The explosion has returned. The power is back. The intimidation is palpable.
Most importantly, when Seth Payne lines up, there is no hesitation.
A string of injuries over the past two seasons has limited the veteran nose tackle. It started with a torn ACL against the New Orleans Saints, wiping out his 2003 season in the second game. A second surgery to replace the torn ligament prolonged his recovery. Then, a hamstring injury in the 2004 regular-season finale forced Payne to go under the knife again.
Fortunately, he has regained his form following an exhaustive rehab program. One year ago, Payne was fighting to become the player he once was. Now, he looks forward to delivering his best season as a pro.
"Yeah, my knee last year was a big concern," Payne said. "This year, I had a little minor surgery in the off-season. It's been a much different story this year. I feel 100 percent right now, where as at this time last year, I was really struggling to get back to being any kind of football player."
Mike London, the Texans' first-year defensive line coach, didn't witness Payne's past two troubled seasons. But he says that the nine-year pro is playing injury free in training camp.
London is making sure it stays that way by monitoring Payne's workload.
"Just on our part, we have to be smart with how many reps he gets during practice and what's essential for him to participate in and what's not," London said. "We have to be smart with the way that we're using him in practice. He's doing what he needs to get done now."
With training camp still in its infancy, the Texans' defensive line rotation won't be set in stone for a few weeks. Payne, slated to be a starter, certainly will make an impact on all three downs, but the running downs are where he's expected to wreak the most havoc.
The nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is responsible for dissolving double teams, clogging running lanes and disrupting the flow of the offensive line. Payne, 6-4, 315 pounds, is among the league's best due to his brute force and quickness off the snap. It's no coincidence that when he's at his best, the Texans' defense excels.
"You have to have a nose tackle that can take care of the center and the adjacent guards,"
London said. "Seth is a consummate pro in that he studies the game, backfield sets, formations, tendencies, line splits—he does it all. Plus, he's a tough and aggressive player. So the defense's value starts up front with the nose tackle being able to handle those duties."
Generally, nose tackles are the unsung heroes of the defense. They might not collect many tackles, but no position is more responsible for allowing the linebackers to roam free and make plays.
London wouldn't be surprised to see Payne among the team's leading tacklers this season. At the
London coached the past four years, the defensive linemen, such as current Denver Broncos defensive tackle Monsanto Pope, consistently produced big numbers. He doesn't see why that can't happen with the Texans.
"That's what has been said, that a really good nose tackle will take on these double teams and keep linemen off linebackers,"
London said. "But we played the 3-4 when I was at
Indeed, the potential is there for Payne, and the rest of the Texans' defensive line, to do great things this season. Whether that happens depends on many things, injuries being a major factor.
Payne knows that better than anyone.
"Usually, if you look at the best teams at the end of the year, they're the guys that have stayed healthy," he said. "It takes a little bit of luck, but if you can stay healthy the whole year, you're generally going to have a pretty good team."