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Houston Texans 2010 Season Preview

By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For a second straight year, the Houston Texans enter the 2010 season right on the verge of being a playoff-bound team. Now they just have to make sure they don't make it two disappointing seasons in row.

The Texans were a sexy sleeper pick to break into the postseason party a year ago, thanks to a high-caliber offense and a strong finish in 2008 that saw Houston finish with five wins in its last six contests. 2009 also finished with a bang in the form of a four-game winning streak, but lets be honest; Houston wasn't happy with its 9-7 record and second-place finish in the AFC South, despite both being franchise bests.

That's because Houston's grand finale came right after a back-breaking four- game losing streak -- all against division opponents -- that gave the Texans a disappointing 1-5 mark versus the AFC South.

That won't fly again this year in the city of Houston, which hasn't tasted a playoff game since the Oilers reached the second season in 1994.

The Texans finished 2009 with the NFL's top passing attack
(290.9 yards per game).
"Well, the expectation for the organization is to win a championship, [but] 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," said head coach Gary Kubiak. "But we've got to understand the work that has to come to accomplish those goals, this is the time of the year when it's about work."

There is no doubt that Houston has the offense to compete in this league. Led by a pair of Pro Bowlers in quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson, the Texans finished 2009 with the NFL's top passing attack (290.9 yards per game) even though they lost tight end Owen Daniels to an ACL injury in Week 8.

There is still room for improvement, though, for first-year offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who replaces Kyle Shanahan after the latter left to coach with his father in Washington. Dennison takes over a run game that averaged just 92.2 yards per week and is without a clear-cut starter.

Frank Bush enters his second year as defensive coordinator of a unit that features a host of young talent in defensive linemen Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye, as well as linebackers Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans. Kubiak will hope to add another name to that list in first-round cornerback Kareem Jackson out of Alabama.

Houston, though, will be without Cushing for the first four games following a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Cushing's ban led to an unprecedented re-vote for his 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year award, though the former first-round pick kept claim to the award after the second tally.

Cushing denies taking a banned substance, blaming the positive test on a medical condition called overtrained athlete syndrome, a condition he said can cause hormonal spikes after breaks in training. The linebacker and owner Bob McNair are hoping to have his suspension reduced.

Should the ban remain four games, it would mean the Texans would be without Cushing for their season opener against the division-rival Colts as well as road test against the Donovan McNabb-led Redskins in Week 2 and a home game versus the powerful Cowboys the following week. That could hinder Houston's chances of coming out of the gate strong, something Johnson sees as a must for the Texans.

"We definitely want to pick up where we left off last season," the wide receiver said. "I think the biggest thing for us is getting off to a fast start. We tend to play our best football towards the end of the season. So hopefully we can start off like we finish."

Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Houston Texans, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2009 RECORD: 9-7 (2nd, AFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: None

COACH (RECORD): Gary Kubiak (31-33 in four years with Texans, 31-33 overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Dennison

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Frank Bush

OFFENSIVE STAR: Andre Johnson, WR (101 receptions, 1569 yards, 9 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Mario Williams, DE (43 tackles, 9 sacks)

OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 30th rushing, 1st passing, 10th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: t10th rushing, 18th passing, 17th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: RB Ben Tate (2nd Round, Auburn), FB Justin Griffith (from Seahawks), TE Derek Fine (from Rams), OL Wade Smith (from Chiefs), DT Earl Mitchell (3rd Round, Arizona), LB Danny Clark (from Giants), CB Kareem Jackson (1st Round, Alabama), K Neil Rackers (from Cardinals)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Rex Grossman (to Redskins), RB Chris Brown (not tendered), RB Ryan Moats (to Vikings), G Chester Pitts (to Seahawks), G Tutan Reyes (not tendered), OL Ephraim Salaam (not tendered), DT Jeff Zgonina (not tendered), LB Khary Campbell (not tendered), LB Chaun Thompson (not tendered), CB Dunta Robinson (to Falcons), S John Busing (not tendered), S Nick Ferguson (not tendered), S Brian Russell (not tendered)

QB: Schaub stayed healthy for the first time in his three seasons with the Texans and responded with a Pro Bowl campaign that saw him lead the NFL with 4,770 passing yards to go along with 29 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. He had missed five games in each of the previous two seasons, but continues to improve since being acquired from Atlanta prior to the 2007 season. Houston's contingency plan should Schaub's injury issues resurface is Dan Orlovsky, who spent all of last year as Houston's third QB after making seven starts with Detroit in 2008. With Rex Grossman's departure, Orlovsky moves up on the depth chart with former Viking John David Booty assuming the No. 3 role.

RB: Schaub's 583 passing attempts led the NFL and were necessary, because the Texans had nearly no run game a season ago. Steve Slaton had a breakout year in 2008 (1,282 rushing yards), but his speed was nullified last year due to fumble issues before a neck injury ended his season after 11 games. Slaton still led Houston with 437 yards on the ground as the franchise attempted to find the right mix of Ryan Moats, Chris Brown and Arian Foster after his injury. Brown and Moats are no longer on the squad, leaving Foster (257 rushing yards, 3 TD) as the possible starter. He'll have to hold off Slaton, Chris Henry, rookie Ben Tate (2nd round, Auburn) and Jeremiah Johnson, who spent his rookie season last year on IR due to a shoulder injury. Fullback Vonta Leach was a Pro Bowl alternate last year, with the 263-pounder adding 20 receptions.

