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Texans '07 preview

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The iconic names Texans fans were most familiar with are gone. It's out with the old and in with the new – and team officials are betting the new names will produce unfamiliar results.

By cutting ties with quarterback David Carr and running back Domanick Williams (formerly Davis), the franchise tried to separate itself from its first five seasons, which were marred by poor draft choices, insufficient pass protection and losing records.

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With the addition of an established running back in Ahman Green and a fresh, young quarterback in Matt Schaub, the Texans hope to bring consistency to an offense that has sorely lacked it.

If both newcomers come through and the defense finally generates a significant pass rush, the Texans could take a run at .500 after going 6-10 last season. But the problem that won't go away – left tackle – could put a damper on the positive vibes.

GAME PLAN

Offense: Mike Sherman has been promoted to coordinator, but little will actually change. There is no doubt coach Gary Kubiak remains in charge of the offense. With Green in tow, the Texans will try to build around an improved running game. If they run the ball with consistency and win the time of possession battle, it will open up plays downfield in the passing game.

Defense: The Texans have high hopes for a defense that returns middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and right end Mario Williams, the top pick in last year's draft who was dinged up a big chunk of last season. Coordinator Richard Smith's main focus will be to create a more effective pass rush, which would in turn help the defensive backs make plays. Smith likes aggressive game plans, but injuries thwarted the productivity of the line last season. Expect better things in his second year in charge.

SPOTLIGHT PLAYERS

QB Matt Schaub: Schaub comes with high expectations for a player who has started only two games in his three-year NFL career. The team hopes to establish a ground game and thereby take some pressure off Schaub's shoulders.

Schaub's greatest strengths are his presence in the pocket and his decision-making. The Texans like their quarterbacks to move around a lot, but Schaub isn't a great runner, so he won't be used on rollouts as often as Carr was.

WR Andre Johnson: Kubiak and Sherman are determined to showcase Johnson, the team's best player, as much as possible. They want to move Johnson around and use him on a variety of routes to confuse defenses. His hands are his greatest asset; he has an innate ability to make difficult catches.

Of course, if Johnson is the focal point at wide receiver, defenses will key on stopping him – a strategy that often worked last season. Kubiak is confident Kevin Walter will provide the legitimate playmaking No. 2 receiver the team has sorely lacked. Walter is a sure route runner with good speed and great hands. However, he averaged only 9.4 yards per catch last year and has only one touchdown catch in his first four years.

DE Mario Williams: The Texans hope their young players – especially Williams – will develop rapidly under new line coach Jethro Franklin. They will rely primarily on the front four to get to the quarterback. And with Williams finally expected to be fully healthy and first-round pick Amobi Okoye ready to provide solid inside pressure, they might succeed with that strategy.

Williams' development was slowed last year by a foot injury, but the team is counting on him to make big strides in his second season. He has the potential to double his sack total from last season (4½).

MLB DeMeco Ryans: Linebackers coach Johnny Holland did an outstanding job with his group last season, and the unit could be even better after the team signed a couple of free agents who add speed and depth.

Ryans, last season's NFL defensive rookie of the year, is the star of the group. He has great vision and sets up the rest of the defense from the middle spot. Though Ryans is the best pass rusher among the linebackers, he'll continue to be used mostly in run-stopping situations because the team prefers to get pressure from the front four. Free-agent pickup Danny Clark gives the Texans a quality player with experience to back up Ryans.

VINNIE IYER'S TAKE

Schaub and Green will help the offense, and Williams and Ryans will continue to boost the defense. Neither unit, however, is quite playoff-worthy.
Prediction: 7-9 (4th in the AFC South).

FALL FORECAST

Good things started to happen for the Texans at the end of Kubiak's first season, and they'll try to build on that improvement this year. How successful the team becomes, however, will depend on the effectiveness of the running game and the pass rush. If those two facets improve sufficiently and Schaub proves he can execute the offense, the Texans could be as good as 9-7.

But with an unsettled situation at left tackle and uncertainty at wideout after Johnson, 6-10 or 7-9 might be more realistic.

Megan Manfull covers the Texans for the Houston Chronicle and Sporting News.