of Tennessee whose hunger to succeed befits his status as an undrafted free agent. Last season Foster went from toiling on the practice squad to playing special teams to rushing for a game-high 119 yards and two touchdowns in a season-ending win over New England.

"One of the things that's stuck with me is when Coach [Gary] Kubiak said, 'It doesn't matter if you're Brian [Cushing] or a guy that's undrafted—if you can play in this league, we'll find a way to get you on the field,'" recalls Foster. "That stuck with me. Ever since that day I felt like I belonged."

Foster figures to be deeply involved in the Texans' offense this fall after the loss of rookie Ben Tate, who suffered season-ending ankle and fibula injuries in the Texans' preseason opener. (Tate, a second-round selection out of Auburn, was vying with Foster and Slaton for carries.)

And the offense will have to be even better than it was in 2009 to make up for the loss of Cushing, the Defensive Rookie of the Year who was suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. His explanations for the positive test ranged from overtraining to the presence of a tumor.

Without Cushing, the Texans would seem to have lost the one thing that they didn't have in abundant supply—toughness. But safety Bernard Pollard has a warning for opponents expecting a drop-off in intensity in Cushing's absence. "We're letting receivers know that if you come across the middle, you're gonna get hit," says Pollard, who won't shy from testing the rules to make his point. "You know what? I'll be the first one to take the fine. I'll write it off. We have to establish that fear."

That killer mentality, and a bit more focus, could transform the Texans from paper champs to playoff contenders.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH GARY KUBIAK

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 4

QB MATT SCHAUB

G 16

ATT 583

COMP 396

PCT 67.9

YARDS 4,770

TD 29

INT 15

RATING 98.6

RB ARIAN FOSTER

G 6

ATT 54

YARDS 257

AVG 4.8

REC 8

YARDS 93

AVG 11.6

TTD 3

FB VONTA LEACH

G 16

ATT 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

REC 20

YARDS 155

AVG 7.8

TTD 1

WR ANDRE JOHNSON

G 16

REC 101

YARDS 1,569

TTD 9

WR KEVIN WALTER

G 14

REC 53

YARDS 611

TTD 2

TE OWEN DANIELS

G 8

REC 40

YARDS 519

TTD 5

LT DUANE BROWN

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 315

LG KASEY STUDDARD

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 302

C CHRIS MYERS

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 292

RG MIKE BRISIEL

G 5

HT 6'5"

WT 296

RT ERIC WINSTON

G 16

HT 6'7"

WT 317

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 13

DE ANTONIO SMITH

G 16

TACKLES 34

SACKS 4½

INT 0

DT SHAUN CODY

G 14

TACKLES 21

SACKS ½

INT 0

DT AMOBI OKOYE

G 16

TACKLES 38

SACKS 1½

INT 0

DE MARIO WILLIAMS

G 16

TACKLES 43

SACKS 9

INT 0

LB ZAC DILES

G 16

TACKLES 62

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB DEMECO RYANS

G 16

TACKLES 123

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB BRIAN CUSHING

G 16

TACKLES 133

SACKS 4

INT 4

CB GLOVER QUIN

G 15

TACKLES 68

SACKS 0

INT 0

FS EUGENE WILSON

G 8

TACKLES 29

SACKS 0

INT 2

SS BERNARD POLLARD

G 13

TACKLES 102

SACKS 1½

INT 4

CB KAREEM JACKSON (R)

G 9

TACKLES 27

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIAL TEAMS

P MATT TURK

PUNTS 67

AVG 42.8

NET 39.4

K KRIS BROWN

FG 21--32

XP 43--44

POINTS 106

PR JACOBY JONES

RET 39

AVG 10.9

TD 0

KR ANDRE' DAVIS

RET 33

AVG 23.7

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 9--7

September

12 Indianapolis

19 at Washington

26 Dallas

October

3 at Oakland

10 N.Y. Giants

17 Kansas City

24 BYE

November

1 at Indianapolis (M)

7 San Diego

14 at Jacksonville

21 at N.Y. Jets

28 Tennessee

December

2 at Philadelphia (T)

13 Baltimore (M)

19 at Tennessee

26 at Denver

January

2 Jacksonville

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: T1

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .547

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 7

ANALYSIS

The Texans open with the Colts, whom they've beaten only once in 16 tries, and then get three NFC East teams in their next four dates. The end of the schedule is almost as rough; Houston's on the road for three of its last five. There just aren't many easy matchups for a franchise still seeking its first playoff appearance.

SPOTLIGHT

Kareem Jackson, Cornerback

IF THERE'S a personnel piece that's missing from Houston's playoff puzzle, it's a top-flight cornerback. The Texans had one in seven-year vet Dunta Robinson, who wanted more money than the Texans were willing to pay so they let him walk to the Falcons in the off-season. Now Houston believes it may have found another one in Jackson, a first-rounder out of Alabama who is practically a Robinson facsimile. Like Robinson, Jackson has decent size (5'10", 197 pounds) and athleticism and is exceptionally instinctive. But also like Robinson, durability is an issue with Jackson, as is his habit of gambling for interceptions.

However, what is not at issue is Jackson's ability to grasp the Texans' defensive scheme, which resembles the system the Crimson Tide ran under former NFL coach Nick Saban. To help Jackson make the transition to the increased speed of the pro game, Houston coaches put Jackson against the first teamers in practice, where he took his lumps against All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson. The staff expects that Jackson will start opposite second-year pro Glover Quin, another young player who flourished under the team's baptism-by-fire philosophy. Quin started 12 games as a rookie and led the Texans with 11 passes defended.

If Houston is to improve a pass defense that ranked 20th in interceptions (14) and touchdowns allowed (19) in 2009, then Jackson will have to settle in quickly. Coach Gary Kubiak thinks he has the kind of attitude that could make him special in short order. "He's just an even-keeled guy," Kubiak says. "Nothing really bothers him. You can tell he's practiced and played against good people. Nothing's too big for him right now."

PHOTOGREG NELSONHAND OFF The inability of Slaton (20) to hold on to the ball gives Foster the edge to start. PHOTOGREG NELSON

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)