WR/TE: There are few QB-WR tandems in the league better than Schaub and Johnson (101 receptions, 1,569 yards, 9 TD), who has gone over 100 receptions three times in the last four years, and only an injury prevented him from reaching that mark in 2007. The 29-year-old Miami-Florida product has also notched 25 touchdowns over the last three seasons and signed a contract extension during camp that reportedly makes him the highest paid wide receiver in the league. Johnson was able to shine again in 2009 despite the lack of a No. 2 receiver that can take away some of the coverage that comes his way. Kevin Walter was second on the club with 53 catches last year and should start most games, while Jacoby Jones and David Anderson are next on the depth chart. As long as Daniels can return from his injury, he gives Schaub a great target at the tight end spot. Daniels had 40 catches and five touchdowns prior to his injury and is the compliment to Johnson that Houston needs. He hopes to be ready by the season opener. Joel Dreessen will compete with James Casey for the backup tight end spot, though Casey could also find a spot as a reserve fullback.

OL: Even though Schaub attempted more passes than any other quarterback, his offensive line allowed him to be sacked just 25 times, the fifth-lowest total in the NFL. Both tackle positions are set, as 2008 first-round pick Duane Brown returns to the left side opposite of Eric Winston. Competition is the name of the game after that. Chris Myers started all 16 games at center last year, but the Texans signed former Chief Wade Smith to push him. Smith could also compete for a guard spot, where Kasey Studdard figures to battle for the left side job with former starter Mike Brisiel. A 2009 third-round pick who came on strong late last season, Antoine Caldwell figures to start at right guard. Rookie Shelley Smith, a sixth-round pick out of Colorado State, could also play himself into the mix during the season.

DL: Williams saw his sack total decrease for a second straight year, but that could still be a product of teams zeroing in on shutting him down. His nine sacks by far led the team anyway, with fellow end Antonio Smith and backup Connor Barwin adding 4 1/2 each. In all, Houston finished with just 30 sacks last season. A year of growth for defensive tackle Okoye should help. He did notch a career-high 38 tackles last year and enters his fourth season despite being just 23 years old. Houston will need more of a push out of him and Shaun Cody (21 tackles) on passing plays, though the Texans allowed just 106.9 yards per game on the ground, 12th in the NFL. Barwin, a 2009 second-round pick, is probably a future starter, but he will represent bench depth this season along with end Tim Bulman. Rookie Earl Mitchell (3rd Round, Arizona) will battle Frank Okam and DelJuan Robinson to be a part of the tackle rotation.

LB: Cushing's monster year of 133 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions earned him a Pro Bowl trip along with middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. The Cushing-Ryans combo gives Houston one of the best linebacking groups in football, but the two won't play together until Week 5 due to Cushing's suspension. Ryans (123 tackles, 1 sack) is perhaps one of the most underrated players in football, a leader on the field who was also the league's top rookie in 2006 and hasn't missed a game over his four-year career. Danny Clark (53 tackles, 2 sacks with the Giants) was signed this offseason and could replace Cushing at the start, while rookie Darryl Sharpton (4th Round, Miami) and Xavier Adibi will also get looks. Zac Diles is the least known of Houston's starting three, registering 62 tackles at the weakside a season ago.

DB: The Texans struggled in defending the pass a season ago, and things might not be much better this year. They are expected to be very young and inexperienced at the corners thanks to the departure of Dunta Robinson to Atlanta, but Jackson should step into an immediate starting role alongside Glover Quin (68 tackles), who made 12 starts as a rookie last year but failed to notch an interception. Brice McCain, another second-year corner, is the nickel back with Jacques Reeves, Fred Bennett and Antwaun Molden all battling for spots. Bernard Pollard (102 tackles, 4 INT) was a surprise last year at strong safety after getting picked up midseason, while Eugene Wilson (29 tackles, 2 INT) will get the first shot of starting at free safety. Troy Nolan and Dominique Barber are expected to back up those positions.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kris Brown has been kicking field goals for the Texans ever since their inception, but he posted a career-worst 65.6 field goal percentage after going 21-for-32 on three-point tries last year and missing late kicks against the Colts and Titans. That prompted the Texans to bring in Neil Rackers for some training camp competition. Rackers was 16-for-17 with Arizona last year, missing two games with injuries, but went just 74-for-95 the previous three seasons. Punter Matt Turk didn't slow down last year despite his 14 years of experience, setting a club record by averaging 42.8 yards per punt. The return game should remain the same with Andre Davis (23.7 avg.) serving as the primary kick returner and Jones (10.9 avg.) handling the punts. Jones did return a kickoff for a touchdown last season. Dreessen and Casey will battle for the long snapper position.

PROGNOSIS: With such an explosive offense and some up-and-comers on defense, the Texans are right on the brink of something special. Still, the defense must improve in 2010 if Houston is to get over the hump, as two division games against Indianapolis and Tennessee as well as dates with the NFC East will test the unit all year long. The Texans are unfortunate to be in such a tough division, and their inability to run with the big dogs of the AFC South served as the club's demise last year. Houston will again be a trendy playoff pick and Schaub and Johnson should both put up monster numbers again, but until the defense catches up the Texans will remain on the outside looking in. This could be the year the team breaks through, but not having Cushing to start will hurt, as will the club's inexperience at the corners and uncertainty in the run game. It seems like Houston is again one year away from making an impact.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Michael Rushton at mrushton@sportsnetwork.com.

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