Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
HOUSTON -- While left tackle Duane Brown
worked against Mario Williams
during OTAs in the spring and summer, Chester Pitts
"He blocked Mario, who is, if not the best, top three at that position, fairly well," said Pitts, the team's left guard. "He used the scheme to help him stop a really good player.”
But that was not the only thing about Brown's work that was attention-grabbing. In 2008, when Brown was a rookie, he leaned on Pitts to make the calls and he jumped out for a rest on every third series, when Ephraim Salaam
jumped in as a reliever.
Last year, Brown had felt compelled to thank Pitts after every game for all that help sorting through what he was supposed to do.
"He gets out there now and before I can get it out, he's said the call, boom, we're ready to go," Pitts said. "We're getting to where we don't have to make every call, we are grunting with each other, saying 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' or 'Go, go, go.' It's real simple, quick and short and we are on the same page. Things like that are really, really important on an offensive line, it's a group position."
The Texans' 76 sacks allowed in their debut season in 2002 left an indelible mark on a lot of people and 43 in 2004, 68 in 2005 and 43 in 2006 didn't do a lot to erase the stigma. But the number was down to 22 in 2007. And last year Houston's quarterbacks were taken down 32 times, just below the league average.
"They are starting to respect us more as a line," Brown said. "I didn't know too much about the history of the offensive line here before I got here, but once I did a lot of people told me that that was a big problem. I guess last year we did pretty good as a unit and you have to give us some kind of credit since we were the No. 3 offense in the league."
As the Texans are poised to shed several labels they've earned in their seven years of existence and make a run at a playoff spot, Brown's expected to emerge as a franchise left tackle who can help it happen, covering the blind side for Matt Schaub
and helping punch holes for Steve Slaton
. That's why Brown is our choice as the AFC South's Emerging Star for 2009.
"For a guy going into his second year, he's very advanced and he has a great opportunity to be a dominant player, no question," said Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews
, a new offensive assistant coach for the Texans. "He's a big, strong, powerful, agile good athlete who's smart. Just learning and getting the reps, that's going to be his deal. He has a good attitude about it too."
Said Colts Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney
, who had three sacks and a forced fumble in two games against Houston in 2008: "I think Duane is a good athlete, a young guy who definitely as a lot of upside and potential. He's definitely one of the better tackles in our conference and our division. He has a lot of room to grow. One thing he definitely has going for himself is his effort and his ability to catch on quickly. ...
"Now with the pieces that they have and with some guys coming back with a couple years experience together, I think they should be a force to be reckoned with."
What suggests Brown is primed for a big jump?
Well, the conditioning issues that were partially responsible for him getting rotated out are gone, as is Salaam.
Brown played his final two seasons at Virginia Tech in the 305- to 312-pound range and he was 315 at the NFL scouting combine. But from his pro day to the start of his first training camp, he didn't focus on fitness the way he should have. He indulged in chicken parm and pizza. He wound up playing much of the season around 325.
Since then, he gave up the fried foods in favor of a diet heavy on tuna fish, big salads, vegetables and fruits. Brown played in regular offseason basketball games with teammates including J
, Vonta Leach
and Frank Okam
at the Meyerland Plaza 24 Hour Fitness. Those efforts got him back in that more desirable weight range.
Film study has extended beyond Freeney and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch
, rushers he faces twice a season in the AFC South, to Matt Light
, Jordan Gross
and Chris Samuels
, successful tackles he feels he can emulate.
Across the Texans' line, right tackle Eric Winston
makes it sound like Brown burns a lot of calories with enthusiasm alone.
"Duane is super intense," Winston said. "Everything he does, he's almost hyper about it and that's a good thing. When you're in this kind of business, you do the same things over and over and over again and that's the key, trying to perfect it without it getting boring. He's got that intensity about him where he can keep that up
"He doesn't get bored because he's trying so hard every time, and that's a good trait to have."
Brown also realizes how fortunate he is to have found such a perfect fit. The league is littered with players who can't find their niche, who don't fit their team's schemes. In the zone-blocking run scheme the Texans brought in Alex Gibbs to install and operate, the team asks its linemen to run. Athleticism and mobility are the most desirable traits. The Texans don't covet guys like Baltimore's 6-foot-9, 350-pound Jared Gaither
or San Diego's Marcus McNeill
"That's what our whole scheme is about, is us running," Brown said. "My main responsibility is pass protection, protecting the blind side of course, and on the backside of our run plays, trying to get that cut back crease. Me having the athleticism I have, I'm able to do both of those jobs."
"I feel like I've become a much better player and I expect a lot from myself. God willing, I stay healthy, I feel like I should be here for a while."