AFC South: Frank Okam

Gary Kubiak’s had time to pause, ponder and plan. What he came up with following a season-ending Achilles injury to stalwart middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans is this: Brian Cushing is moving over.

I think it makes sense for a couple reasons.


The collection of other candidates for the spot is thin or unqualified. Kevin Bentley is coming off knee surgery. Xavier Adibi is better suited to play outside -- he was Cushing’s fill-in during his four-game suspension. Rookie Daryl Sharpton is inexperienced and fomer Titan Stanford Keglar just joined the team. Interestingly, John McClain reports that Bentley will be put into Cushing’s spot even though Adibi (groin) is expected to be available Monday night in Indianapolis.

Cushing has both a great football IQ and great instincts. I think it’ll be a relatively easy adjustment for him to make after a crash course.

This is the best way for Kubiak and defensive coordinator Frank Bush to get their best three linebackers on the field. Cushing and strong safety Bernard Pollard are good leaders who need to pick up some of Ryans’ role in that department to help offset the loss.

Seems to me Cushing will have an easier time doing so from right splat in the middle of it all.

In addition to adding Keglar, McClain says the Texans dropped defensive tackle Frank Okam in favor of Damione Lewis.

Here's what Mat Williamson of Scouts Inc. had to say when I asked him about Cushing to the middle:
"It is obviously a small sample size, but Cushing hasn't been impressive in 2010. Maybe he was just 'Getting his feet wet' or maybe he was enhanced as a rookie-and isn't now. But let's assume that the 2009 version of Cushing is on the horizon. If so, he can handle the middle. He is quick to recognize and a very good take-on player. I do think he is best off at strongside linebacker, but my guess is that Kubiak trusts him most to make all the calls and be the 'Quarterback of the D' -- which makes sense. He surely will not be as potent of a pass rusher from that spot though and this team is short on rushers other than Super Mario."

How I See It: AFC South Stock Watch

October, 13, 2010
10/13/10
11:39
AM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Kareem Jackson, Texans cornerback: He got muscled by Hakeem Nicks on an early touchdown, a tough play for any corner. But Jackson looked to grow increasingly hesitant, getting blocked out of one big-gain screen and failing to stick with Nicks on a big change of direction on a 27-yarder. Ultimately, the Texans looked to minimize his role, though they lack a solid alternative and a hamstring injury to Sherrick McManis meant he wound up back with a good share of work.

2. Cortland Finnegan, Titans cornerback: He has tremendous talent, but isn’t playing up to his standards right now and admitted as much on his weekly radio show in Nashville. He gave up too many plays in Dallas and may have let the fines and discussion of whether he’s feisty or dirty get in his head some. If he’s not playing close to his best, Tennessee’s defensive backfield isn’t nearly as good as it can be.

3. Texans early special teams: Two of the team’s first three drives started too deep in Houston territory because of penalties against the kickoff return team byDarryl Sharpton and Frank Okam. And before either of those, when Darius Reynaud muffed a Matt Turk punt, the Texans could have had possession in the red zone. Instead they watched Chase Blackburn recover the ball at the 15-yard line. Antwaun Molden and McManis didn’t seem to track the play as long as they should have and Xavier Adibi lost a race to the loose ball.

RISING

[+] EnlargeStephen Tulloch
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireStephen Tulloch's career game in Week 5 helped the Titans beat the Cowboys.
1. Stephen Tulloch, Titans middle linebacker: He was all over the place for the Titans at Cowboys Stadium with a career-high 15 tackles and a game-sealing interception late. He spent the offseason away from the team because he was unhappy about having to play for a restricted tender instead of getting a long-term deal. He’s certainly doing fine work building his case for a contract.

2. Antoine Bethea, Colts free safety: In many ways, he is the glue of the Colts defense. He’s playing beside a third-string strong safety and along one corner, Kelvin Hayden, who has seemed off his game. I don’t know that the Chiefs were ever going to score a touchdown. But Bethea eliminated one opportunity with a big, fumble-causing hit on Jamaal Charles with 1:07 left in Colts’ territory.

