AFC South: Alex Gibbs

Chris Myers Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireCenter Chris Myers has been a steady presence for the Texans this season.
At the core of the Houston Texans’ steady, methodical play this season in the face of a ridiculous injury list has been the offensive line.

Right tackle Eric Winston is a talker with a profile, but the rest of the group seems to revel in a degree of obscurity, no one more than center Chris Myers.

“I think he goes unnoticed for the kind of player he is,” Titans coach and Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Mike Munchak said. “He understands the system, understands what he’s supposed to do and he goes out and does it. It’s not about how big and tall he is or what his measurables are. He’s efficient, and he’s successful the way he does his job.”

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. says Myers is the second-best center in the NFL this season, behind only Nick Mangold of the Jets.

“Myers is a great technician,” Williamson said. “He’s got great movement skills. He plays the game with excellent leverage. He’s the linchpin of the best offensive line in the NFL.”

Myers was pleased to learn of Munchak’s compliment, but he clearly isn’t concerned with what people outside of team headquarters think of him, the line or the Texans.

In that regard, he’s an old-school offensive lineman. He trained under five-time Pro Bowler Tom Nalen in Denver and is perfectly happy operating quietly in the background, allowing his play to do most of his talking and pleased if his running back is getting attention.

“It just comes with the territory of being an offensive lineman,” he said. “When you get to the higher level, once you become successful in the league you learn those accolades will come when warranted.”

They should be warranted this season, with the Texans winning the AFC South despite a slew of injuries to key players.

Myers was originally a sixth-round pick by Denver in 2005, 200th overall out of Miami. He spent the first month of his first season on the practice squad, then backed up Nalen and played special teams.

The Texans traded a sixth-round pick in 2007 to get Myers after coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith moved to Houston from jobs with the Broncos. Myers became a torch-bearer for both the sort of locker room culture and offensive line scheme the Texans wanted to establish. Houston has started him in every game.

There is less noise than there used to be about the Texans' zone-blocking scheme, a philosophy that features backside cuts that put defensive linemen on the ground. A lot of defenders hate it, and many say it puts their knees at risk. But it’s a legal technique that plenty of teams use, just not, perhaps, with the regularity and proficiency of the Texans.

It’s a scheme that serves to spring one-cut-and-go backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, and syncs up perfectly with the Texans’ play-action and bootleg passing attack.

“You put them all together and they are pretty darn good at what they do,” Munchak said. “The five of them together, they’ve got it going. They’ve been doing the same thing now since [offensive line coach Alex] Gibbs went in there [in 2008]. They kept the same concept, they stuck with the same system and they’ve gotten good at it.”

There is a psychological aspect to the scheme as well.

“I can’t lie, it definitely plays into the defense’s mind,” Myers said. “When you’re pounding and pounding on guys throughout the game and you keep cutting them on the backside, they can play the cuts for a long time, but at a certain point either they are going to forget about it or get tired of having to play off of it. Once you kind of grind on them, it ends up playing out in the fourth quarter.”

Left tackle Duane Brown, left guard Wade Smith, Myers, right guard Mike Brisiel and Winston make up what has been one of the league’s best and most reliable lines this season. Brisiel just finished playing in the win at Cincinnati on a broken leg and had surgery, so Antoine Caldwell will step in for a stretch.

When the line and offense are playing well, the Texans’ attack can be a beautiful operation.

“So much about the way we run the ball is tied to coordination, there is a real rhythm to this offense,” Smith said.

“To the degree that you can get five guys and in a lot of cases six guys with the tight end and then seven with the fullback on the same page and execute that coordinated effort, that’s where you start to get the big runs and the cutbacks and you start to see the success in the system. They’ve got that coordination, they’ve got that rhythm together, and I think that’s why you see us running the ball effectively.”

As the Texans make their first venture into the playoffs, there will be talk of the line’s solid play, but far more focus on the league’s top defense, Foster, receiver Andre Johnson and rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.

Myers will have a great vantage point on it all, watching and working.

“Obviously his position is a natural position of leadership on the line,” Smith said. “He’s done a nice job of keeping our guys coordinated and he’s playing at a high level at this point.

“More often than not it’s a position where people don’t talk a lot, so maybe people don’t recognize how important or how strong a leadership position the offensive line commands within a team, but it’s significantly important. That’s where games are won and lost, up front.”
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Hits and misses: Texans edition

February, 4, 2011
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Building toward the conclusion of our series looking at situations where you can hear these three words you love so much from me…

I was wrong:
  • “Everyone is encouraged about the run game, but what’s changed? Second-round pick Ben Tate is lost with an injury. Guard Wade Smith was the only significant addition to the line, where interior issues were a big part of the problems. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is from the same school as predecessor Kyle Shanahan, and line coach John Benton learned under the departed Alex Gibbs… They are largely counting on young guys getting better, which begs the question: What if they don’t?” (Preseason.) Yeah, running it better wasn’t an issue as Arian Foster was a revelation and his blockers did solid work for him.
  • “I think it's too early to panic about the Texans' pass defense.” (Sept. 24.) Actually, there was no way to be too early. By Oct. 14 I realized the extent of the flawed plan.
I was fortunate:
  • “[Kareem] Jackson has to be good for the team to have a chance.” (Preseason.) He was nowhere near good enough.
  • “To finally get to the postseason, the Texans have to play more complete games.” (Preseason.) Poor starts created scenarios for some fantastic comebacks, but Houston consistently made it difficult on itself by playing flat early.

