Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher
Mario Williams kept up the pressure

Texans 31, Raiders 24: With A Running Game Like This, Johnson Has Time To Rest

It only took one offseason and one Arian Foster to transform the Texans' running game from shaky to the club's foundation.

As a result, the Texans on Sunday allowed star wideout Andre Johnson to rest his ailing ankle and saw their offense barely skip a beat, gaining a whopping 441 yards -- including 249 on the ground -- while coasting to a 31-24 win in Oakland.

The victory moves Houston to 3-1 for the first time in franchise history, and has them alone in first place in the AFC South at the quarter-point of the season. Oh, and all of this has happened without star linebacker Brian Cushing.

Those are all welcome signs to head coach Gary Kubiak, who could have been the goat for holding out Johnson and benching Foster for a quarter-and-a-half due to his tardiness for team meetings.

Instead, his trust in the offense's core principles paid off.

It didn't start with Foster, but it ended with him. The second-year sensation returned in the second quarter and put up obscene numbers for two-and-a-half quarters, gaining 187 total yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns. He's still the leading rusher in the NFL.

But on this day, the Texans proved to be more than merely Foster's team. Behind another strong outing from the Houston offensive line, veteran castoff Derrick Ward seemed to find a fountain of youth, rushing 12 times for 80 yards and a touchdown. Much-maligned Steve Slaton also chipped in with 37 yards on 5 carries, including a dazzling 23-yard scamper down the right sideline to set up the Texans' first score.

In all, the three backs rushed 33 times for 248 yards -- 7.5 yards per carry -- and two scores.

Quarterback Matt Schaub tossed two touchdowns and no picks, but struggled to find receivers downfield with Johnson out and replacement Jacoby Jones missing the second half due to a leg injury.

But even as the Texans lacked receivers to command attention from the Oakland secondary, the holes opened up by the offensive line were large enough to render it mostly irrelevant.

On the other side of the ball, the Houston secondary showed a pulse for the first time since the first quarter of its season opener against Indianapolis.

To be certain, Bruce Gradkowski is not Peyton Manning or Tony Romo. But Oakland receivers combined for just four catches and 45 yards in the game -- an encouraging sign for young cornerbacks Glover Quin and Kareem Jackson.

The improved performance was in part due to constant pressure from the Texans' defensive line. Antonio Smith sacked Gradkowski twice, while Mario Williams sacked him once and forced a fumble.

But the success of the cornerbacks also resulted from rare competent free safety play behind them. With Eugene Wilson out due to injury, Troy Nolan saw extended playing time and grabbed two interceptions, including one in the final two minutes to seal the game.

Wilson dropped point-blank interceptions in each of the prior two games, including one in the loss to Dallas that probably should have been a pick-six to tie the game.

Kubiak did not commit to a starter at free safety following the game, but Nolan's performance would appear too crucial to ignore for a defense that had forced no turnovers in its first three games.

The primary weak spot proved to be the linebacker corps, which proved inept in covering Oakland tight end Zach Miller on crossing routes. Miller's 11 catches for 122 yards kept Oakland in the game, including a fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the Texans a brief scare.

Then again, by next Sunday, that unit will have Cushing.

And in the broader picture, a 3-1 team in the driver's seat of the AFC South will have one of the league's best defenders joining it. Oh, and the league's top receiver will presumably be rested and ready to rejoin the offense.

The problems aren't all solved, but the foundation in Houston has never felt so strong.

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