Anchored by middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the Texans' linebacking corps got more formidable in 2008 with a boost from two young players and a versatile veteran newcomer.
Rookie Xavier Adibi, a fourth-round draft choice from Virginia Tech, and second-year pro Zac Diles, a seventh-round pick from Kansas State in 2007, showed the potential to be playmakers for years to come.
Seventh-year player Kevin Bentley became a valuable contributor when Diles went down with a midseason injury, and Morlon Greenwood added another veteran presence to the mix.
Ryans was named a first alternate for the 2009 Pro Bowl after serving as a Texans defensive captain for the second consecutive season.
Middle linebacker: Ryans played through an ankle injury all season but, instead of complaining, wound up leading the Texans with 112 tackles. He had five double-digit tackle games and now leads the NFL with 19 double-digit games and 310 solo tackles since 2006. Ryans has led the Texans in tackles in 24 of 48 career games.
"He was beat up early in the season," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "I thought he got much better. He played extremely well the last half of the season. That kid's played a lot of football, and that's also to me why we're making progress, because (players like Ryans) have to become great players for us to become a great football team. He's a real pro. He never says a word. He just keeps working."
Ryans added one sack, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Over the past three seasons, he is among the league leaders at linebacker in fumble recoveries with seven.
Bentley served as Ryans' backup all season but became the starting strongside linebacker after Diles' injury. First-year pro Kevis Coley saw action as a reserve in three games.
Strongside linebacker: Diles broke his left leg in a freak accident during a non-contact drill in practice the week after the Texans' eighth game. At the time, he was the Texans' leading tackler with 66, a total that ended up being good for second on the team this season.
After playing sparingly as a rookie, Diles also had a sack, an interception and a forced fumble in eight starts in his second year.
"He's as good a player as we have on defense," Kubiak said on the day Diles was injured. "He's been playing extremely well. There hasn't been a week that's gone by, probably, that I haven't talked about him. He was becoming a heck of a player. When you're making that much progress and playing that well, to see that happen is just disappointing."
Diles' injury created an opportunity for Bentley, a Super Bowl XL veteran with the Seattle Seahawks. Bentley started seven of the final eight games and posted 34 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery. He played a key role in the Texans' 13-12 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Week 15 by recording eight tackles, one for a loss. Bentley also was the unofficial leader of the Texans' kick coverage units on special teams and led Houston with 23 special teams tackles.
Chaun Thompson, a free agent-addition with pass-rushing abilities, was slowed by a hamstring injury. He finished the year with one sack and eight special teams tackles.
Weakside linebacker:Adibi was expected to compete for playing time right off the bat, but an Achilles' injury followed by a persistent illness kept him out of seven of the first eight games. Adibi's illness caused him to lose more than 10 pounds as he struggled to retain his fluids.
Greenwood started the first eight games but missed the Nov. 16 game at Indianapolis with a fibula injury. A healthy Adibi, in his first-career start, recorded a team-high 14 tackles. Adibi started five games and had 34 tackles and a fumble recovery before missing the last two games of the season with a groin injury.
"He had some nagging injuries, some things affecting him in training camp and over the course of the season," general manager Rick Smith said of Adibi. "But once he was able to get into the lineup, the improved athleticism out there was noticeable."
Greenwood played in 15 games, starting 10, and finished with 43 tackles. That ended his streak of four consecutive 100-plus tackle seasons.
If Diles can return to his pre-injury form, Ryans can enter next season fully healthy and Adibi can use the offseason training program to gain back the weight he lost from his illness, the Texans will have a trio of talented young linebackers at their disposal next season. Bentley is comfortable playing at any of the three linebacker positions and excelled in his starting role at the end of the season, which further solidifies the group. The Texans' other linebackers all are under contract through next season.
Whether or not the Texans look to upgrade the position with more size or speed in the offseason remains to be seen. Ryans said after the season that he's looking forward to possibly playing a more aggressive, blitzing style under the Texans' future new defensive coordinator.
"It's a better team than it was a year ago," he said. "I feel that we have better players. I feel like the camaraderie is there, the chemistry is there and we play well together. I think we have the pieces in place."