Texans regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 14

[+] EnlargeFoster
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireArian Foster rushed for 1,616 yards and 16 TDs this season.
Biggest surprise: Houston liked what it saw from Arian Foster late in 2009. The team believed he would feed off the motivation and opportunity it offered him in the offseason. But even plugging him into the Texans' best-case scenario, it would have been hard to envision Foster earning the NFL’s rushing title as a part of a pass-centric offense backed by a shaky defense. He burst onto the scene with 231 rushing yards against the Colts, and it stood up as the biggest rush game of the season. He carried 327 times for 1,616 yards (a 4.9-yard average) with 16 touchdowns. He was also the team’s second leading receiver with 66 catches for 604 yards and two more scores. It was an incredible season.

Biggest disappointment: The defense was not going to be the strength of the team, but it would have been hard to envision just how poorly this group was going to do. The front didn’t hurry quarterbacks enough, and they posted a collective 100.5 passer rating against the Texans. In their last 10 games, they beat only Titans rookie Rusty Smith and Jacksonville backup Trent Edwards. The veteran safeties, Eugene Wilson and Bernard Pollard, were ineffective against the pass and did little to offset the inexperience of the Kiddie Corps Corners -- Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and the eventually benched Brice McCain. Jason Allen was an improvement when he came in, but not by a ton. Houston gave up 33 passing touchdowns, a number bigger than its sack total (30).

Biggest need: Defense. It starts with a replacement for defensive coordinator Frank Bush and several other new defensive assistants as the Texans are sticking with head coach Gary Kubiak. From there, whether they stick with a 4-3 or unwisely move to a 3-4 which would hurt Mario Williams, they have desperate needs. At least one penetrating defensive tackle, safeties who are comfortable in coverage and fast, and a veteran corner who could lead a young group would be big additions.

Team MVP: Foster. It’s hard to look another direction considering Andre Johnson dealt with an ankle injury all season and missed three games. Foster was steady and could have produced even more but for some questionable play-calling, particularly in the loss at Indianapolis.

Work as a unit: Fullback Vonta Leach earned a Pro Bowl spot for his work leading Foster, but none of the offensive linemen was even named an alternate to the all-star game. The group and tight ends, led by Joel Dreessen, did fine work making things happen for Foster in their first season without the offensive line coach who set up their scheme, Alex Gibbs. The pass blocking was not as good as Matt Schaub was taken down 32 times, even if a share of those were on him. If the Texans can improve there, this batch of relative unknowns could really have an impact in 2011.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 21, 2010
8/21/10
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 14

For three years, they’ve been picked as a breakout team. In those three years, the Houston Texans went 25-23 with zero playoff appearances.

So why are the 2010 Texans going to be different? Why do they deserve that sort of faith yet again? What’s changed when the personnel alterations have been pretty minor?

“What’s different? Experience, togetherness,” Amobi Okoye said. “I feel like by the time we will kick off, we will have the full definition of team. If there was a meter of T-E-A-M, we are right at the halfway of M… By the time the season starts, we’re going to completely spell TEAM.”

Said Bernard Pollard, the feisty safety who didn’t arrive until a few games into last season: “We have so much more team chemistry. We know and understand what we are good at. We know and understand that we can’t step out of the box and have to play our game. We’re turning that corner.”

To finally get to the postseason, the Texans have to play more complete games. They have to play better in the red zone. Perhaps above all else, they have to play better in the AFC South, where they were just 1-5 last season.

Catching the Colts is a tall task. The Texans aspire to do it, but they also know there is a route to the playoffs without a division crown. They just have to drive it more smoothly.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Can the pass rush pick it up?

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriThe Texans need some pass-rushing help for star end Mario Williams.
Mario Williams had nine sacks to go with a bum shoulder he’s still reluctant to talk about. He needs more support in chasing the quarterback, and the Texans need to hurry and hit quarterbacks more often to help those three young cornerbacks -- Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and Brice McCain -- cover.

Connor Barwin should be opposite Williams on clear rush downs, and he might be the most improved player on defense. Inside, there are now alternatives to Okoye, who might just not be a good pass pressure guy. Rookie Earl Mitchell could wind up part of the nickel package along with Antonio Smith, who will shift inside to make room for Barwin.

Will the run game do its part?

