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Texans' offensive line trying to build on last year's progress

HOUSTON (AP) -Mike Brisiel found a chair next to a giant fan and guzzled a sports drink as the Texans wrapped up another practice in the oppressive Houston heat Tuesday.

The 6-foot-5, 310-pound lineman worked with the starting offensive front, but the second-year pro said there's nothing to read into that. He spent last season on the practice squad and he's competing now with third-year Texan Drew Hodgdon and rookie Kasey Studdard for a backup role on the final roster.

"I'm basically fighting for my life," he said. "Every play matters to me."

The same could be said of the entire offensive line.

The unit has taken flak from fans and the media since the franchise's inception, blamed for high sack totals and an anemic rushing attack. Center Steve McKinney, who played four seasons in Indianapolis before coming to the Texans in 2002, said the criticism was often unfair.

"You get sick of hearing that," McKinney said. "Everyone thinks it's the offensive line, but there are 11 guys out there and each one has a responsibility in protection. It's tough, but you always play with a chip on your shoulder because you know what's being said.

"This year," he said, "I really want us to play well and make a statement."

Last season, the line made clear progress - the Texans cut their sack total from 68 in 2005 to 43 in '06 and increased their rushing first downs by 17, from 89 to 106.

McKinney, entering his 10th season, says the line has "picked up where we left off" in December and continues to show improvement in training camp.

He also likes what he's seen from quarterback Matt Schaub, who replaced David Carr, and knows the Texans have never had a back as explosive as Ahman Green, who signed as a free agent in March.

"You see the holes opening up," he said. "You see Ahman just hitting them fast and running downhill. That kind of gets you excited as a lineman. You say, 'You know what? That's nice, what we just did. We haven't really had that.'

"You see Schaub hit Andre Johnson on a quick 18-yard out and you say to yourself, 'You know what? We could be pretty good."'

The main concern at the moment is getting everybody healthy.

Brisiel played right guard on Tuesday, in place of Fred Weary, who rolled his right ankle in practice Monday. Chester Pitts, the expected starter at left guard, missed Tuesday's practice due to back spasms and McKinney moved over from center to fill in.

Eric Winston and Ephraim Salaam remain the starting tackles and Mike Flanagan, another possible starting center, did the snapping for the first-team offense.

Coach Gary Kubiak said the injuries to Weary and Pitts are minor, though Pitts will miss Saturday's preseason opener against Chicago.

Their absences give more opportunities to the rest of the backups.

Jordan Black and Scott Jackson have maneuvered into likely reserve roles at tackle.

Brisiel played in Europe in the spring. Hodgdon made five starts at center last season. Studdard grew up in Colorado - Kubiak's wife used to babysit him - before he became a three-time All-Big 12 performer at Texas.

The competition will do nothing but help the depth of the Texans line.

"We've got some talent," McKinney said. "We've got some players who can do some good things on the field, probably more so than we've had in the past. We still have to continue building.

"But you can see flashes of what we can be and know what we're truly capable of."

Notes: The punting competition continued on the practice field Tuesday afternoon, with incumbent Chad Stanley and newcomer Matt Turk booting 20 each. Turk, a three-time Pro Bowler, has looked more impressive so far. "One's got the big, bomb leg," Kubiak said of Turk. "He can, all of a sudden, hit the 60- or 70-yard punt. Chad's a consistent punter. That's why he's lasted in this league so long." Turk averaged 38 yards per punt last season with St. Louis. Stanley has been the Texans' starter since 2002. "It's going to come down to how they punt in the preseason. We'll alternate them and see how we do." ... Kubiak is still mulling how much he'll use his starters in Saturday's preseason opener. "We're just going to keep going, keep practicing, and trying to get some of these guys fresh," he said. "We'll make that decision how we plan probably Thursday."

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