NFL Preseason 2010: Houston Texans

Dmitriy Ioselevich@dioselevSenior Analyst IIIAugust 25, 2010

NFL Preseason 2010: Houston Texans

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    If you ask a typical football fan which team had the No. 1 ranked passing offense in the entire league, most would say either the Indianapolis Colts or the New Orleans Saints. Nope. It's actually the Colts division rival, the Houston Texans.

    The Texans finished 9-7 last season, the first winning season in franchise history and just barely missed the playoffs. The team returns most of its starters and is poised to make some noise in the competitive AFC south.

    Houston dropped both of its preseason games so far, losing 19-16 to the Arizona Cardinals and then losing 38-20 to the New Orleans Saints. They have two more weeks to finish working out the kinks before opening the season against the powerhouse Colts.

    Here are the top storylines from Texans' camp and what impact they might have on the regular season.

Can The Texans Run?

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    We all know the Texans can throw the ball. But part of the reason they rack up so many passing yards is because the running game is, well, abysmal.

    Last season, the Texans ranked 30th in NFL in rushing with only 92.2 yards/game. Leading the way was starter Steve Slaton, whose 131 carries managed only 437 yards (a 3.3 average) and three touchdowns. His sophomore campaign fell far short of his promising rookie season, largely because of a nerve problem in his neck that caused him to miss five games.

    Also sharing the load last season were sixth-year back Ryan Moats (390 yards) and seventh-year back Chris Brown (267 yards).

    The Texans lone bright spot was second-year player Arian Foster, who ran for 257 yards and three touchdowns during his rookie year in 2009. Foster is back, and he will challenge Slaton for the bulk of the carries.

    Houston also drafted rookie Ben Tate, a second round draft pick out of Auburn. The 5'11" Tate gives the Texans a big back to pair with the quick and shifty Slaton, but he will be out for the season after suffering an ankle injury.

    If Foster can improve on his rookie season and Slaton can return to form, the Texans running game might just be good enough to at least keep blitzing defenses honest. 

Who Will Start Opposite Andre Johnson

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    Johnson has been the Texans' big play receiver ever since he was a rookie and is now an elite NFL wideout. He had another stellar season last year, catching 101 passes for 1,569 yards (most in the NFL) and nine touchdowns.

    So clearly, Matt Schaub likes throwing passes to Johnson. But he will need another weapon on the opposite side of the field; otherwise Johnson will constantly face double and triple teams.

    The early favorite was Jacoby Jones, a 6'2" fourth-year wide receiver who caught 27 passes for 437 yards and six touchdowns last year. 

    But word out of Texans' training camp has veteran Kevin Walter emerging as the choice. He had a good season in 2009, catching 53 passes for 611 yards and two touchdowns. Walter has started in each of the Texans' two preseason games, and coach Gary Kubiak has indicated that he will get the nod in the regular season.

    The Texans like to run three-WR sets so both Jones and Walter will get lots of playing time. But for the moment at least, Walter has secured the second spot on the depth chart.

What's Going On at Linebacker?

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    DeMeco Ryans is the middle linebacker. We know that for sure.

    Zach Diles should be the weak side line backer, and Brian Cushing will be the strong side linebacker, at least once he returns from his suspension for failing a drug test.

    But who will start in Cushing's place until October 10th?

    The top two candidates, Xavier Adibi and Danny Clark, are both out with injuries and have seen limited action during the preseason. Next on the depth chart was Darnell Bing, a second-year player who recently suffered a neck injury and had to be placed on IR.

    The fifth string option? The Texans signed undrafted rookie William Patterson to replace Bing and then watched as Patterson had to be taken off the field in a cart due to overheating.

    Daryl Sharpton, the only other linebacker on the roster and the back-up to Diles, is out with a swollen knee.

    Kevin Bentley, the back-up middle linebacker, is also healthy and has emergency experience playing strong side linebacker. So the Texans have three linebacker spots and only three healthy linebackers.

    With only a couple of weeks left before the regular season it's too late to sign someone and teach them the defense. If another linebacker goes down, Kubiak may have no choice but to send the punter out there.

How Will the Offensive Line Hold Up?

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    A large part of the reason why Houston's run game was so pitiful is because the offensive linemen struggled to create open lanes and fend off tacklers.

    The only sure thing about the Texans offensive line is who will be at the tackle spots. Duane Brown (left tackle) and Eric Winston (right tackle) are both solid, young players capable of anchoring the line.

    But after that—nothing but question marks.

    In 2009, the Texans lost starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Briesel to injury. Briesel is back and is the favorite to start at right guard, but Pitts remains unsigned.

    Taking Pitts' spot will likely be Kasey Studdard, a fourth-year player out of Texas. The center right now is Chris Myers.

    The line held together last year despite injuries, surrendering only 28 sacks. But they will need to get better at run blocking to give Houston a balanced offense. Considering this is a unit that has never really played together all at once, that's going to be a tall order.