There's an adage in the Lone Star State that warns against messing with Texas. Opponents might want to heed the message when venturing into Houston this season because the Texans have put together an offense that has the capability of setting the league ablaze in 2009.
Gary Kubiak's squad enters the season seeking to build on its third-ranked offense from a season ago. Fueled by a high-octane passing attack, the Texans rolled up 382.1 yards a game with 266.7 of those yards coming through the air. Using a system that features numerous elements from the West Coast offense, Houston's passing game features an assortment of quick rhythm throws designed to put the ball in the hands of its playmakers as fast as possible.
However, the Texans are able to take their passing game to another level by incorporating more vertical routes than most West Coast teams. Last season, the Texans ranked second in the league in completions over 20 yards (60) and recorded 12 over 40 yards -- tied for the fourth-most. With video game-like explosiveness, the Texans averaged an astonishing 8.1 yards per pass attempt and torched defenses ill-equipped to handle such a diverse style.
While the scheme is taxing on defenses, it is the superb personnel the Texans put on the field that truly drives play-callers nuts. Houston's cast of playmakers is as talented as any in the league, and last season represented their collective coming out party.
Although Andre Johnson had earned two Pro Bowl nods during his first five seasons in the league, he emerged as the best receiver in the game last season. He led the league in catches (115) and receiving yards (1,575), while tallying seven games with 10 or more grabs to go with eight 100-yard receiving efforts.
As a big, physical receiver with exceptional hands and athleticism, Johnson destroys single coverage, forcing defenses to double team the mercurial talent at all times. Despite facing a steady diet of rolled coverage to his side of the field, Johnson still finished the season with 20 receptions over 20 yards (tied for the fourth-highest total) and added four catches that covered at least 40 yards en route to another trip to the Pro Bowl.
On the opposite side, Kevin Walter acts as a No. 2 receiver in name only for the team. The six-year veteran put up numbers comparable to some lead receivers (60 receptions for 899 yards) in 2008 and tied with Johnson for the team lead with eight touchdown catches. As a vertical route runner with deceptive speed, Walter excels at making plays down the field on the backside of the formation. Though he clearly benefits from playing alongside Johnson, he has posted solid numbers in consecutive seasons and emerged as a legitimate playmaker in the offense.
Owen Daniels has quietly developed into a Pro Bowl tight end during his three-year tenure in Houston. He is a precise route runner with outstanding hands, who shines as a possession option over the middle. Daniels' ability to work the intermediate areas of the zone gives the Texans' aerial attack enough diversity to thrive against any coverage.
Considering the vast array of weapons at his disposal, it is not surprising that quarterback Matt Schaub has put up stellar numbers while directing Houston's dynamic offense. He surpassed the 3,000-yard mark for the first time in his career last season and completed 66.1 percent of his passes. His 92.7 passer rating was the seventh-best mark in the league. In addition, Schaub tossed 15 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions. While his detractors would cite his injury history as an issue -- Schaub has missed five games in each of the past two seasons -- the Texans' triggerman has shown the potential to develop into an elite quarterback directing the team's wide-open attack.
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Even though the Texans' aerial ability merits headline status, the team's underrated running game gives Kubiak a balanced but explosive offense.
Led by second-year sensation Steve Slaton, Houston's zone-based running scheme is also troublesome to defend. Slaton, who finished as the league's sixth-best rusher with 1,282 yards, is an electrifying runner with explosive speed and quickness. His ability to quickly grasp the team's "one-cut" rule in the running game resulted in Slaton averaging an impressive 4.8 yards per carry as a rookie. Moreover, he tied for the league lead with five runs over 40 yards and amassed five 100-yard games while averaging only 16.8 carries a contest.
While Slaton has clearly demonstrated the ability to carry the load, he could get a potential partner in Arian Foster. The undrafted rookie free agent out of Tennessee has been impressive in workouts and, at 232 pounds, would give the team the big back it needs to excel in short yardage/goal line situations.
While Foster slipped through the cracks on draft day, he could become a factor in the team's success if he can earn a roster spot as the designated "banger" in the running game.
Houston's skill players rival some of the best units in the game and its ascending offensive line is quickly closing the gap on its counterparts as well. Led by Eric Winston and Chester Pitts, the frontline features a collection of athletic linemen becoming increasingly comfortable in the team's zone-based scheme. Last season, the Texans averaged 4.3 yards per carry and ranked 13th in rush offense (115.4) behind the improved unit. Although the team surrendered 32 sacks last season, their development over the course of the season is encouraging and gives the team hope that the unit will continue to thrive with all five starters returning.
Given an offense that shows the potential to emerge as one of the league's most explosive units, Kubiak seemingly has the pieces in place to get the Texans into the postseason for the first time in franchise history. But he will need the team to hit the ground running coming out of training camp to avoid the slow starts that have derailed playoff hopes the past two seasons. Though the team bounced back from 3-5 marks halfway through each of the last two years, including an 0-4 start in 2008, to finish 8-8, the early season deficits have been too difficult to overcome in the highly competitive AFC.
In addition to finding their rhythm earlier in the season, the Texans must excel in the rugged AFC South. During Kubiak's three-year tenure in Houston, the team sports a 6-12 mark against division foes, including a 2-4 record last season. With a division title providing a guaranteed playoff spot, the Texans' ability to reverse their fortunes within the AFC South is critical to their postseason aspirations and the offense undoubtedly has to lead the turnaround.
After existing in obscurity since the franchise's inception in 2002, a high-powered offense is set to make the Texans playoff contenders in 2009.