Everyone is encouraged about the run game, but what’s changed? Second-round pick Ben Tate is lost with an injury. Guard Wade Smith was the only significant addition to the line, where interior issues were a big part of the problems. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is from the same school as predecessor Kyle Shanahan, and line coach John Benton learned under the departed Alex Gibbs.

“We have to get better running the football,” Andre Johnson said. “That helps win games, especially in the fourth quarter when you’re up and you want to kill the time, you have to go on those four-minute drives where you have to get those big fourth downs. We have to get better in that part of our offense.”

They are largely counting on young guys getting better, which begs the question: What if they don’t?

Are the supplementary pieces good enough?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriHouston's stars, including Matt Schaub, match up with the best players on any NFL roster.
The Texans' stars match up with virtually anyone’s. But beyond Johnson, Williams, Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans, Matt Schaub and Owen Daniels, have head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith done enough to unearth the right sort of players on the next tier?

Pollard and Eric Winston certainly fit the bill. Antonio Smith, Kevin Walter and Zac Diles might. That next level of player might be where this team is a little short, and it’s those kinds of guys who might well be the key to transforming a good team into a very good team.

And so we’re watching the likes of Quin, Barwin, Joel Dreessen, James Casey, Jacoby Jones and the offensive line beyond Winston, because they might wind up telling the story.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Linebacker Darryl Sharpton: The Texans figured one of three veteran linebackers would be in the lineup during Cushing’s four-game suspension. But a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness has put Xavier Adibi, Danny Clark and Kevin Bentley on the backburner because rookie Darryl Sharpton's been such a consistent playmaker. He might be short, but he packs a good punch.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Injury to Ben Tate: As the Texans search for the right combination of running backs to help balance their offense, second-round pick Tate figured to be a key piece. But he was lost for the season with a serious ankle/leg injury in the preseason opener. That puts the load on Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and either Jeremiah Johnson, Chris Henry or a back not yet on the team.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Texans are regarded by some as a finesse team, but the defense is emphasizing physicality. Cushing, Pollard, Smith, Jackson, Quin and Mitchell have all joined the team in the past two years and are physical players.
  • Expect Foster to get first crack at the carries closest to the goal line as the Texans really concentrate on running better at close range. Johnson definitely could be heard from in the running game, too -- he might be the best fit for the one-cut and go zone scheme Houston uses.
  • [+] EnlargeNeil Rackers
    AP Photo/Rick ScuteriKicker Neil Rackers has a chance to beat out incumbent Kris Brown.
    If Kris Brown and Neil Rackers continue to be virtually even in the kicker competition, it makes sense for the team to go with Rackers. Sometimes guys just need a change of scenery. If Brown stays and fails on a crucial long field goal on opening day against the Colts, the thinking will be, “Why didn’t they make a change?” If Rackers does the same thing, I’ll think, “At least they tried someone different.”
  • Houston’s defensive tackles are quick, up-the-field types. But they’d sure love if their one big space-eater, Frank Okam, forced his way into action.
  • The Texans want to get the ball in the hands of Jones since he averaged 16.2 yards a catch on his 27 receptions. But I am not so sure that means he’s going to nudge ahead of Walter for the No. 2 receiver job. Walter is smart and super reliable, and reliability is awfully important. Jones might displace Walter or get a share of snaps in two-wide formations, but look for Jones most in a heavy dose of three-wide formations.
  • Troy Nolan might be a credible alternative to Eugene Wilson at free safety if Wilson gets hurt again. I’ve been critical of the team for not adding to the spot, but Nolan missed his rookie season with an injury and appears to be a high-caliber special-teamer.
  • Daniels’ speed is a big part of what helped set him apart. When he returns soon from another ACL reconstruction, will he still have it in the same way? That's the big question with him.
  • The offensive line is set with Duane Brown at left tackle, Chris Myers at center and Winston at right tackle. Guard jobs remain up for grabs. It seems to me that Wade Smith, a free-agent acquisition tailored to the system, and Antoine Caldwell, a third-rounder from 2009, would make the most sense.
  • It sounds less likely that Trindon Holliday has to be a serviceable receiver to make the team than it did during OTAs. If he convinces the team he can be a consistently special return guy, he’ll stick. He looked good to me when the Texans worked with the Saints.
Vince Manuwai, Wade Smith, Tony UgohGetty ImagesVeteran offensive linemen Vince Manuwai, Wade Smith and Tony Ugoh are expected to take on different roles or positions this season.
Be it running up the middle or stifling pass-rushers coming that way, the AFC South’s looking for change on interior offensive lines heading toward the 2010 season.

The Tennessee Titans, who blocked for just the sixth 2,000-yard rusher in league history, have made an alteration. The Indianapolis Colts, the defending AFC champs who allowed a league-low 13 sacks, are auditioning interior candidates. The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars both identified the interior line as an area in need of improvement, too.

