- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
HOUSTON -- The Texans looked like a team with a foundation Monday night: Three stars shined for a team that played with resolve and assertively took a game from a division rival.
Three-fourths of the way through the season, it may mean they're finally figuring things out. It may mean the Jaguars, whose quarterback got tripped up by his linemen more than once as he dropped back, are an easy team to beat. It probably means some of both.
And that's got to be good enough for the home team, playing for the first time on "Monday Night Football" and now standing alone in third place in the AFC South at 5-7.
Receiver Andre Johnson set the tone with a 31-yard touchdown catch and run on the opening drive, but he then moved to the background in a game that belonged to defensive end Mario Williams, who sacked David Garrard three times and forced a fumble, and Steve Slaton, the electric rookie running back who accounted for 182 yards and two scores.
"He's a little monster for us, he's a little beast for us," cornerback Jacques Reeves said of Slaton, who's averaging 5 yards a carry and is on pace for 1,205 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs.
As a third-round pick out of West Virginia, Slaton was projected by many as a third-down specialist, a change of pace. But unable to get any consistent contribution out of veteran Ahman Green this season -- he's now on injured reserve -- the Texans turned to Slaton to set the pace instead of changing it, and he has been more than they could have reasonably expected.
"Even our offensive coordinator sort of touted him as a Reggie Bush-style back, good out of the backfield with great hands for catching the ball," quarterback Sage Rosenfels said. "He's become a great every-down back. He hits the hole quick and he's got great balance.
"He usually gets hit pretty hard 5 or 6 yards downfield and has great balance to stay up and get another 4 or 5 and sometime break them. He has been sort of a gem for this football team. To find that kid in the third round, he's become one of the best players on our team."
Slaton has been dealing with a bruised sternum and bruised ribs. Still, with only nine carries at the half, he cornered coach Gary Kubiak during intermission and grabbed him by the shirt to tell him he was OK, to give him the ball. After the game Kubiak compared Slaton's personality -- where "nothing is too big for him" -- to Clinton Portis, a back he coached in Denver.
Jacksonville's veteran back, Fred Taylor, said when he saw Slaton play a few weeks ago against Indianapolis, "I thought he was just cruising. But tonight he had some after-burners."
Slaton's parents were in the crowd and it was the first time his dad had made it to Reliant Stadium. The younger Slaton said the idea that he would be a specialist in the NFL is part of what motivates him.
"It is driving me here to be a 10-drive guy," he said. "And I thought that any situation they put me in, I can play. And I just wanted to prove to everybody I could do that."
Not to nitpick after such a great performance, but he didn't quite do everything.
After a 46-yard catch and run got Houston to the Jaguars' 1-yard line, it seemed as if the Texans were determined to get him the touchdown. He ran off right tackle three times, losing 2 yards, getting them back, then losing 1 more. The Texans settled for a 20-yard Kris Brown field goal and a 16-3 lead.
"It was very frustrating," said Slaton, who had fourth-quarter TD runs of 7 and 40 yards. "It gives the defense a little bit of momentum when they stop you. But we still had a lot of game left and we finished it later in the red zone."
On the other side of the ball, there was a concerted effort to contain Garrard, who'd hurt the Texans with seven runs for 41 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting, a 30-27 Jacksonville win in overtime on Sept. 28. Working against both Jacksonville tackles, Khalif Barnes and Tony Pashos, Williams boosted his season sack total to 11 and knocked a ball free from Garrard.
"If I was going against a person and they did that to me, I'd be looking for the nearest bridge to jump off," Houston guard Chester Pitts said. "It was a great thing for him and rough on the offensive lineman that was supposed to be blocking him."
A few other things I saw, heard, asked about or noticed during and after this game:
-- Taylor said the Jaguars have plenty to play for in the season's final month.
"It's our resume still, all of us," he said. "Nobody is excluded. We've just got to continue to work or craft, work the process throughout the week. We can try to finish 8-8 or we can say, 'Screw it all' and be 4-12.
"That doesn't do anything for me, I'm sure it doesn't do anything for any of these guys, definitely not the front office -- they don't want to cut any more big signing bonuses to get a top [draft] pick. So we've got to try to finish this thing at .500. That's the best we can do."
-- The two franchises are relative infants, but it was still significant that each saw a veteran take over as its all-time leading touchdown scorer.
For Houston, Andre Johnson's first-quarter TD catch was the 29th score of his career, which put him past Domanick Williams, the running back who was known as Domanick Davis for most of his career.
For Jacksonville, Taylor passed Jimmy Smith at the top of the Jaguars' touchdown list when he scored for the 70th time in his career on a four-yard run in the fourth quarter.
-- One man's theory -- linebacker Kevin Bentley -- on why things have been so much better for the Texans' defense the last two games: "We went through a lot of changes on the back end, the front
end, guys rotating in and out. What I think now has happened is we've found a consistency, we've had the same guys playing now for a little bit, and we're starting to jell. I think that's what is happening. You normally use camp to have guys jell, but when you're rotating in and out you don't really get that continuity.
"I don't know why they were doing that [rotating], what the reason was behind that. I think we've got a continuity right now and we're playing good ball."
-- Rosenfels said he'll have no problem turning the keys to the offense back to Matt Schaub, who's expected to take back the starting job Sunday at Lambeau Field after recovering from a knee injury for the last four weeks.
"Nope, this is Matt's football team and I am going to back him up if he's healthy this week and he's going to do a great job," Rosenfels said. "I think our team is excited to go up to Green Bay, most guys have not played up there. I've played up there a couple times and it's an unbelievable place to play and I think guys will be excited coming off a win."
-- Battle Red Day worked against for the Texans. We saw the Titans have a successful Monday night Code Blue earlier this season. I don't see the Colts, the one team in the AFC South with a long history (even if most of it was in another city) going with the college-style color theme any time soon. But does anyone else sense a Feel the Teal game coming in Jacksonville?