3. Aaron Kampman, Jaguars defensive end: In the win at Buffalo, Kampman had a tone-setting defensive effort with a team-high 10 tackles, four quarterback pressures, two tackles for losses and 1.5 sacks. The Jaguars are very happy with what they are getting from their big free agent addition, who’s leading a young group.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 21, 2010
8/21/10
10:00
AM ET
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.

On the radar: Malcolm Sheppard

June, 24, 2010
6/24/10
1:00
PM ET
NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

Malcolm Sheppard
AP Photo/David J. PhillipRookie Malcolm Sheppard has made a positive impression on coach Gary Kubiak.
The Texans have been seeking consistent interior pass rush for some time. In 2005, they spent their first-round draft pick on Travis Johnson, who didn’t pan out and is gone. In 2007, they went with Amobi Okoye in the first round. Okoye still has upside, but he’s not been consistently productive.

Shaun Cody started with Okoye last year, and end Antonio Smith will continue to kick inside for clear-cut pass-rush situations. Third-round pick Earl Mitchell should solidify the rotation while Frank Okam and DelJuan Robinson continue to compete for roles.

But there could be an unexpected guy making a push for one of those roles: undrafted rookie Malcolm Sheppard from Arkansas.

“Probably the young kid who has surprised me the most through OTAs and everything has been this Sheppard kid that we got from Arkansas,” coach Gary Kubiak recently told Houston reporters. “I’m not trying to put pressure on him or anything, but he’s been a very pleasant surprise.

"I think he’s going to make a good push for this football team. He’s played extremely hard, very physical, [a] better athlete than we thought coming out. We thought he was going to get drafted but he didn’t. We were lucky to get him.”

There is room for Sheppard to win a spot and have an impact. He'll need to build upon the positive initial impression.
Reading the coverage …

Houston Texans

Rookie offensive tackle Adam Ulatoski is trying to soak everything in, says Jordan Godwin.

Frank Okam is pleased Texas stayed in the Big 12, say Daniel Sampson and Godwin.

Indianapolis Colts

Contract developments for Peyton Manning will say a lot about where the labor dispute is heading, says Jason Cole.

The Colts are emphasizing defense more, says John Oehser.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Vito Stellino says the Jaguars don’t have to worry about David Garrard and late-night antics.

Tiquan Underwood is making his move, says Vic Ketchman.

Jonathan Loesche asks if Josh Scobee will rebound.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are surrounded by turmoil, says Vic Carucci.

It’s time for Vince Young to give the Titans something to believe in, says Thomas George.

Vince Young needs to understand that just because he went 8-2 in the final 10 games of the '09 season, nothing is guaranteed, writes David Climer.

David Thornton is confident he will be healthy and contribute, says Jim Wyatt.

Chris Johnson took shots via Twitter, says Wyatt.

Remove Tennessee from the Titans’ name, says Mike Griffin. Wonder if he’s looked at all of the companies with Tennessee or Knoxville in their names?

LeGarrette Blount is looking to restore his reputation, says Mark Wheeler.

A slideshow from the Tennessee’s Tuesday practice from George Walker.

Inactives for Titans-Texans

November, 23, 2009
11/23/09
7:19
PM ET
HOUSTON – Inactives for Monday Night Football between the Titans and Texans.

Tennessee
Kenny Britt starts for Gage, Gerald McRath starts for Thornton.

Houston
Glenn Martinez will return punts for Jones. He won AFC special teams player of the week honors as a member of the Denver Broncos for an 80-yard punt return for a TD against the Titans in 2007.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky

INDIANAPOLIS -- On a day when the Colts are recovering from a bad week of injury news, the Texans will have both Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson in a game against Indianapolis for the first time. Ever.