Yet of 32 draft picks by the four teams, just two were used on offensive linemen -- a fourth-rounder by the Colts for guard Jacques McClendon and a sixth-rounder by the Texans for guard Shelley Smith. And only three veteran additions seem like they can influence the mixes -- Justin Smiley in Jacksonville, Wade Smith in Houston and Andy Alleman in Indianapolis.

Said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: “Didn't anyone in this division address the interior offensive line during the draft with any pick of substance? That seems odd.”

So here’s a team-by-team look at what’s going on inside, with some thoughts from Williamson:

Jacksonville

The Jaguars appear willing to have true competitions to hash things out.

Last year’s interior trio of left guard Vince Manuwai, center Brad Meester and right guard Uche Nwaneri is back. But the team is willing to shuffle, and at least two others are in play now as well -- Smiley, a guard acquired recently from Miami in a trade for an undisclosed draft pick believed to be a conditional seventh, and Kynan Forney, a backup guard last year.

At minicamp the weekend following the draft, Jags head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive line coach Andy Heck had flipped Manuwai to the right side, figuring he and right tackle Eben Britton are the team’s best run-blockers. With the aid of tight end Marcedes Lewis and fullback Greg Jones, the Jaguars could send Maurice Jones-Drew that direction and dare people to stop it.

But at organized team activities (OTAs) this week, Manuwai wasn’t working with the starters and Del Rio was talking about how the torn ACL the guard suffered back in the season opener of 2008 was still a factor for him.

“I think he’s still a little bothered by that but at some point you’ve got to get beyond that and go and he knows that,” Del Rio said. “I think Vinny still has a ways to go. I think Vinny’s working at it. He’s got his weight down. He’s trying but he needs to play better. I think he knows that. He’s working hard it and trying …

“We clearly [come] out of last year saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to have better play with our line, period,’ and our two young tackles [Eugene Monroe and Britton] we know are going to grow and get better but our interior line needs to pick it up as well. And they are working at it and they are challenging and competing and we expect them to play at a much higher level for us.”

I honestly think it’s wide open, but I’d be very surprised if Manuwai, who can be a very effective run-blocker, isn’t in the starting lineup for the opener against Denver.

Williamson says: “Adding Smiley could pay dividends, as this offensive line (especially on the interior) really was a problem area last year. Their protection up the gut was really poor. While I have some real doubts any more about Meester, I do like Manuwai quite a bit and expect more from him this year.”

Houston

The Texans' run troubles were in large part because of their backs. But they lost guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel early and it’s a tough order for any team to replace 40 percent of its line and keep plugging. Steve Slaton had a miserable year as he tried to deal with a neck injury, couldn’t hold onto the ball and wound up on injured reserve.

Pitts is a free agent who won’t be back and Brisiel has been working as a backup so far in OTAs. The team’s lined up with Kasey Studdard at left guard, Chris Myers and at center and Antoine Caldwell at right guard. But Smith’s been rotated in some early at center.

With offensive line guru Alex Gibbs gone, the team will still be using his principles. But the three remaining coaches who oversee the position -- John Benton, Frank Pollack and Bruce Matthews -- may have fresher eyes and a willingness to shuffle. And odds are it's second-round pick Ben Tate getting many of the carries behind that line.

We should see some real competition for all three slots. I’ve repeatedly hear good things about Myers. And because Caldwell was a third-rounder, I expect the team would probably like to see him stake a claim.

Gary Kubiak said Studdard and Caldwell have earned the right to say they are starters “right now.”

“We are as competitive in there as we’ve ever been as a team,” Kubiak said. “It’s going to be hard to hold a job, and it’s going to be very competitive to get one. So that makes the team better.”

Williamson says: “I thought Myers played real well and he is an excellent fit in this system. Their interior offensive line is loaded with no-name guys, but overall they are well coached and effective enough. Still, an upgrade at one of the starting guard spots would have been a real nice addition. … Smith is an ideal sixth guy, but not a liability as a starter.”

Indianapolis

The Colts paid him a bonus, but still cut Ryan Lilja who seemed pretty effective to me at left guard last season. Team officials have worked hard to deflect the idea the Colts made the move because they want to be bigger on the line. But it’s a sensible time for a change with Pete Metzelaars taking over for Howard Mudd as line coach and the team looking to be more effective in clutch third-and-short situations and the like.

Tony Ugoh, who lost out at left tackle, has worked at left guard in recent offseason practice sessions. Jeff Saturday is entrenched as Peyton Manning's guy at center. Kyle DeVan is the incumbent right guard, who came out of nowhere last season.

Presuming no other tackles are shifted inside and that left tackle remains Charlie Johnson's job, Ugoh and DeVan face their competition from Alleman, McClendon and 2008 second-rounder Mike Pollak.

Bill Polian has talked about throwing everybody out there and seeing what happens. With a new position coach, the fight for roles may not start with any true favorites. While they have to continue to favor pass blocking above all else, I do think it’s in their best interest to be a bit more determined to be able to call for and execute runs in key situations with more success.

