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Defensive end Mario Williams' strong 2007 season was a good sign of things to come.


AFC South preview:

Colts: Plenty of ammo | Jaguars: Closing the gap | Texans: Seeking playoff berth | Titans: Focus on Young

What the Texans need to do to advance from their 8-8 finish of a year ago is obvious: They need to play better defense.

Houston allowed 344 yards a game last season, 24th in the league. In a division with the Colts' passing game and the Jaguars' running game that has to change for them to vault over one of the three playoff teams ahead of them.

Houston believes they have the foundation in place to do it with a young defensive line anchored by former No. 1 pick Mario Williams, who had 14 sacks a year ago. Amobi Okoye, 21, had 5 ½ himself and appears to be a star of the not too distant future. Defensive tackle Travis Johnson gives them three former No. 1 picks in their front four. The fourth spot is filled well by veteran Anthony Weaver but they'd love to see fifth-round draft choice Frank Okam use his 336 pounds in the middle to help stuff the run at times.

2008 forecast
Vic Carucci: The Texans are still searching for a consistently effective running game. If they can't find one, they will have a hard time fulfilling their high expectations of being a playoff team. Prediction: 8-8

Thomas George: Texans continue to build and are improved. Prediction: 5-11

Pat Kirwan: The biggest problem the Texans face is the division they play in, and improvement may not be measured in wins. Sage Rosenfels threw 6 more touchdowns than Matt Schaub in 49 fewer pass attempts, but he's back on the bench. Prediction: 8-8

Gil Brandt: The Texans have some good young players. The trio of QB Matt Schaub, RB Ahman Green and WR Andre Johnson missed a combined 22 games last season and they still won 8 games and lost 5 by a combined 36 points. Prediction: 9-7

» Texans' 2008 schedule
Fantasy file
Riser: Andre Johnson
Johnson is the most talented player in Houston's offense. If he can avoid injuries -- something the wideout hasn't done in two of the last three years, he could be on the verge of his best statistical NFL season.

Faller: Ahman Green
He might be the favorite to start in the backfield, but Green is far too prone to injuries to make you think he can make it through an entire season. He'll also lose carries to Chris Brown and rookie Steve Slaton.

» Fantasy draft kit | More fantasy

On offense, Houston has faith that if quarterback Matt Schaub stays healthy they will have a triggerman who can make good use of deep threat Andre Johnson (60 catches for 851 yards and eight touchdowns in only nine games because of injuries), young WR Kevin Walter, who had a breakout year last season with 65 receptions for 800 yards and 4 touchdowns, and speedster Andre Davis, who averaged 18 yards a catch in 2007. Schaub has another big target in tight end Owen Daniels as well. Daniels showed he knows how to work free in the middle of the field and did it well enough a year ago to grab 63 passes for 768 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Houston was 12th in the league in scoring but believes it can do much more if it can get the running game untracked. The Texans are looking for answers for a run-game that rushed for less than 100 yards a game last season. The best one may be rookie running back Steve Slaton. He's only 5-foot-10, 195 pounds so he may not be able to take the pounding of a full-time back, but he was dominant at West Virginia and seems to be an improvement over veterans Ahman Green, Chris Brown and Chris Taylor.

On the hot seat

Ahman Green was a Pro Bowl running back with the Packers but he missed most of last season with injuries after the Texans gambled on signing him. Green, 31, is more of a question mark this season than someone to rely on. If he repeats his 260 yards rushing of a year ago the Texans' running game could be in trouble.

Difference-maker

Outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin was imported as a free agent from the Patriots to give them an additional edge pass rusher. Colvin has struggled with injuries in recent years and with making the transition to defensive end this summer, but when he's healthy he has an impact on the pass rush.

Hard road to hoe

The Texans believe in themselves and will get a chance to prove they are right the first month of the season. Houston opens against the Steelers on the road, hosts the Ravens and then goes back on the road to face the Titans and Jaguars. By the end of September they will have faced three 2007 playoff teams and two of the teams they have to knock off to win the division.

Texans will be better than you think if ...

Rookie No. 1 pick Duane Brown is ready to step in at left tackle and replace journeyman Ephraim Salaam early this season. If he's in there it probably means he's considered an upgrade on a team that needs to find a way to improve its running game.

Texans will be worse than you think if ...

Cornerback Dunta Robinson's knee problems persist all season. Free agent Jacques Reeves was brought in to play nickel, not start, and young Fred Bennett on the other corner isn't ready to handle No. 1 receivers.

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