A year after his team-record 14-sack season, defensive end Mario Williams anchored the Texans' defensive line with 12 sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2008. Outside of Williams, who accounted for 48 percent of the team's sacks, the Texans struggled to find a consistent pass rush from their front four. But defensive end Tim Bulman emerged to finish second on the team with 4.0 sacks.
Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye was slowed by an ankle injury and didn't make the jump in his second season that head coach Gary Kubiak had hoped for. The 2007 first-round draft pick found some consistency at season's end, showing flashes of pass rushing ability that made him a first-team all rookie in 2007. Tackle Travis Johnson, the Texans' 2005 first-round pick, continued his solid play in run support. End Anthony Weaver started all 16 games in his third season in Houston.
The Texans finished 27th in the NFL with 25 sacks. They were 23rd against the run, allowing 122.6 yards per game. Defensive line coach Jethro Franklin was dismissed after the season after two years with the team. Franklin since has been hired as the defensive line coach at USC, and the Texans are in the process of searching for his replacement.
Defensive end: Williams, a second-team All-Pro and the NFL Alumni Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2007, finished 2008 with more sacks than any other AFC defensive end. He had 55 tackles, four forced fumbles and six tackles for loss.
Williams' biggest game came on the biggest stage of the season when he recorded three sacks against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday Night Football. That game helped to catapult Williams to the 2009 Pro Bowl, where he will start for the AFC. Williams was snubbed from the Pro Bowl in 2007 despite finishing third in the league in sacks.
"You go out and you just try to perform and do what you're supposed to do and let all of that stuff take care of itself," Williams said. "I look at it that way and I feel like individual awards are great for the individual person, but that's not what football is. My biggest thing is really worrying about our record and worried about us winning games and getting better."
Opposite Williams was Weaver, who came into the season fully healthy for the first time since 2006 after undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of last season. Weaver excelled against the run as he had for the previous two years, recording 45 tackles with 28 solo stops this year. He also grabbed his third-career interception in Week 12 at Cleveland when he dropped back into coverage on a zone blitz.
Bulman earned a spot on the 53-man roster this year after spending the bulk of the previous two seasons as a practice squad player. The Boston College product with a tireless work ethic had 17 tackles to go along with his career-high four sacks.
Rookie free agent Jesse Nading from Colorado State was signed to the 53-man roster on Nov. 19 and made his NFL debut at Cleveland four days later. Nading recorded four tackles in six games.
In his third season, Earl Cochran had a career-high two sacks before being placed on injured reserve after eight games. Cochran suffered a turf toe injury at Indianapolis on Nov. 16. He had 17 tackles and started one game.
Defensive tackle: Okoye, who at 19 years old was the youngest first-round draft pick in NFL history, battled an ankle injury in his second year after recording 5.5 sacks as a rookie. He came on strong at the end of his sophomore season, notching his first sack and a forced fumble at Oakland in Week 16. The week before, Okoye made one of the key plays in the Texans' victory over Tennessee, dropping running back LenDale White for a loss on third-and-inches in the fourth quarter. He finished the year with 24 tackles while starting 12 games.
Johnson, meanwhile, picked up his second-career sack in Houston's Week 8 victory over Cincinnati. Johnson's play in the middle continued to be one of the most vital, though often unheralded, keys to the success of the defense. He started 14 games and had 29 tackles and a forced fumble.
Sixteenth-year pro Jeff Zgonina played in every game, starting twice, and recorded 19 tackles and a fumble recovery. Zgonina has played in 203 career games for eight teams in his career and has recorded 23.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 12 fumble recoveries.
DelJuan Robinson made his NFL debut in the season opener at Pittsburgh and got his first start in the home opener against Indianapolis. Robinson spent the majority of 2007 on the Texans' practice squad after a standout college career at Mississippi State. He forced his first-career fumble on Monday Night Football against the Jaguars and enjoyed his best game two weeks later against the Tennessee Titans. In that game, Robinson had four tackles, three for loss, in only 18 snaps of action as the Texans shut down Tennessee's running game en route to an upset victory.
The Texans added Frank Okam in the fifth round of the 2008 draft to bolster the interior of the line. In an up-and-down rookie season, Okam collected four tackles in five games. He was a three-time All-Big 12 pick at Texas and helped lead the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship.
The Texans' defensive line coach search is expected to heat up this week. Kubiak interviewed former Lions coach Rod Marinelli for the position last week, but Marinelli recently accepted an offer with the Chicago Bears.
Whoever is brought in will have a bevy of young talent to work with. Williams said after the season that he knows he can improve, a scary thought for opposing offenses. The 21-year-old Okoye will be expected to take his game to the next level in 2009. Johnson had perhaps his best season in his fourth year in the league. Okam remains a developmental project who possesses a rare combination of size and athletic ability at 6-5, 342 pounds.
The Texans were encouraged by the development of Bulman and Robinson, two former undrafted free agents who emerged as the season progressed.
"In this league, you get to coach a lot of players and of course, you coach your first-rounders, your second-rounders, your big free agents – those types of guys," Kubiak said. "But there's something about these players that walk in your locker room and they're … trying to make their way in this business. They weren't drafted, and you watch them find their way on the practice squad, then find their way to suit up for a game, and then all of a sudden they're starting and they're on the field.
"When these guys are successful, it's really a joy for us as coaches and it's really a joy for the players in the (locker) room, too. The players root for guys like that because they come up the hard way. When they're successful, I think it means a lot to everybody."
Cochran will be a restricted free agent this offseason, as will defensive end Stanley McClover, a player who was signed in late August and played in only one game due to an injury. Zgonina will be an unrestricted free agent.
As Houston continues to search for another pass rusher to complement Williams, Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith might look to free agency or the draft for a speedy edge rusher.
"I think we have to get better," Kubiak said. "Mario has been the best that we have, and everybody knows that. He's done his part. I think we have to continue to build around him and get better as a group and get better defensively as a group. If we do that, I think our football team will get better. We'll take a look at that in the offseason and see how we can improve."