Williamson says: “Saturday is obviously the leader and his symbiotic relationship with Peyton carries a ton of weight. He is smart and very technically sound. I do think his game is falling off ever so slightly though. I was shocked that they let Lilja go and thought he was far and away their best guard. Now, they really need to count on youngsters and those youngsters still have a lot to prove.”

Tennessee

[+] EnlargeEugene Amano
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesEugene Amano will be taking over at center for Kevin Mawae.
The Titans had the least concern here as they considered their roster, but with Kevin Mawae getting older and Leroy Harris on the bench and ready to play, they decided to go with youth and size. So last year’s left guard, Eugene Amano, is replacing Mawae at center, with Harris taking over at left guard.

Tennessee loses leadership and experience in the equation, but gains significant strength. Harris is very much an interior guy, but he’s athletic and smart enough that he played effectively at right tackle in a win at San Francisco last season.

A Hall of Famer as a player, line coach Mike Munchak knows when a guy is ready, and he’s fully endorsed this plan or the Titans wouldn’t be going with it. Whether Chris Johnson or someone like LeGarrette Blount is running up the middle, I think they’ll find a bit more daylight. And Vince Young should feel less inside rush closing in on him.

Williamson says: “You have to wonder how much Mawae will be missed. It isn't that he played great -- and clearly he isn't what he once was -- but just from the standpoint of making the calls and especially from a leadership perspective. So, this interior line is in transition. Right guard Jake Scott probably hasn't quite lived up to what Tennessee was expecting to get from him when they signed him in free agency, but he is a quality starting guard. I think Harris has a good amount of ability and could surprise with more playing time.”
Houston Texans

Lance Zierlein wonders if Alex Gibbs’ departure is a good thing.

Indianapolis Colts

Jim Irsay believes good changes were needed, writes Mike Chappell.

Late-season division matchups won’t solve what Roger Goodell thinks it will, says John Oehser.

A thorough look at Fili Moala from Nate Dunlevy. It’s way too early to judge a rookie heading into his second year.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Attiyah Ellison’s finally found steady work, write Ryan Robinson at the team’s Web site.

Vic Ketchman doesn’t like the overtime change.

Tennessee Titans

Pete Prisco evaluates Titans’ needs.

Agents felt good about defensive back visits with the Titans, writes Terry McCormick.
Steve SlatonStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSteve Slaton is eager to bounce back from a subpar sophomore season, and he's not averse to sharing carries if it helps the team.
The sign on the road Steve Slaton is traveling is a common one in the NFL for a guy coming off a poor season:

Uncertainty ahead.

In a 15-minute chat with him this morning, I sensed he’s got a handle on that, and is fine with it. He’s ready to prove himself again, plug into the Texans' offense in whatever way he’s asked to and wipe the tarnish off his name that came with a shaky sophomore season.

Something his coach, Gary Kubiak, told him after an outstanding 1,282-yard rookie season in 2008 proved prophetic.

“You come out of a rookie year where you gain 1,100-1,200 yards you think, ‘Damn, this is a pretty easy deal,'" Kubiak said. “I teased with him before the season and said 'The next 1,200 you gain will probably be the toughest of your career. It’s not that easy.’”

Slaton’s still got 763 yards to go to get there after a poor 2009, when he gained only 3.3 yards per carry and fumbled seven times before a neck injury ended his season after 11 games.

By the time he went on injured reserve, he said he had a numb right arm from the top of his shoulder to his thumb, all day every day for two months. A pinched nerve led to a C-5 cervical fusion in mid-January.

He felt the difference as soon as he woke up and doctors told him it went as smoothly as possible and rate his recovery, tabbed to take four to six months, as very good. He said he will be ready for training camp, holding the ball high and tight.

He’s been rehabbing since surgery and can now run and lift weights as long as he limits the stress on his neck.

“Everybody wants to come in their second year and never have that slump, and not have an excuse for something you think you can help,” he said. “It was uncharacteristic of myself to fumble that much. I won’t say it was the only thing, but I think it was a big part.”

A revamped run game is the team’s offensive objective this offseason. The Texans were a bad rushing team no matter who carried the ball, Kubiak emphasized. That was on the running backs, the line, the scheme and the coaches.

Guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel were lost for the season early on, and with Kasey Studdard and Chris White in their place, the interior line was a weakness.

“We regressed in there, not by lack of effort, just by young players having to play,” Kubiak said.

As the Texans seek to boost the run game and give a great pass game featuring Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson better balance, Slaton should be part of a new backfield combination.

If the price falls on a veteran free agent such as Chester Taylor or Thomas Jones, maybe one of them could be getting carries. If they don’t see a value there, the Texans will attack the spot in the draft.

After failing with Ahman Green and Chris Brown, the popular thinking and the team’s tenor suggest the Texans will address other areas in free agency and look for the running back in the draft.

