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Texans begin camp hoping for first playoff trip

HOUSTON -- Mario Williams showed he's far from a bust and the offense was much more potent, but the Houston Texans still finished last in their division and failed to get that elusive first playoff berth last season.

The Texans won two more games than they did in 2006 to reach .500 for the first time. As they prepare for camp that begins July 25, they know they'll have to make a bigger jump this season to step out of their role as AFC South bottom-dwellers.

Matt Schaub was solid in his first year as a starter, but his progress was hampered by injuries. The quarterback missed five games and portions of several others with various injuries, receiver Andre Johnson missed seven games and running back Ahman Green sat out 10. The three were on the field together only for the first two games, both wins.

The offense suffered during their absences, but the team still averaged 54 yards more a game than it did in 2006.

[internal-link-placeholder-0]OPEN CAMP: July 25, Houston.

LAST YEAR: The Texans reached .500 for the first time last season, but that record might be misleading since the eighth win came against a Jaguars team that had already made the playoffs and rested most starters. Mario Williams had a breakout 14-sack season and new quarterback Matt Schaub looked good in his first year as a starter, but Houston's offense was slowed by injuries to he, Andre Johnson and Ahman Green.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: LT Duane Brown (first-round draft pick), LB Rosevelt Colvin, RB Chris Brown, CB Jacques Reeves.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: Assistant head coach Mike Sherman, LB Danny Clark, RB Ron Dayne.

CAMP NEEDS: Johnson must show he's recovered from the knee injury that kept him out of seven games last season and led him to offseason arthroscopic surgery. Brown, the rookie left tackle, will have to improve after being dominated by Williams in offseason workouts. Green's durability will be tested after he missed 10 games with knee swelling.

EXPECTATIONS: If Green and Johnson can stay healthy, the offense in Schaub's second season in Houston should be improved. The young and talented trio of Williams, Amobi Okoye and LB DeMeco Ryans will be better, but it will have to pick up the slack from a secondary playing without CB Dunta Robinson until at least late October. Entering their seventh season, the Texans will be disappointed with anything less than their first playoff berth, but they'll have to make a big jump for that to happen in the ultra-competitive AFC South.

Schaub had surgery after the season to repair an injury to his non-throwing shoulder and is expected to be healthy in time for training camp.

"You get more comfortable from year one to year two," Schaub said. "That's when you make the biggest jump in any system ... getting more familiar with things and getting used to them. It's just going to help this next year."

Johnson is expected to return for camp after sitting out Houston's offseason workouts after arthroscopic knee surgery, and Green declared himself "pain free" and ready for camp. The Texans must wait and see if the 31-year-old will be more durable than he was in his first season in Houston when he finished with 70 carries for 260 yards.

They added insurance in case he can't stay healthy with Chris Brown, the former Tennessee back. Brown ran for 462 yards last season but also struggled with injuries.

Houston hopes third-round draft pick Steve Slaton can be the change of pace back this offense has lacked. Slaton had 3,923 yards rushing and a school-record 50 rushing touchdowns in three seasons at West Virginia.

The Texans added offensive line guru Alex Gibbs to replace Mike Sherman as assistant head coach/offense. Gibbs coached Denver's offensive line for 13 seasons and coach Gary Kubiak is excited about what he can bring to Houston's line, which will feature rookie first-round pick Duane Brown.

The Texans got the left tackle despite trading down from 18th to 26th. He was projected by most as a second-round pick, but Texans coaches were high on him and put him with the first team throughout offseason workouts.

Brown didn't fare too well lining up against Williams, but Kubiak is confident he'll improve with time and practice.

"That's a difficult position to come into in this league," Kubiak said. "And then you couple that with the fact that he's playing against a guy (Williams) that probably ... could be the most dominant defensive end this year. So he's got a lot to work on, but he's got a great attitude and all the athleticism that we need and the right temperament."

Williams' 14-sack season quelled criticism he has faced since the Texans passed on Reggie Bush and Vince Young to take him with the first pick of the 2006 draft. His Pro Bowl snub has motivated him to build on that number, which included 10 sacks in the last seven games.

He'll pair with defensive tackle Amobi Okoye and should get some pass-rushing help from linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. The 21-year-old Okoye started out strong last season, but the NFL's youngest player in 40 years wore down late in the season, when his production fell off. Kubiak called him the most improved player this offseason.

Colvin joined the Texans in June after being released by the Patriots in February. He missed the last five regular season games and the playoffs with a foot injury, but is healthy and will likely be used as a situational pass rusher.

As a member of two Super Bowl winners, Colvin's leadership on this young defense should also be helpful. Of course, third-year linebacker DeMeco Ryans has already established himself as a team leader after amassing 283 tackles in his first two seasons. He made his first Pro Bowl last season.

Rookie tackle Frank Okam is an intriguing prospect heading into camp. He was one of the top players in the nation coming out of high school but never lived up to the hype at Texas. The Texans love his size (6-foot-5, 320 pounds), and a good camp could help him unseat the underachieving and oft-injured starter Travis Johnson.

The Texans will need this group to play up to its potential to make up for a secondary that could be suspect without cornerback Dunta Robinson until at least late October. Robinson is recovering from major knee and hamstring injuries that required surgery and kept him out of seven games.

Kubiak hopes strong play by Williams and company can pick up the slack.

"It makes up for it a great deal," he said. "It makes people get rid of the ball. It makes people not cover so long. Those guys outside are depending on that down in and down out."

Houston signed free agent cornerback Jacques Reeves from the Cowboys, and he'll play opposite second-year pro Fred Bennett until Robinson recovers. The Texans have a bit more experience at safety with Will Demps and C.C. Brown returning.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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