Run the ball, and stop the run.
It's one of the oldest clichés on what determines NFL success. But if there's much truth to it, the Texans' potential breakthrough season might already be in some trouble.
With Reggie Bush out with a calf injury, the Saints (2-0) gashed the Texans (1-1) on Saturday night at Reliant Stadium for 173 rushing yards on a whopping 6.4 yards per carry, dominating Houston in every phase in a 38-14 preseason victory.
Making matters more embarrassing, the Saints rushed for 8.6 yards per attempt in the first half against Texans' starters.
Where's Bush and his meager 3.7 average when you need it?
"In all three phases, they were more physical than we were as a team," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's a humbling game. We definitely got pushed around and we've got to play a lot better than that up front to have a chance to be successful."
Houston struggled running the ball on offense as well, gaining 70 yards on 25 carries for a 2.8 average. Starter Steve Slaton was productive with 30 yards on six carries, but none of the team's four backups could even break the three yards-per-carry mark.
"We've got a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball," Kubiak said.
The Texans' off-season blueprint largely concentrated on defense, and specifically giving Mario Williams more help rushing the quarterback. The team's first two draft picks -- linebacker Brian Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin -- went this route, as did the $34 million signing of Arizona defensive end Antonio Smith to play opposite Williams.
They also replaced former defensive coordinator Richard Smith with Frank Bush, who promised a more aggressive style.
To that end, the Texans' pass rush improved in the first two pre-season games, particularly with the first unit.
However, a closer look reveals the Texans' run defense was statistically worse than its pass unit in 2008, ranking 23rd in the league. The previous two years of the Kubiak era weren't much better, with the team ranking 19th and 20th.
"It wasn't anything scheme-wise that was wrong," Williams said of the Texans' problems on Saturday. "We were just in the wrong place."
The run defense starts up front with the defensive tackles, and their play was abysmal in Saturday's home debut. While 2007 first-round pick Amobi Okoye showed flashes in pressuring Drew Brees, he and fellow tackle Frank Okam were neutralized in the running game and routinely pushed several yards off the line. It was bad enough that former Texans castoff Mike Bell rushed 10 times for 100 yards and a touchdown.
"We were expecting our guys to kind of fly around and do some things differently, and it didn't work out that way," Frank Bush said. "We have to re-evaluate."
It's not as ominous as it might seem. The Texans are missing Cushing (knee injury) and cornerback Dunta Robinson (holdout), and each are outstanding tacklers for their positions. Both should be back for the regular season.
Also, starting nose tackle DelJuan Robinson -- a 6-3, 320 pound run stuffer as a rookie last year -- was out with an injury, pushing Okam into the starting unit.
Okam made an impact in the Texans' preseason-opening win in Kansas City, but it came largely against backups for a Chiefs team that went 2-14 last season.
As a whole, the Texans vowed a renewed defensive intensity after the game. They'll need it when Adrian Peterson and the now Brett Favre-led Vikings come to Reliant next week for nationally televised Monday Night Football.
"They're a very, very physical football team, they run the ball as good as anyone in football, so we'll see the answer Monday night," Kubiak said.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Traditionally, the third preseason game is each team's true dress rehearsal, in which it plays starters for around three quarters and practices regular season gameplans.
In the end, these are only exhibitions, of course. The Lions went 4-0 in the 2008 preseason before becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history. But for the Texans, everything is under a microscope.
Following back-to-back 8-8 seasons, off-season improvements and an apparently weaker schedule, the pressure and expectations are squarely on them to deliver their first winning season and contend for the playoffs. And even though Saturday's loss won't count in the ultimate standings, they would certainly prefer the momentum to turn around.
"We've just got to stand up and say that we're not going to let that happen," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "We can't wait for a play to be made by somebody else on our team. We need to have guys who go out there and say, 'I'm going to make the play,' and go and do it."