“That has been a young man’s position in this business for a while,” Kubiak said.

So the expectation is that Slaton is the team’s quick back and the Texans will attempt to bring in a bigger guy who can be effective in short yardage and goal-line situations.

“I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the smallest guy,” said Slaton, who was listed as 5-foot-9, 215 at season’s end. “This league spits out running backs, they don’t last too long. So to have somebody to help in certain situations is good. I want to be the guy when the game is on the line, you give me the ball.

“… As a running back, you’re always stingy but you’ve got to be smart. If it helps the team, if I can’t get it done and somebody else can get it done, then I’ll gladly let that person come in and handle that job. But my thing is I want to be that go-to guy, I’ve always been that, that’s what I pride myself on.”

While he’s encouraged by his recovery, ESPN’s resident physical therapist Stephania Bell put up a caution flag. (See sidebar.)

“He will need to work diligently to strengthen the stabilizing muscles around his neck (very deep muscles) as well as all the muscles in the upper back that help support the neck,” she said of going forward with the neck issue. “While he can very well be cleared to return -- and he can indeed go on to have success and not have another major incident -- there is inherently more risk, simply because of what he has been through.”

Kubiak doesn’t sound like he wants to distribute carries by preset formula, just the flexibility to use two different quality options in situations in which they excel. Offensive line/run game guru Alex Gibbs is no longer on the coaching staff, but Kubiak said the team has invested a lot of time in his zone blocking scheme and will stick with it, adding a few things.

One-cut-and-go backs are usually the guys who fit it well, though Kubiak said he’d be fine with two cuts.

Slaton is good with 20 carries in a game, Kubiak said, and actually runs better in the second half than he does at the start.

“But I think like anybody else in this league if you put the whole load on him, you can wear him down pretty damn quick, so we need a complement to him,” he said. “… Obviously there is a place in this league for that guy, there is no doubt. He can make big plays. And then there is a place for a guy who can take a little bit more of a pounding and be a short-yardage and red zone guy. I think there is a place for those two guys in the league.

“The bottom line is we’ve just got to get another good player to go with him.”

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 3, 2010
3/03/10
12:01
PM ET
NFC Schemes/Themes: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Schemes and themes.

Houston Texans

Alex Gibbs is gone, but offensive line coach John Benton learned from the master and the Texans are expected to continue to rely largely on the zone blocking run scheme Gibbs installed. That means the interior offensive lineman the Texans bring in to compete for a starting spot will be a smaller, more agile type, not a super-heavyweight bruiser. The bigger running back they seek to run behind that line needs to be a one-cut-and-go guy, not a dancer. If the Texans draft a back, look for them to go for a bigger guy who can get a tough yard and fare better in goal-line situations.

Indianapolis Colts

Speed and agility are always at more of a premium than size for the Colts, though they welcome all of those when they can get them. It would seem they would look to add at least one offensive tackle who’s a sure pass-protector but can also help spring a running back like Joseph Addai around the corner with some consistency. Another Colts' tenet is that a steady, threatening pass rush is a crucial component and it’s likely time to upgrade end No. 3 and groom the next Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Head coach Jack Del Rio says quarterback David Garrard is good, but not elite, and that’s perfectly true. For him to lead the Jaguars to the playoffs, he needs to be surrounded by a quality cast that plays close to error-free. So look for second-year general manager Gene Smith to try to mirror his first draft that brought in quality players who had no character questions. Many members of his first draft class were team captains in college, a leadership trademark the team would like to continue to add to its roster. They dabbled with a 3-4 last season, but are back to a 4-3 and need a high motor, consistent pass-rusher more than anything.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans don’t prefer to blitz, but when their front four doesn’t generate sufficient heat they either have to bring extra people or suffer the consequences. Defensive linemen in Tennessee are asked to stop the run on the way to the quarterback. A defensive end who can be disruptive as a rusher is a priority for a team coming off a mediocre pass-pressure season and looking at a youth movement. They’ll be looking at cornerbacks, too. Just as they expect their wide receivers to be a force in the rushing offense, they expect their corners to be big parts of the run defense on the perimeter. They won’t draft a guy afraid to nose in on tackles.
Houston Texans

GM Rick Smith takes more of a spotlight in the offseason, says John McClain.

Rare comment from Alex Gibbs, through Mark Berman.

It’s not as if Gibbs turned the Texans into a great running team, says Richard Justice.

Continuity is the key to the Rick Dennison hire, says McClain.

The top 10 draft prospects according to Lance Zierlein.

A look at safety prospects with Battle Red Blog.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts bring the league’s worst rushing offense into the playoffs, says Mike Chappell.

Robert Mathis won’t watch “The Blind Side,” says Phil Richards.

Pierre Garcon is worrying about family in Haiti, says Richards. You can follow Garcon on Twitter at @ShowTimeP85.

