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A look at the offensive line

No other group of players has been more maligned during the Texans' brief existence than the offensive line.

Fair or not, the men up front have taken plenty of heat during the team's first five seasons of NFL play. However, last year the offensive line showed significant improvement.

Despite a new system and season-ending injuries to both opening day tackles, by the end of the season, the line was clicking on all cylinders, evident especially in the victory over Indianapolis.

Despite numerous changes along the line during Gary Kubiak's first offseason in Houston, this past one Houston stood pat for the most part with the only significant addition coming in the person of Jordan Black in free agency.

Kasey Studdard and Brandon Frye were also added via the draft, but neither is expected to see significant playing time in 2007.

"The proof is in who's here and who's not," guard Chester Pitts said of the few changes that were made up front. "From year to year some people keep their jobs and some don't. That's this business. If you're not doing your job, you lose your job. Coaches are smart, (general managers) are smart, they didn't get their jobs by bringing in players that can't play well or they'll get fired."

Pitts is slated to start at left guard as the team heads to training camp. Fred Weary is penciled in a right guard with the duo being bookend by Eric Winston at right tackle and Ephraim Salaam at left.

Black, the new addition to a nucleus that has remained intact since the conclusion of the 2006 season, will battle for time at both tackle spots. Steve McKinney or Mike Flanagan will get the nod at center.

"Honestly, I think the offensive line is going to be the best one we've had in Texans history," Pitts said. "We have the most depth, the most competition that we've ever had going into camp.

"We have some young guys that are pretty darn good as well as the veterans. We have a year in the system so I'm expecting some good things from us this year."

Even if this year's edition of the offensive line is Houston's best in recent memory, some would argue that isn't exactly saying much. Where the Texans offensive linemen have walked during the past five years, typically ridicule has followed.

"As an offensive lineman, inherently you have thick skin, you don't get involved or you don't let the media distract you from what your job is," Pitts said. "Your job is to go out there and get in the way, stay between your guy and the ball.

"In this business if you do that, you keep your job, if you don't do that, you don't, it's real simple."

Even with a positive attitude, Pitts admits that it's hard not to let the criticism get to him at times.

"Of course it's annoying, you don't like to hear about it," Pitts said. "My little girl will come up to me and say, 'Daddy, why does everyone say you suck?' You can't worry about it, you just have to put your nose back in the dirt and take care of your job."

That job should get easier this year, especially in the run game. With the addition of Ahman Green, Pitts believes the Texans will have one of the better run games in the entire NFL. And if they don't, he says you won't have to look very far for the reason why.

"We have no choice but to be good in the run game," Pitts said. "I feel like the coaches and general manager have put us in a great situation and we have no excuse.We should be a very good running team. If we fall short of that, that's on us, not on them. That's my opinion.

"We have great tight ends that can block, receivers that get downfield and block, it's going to come down to those guys in the stretches."

And don't look for Pitts or the rest of his linemates to use a new quarterback as an excuse this season for any setbacks up front.

"It doesn't really matter," Pitts said of playing with a new quarterback. "No passing play is ever the same, no running play is ever the same, An adjustment period? Sounds like a cop out to me. You know your job, you know your assignment, just go do it."

If the Texans are to make a push for their first playoff birth in team history, it will probably be in large part due to a strong offensive line. Pitts isn't ruling it out.

"It's amazing all the good things that can happen when you just go out and do your job," he said. "If we close out games, yes, we can make the playoffs."

"We had five games last year that we lost that we were either leading in the fourth quarter or less than one score behind. We get that score, we win five more games, what's our record then last year? We just need to finish games and everything will take care of itself."

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