No giant surprises on Houston’s inactive list:

Texans' inactives

October, 11, 2009
10/11/09
3:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky


The Texans' inactives for Sunday in Arizona:

Injury updates around the division

September, 18, 2009
9/18/09
4:08
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


Injury news out of Friday practicea:

Houston vs. Tennessee

Receiver Andre Davis (concussion) is out.

Cornerback Antwaun Molden (quad) is out.

Defensive tackle Shaun Cody (knee) didn’t practice all week and is questionable. If he doesn’t play, look for Frank Okam to start.

Fullback Vonta Leach (knee) was limited Friday after missing two days and is questionable. Rookie James Casey will start if Leach can’t.

Cornerback Jacques Reeves (fibula) practiced all week and is questionable. He should be a game-time decision but isn’t expected to start if he plays.

Free safety Eugene Wilson (knee) practiced all week and is probable.

Indianapolis vs. Miami

The Colts don’t have to categorize their injured players until Saturday for a Monday night game.

(Read full post)

Texans: Cutdown analysis

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
5:39
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


Biggest surprise: Safety John Busing was a playmaker and a big hitter all preseason, and he came in at a position where the Texans added only a late draft pick, Troy Nolan, who’s on IR. Busing played in 27 games with the Bengals over the last three years, but the little-known undrafted player out of Miami (Ohio) has worked primarily as a special teamer and could be a key teams player for the Texans. Underdog receiver Glenn Martinez also stuck.

No-brainers: With Rex Grossman’s performance in the preseason finale, Dan Orlovsky’s shaky, up-and-down performance through camp and Matt Schaub’s capacity for getting dinged, the Texans are well-served to keep three quarterbacks. Grossman certainly ranks as one of their best 53 right now, and could be better suited to be the backup at the start while the team rebuilds Orlovsky.

What's next: They need veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson to sign his franchise tag and join the team, and if it means negotiating incentives that would free him from the possibility of a second tag next year, they should meet him partway on those. Also, while Antonio Smith will kick inside sometimes, the interior defensive line was not good in the preseason. The team has to at least consider whether the right outsider couldn't rank ahead of Frank Okam or DelJuan Robinson, though the team has invested a lot of time and energy in developing them. And how much does Jeff Zgonina, in his 16th year, have left?

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


The Texans' trade of Travis Johnson wasn’t exactly an exercise in gaining value. In exchange for the 16th pick in the 2005 draft, Houston gets a conditional pick, either a fifth- or sixth-rounder from San Diego, depending on how Johnson performs.

While I was in Houston recently, Johnson was still out recovering from surgery to repair a sports hernia. But the company line was that while Johnson got a lot of grief from the media and fans, he ate up blockers the way the team wanted him to. Maybe it’s reasonable to think now, they were just trying to keep his image as polished as they could knowing they were going to try to get something for him.

Monday night against the Vikings on national TV, the Texans will aim to show they can stop the run much better than they did in their last game, when the Saints ran it right up the middle on them.

With or without Johnson, the Texans need to see more from their interior linemen, starting with third-year man Amobi Okoye. But he plays the spot next to the one Johnson was in, and DelJuan Robinson and Frank Okam have not been especially impressive in that spot so far. Shaun Cody is due to get more of a look. When the team signed him as a free agent, the talk was of his ability to play both inside spots.

The Texans will hope for continued growth from Robinson and Okam and a better showing from Cody. Certainly it’s fair to expect that third down will feature end Antonio Smith kicking inside with rookie Connor Barwin getting on the field to rush the passer.

Johnson finishes his Texans career with 52 appearances, including 38 starts. He had 124 tackles, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble to show for all that time on the field. You’d think a few more big plays would have happened for him just by accident.
 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  Duane Brown has improved his play at left tackle in recent years, along with the image of the Texans.
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 took notice.

"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.

Emerging Stars
A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed
.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs
.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri
.: AFC East | NFC East
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
acoby Jones
, 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 (6-7, 336).

