Houston, We Have a Problem: The Running Game

The biggest disappointment for the Texans this season has been the back-slide of their running game. When they went to training camp, the last thing the coaches were worried about was their running game, featuring second-year back Steve Slaton.

Last season Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards, averaged 4.8 yards a carry and scored 10 touchdowns. He had 1,659 yards from scrimmage. This season, Slaton (who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday) has 437 yards and a 3.3-yard average, and has scored seven touchdowns, including three rushing.

During Slaton's rookie season, not a single regular on the offensive line missed a start because of an injury. This season, he lost starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel early. Before the injuries, though, the Texans still didn't run effectively. The problem began in preseason and has persisted ever since.

Slaton lost two fumbles as a rookie. He lost five in his first eight games this season. With four games left, the Texans average 3.4 yards a carry. Slaton can't play because he's experiencing numbness in his shoulder and thumb. He's seeing a specialist about the problem.

Chris Brown and Ryan Moats aren't any more effective than Slaton. The Texans average 88.7 rushing yards a game, tying them for 29th. Only once in his four seasons as head coach has the running game not been a source of irritation for Gary Kubiak. If he returns for a fifth season -- or even if he doesn't -- offensive line should be a huge priority in the off-season.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Matt Schaub is under pressure to play well every game because the Texans' running game is pathetic. If Schaub slips, there's no running game to bail him out. That's one reason his performance has been even more impressive. He earned a lot of respect from fans and media when he returned to the Jacksonville game after suffering a dislocated left shoulder on the team's first play. A team doctor popped his shoulder back into place, fitted it with a harness, and Schaub was able to finish. He has 22 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. He's completing 68 percent of his passes. He's thrown for 3,449 yards. No player is more important over the last four games than Schaub.

--RB Chris Brown has replaced the injured Steve Slaton in the starting lineup. Slaton has numbness in his shoulder and thumb and has been placed on injured reserve. Brown carried six times for 15 yards in the 23-18 loss to Jacksonville. Ryan Moats came off the bench and rushed for a team-high 41 yards on 12 carries. Brown did score on an 8-yard run. He figured in a play that will be discussed in Houston for years. Trailing 23-12 with eight minutes left, the Texans had a first down at the Jaguars' 5. Brown took a pitch and was supposed to throw to TE Joel Dreessen in the back of the end zone. Dreessen was open. Brown was hit as he threw, and his pass was intercepted. Brown should have eaten it or thrown it away. Coach Gary Kubiak shouldn't have made the call in the first place.

--TE Joel Dreessen had one catch for 8 yards against Jacksonville. He has 10 for 112 for the season. He had hoped to be more involved in the passing game when Owen Daniels went down for the season, but it hasn't worked out. Dreessen has been used primarily as a blocker. If Chris Brown had gotten off a good option pass, Dreessen would have had his first touchdown. Dreessen's one catch against the Jaguars was the extent of the tight ends' involvement in the passing game.

--WR Andre Johnson had seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville. He has 70 receptions for 1,044 yards and six touchdowns this season. He led the NFL in catches and yards last season. Johnson is getting frustrated with losing, like all his teammates are, but he's got five years left on his contract and couldn't leave if he wanted to. Although the Texans don't run the ball well, Johnson is still a fierce blocker who takes a lot of pride in that role with the team.

--WR Kevin Walter is in the last year of his contract. He recently became a father for the first time and celebrated with four catches for 54 yards against Jacksonville. Walter had hoped this would be his first 1,000-yard season. He got off to a slow start because of a hamstring injury. He's helped take up the slack in the absence of TE Owen Daniels. For the season, Walter has 42 catches for 501 yards and a touchdown. Last season, he had eight touchdown catches, tying Andre Johnson for the team lead.

--SS Bernard Pollard continues to improve as a player and as a leader. He's wise beyond his 24 years. Teammates listen to him. One reason they respect him is because he works so hard in practice and games. He recorded a team-high 11 tackles, including 10 unassisted, against Jacksonville. Despite missing the first three games, he's third on the team with 71 tackles, 55 unassisted. Pollard has been better in coverage than the coaches thought he would be.

--CB Jacques Reeves was the nickel back since returning from a fractured fibula. He couldn't beat out rookie Glover Quin, who is physical and is ferocious against the run. Quin missed the Jacksonville game with a concussion. Reeves started and gave up a touchdown pass. When Quin is able to play, Reeves will return to his nickel role.

--OLB Brian Cushing leads the team with 102 tackles, including 64 unassisted. He had only three tackles against Jacksonville. Cushing insists he hasn't hit that proverbial rookie wall, that he's mentally and physically ready for the stretch drive. Cushing was voted NFL defensive rookie of the month for November. He doesn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday because of a sore foot, but he hasn't missed a down.

--LT Duane Brown was on the verge of missing his first start in two years because of a knee injury. It caused him to miss practice time. The coaches got backup Rashad Butler ready to play, but Brown was able to start against the Jaguars. He played well, for the most part. Brown got off to a good start, but he's struggled at times, especially against the speed rushers.

--OLB Zac Diles is coming off his best game. Against the Jaguars, Diles had eight tackles, including two for losses. He also recorded a safety when he tackled QB David Garrard in the end zone. Diles, a three-year veteran, has played a new position each year. He won the weak-side job over Xavier Adibi this season.

--FS Dominique Barber could start in place of John Busing. When Busing played poorly in the first half of the Jacksonville game, Barber replaced him. He played better, and so did the defense.

--K Kris Brown has connected on three consecutive field goals since missing 41- and 49-yarders that would have forced overtime against Indianapolis and Tennessee but ended up as three-point defeats.

--DE Antonio Smith is appealing two fines he received from the NFL for $10,000 and $12,500 for hits he delivered against the Titans and Colts. Smith, who is one of the team's most physical players, says the fines for hits on Tennessee C Kevin Mawae and Indianapolis TE Dallas Clark won't change the way he plays.


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