| Schaub was
prolific but had
his troubles inside
the red zone.
|Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMI |
13 N.Y. JETS
20 at Tennessee
11 at Arizona
18 at Cincinnati
25 SAN FRANCISCO
1 at Buffalo
8 at Indianapolis
23 TENNESSEE (M)
6 at Jacksonville
20 at St. Louis
27 at Miami
3 NEW ENGLAND
Steve Slaton, Running back: As a rookie last season Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards (more than any
other first-year player), averaged 4.8 yards a carry (the same as Adrian
Peterson) and ran for nine touchdowns (tied for 13th in the league). But when
the ballots for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year were counted, Slaton was shut
out. The panel of 50 sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league cast 44
votes for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, three for Titans running back Chris
Johnson, two for Broncos tackle Ryan Clady and one for Bears running back Matt
Slaton doesn't need the snub to make him a better back this season -- his varied
gifts as a runner are sufficient. His speed (4.44 in the 40) combined with
toughness between the tackles makes him an ideal threat carrying the ball as
well as an excellent decoy to set up the play-action. If Slaton had a weakness
carrying the ball in 2008, it was inside the red zone, where he sometimes showed
impatience by not following his blockers.
To better handle the rigors of pass protection and blitz pickup, the third-round pick out of West Virginia reported to training camp a muscular 215
pounds (up from 203 as a rookie). If he still has his burst, the Texans'
offense, which ranked third in the league in '08, will be even more dangerous in
'09. And then Slaton might be on the minds of voters for NFL MVP.
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
With the core players hitting their prime, this bunch is (finally) ready to reach the top in a daunting division.
Gary Kubiak gets up in Houston every day knowing that Peyton Manning
is a world-beater in Indianapolis, Jeff Fisher is loaded with talent in
Tennessee and there is no such thing as a soft team in Jacksonville. This may
sound like a heavy burden for Kubiak, but the fourth-year coach has learned to
embrace his membership in the AFC South. "I tell our guys all the time, we're
not going to wait for these great teams to come back to us," he says. "We've got
to get them."
The Texans are finally in a position to do just that. Houston has been
languishing in the middle of the pack for the last three years (six wins 2006,
eight in both 2007 and '08), but now its key starters are entering their primes.
Defensive end Mario Williams, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen
Daniels -- all of whom have been to a Pro Bowl -- are heading into their fourth
seasons; quarterback Matt Schaub is starting his sixth; and his primary
receivers, Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, are going into their seventh. "We're
ready to take that next step," says Schaub. "A lot of guys are in their third
and fourth years in [Kubiak's] system. It's time to make that jump."
Schaub, 28, who came from Atlanta in 2007, appears primed to join the
quarterback elite. Despite missing five games last season (four to an left MCL
injury on a low hit by Jared Allen that earned the Vikings defender a hefty
fine) he still threw for 3,043 yards and completed 66.1% of his passes. The
Texans had no trouble moving up and down the field; punching the ball into the
end zone was the issue. The offense was third in the NFL in yards per game
(382.1) but only 17th in points (22.9). Houston was also 29th in the league in
turnover margin, with a -10. "We could have put ourselves in better situations
if we'd taken care of the football and were better in the red zone, not settling
for [field goals]," Schaub says. "If we'd done those things, maybe we would have
won more games."
The talent is there. The 6' 3", 223-pound Johnson led the league in
catches but still flies mostly under the radar. He says he's never felt better
entering a season, after giving his body more rest than usual in the spring.
During the year he faces the opponent's best corner every Sunday, not to mention
extra coverage from safeties trying to keep him from beating them over the top.
But for all his gifts -- and those of his team -- he has grown weary of the annual
discussions about the Texans' impending breakthrough to the postseason. "Last
year we talked about it so much," says Johnson, "it took the focus off of what
we needed to do."
Kubiak, who joined the Texans in 2006, feels a particular kinship with the
draft class from that year, which brought Houston's key defensive players:
Williams, taken first, and Ryans, picked 33rd. Few people now question drafting
Williams ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young: After getting just 4 1/2 sacks
during his rookie season, he has 26 over the last two years. As for Ryans, his
ability to deliver hard hits and run sideline to sideline is surpassed only by
his desire to take charge. "I don't want to come off the field at any cost," he
says. "This is my defense -- no ifs, ands or buts about it. Our performance
reflects my leadership."
Ryans and the Texans know that performance, not potential, will determine
their fate in 2009. Every victory is precious, especially in a division that
normally produces two teams with double-digit wins. One of them is the club with
the horseshoe on its helmets. "As long as number 18 is on their side," Schaub
says, referring to Manning, "the Colts are going to be a team to be reckoned
They might be saying the same one day about Schaub and his number 8. But
first he must show he can regularly take the Texans to the end zone -- and the
-- Damon Hack