Judy Battista on rest versus rust.

Don Banks ranks the Colts’ rest debate as the top storyline of divisional weekend.

Colts newcomers are ready for their first second season, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Wilson’s matchup page.

The Colts have a 76 percent chance of beating the Ravens, says Brian Burke.

A game day in the life of Colts fans -- a video from the Star.

John Oehser’s seven-point preview of Ravens-Colts.

There is a good vibe coming off the bye, says Oehser.

Reggie Wayne and Ed Reed remain the closest of friends even though Reed killed Wayne’s pet snake, says Tom James.

Bob Kravitz considers Matt Stover’s story.

Stover’s ready to kick against the team he was part of forever, says James.

Maryland’s governor is goading Indiana’s over a Ravens-Colts bet.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Tice interviewed with the Bears, perhaps for the offensive coordinator post, says Michael C. Wright.

Jack Del Rio said he never got a contract offer from USC, says Wright. JDR should have said that at the podium beside Wayne Weaver at a press conference earlier this week, instead of pulling a no-show.

Ticket sales will be the measure for the Jaguars, says Vic Ketchman.

We’ve lost our ability to live with mistakes, says Ketchman.

Weaver basically asked fans to trust him, says Brian Fullford.

Defense is the priority in rebuilding, says Adam Stites.

The ticket-sale movement is under way.

Tennessee Titans

Chris Johnson is the NFL’s offensive player of the year, says Jim Wyatt.

Matching 2009 may be tough for Johnson as the Titans look to get another back some carries, says Gary Estwick.

The Titans added several players including linebacker Pago Togafau, a former Cardinal, says Wyatt.

Donnie Nickey is heading for free agency again, says Terry McCormick.

Wyatt talked to LenDale White and Albert Haynesworth about Lane Kiffin.
I was fortunate enough to have a bit of an e-mail back-and-forth with Eric Winston after learning that offensive line architect Alex Gibbs had left the Texans for Seattle.

“I think Gibbs is the kind of guy that likes to build things,” Winston wrote. “I think he has built a young, solid offensive line here in Houston and has effectively taught his scheme to the coaches as well as the players and for him, it was time to move on. I think he is a great coach and he will make a difference in Seattle, I’m sure.”

The Texans remain well stocked with offensive line coaches: John Benton, Frank Pollack and Bruce Matthews all work with the linemen. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison brings an offensive line background.

Winston doesn’t expect any dramatic alterations in the post-Gibbs line.

“I would seriously doubt any changes -- major scheme changes -- would be made, especially [with] Dennison taking the OC job,” Winston said. “I think Benton likes the zone runs as much as everyone else. With that being said, every coach likes to make a little adjustment here and there and it will be no different next year. Hell, you might even see us run a power play as a changeup. LOL.”
First Gary Kubiak lost his offensive coordinator, now he’s lost his offensive line coach. Alex Gibbs is joining Pete Carroll's staff in Seattle, our Chris Mortensen reports.

Fortunately for Kubiak, he's got a deep depth chart at offensive line coach.

Seriously.

John Benton’s focused on pass protection in the two years that Alex Gibbs has been with the team but technically carries the offensive line coach title. Frank Pollack is assistant offensive line coach. Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews just completed his first season as an offensive assistant.

I recall in training camp last year marveling at the coach-to-player ratio in the individual period where the offensive linemen worked.

Rick Dennison, who could be Kyle Shanahan’s replacement as coordinator by day's end, has an offensive line coaching background.

Kubiak may not even have to hire to replace Gibbs. But it will be interesting to learn if the team will stick entirely with Gibbs' zone blocking scheme or become more of a hybrid.

Recovering from assistant coaching losses could be a bigger issue than Houston wants to believe.

And will there be another? Gibbs’ son, David, is the Texans' defensive backs coach.
Titans offensive line coach Mike Munchak is a candidate for Houston’s offensive coordinator job. If Gary Kubiak retains assistants Alex Gibbs, John Benton and Bruce Matthews, that would be an awfully offensive line-heavy staff. Munchak and Matthews, the best of friends, would surely love to work together, though.

Houston Texans

The winning record heightens anticipation for 2010, says John McClain,

In addition to Kyle Shanahan, the Texans could lose Gibbs and Ray Rhodes, says McClain.

Richard Justice thinks Gary Kubiak should get an extension right now. I disagree.

Bill Belichick ripped the turf at Reliant Stadium as a cause of Wes Welker’s injury.

The turf was ranked fourth in the league by NFL players, says Alan Burge.

Franchise tagged or not, Dunta Robinson wants to return, writes McClain.

Could Rick Dennison replace Shanahan? Burge provides some rationale.

Why McClain is excited about next season.

The good and the bad of the Texans’ season from Lance Zierlein.

A look at offensive coordinator candidates, from Battle Red Blog.

