HOUSTON -- With six fumbles, Texans running back Steve Slaton has coughed up the ball more than any non-quarterback in the NFL. He has lost four of the six, leaving him tied for second in that category behind struggling Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
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The Texans don't know why Slaton is struggling with ball security this season after fumbling just three times as a rookie last year.
"Coaches, players, everybody's trying to help him out here," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We're all here to help him and we're all here to support him, but he's got a job to do and that's protect the ball."
The Texans have emphasized keeping two hands on the ball in certain situations and even added drills in practice where everyone lines up and tries to knock it loose. Kubiak believes people go for the ball more when they know a player has been fumbling.
"When you get a little bit of a reputation, you put a few balls on the ground for a couple of weeks, and it's almost like these guys just start getting a lot tougher, as far as holding you up," he said. "People smell blood."
Slaton has fumbled in five of the Texans' seven games this season and had two in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans.
"You've just got to be prepared and do more to help yourself," Slaton said. "Once you have a couple, you know teams are going to stand you up, so it's definitely tough when you have two guys yanking on you. But it has got to be in the back of my mind to know that if I can't get any more yards I've got to just go on the ground, just cover up and get down."
Slaton, who set a franchise record with 1,282 rushing yards last season, said knowing his teammates are trying to help and that they're on his side has made his struggles a bit easier.
"It's definitely been a positive note in this," he said. "You know that you're hurting your team when you put the ball on the ground, but the guys still supporting me and saying they still want me out there is definitely a positive. It makes me work harder to protect it more."
Slaton is hoping to rebound this week against the Buffalo Bills' NFL-worst run defense, which is giving up 172.4 yards per game. Houston's running game is among the league's worst and is averaging 79.1 yards per game.
It has been hurt by season-ending injuries to both of its starting guards. Slaton has 109 carries for 341 yards and two touchdowns, but he has supplemented that production with his receiving yards.
The Texans have been successful in throwing screen passes to Slaton, who routinely takes them for much bigger gains. That tactic was particularly helpful during a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks ago when Slaton had six receptions for 102 yards, including a 38-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
Slaton is averaging 11.3 yards per catch, and he has 304 receiving yards with three touchdowns.
"Our team believes in him and trusts that to be successful and accomplish some of the things we want to accomplish as a team, we need Steve making those plays," Kubiak said. "We're going to stand behind Steve and help him get this corrected as a football team because we need his big plays to win."
On Thursday, wide receiver Andre Johnson returned to practice after sitting out for one day before with a bruised lung. Kubiak was encouraged by Johnson's work but still wouldn't say that the receiver will play Sunday. Johnson said he felt great after practice and plans to play.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press