"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."
Scott Boehm/Getty Imagese



Duane Brown has improved his play at left tackle in recent years, along with the image of the Texans.


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 took notice.

"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.











Emerging Stars


A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri.: AFC East | NFC East











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, 2005 and 2006 didn't do a lot to erase the stigma. But last season, 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 Jacoby Jones, 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 (6-7 336).

"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."
 
  Bob Levey/Getty Images
  Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the Texans defense have a new attitude.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- React or act?

Give a group of guys who've spent a lot of time doing the former to do the latter and you'll be greeted with glee.

That's the Houston Texans' defense's feelings for first-year coordinator Frank Bush, promoted by Gary Kubiak to replace Richard Smith.

Camp Confidential: AFC South
Titans: Mon., Aug. 3
Jaguars: Sat., Aug. 8
Colts: Sat., Aug. 15
Texans: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index
"His leadership and the way he comes off to the players, it's a different feeling," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's a different attitude, a different mentality which carries over to the guys and our attitude. We're a lot more physical team. I don't want to say we were too passive.

"I think we had guys thinking too much, we had so many checks and this and that. It was too much, you're thinking so much to where you can't just line up and go tee off on someone. Now we can just line up and get it, there isn't so much too it. It's simplified to where we don't have all the checks."

The primary word being used for the team's new approach is "aggressive," and that's not a term that characterized them too often with Smith at the controls. The mild mannered Bush has the defense excited and determined not to let the Texans be known exclusively as an offensive team.

While Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Steve Slaton and Owen Daniels will go a long way towards determining if the Texans can build on consecutive 8-8 seasons and make the playoffs, Mario Williams, Ryans and linebacker Brian Cushing, a first-round pick, bring a good dose of star power to the defense.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
Is Matt Shaub a No. 1 fantasy QB? ESPN.com fantasy expert Brendan Roberts answers that question. Story
"They are getting tougher and tougher to go against every day," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "They've improved themselves with a bunch of players, they've been rushing the passer better and they are making it tough on us."

To graduate to being a playoff team, the Texans have to reverse some trends. They'll need to play better early so they aren't left to fight so hard to get back to .500. They need to fare better within the division, finding ways to finish off their primary rivals when they have the chance.

They expect the Titans and Colts to be strong again. The Texans will likely have to chase one or both of those teams down.

Anything less than double digit wins and a playoff berth won't be considered a success.

Key questions

1. Can the offense fix turnover and red-zone issues?

The Texans ranked third in total offense last year, but it didn't mean as much as it should have because they were 17th in points per game. The two big themes heading into the 2009 season are cutting turnovers and getting better production once they get inside the 20.

They were minus-10 in takeaways/giveaways last year, third worst in the NFL. They scored touchdowns on just 45.9 percent of their red zone possessions.

"I think if we can make those two adjustments, we can win at least two more games," Shanahan said. "If we can do that I think we will be a playoff team. We were a good offense last year statistically. But that was the first thing I talked about on the first day of OTAs this year, that doesn't mean anything. The top three offenses in the league last year were New Orleans, Denver and us. None of us made the playoffs. Moving the ball does not matter unless you move it across that goal line."

2. Do they have enough in the secondary?

Their top cornerback, Dunta Robinson, has not been with the team because he's upset about getting slapped with a franchise tag, but he will ultimately sign it and play for a guarantee of nearly $10 million.

Jacques Reeves will miss the start of the season with a fractured fibula, which means Fred Bennett will get some time as the second starter. Rookie Glover Quin is currently the nickel and they like his physical play.

But the safeties and the defensive backfield depth are question marks, even if the defensive front gets more of a pa
ss rush and forces the ball out quicker. Can they get steady enough play from Eugene Wilson and second-year man Dominique Barber, the presumptive starters at safety on opening day against the Jets?

 
  Defensive end Mario Williams
  Defensive end Mario Williams accounted for 12 of the Texans' 25 sacks last season.
3. Does Williams have enough pass rush help?