Battle Red Blog isn’t that excited about Robinson’s desire to return.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts rest and wait to see which of three teams is heading to Indy for a divisional round game the night of Jan. 16.

Sam Giguere gave the Colts something to think about as they decide who to keep under contract for their playoff roster, says Phil Richards.

After a rough week in fan relations, Bill Polian spent a little time trying to butter them up: “The only people who can affect the game will be the people in this building – the players, the coaches, the administrators . . . and our fans.” John Oehser’s report.

The Colts are planning on business as usual, says Tom James.

Trying to get teams to play starters is an exercise in futility, says Clark Judge.

Who’s got momentum now, asks Deshawn Zombie.

Welker’s injury doesn’t vindicate Polian, says Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are dealing with the fallout, writes Michael C. Wright. I delved into some of this earlier, here.

Players support Jack Del Rio, says Gene Frenette.

The Jaguars’ future depends on the draft, says Frenette.

Good to see Vic Ketchman back. And good stuff from him in reviewing the Jaguars’ season: “The bottom line is the season was not a failure and it revealed several bright spots."

Tennessee Titans

Vince Young is the starting quarterback going forward says Jim Wyatt.

Chris Johnson’s planning a busy offseason, say Wyatt and Gary Estwick.

Johnson’s basking in the glory of his accomplishment, writes Wyatt.

Reading the coverage: Yards at any cost

December, 20, 2009
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Houston Texans

Don’t scoff, says Richard Justice: Matt Schaub is the real deal.

The Rams are not what they used to be, says Dale Robinson.

If Kyle Shanahan and Alex Gibbs leave, Justice will wish them well and urge people to move on.

Losing Shanahan to his father’s staff would stink for the Texans, says Lance Zierlein.

A guide on who to root for in order for the Texans to hold on to their slim playoff chances, from Sean Pendergast.

Indianapolis Colts

Joseph Addai has surpassed his hero, Kevin Faulk, says Phil Richards.

Jim Caldwell has extra time to make decisions about game No. 15, says Steve Ballard.

More on Caldwell taking his time, from John Oehser.

The Saints’ loss just about clinched the MVP for Peyton Manning, says Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

As the Jaguars watch and hope, they cut two defensive reserves -- Kennard Cox and James Wyche, says Vito Stellino.

Are Reggie Nelson’s days in Jacksonville numbered? Gene Frenette asks.

Vic Ketchman loved the play calling in the Jaguars’ loss to the Colts.

Tennessee Titans

Chris Johnson wants yards at any price, writes Jim Wyatt.

The Titans and Dolphins still harbor playoff hopes, says Wyatt.

Kerry Collins tells Titans Radio he's not planning on retiring. (Audio.)

Count Michael Irvin among the Johnson fans, says Wyatt.

Johnson laments Houston run game

December, 8, 2009
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The Texans’ inability to run the ball has been an issue all season and Andre Johnson told KILT in Houston he thinks that has been the largest hurdle for the year’s team.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that is affecting us that we’re not running the ball like we did last year. I think that’s at times when were struggling, a lot of times we have to be one dimensional.”

The one dimensional Texans lost starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel along the way and haven’t gotten better in their second year under Alex Gibbs zone blocking scheme. A large part of that has been that Steve Slaton and Chris Brown haven’t performed up to expectations.

No matter the labor landscape, it’s hard to imagine running back won’t be a primary issue in free agency and/or the draft.

Here’s a link to Johnson’s whole interview.
Antonio Smith was hot after he felt like Kevin Mawae went for his knees during the Titans-Texans game Monday night.

ESPN’s cameras captured the Houston defensive lineman delivering an elbow to Mawae’s ribs while he was still on top of the Tennessee center early in the fourth quarter. Smith drew an unnecessary roughness call that cost the Texans 15 yards and a first down.

“Sometimes you get players who play in a way that I don’t think is an honorable way to play,” Smith said. “And when you have to come back to cut somebody, or cut somebody who ain’t looking, that’s like you’re going to end somebody’s career, that’s like you’re going to put somebody out of the game. You’ve got a good understanding with that.”

I waited on doing an item with Smith's comments until I had a chance to talk to Mawae about it after Titans practice Wednesday, in order to let each player have his say.

“I go left and I cut him one way,” Mawae said, talking me through a stunt the Texans' defensive line used on the play. “He stops and comes back and as I am getting up I just cut him again. As he drapes over me he comes up and gives me an elbow into the left rib cage. It’s part of the game.

“I don’t ever go out there trying to hurt anybody and I don’t ever go out there trying to end anybody’s career. To say something like that would just show the immaturity of the guy making that comment. It’s just football.”

Mawae has challenged his reputation as a dirty player on numerous occasions and pointed out that cut blocks are legal. Houston’s line coach, Alex Gibbs, is known for his coaching of the technique more than anyone in the league.

Mawae’s heading toward free agency and may not be back next season. But the incident is another on the growing list of issues the division rivals have with each other.

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