Texans Building An All-Around Winner

David Carr has made steady progress as an NFL quarterback and is slowly getting enough of a supporting cast around him to be dangerous. On defense, Houston was already solid in its use of the 3-4.

The Vikings head south for their first meeting with the Houston Texans — now in their third season and looking to pick up some momentum after a slow start to the 2004 season.

The Texans are no longer viewed merely as an expansion team. Through solid use of the expansion draft, free agency and the college draft, head coach Dom Capers has built a team from the ground up that doesn't have any glaring weaknesses.

Like most franchises, it all starts with the first pick — which Houston used to select quarterback David Carr. Thrown into the fire early, Carr has shown steady improvement as the centerpiece of the offense. He is mobile and has a strong arm and, while he does most of his damage in the air, he can hurt defenses with his scrambling ability.

The running game has been a pleasant surprise for the Texans. When they drafted Domanick Davis, they expected he would be a kick returner and third-down back. Instead, they got a 1,000-yard rusher who is a dangerous runner and receiver that break plays for 70-yard touchdowns at any time. The Texans have solid backup help in speedy Tony Hollings and a short-yardage horse in Jonathan Wells, but this is Davis' show and he'll have to be accounted for as a rusher and catching passes out of the backfield.

Since drafting Carr, the Texans have made a concerted effort to get a strong receiver corps around him. They have a three-headed wide receiver attack with Andre Johnson, Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney. Johnson has become Carr's go-to receiver because of his rare combination of strength, size and speed that will make him one of the league's elite receivers in the coming years. Bradford, a free-agent signee from Green Bay, is the veteran of the group and solid possession receiver, while Gaffney is in his third season and, like many wideouts in their third year, expected to have a coming-out party before the season is done.

At tight end, the Texans have the best of both worlds. Billy Miller is a dangerous downfield receiving target, and veteran Mark Bruener is a punishing blocker who is like an extra offensive lineman in short-yardage situations.

The offensive line has only one question mark — a shuffling on the left side. The right side is set with center Steve McKinney, guard Zach Wiegert and tackle Todd Wade. Each of them was a free-agent signee and gives the line some veteran leadership. On the left side, second-year pro Seth Wand has been promoted to the starting lineup, pushing Chester Pitts inside to guard. The transition has been smooth, but it will take getting used to on the left side of the offensive front — where mistakes can be disastrous.

The Texans' 3-4 defense got a big boost in free agency with the signing of Titans DE Robaire Smith. He joins nose tackle Jerry Deloach and left end Gary Walker — both obtained during the expansion allocation of 2002 — to give Houston a veteran group that knows its role for the defense. The unit has solid depth with Seth Payne pushing for time at nose tackle and veterans Junior Ioane and Corey Sears backing up at the end spots.

To make a 3-4 work, teams need to have an aggressive linebacker corps, and the Texans have that in spades. On the outside, rookie Jason Babin, a first-rounder in last April's draft, has stepped into the starting lineup — joining former Viking Kailee Wong. On the inside, Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman are big, athletic and heavy hitters capable of causing turnovers. While the depth of this position is worn a little thin, the starters are all big players who cover a lot of ground and put pressure on the quarterback — which should put the depleted Vikings tight end corps on notice. The Texans will be coming.

The secondary is also strong, with veteran cornerback Aaron Glenn and first-round rookie Dunta Robinson leading the way. Both are cover corners who are capable of playing man coverage for most, if not all, of a game — whether they try that against the Vikings is yet to be seen. At safety, Eric Brown and Marcus Coleman are in their seventh and ninth years, respectively, and don't appear to have lost much over time. Backup Marlon McCree is also a solid tackler. Former Viking Kenny Wright also sees time in nickel packages.

The Texans have gotten off to a slow start, but they will be no pushover. The bye-week rest and return of some key Vikings players should help negate some of the home-field advantage the Texans will hold — giving the Vikings a good chance of starting their post-bye schedule with a win. But, make no mistake — Houston isn't an expansion team anymore.

KEY MATCHUP

AARON GLENN AND DUNTA ROBINSON vs. RANDY MOSS —
When ego meets opportunity, one of two things typically happens — either very good or very bad. The Vikings face such a challenge when they meet the Houston Texans. Randy Moss became a lightning rod for controversy when he commented that teams change their coverage schemes when they play him. The Texans have a chance to either prove or disprove his claim.

Dom Capers has tried to build his young team on both sides of the ball, but the first successes his team enjoyed were because the defense took less time to build. He believes he added one of the missing pieces last April when he drafted Dunta Robinson with his first pick. Robinson, a blazing speedster with shutdown capability, joins veteran Aaron Glenn to create an imposing tandem that has excelled at playing bump-and-run coverage.

The Texans have proved to be a tough test for many offenses, because they tend not to switch from what has worked for them. Enter Moss, stage left.

The Vikings have typically exploited teams deep that don't employ constant double- or triple-teams to take Moss away from their options. Those with the guts to tell a cornerback — much less an 11-year veteran and a rookie — to shut down the most dynamic playmaker at the wide receiver position have found the request to be a tall order. More times than not, those with the nerve to try it have been burned — badly.

Will Capers have the nerve to try it? He's done it with Marvin Harrison, so why not Moss? If he does, look for the Vikings to dust off some of the bombs deep in the playbook and take no fewer than five shots for the big gain. If they can connect on just two or three of them, it will be the difference in winning the game — making this the key matchup.



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