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Over the course of their brief existence, the Texans and offensive line woes have been synonymous. Could it now be that the long-standing source of franchise ridicule has become a foundation of strength?
In recent years, savvy draft picks like tackles Eric Winston and Duane Brown boosted pass-protection efforts. However, running lanes through Gary Kubiak's preferred zone-blocking scheme often appeared non-existent, denying the Texans the balance needed to become a true offensive juggernaut.
But things suddenly changed last December when Arian Foster entered the mix. Foster was a perfect fit in the Texans' one-cut scheme, running for 4.8 yards per carry. The Texans won all four games in which he played.
"He's definitely this system's kind of back," Winston said.
So far, the group's strong 2009 finish has translated to success in early 2010 returns for Houston starters. Foster has rushed for a staggering 6-plus yards per carry this preseason, culminated by 110 yards in Saturday's 23-7 thrashing of the Cowboys.
The Texans' offensive line dominated the Dallas defensive front at the line of scrimmage, and Foster took advantage with the first 100-plus-yard rushing performance in club preseason history.
"Those guys, all of the [offensive] front, it's a privilege to be running behind them," Foster said after the game. "I put a lot of pressure on myself -- I'm trying to get one of these linemen to the Pro Bowl. That's my goal this year."
The improved offensive balance courtesy of the running game has led to better pass protection, as well. Quarterback Matt Schaub has tossed 45 passes this preseason, being sacked just once.
None came Saturday, even against a talented Dallas front including the likes of Demarcus Ware, who was largely stonewalled by Brown.
"I thought I did pretty good against him," Brown said. "We had a lot of passing -- we opened up the game with five or six [in a row], and I thought I held my own out there. [In the run game], our front side as well as the back side did a great job cutting off those down linemen."
The same correlation of effective running game to better pass protection was also true in 2009. Schaub was sacked 25 times on the season, which would average 6.25 per each four-game stretch. But in the season's final four games, he was sacked just twice.
"The key for us is to be balanced and run the ball like that," Schaub said after Saturday's game. "That's the key to us taking the next step as a team."
Another key could be Wade Smith, a guard the Texans plucked from the Kansas City Chiefs in the offseason. Behind Smith, Jamaal Charles rushed for an AFC-leading 5.9 yards per carry in 2009.
Smith made his first start with the Texans on Saturday, replacing an inconsistent Kasey Studdard at left guard. He quickly earned rave reviews, and may have secured a starting role.
"I think he's got a chance to be a really, really fine player," Kubiak said.
"He played well," said Brown, his counterpart on the left side. "Going into the game, we had a great game plan with each other. We've been practicing well. He did a great job on our combo blocks. Pass protection if I needed help inside, he was there and ready. He did a great job."
Critics could nitpick the line after the Texans scored just one touchdown on four trips inside the red zone. However, on the first failed attempt, Foster cut through the aforementioned left side of the line for a five-yard TD -- only to have it called back on a ticky-tack holding penalty against center Chris Myers.
If the line has a weak link, it would be Myers, who has a history of being blown off the line of scrimmage by more physical defensive tackles, such as Kris Jenkins. But Myers appears flanked by better guards this season -- Smith on the left side and Antoine Caldwell on the right.
Coaches raved about the progression of Caldwell -- a second-year player from Alabama -- in training camp.
Also, the Texans have given Smith limited reps at center, leaving them the option of moving him inside and using the always-steady Mike Brisiel at the open guard spot.
Skeptics undoubtedly will also say that preseason games have limited meaning. But after the preseason's third game, in which starters for both teams played nearly three full quarters, the Texans' line argued that the result did have significance.
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"We approached this like a regular season game," Brown said. "I don't think we're trying to hold anything back."
The Texans, of course, still have areas of concern. While superb on Saturday, the team's defensive front was annihilated the week prior in New Orleans. Depth at running back behind Foster is questionable, and both of the team's kickers -- Kris Brown and Neil Rackers -- misfired in major moments in 2009.
For once, however, offensive line play isn't near the top of that list -- a point hammered home by the club's 181 rushing yards on Saturday against a talented Dallas defense.
"Obviously we're doing some good stuff the way we move the ball," Kubiak said. "The key for us will always be, 'Do we run the ball well?' We did tonight."