The Texans had just 25 sacks in 2008, fewest in the division. And Williams accounted for 12 of them. Houston made moves intended to get pressure from elsewhere -- first by signing free agent defensive lineman Antonio Smith, then by drafting Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin with their first two picks. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar is a fiery type who preaches pocket penetration and may just be the team's biggest addition.

An effective rush from the front can help take a lot of pressure off the secondary, which ranks as the team's weak link.

Market watch

Ideally, Jacoby Jones would be in line to replace Kevin Walter as the No. 2 receiver in a year if the team doesn't or can't re-sign Walter. But Jones lacks maturity and consistency and his job security could be in jeopardy. The team is looking at kickoff return man Andre Davis, a better receiver, as a punt return possibility. If Davis succeeds there, Jones could be expendable.

Jones can be very good, but he can also put the ball on the ground too much as a punt returner. And Kubiak is not a fan of specialists. He wants football players who can fill multiple roles. That describes Davis, who can cover kicks as well as return them in addition to catching passes. It may not cover Jones much longer.

Newcomer to watch

Smith
Smith wasn't regarded as any sort of premier pass rusher when he hit free agency. But he's a versatile lineman who is very good with his hands. If things go the way the Texans hope, he can be an early down end and a third down tackle, having a positive influence and taking on a leadership role for youngsters Williams, Amobi Okoye and Barwin.

"He's a kid that can move from outside to inside, he's a big man that's a real good athlete," said Bush, who also worked with him in Arizona. "He's a 285-pound guy with good knee bend. He's extremely tough, has no problem playing over a center, guard or tackle. He takes a lot of pride in his performance and he came up through the ranks the hard way, he honed his craft and made himself what he is.

"That whole sense of a guy that came from virtually nothing to what he is right now kind of helps our team. Other guys can see it and aspire to be that way."

Observation deck

Antwaun Molden got hurt in his rookie season when the team wanted to bring him along slowly. He's a physical cornerback who could provide some great insurance or become a real alternative now if he's needed. ... Dan Orlovsky hasn't looked very good, but the team knows it will take him a while to be comfortable in the system and are convinced with coaching he can be a quality No. 2 quarterback for them. Even before a hamstring injury Rex Grossman wasn't going to challenge him for the backup quarterback job. ... Ryan Moats is like Slaton style-wise and Arian Foster is Chris Brown-like. But the undrafted rookie back may have missed his chance with a preseason injury and a too-slow return. Brown's ability to stay healthy will be a big question for the offense. ... While he's a popular fall guy with media and fans, defensive tackle Travis Johnson, who's missed camp so far recovering from hernia surgery, generally does what the team asks, taking up blockers. That it's a contract year won't hurt his motivation either. ... Undrafted free agent John Busing hits and plays good special teams, which may give him a shot at a roster spot that has belonged to Nick Ferguson or Brandon Harrison. ... The team also likes undrafted defensive end Tim Jamison, but will there be room for him? ... Frank Okam is big, quick and smart and he's been a pet project for coaches. When Kubiak complimented his offseason, Okam knew it meant something, "because it's difficult for an Aggie to give a Longhorn a compliment." ... Rookie tight end James Casey can play fullback, line up wide or throw. That's versatility that makes him Houston's Wildcat candidate. ... Want an undrafted possibility on offense? If Jones is out, there could be room for receiver Darnell Jenkins.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans

  • A slimmer Frank Okam is a different player, says Jordan Godwin.
  • Frank Bush and Gregg Williams, who coached together with the Houston Oilers, had a chance to visit while the Texans and Saints got together, says the Chronicle's camp insider.
  • Williams is building a family coaching legacy, says John McClain
  • Differing opinions: Gary Kubiak saw a sluggish Wednesday morning, Matt Schaub thought the Texans were crisp, say McClain and Dale Robertson.
  • Breakdowns of five Texans, including Amobi Okoye, from Lance Zierlein.

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars

Tennessee Titans

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider