Antonio Smith prepares for Arizona return

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Antonio Smith's stellar play in the playoffs helped the Arizona Cardinals win the NFC title last year.

Texans defensive end Antonio Smith will make a homecoming trip on Sunday to visit the Arizona Cardinals and Kurt Warner. He doesn't expect a party in his honor.



Smith played five seasons in Arizona and started in Super Bowl XLIII for the Cardinals. Now he's returning wearing a Texans uniform.

"It's kind of bittersweet," Smith said. "I'm real fond of Kurt. He's never got to see me put my hands on him, but I guess I'm going to have to do it.

"It will be fun to go against the boys, to show them that what happened in practice wasn't a fluke. You practice with them every day and you get your little rivalries going, saying 'I can beat you.' Now, it's the test of time to see who gets it done and who doesn't get it done."

Smith signed with the Texans as a free agent after last season. He started slowly, but he's coming off his best game with the team and he'd like to continue the improved play against his old teammates.

There are similar feelings for Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who spent three seasons on the Cardinals staff, and defensive end Tim Bulman, who was a rookie with the Cardinals in 2005.

"I'm excited, it's a place where we really tried to get it turned around," Bush said. "Unfortunately, we didn't get it going, but I'm excited about going back because they did get it turned and they look like a successful franchise. It's a challenge to go in there and compete against that football team."

{QUOTE}Bulman played only one season for the Cardinals and has fought his way off the Texans' practice squad.

"It's good to go back and see where you started," Bulman said. "A lot of the coaches I tried to earn my keep with have moved on to different teams, but some of the office staff is still there. It's always cool to go back a couple years down the road and see some of the guys and say, 'Hey, I got a little better here and in this area.' It's good for them to see your progress.

"It's cool if I can go out and make a play; they'll say, 'Hey, Timmy can still do it.' It's definitely cool to go back."

Make no mistake. Howdies will have to wait until after the game. Sunday is a work day for the Texans and there is plenty to accomplish. The defense played its best overall game in Sunday's 29-6 victory over the offensively challenged Oakland Raiders and their struggling quarterback JaMarcus Russell.

"More than anything, what our guys accomplished last week is they went out and performed kind of like we expected," Bush said. "They cut out the mistakes. We didn't have any loafing. It was a collective group effort.

"As a stepping stone, we were happy, but Arizona presents other problems. They have some players who are quite talented. We want to see (our defenders) go out and continue to have some consistency and make even more plays."

Smith looks forward to mixing it up with his old teammates. He also says it won't be easy corralling Warner.

"It's hard to disrupt him," Smith said. "You can hit him all day long. He'll fall down and get up like he's hurt and then throw a 60-yard touchdown pass. He likes to hold the ball a lot. He holds it lower in one hand so it's easier to get strips on him, so that'll be the main focus, when you try to sack him is to strip the ball."

Smith still has fond memories of being with the Cardinals.

"The fondest memory would be the Super Bowl and how we played in it," Smith said. "In that game, we had a little bit of everything. We got up and then we got down and then all of a sudden you think you've got it won and they come back and win.

"Even though we ended up losing, just to see what kind of team we came from the beginning to the way we ended, that was my finest memory."

Warner and wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin will be harder to stop than the Raiders' offense. Bush has no plans to change up tactics against the Cardinals.

"We cut back some last week, not a whole lot," Bush said. "They just performed at a certain level. We cut out mistakes. We'll go in with the same mind-set this week. You don't want to change things when you are successful. Just give them enough that they can go out and play really fast."

The linebacking corps had a good seat to watch the defensive line's improvement.

"They have crossed that line to where we expect that from them every week," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said of the defensive line. "The defense, it all starts up front and when our front four are playing the way they did (against Oakland), we have a chance to put this performance out there every week."

Smith, along with Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye and the rest of the defensive line, finally put up a complete game.

"I feel we jelled last week. Everyone was making plays," Bulman said. "Everyone felt every snap they were out there, there was a chance to make a play. That's the best we've played and we have to continue that. We have to keep hunting the quarterback. When Mario plays good and Antonio and Amobi, everyone starts a snowball effect. The d-line starts to eat, as they say."

Bush was happy to see Smith arrive after seeing him perform for the Cardinals.

"He was feeling his way at first," Bush said. "Over the last two weeks, he's started to step his game up and it culminated last week and he had a great game for us. I'm excited about that because he can roll that right into Arizona. He has some motivation to go down there and play well.

"I've known the kid since he first came into the league. I know what he represents as far as a guy who worked hard to make himself the player that he is. Those are the kind of players that Gary (Kubiak) likes. Although he struggled a little bit early, he's coming around. I knew that was the kind of guy we wanted in our building."

Although he calls it just another game, Smith does harbor special feelings about playing the Cardinals.

"I didn't circle it, but I thought about it, I'm not going to lie," he said. "It's just another game, we've got to get another win, especially now with what we're trying to fight through as a team. Winning is the biggest picture, getting another win and building on that. That's the No. 1 thing I'm focused on."

Having been a part of the Cardinals organization could be a two-edged sword.

"I guess it's an advantage because I know their personnel," Bush said. "I know what makes those guys tick. But at the same time, they are a bunch of talented players who make plays all over the field. They've got a receiver in every spot and their line is big.

"It's also a disadvantage because you know how good they can be."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports.

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