While the Texans' offensive linemen munched on grilled burgers and steaks in David Carr's backyard in early July, the team's second-year left tackle, Chester Pitts, asked for a moment alone with the quarterback. Pitts wanted Carr to know that this season would be different from last, that Pitts was more confident that he could protect Carr's backside. Carr nodded. He knows that Pitts's eyes never lie. They droop when he's down. They come alive when he's happy. And when they gazed at Carr that afternoon, they told the quarterback that Pitts meant what he said.
In the expansion team's first season last year, Pitts was rushed into the lineup for injured All-Pro Tony Boselli and wound up starting all 16 games as a rookie. The plan had been to use Pitts, a second-round draft pick, as Boselli's backup, but Pitts survived in what was a horrid year for the line: Carr was sacked an NFL-record 76 times. Pitts was charged with only 12 of those sacks, but that didn't give him much solace.
Pitts had plenty to learn about his position and, when Boselli was unable to return to full health and retired in July, he would have to learn quickly. In the first weeks of training camp Pitts was impressive. In addition to adding 10 pounds of muscle to his 6'4" frame, bulking up to 330, he has improved his technique, reacting better to countermoves and, to avoid holding penalties, keeping his hands tight to the body while pass-blocking. " Chester has really matured," says Texans offensive line coach Tony Marciano. "He's asking good questions, and when he makes a mistake, he realizes it immediately. When something went wrong last year, he'd get a look on his face that said, What am I supposed to be doing?"
"The game has slowed down some for me," says Pitts. "When I watch film now, I can pick things up faster, and when I'm playing, I have a better sense of what a player is trying to do to me. All that helps, but in the end I still have to go out and block people like [the Dolphins'] Jason Taylor and [the Jaguars'] Hugh Douglas."
Pitts's development is stunning in light of his background. His high school in Los Angeles didn't have a football team, and he walked on at San Diego State in 1998 (on the advice of Aztecs tackle Kyle Turley, now with the Rams). Last season Pitts played in as many games (21, including five exhibitions) as he did in his college career. "They threw me into a pot of boiling water, but I took it as a compliment," he says. "They knew I'd fight and I wouldn't quit."
Pitts, Carr and center Steve McKinney were the only three players on the Texans' offense to appear in every game. Pitts, 24, and McKinney, 27, are the foundation for a line that must dramatically improve for Carr and Houston to succeed. In going 4-12 last year, Houston had the league's worst offense (223.3 yards a game). Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer says he expects the line to give up a third fewer sacks than it did last season, but that might be unrealistic for this group.
Left guard Milford Brown hasn't played a down since the team selected him in the sixth round of last year's supplemental draft. Right tackle Greg Randall started 17 games for the Patriots during their Super Bowl run in 2001, but played in only seven games for New England last season. Right guard Zach Wiegert, a free-agent pickup with eight years' experience, brings veteran leadership. "I think we'll be better," says coach Dom Capers. "Our plan last year was to have Boselli and Ryan Young [a tackle who left for Dallas in free agency] set the tone, but when they got hurt, we had to find other options. Now we have a group that has a chance to build cohesiveness."
Pitts takes the same optimistic approach, but that doesn't mean he's overconfident. He's seen the schedule. Speed rushers such as Taylor, the Titans' Jevon Kearse, the Colts' Dwight Freeney and the Bucs' Simeon Rice await him. "Let's just say I'm better acclimated to what I have to do," Pitts says. "I understand our offense and my role better. But when I think about the people I have to go against, I'll never call this job easy."
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