Texans set high expectations for 2010
HOUSTON -- The walls of the Houston Texans' main meeting room are decorated with action photos of the team's current stars and lists of their individual accolades.There's receiver Andre Johnson, a two-time All-Pro. And defensive end Mario Williams, who's played in the last two Pro Bowls. And linebacker Brian Cushing, last season's defensive rookie of the year. And quarterback Matt Schaub, the most valuable player of the last Pro Bowl.
The trick now is turning the individual achievements into team success.
Houston went 9-7 last year, its first winning record, but one victory short of the franchise's first trip to the playoffs. Heading into their ninth season, the Texans have their deepest, most talented roster and anything less than a postseason berth will qualify as another disappointment.
"The expectation for the organization is to win a championship," said Coach Gary Kubiak, entering his fifth season. "That can't get done until we win the AFC South or make the playoffs, so we've got to stay focused on those two things and that will be our goal. But we've got to understand the work that has to come to accomplish those goals."
The Texans' offense ranked fourth in the league last season (383 yards per game), carried mostly by the NFL's top passing attack (291 yards per game).
Schaub led the NFL in passing yards (4,770) and Andre Johnson topped 1,500 receiving yards for the second straight season, the only receiver other than Jerry Rice to accomplish the feat. Schaub also ranked among the top seven in completion percentage (67.9), touchdown passes (29) and passer rating (98.6).
The Texans need to find a running game to complement the aerial efficiency.
Houston ranked 30th in rushing (92.2 yards per game) in 2009, and their anemic ground attack cost them late in games last season.
Kubiak hired Rick Dennison after offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to join his father, Mike, in Washington. Dennison brings a reputation as a running game guru after coaching either the offensive line or the entire offense in Denver from 2001-09. The Broncos ranked second in rushing over that span (135 yards per game).
Last season, Houston went through four running backs -- Steve Slaton, Ryan Moats, Chris Brown and Arian Foster -- and there's an ongoing competition for the starting role at training camp.
Foster emerged in the final two games in 2009, rushing for 218 yards, and he's started the first two preseason games. Slaton, who missed the last five games of last season with a neck injury, is Foster's main challenger for the job if he can prove that he can hang on to the ball. He fumbled seven times in 2009 and dropped another one in Houston's first preseason game.
Veteran Chris Henry and second-year pro Jeremiah Johnson are also taking reps at running back. Second-round draft pick Ben Tate was lost for the season when he broke his ankle in the preseason opener.
"We've got a young group of backs who are going to have to play well and maybe play above and beyond the call of duty," Kubiak said. "There is a lot being expected of them."
Injuries along the offensive line contributed to the sputtering ground game in 2009. Guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel sustained early, season-ending setbacks and the coaches are evaluating several interior linemen during training camp to solidify the line.
"It's just a matter of consistency," Dennison said. "Everyone just needs to do their job, be accountable and understand what we're trying to do. That goes for the running backs, the line, everybody."
The closest position duel at training camp may be between kickers Kris Brown and Neil Rackers. Brown is the last Texan remaining from the team's inaugural 2002 season, but he missed 11 field-goal tries last year, including two in the closing seconds of key divisional games.
Houston signed the free agent Rackers in the offseason, and Kubiak said midway through training camp that the competition is dead-even. Rackers hit a 52-yard field goal and Brown booted a 43-yarder in Saturday's preseason game in New Orleans.
"The mindset for Kris and I just has to be, you just do your best," said Rackers, who was 16-for-17 on field goal attempts for Arizona last season. "You do what you do and what's made you successful in this league, and make the Texans make a decision. Who is best for the team is what it boils down to."
Houston's defense will play its first four games without linebacker Brian Cushing, suspended for testing positive for HCG, a fertility drug that is on the NFL's banned substances list because it is sometimes used to mask steroid use. Cushing was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year after making 134 tackles last season, tied with Ray Lewis for the most in the AFC.
Xavier Adibi and Danny Clark were the frontrunners to take Cushing's place, but both sustained injuries during training camp. That could leave Kubiak to move rookie Darryl Sharpton or special teams captain Kevin Bentley into a starting role, with Zac Diles moving to fill Cushing's spot.
Mario Williams returns to anchor the defensive line. Houston's defense ranked 11th against the run (106.9 yards per game), but rushing the passer will be more imperative this season with an inexperienced secondary.
First-round pick Kareem Jackson replaces veteran Dunta Robinson on one corner and second-year pro Glover Quin handles the other. Safety Bernard Pollard played well last year after joining the Texans a month into the season.
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