Thanks to a new zone blocking scheme implemented by Alex Gibbs and a rookie sensation in running back Steve Slaton, the Texans enjoyed the best rushing season in team history.
Slaton, who was pegged as a third-down back as a third-round draft pick out of West Virginia, ran for a franchise-record 1,282 rushing yards behind the blocking of fullback Vonta Leach. Both players were named second alternates for the AFC in the 2009 Pro Bowl, and Slaton is a finalist for NFL Rookie of the Year (vote here).
The Texans averaged 4.27 yards per carry, the highest mark in franchise history, a year after mustering only 3.8 yards per carry. The Texans also boasted the league's 13th-best rushing attack with 115.4 yards/game, which was the second-highest total in the team's seven-year existence.
"We've obviously made a great deal of improvement," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think to be a champion, it's got to get better, there's no doubt about that. But we ran the ball much better this year than we have in the past.
"We were simpler this year. We were better at what we were doing. I think we were probably more committed to exactly what we were doing, and then we found a great young kid (Slaton) and we had five linemen that played every snap. So we were very consistent from that standpoint, and that's how we got better. And I think there's another step we can take."
Running back:In the preseason, Ahman Green was the team's projected starter, expected to share the load with free agent-signee Chris Brown or third-year back Chris Taylor. Slaton was projected to be a speedy change-of-pace complement to those backs.
Injuries changed those plans in a hurry. Brown (back) was placed on injured reserve before the season began. Taylor (quadriceps) followed suit after playing in only three games. Green suffered a groin injury in the season opener.
In his first-career start, Slaton ran for 116 yards in Week 3 at Tennessee. He went on to lead all rookies with what was the fifth-highest rushing total by a rookie this decade. Slaton added 377 receiving yards to lead the AFC with 1,659 yards from scrimmage. Slaton averaged 4.8 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns (nine rushing, one receiving) while starting every game but the first.
"I think (this season) passed my expectations," Slaton said. "I really didn't know what to expect this whole year. I just contributed, did whatever I could do, do whatever coaches needed to help the team's offense. It was just a good opportunity to play the position I love, and to start, it was definitely a blessing."
Green was effective when healthy, averaging 4.0 yards per carry. He gave the Texans an inside running presence with a knack for picking up tough yards. But a season-ending knee injury in Week 12 at Cleveland made Green's second season in Houston the second one to end early on the injured reserve list.
Green played in only eight games, finishing second on the team with 294 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Third-year running back Ryan Moats was signed in October and wound up playing in nine games in reserve duty. He led the Texans with 34 rushing yards against Baltimore and had 12 carries for 38 yards and a touchdown in the season finale against Chicago.
Fullback: Leach played in every game and served as a team captain several times late in the season. His primary function was to clear running room for Slaton and the Texans' other running backs.
"As a fullback, that's my role on the team," Leach said. "It's not going to be in the newspaper or anything like that. You just have to go out and do your job."
Leach's punishing blocking abilities have earned several nicknames from his teammates.
"They call me the 'Coke Machine,'" he said. "They say I'm a Coke machine on wheels – I'm just straight ahead and then I'm going to knock somebody out – so that's why they call me (that). They call me all kinds of things: 'Big Bruiser' and 'The Hammer.' They give me all kinds of names."
Leach had 12 receptions for 103 receiving yards, including a one-handed 22-yard catch that keyed the Texans' game-winning drive at Green Bay. Leach had only one carry, but he made it count, taking it over the goal line for a one-yard touchdown at Oakland.
Sixth-year pro Cecil Sapp was signed for depth behind Leach but spent more time at running back and on special teams. Sapp appeared in 12 games and had two carries.
An offseason priority for the Texans will be finding a back with size who can pound the ball between the tackles and reduce Slaton's workload. That back already might be on the roster, depending on whether Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith deem that Green and/or Brown can get healthy and contribute next season. Taylor agreed to an injury settlement and is no longer with the team.
The Texans also could look to free agency or the draft for a player to fill that role. Whoever that player ends up being, he'll have to possess the quickness necessary to succeed in Gibbs' one-cut-and-go zone scheme.