HOUSTON -- Grade the 2009 Texans as incomplete in at least two ways: They came up short of their playoff goal and they didn’t have the sort of run game needed for a well-rounded offense.
Matt Schaub confesses he was baffled as he watched film on a lot of Mondays and considered Houston’s effective play-action passing game a lynchpin of the Texans' offense. After all, run success is supposed to be a prerequisite for successful play action.
“When you go back and watch the game and you might have run the ball 20 times and you had 40 yards but we were able to complete six or our eight play-passes for 120 yards and you’re like, ‘Why is this guy biting up on the run fake when we weren’t effective with it?’” Schaub said.
“I guess it might just be defensive players’ mindsets. When he sees that ball put out there, it’s like mouse to cheese in the trap, they just want to bite on it. And we’re just fortunate to have the receivers to get in behind there and had the timing of the play to make it work.”
Andre Johnson said defenses were still wary of Steve Slaton busting big runs like he did as a rookie in 2008, but Slaton was benched with fumbling issues and struggled with a neck injury that prompted him to miss the final five games.
“I think if you look at our season last year and the run game is working, we’re easily 11-5,” Johnson said.
For the follow-up version of the Texans to finally break through to the playoffs, the run game will have to rank better than 30th and average better than 3.5 yards a carry and 92.2 yards a game.
“We were not running the ball the way we needed last year to be, like you said, complete,” general manager Rick Smith said. “I think it starts up front and I think our offensive line will be better… If we get more balance, everything gets better. Our defense improves if we can run the football better and control the clock.”
Slaton is coming back from neck surgery and Arian Foster is coming off a strong showing late in the year, with 39 carries for 214 yards in the final two games.
Out of those ingredients, the Texans expect to find their balance.
If they do, it could mean Schaub doesn’t have to throw for 4,770 yards and that Houston doesn’t have to watch a 9-7 season come up short in a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
“I don’t think you really want to throw for 4,600, 4700 yards in this offense,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “You want to maybe break the 4,000 mark, maybe be in the high 3,000s and mix the rest of it into runs.
“Even though we might have put up more points last year and maybe were considered a more explosive offense last year, I think we were a better offense in 08. I think that dynamic when Steve had almost 1,300 yards his rookie year, we just had so many different choices, we were spreading the ball around to so many different guys.”
If the Texans can get back in the range of 4.3 yards a carry they had in 2008, can convert short-yardage situations better than they did when they too often used the since-departed Chris Brown and can avoid the fumble problems that were connected to Slaton’s neck injury, we could see dramatic improvement.
And the offense was already the league’s fourth-rated in yardage and 10th-rated in scoring even with last year’s run troubles.
Schuab said he’ll happily sacrifice passing yards for wins. But knows if that play-action was working with the anemic and non-threatening run game, it can really be effective if Slaton, Tate and Foster are running better, behind more effective blocking.
“Then you’re begging people to chomp even more on the bite and you’re bringing a safety down hopefully in the box to create to eight-man fronts and then you’re one on one outside and that’s where even bigger plays will happen for us,” he said.
The Texans were throwing the ball even while protecting a lead last season, which is hardly the ideal route when you want to be sure the clock continues to run.
Balancing the offense means more effective handoffs in situations like the 4:00 drill, when the offense is looking for a couple first downs that make an opponent burn timeouts as it tries to drain the life from the game, preserving a lead. The team worked on that this week.
“You control the tempo, you control the clock so much better you keep teams honest,” Schaub said. “With a more balance attack like that, it can open things up even more in the passing game.
"Granted, we won’t throw for 4,700 yards. That’s fine. If we throw for 3,000 and we run for 2,700 that’s fine, as long as we’re getting a W.”