At Long Last, Texans Play According to Plan
For a franchise that has spent its entire existence searching for signs of turning a corner, the Texans on Sunday showed as many as they ever have.
On the field, the Texans did what they never seem to do - win big in a game they're supposed to, routing the hapless Raiders 29-6 at Reliant Stadium. It was in stark contrast to their performance late last season against this same team, when they came out flat in Oakland and choked away a chance at the club's first winning season.
But perhaps most impressively, the players didn't seem that happy in the aftermath - and anxiously spoke to further needed improvement.
"We should have put up a lot more [points] than we did," right tackle Eric Winston said. "You get a win, fine, but three points in the second half for the last two games combined, you're not going to win many games in this league doing that."
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That, of course, was somewhat of an overreaction. The Texans (2-2) threw the ball only five times in the entire second half and repeatedly ran the ball up the middle, milking clock and sparing the listless Raiders (1-3) from further embarrassment.
It wasn't as if scoring was a priority, especially after rookie linebacker Brian Cushing corralled Justin Fargas in the end zone for a safety and Jacoby Jones ran back the ensuing free kick for a touchdown, giving them nine quick points and a commanding 29-6 edge.
But the reactions spoke volumes for a franchise that routinely has rested on its laurels after its biggest moments, including a week ago, when they followed an inspired come-from-behind win in Tennessee with a deflating home loss to Jacksonville.
"It doesn't mean anything, if you don't come in week in, week out and do that," Cushing said.
Going into Sunday, the Texans defense was on a pace to allow more total yards and more yards rushing than any team in NFL history. That included an average of more than 200 yards on the ground, including a touchdown run of 38 yards or more in every game.
Head coach Gary Kubiak stressed a return to fundamentals, and players all week claimed they were hungry and determined for a statement performance. It was the kind of promise that rang hollow in prior years, but on Sunday, the Texans delivered.
"It pisses you off," new starting strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "Nobody comes and works as hard as we do all week to get the ball run down your throat, or to be last in the league in passing or rushing. We take pride in what we do.
"People say 'Well, it was Oakland.' No, Oakland has a three-headed monster [Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Fargas] at running back. They have just as much talent as anyone in the league. It's just up to us to bring it, every day. That's what it's going to take to be a very, very good team in this league."
Of course, it helped that Oakland QB JaMarcus Russell was less accurate than most Houston-area high school quarterbacks, giving the Texans little reason to defend the pass. Even so, the Texans in prior weeks were completely unable to stop opposing run games, even in obvious run situations.
But on Sunday, McFadden, Bush and Fargas ran a combined 19 times for 31 yards for a meager 1.6 yards per attempt.
"We needed a spark from last week," defensive coordinator Frank Bush said. "Pollard was that changeup; he was a good spark for us. [The defense] took it upon themselves to be more aggressive in this game."
On offense, the Texans continued their turnaround from early running doldrums and were solid on the ground for a second consecutive week. While overall numbers were skewed based on the second half's conservative game plan, Steve Slaton hit the hole early and often on Sunday, including a 32-yard touchdown run.
That opened things up for quarterback Matt Schaub, who completed 62, 44 and 41-yard strikes to Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and Kevin Walter, respectively. That helped give Houston a quick 20-3 lead, which was a knockout punch to the helpless Oakland offense.
Starting next week, however, the Texans won't have Russell to airmail open receivers and give them easy three-and-outs. Houston hits the road for four of its next five games in a stretch that should define the 2009 season, beginning with a trip to defending NFC champion Arizona next Sunday.
On the surface, it appears daunting for a team that's routinely played the parts of Jekyll and Hyde. But at least for one week, the Texans finally proved they were capable of being Jekyll in every phase of the game.
"I thought the effort was the best we've had all season," Cushing said. "That was the most important thing. Anytime we have that kind of effort, I think we're able to get the things done that we want to."