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D-line faces the LJ test


Defensive end Anthony Weaver faces a big test in his return to action on Sunday.

There are 27 ways that the Texans' defensive line can silence its critics on Sunday. Or, more precisely, one player who wears number 27. Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson is coming to town for the home opener at Reliant Stadium, and if the Texans' front four can limit his effectiveness, it will send a resounding message across the league that they officially have arrived.

With the abundance of first-round draft picks on the defensive line, no Texans position unit has been more scrutinized. But there were many brightspots this offseason, with the arrivals of coaches Jethro Franklin and Frank Bush and rookie Amobi Okoye, along with an improved Mario Williams and Travis Johnson.

And the Texans' run defense was stellar in the preseason, allowing 82.8 yards per game, sixth-best in the league. That was without starting end Anthony Weaver, who returns for the regular season after recovering from injury. The players are starting to see the makings of something special.

"I can't really put my finger on it," defensive end N.D. Kalu said. "You don't want to get too excited about having a successful preseason, even though we were 2-2 and it wasn't really successful.

"But you've got three first-rounders on the d-line, so we better do good. It's just one of those things where it seems like things are falling into place. And I think this first game will really tell people if we've really arrived like we think we have or if we have a lot more work to go."

As far as tests go, however, consider this the LSAT, MCAT and CPA combined.

"He's one of the top backs in the game," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said of Larry Johnson. "He's a big guy. He wears you down. He's hard to tackle. And he's got a coach that's going to make sure he touches it quite a few times. We know that, and that's a big challenge for us. We're going to have to be as good as we can be."

Johnson's statistics certainly would agree with Kubiak. Only five teams held the former Penn State star under 100 yards rushing last year, and Johnson enters 2007 looking for an unprecedented third consecutive season with 1,750-plus rushing yards. It sounds just as impressive as it looks on tape.

"Any time you see him, it's like a highlight film," Kalu said. "We thought the coaches put together a highlight film, and it was just one regular game that we were watching. We've got all the respect in the world for him, and that's why we're going to try to gang-tackle him."

{QUOTE} That strategy didn't work too well in Johnson's last visit to Reliant Stadium, when he ran wild for a career-high and franchise-record 211 yards in a 2005 Chiefs win. He had 36 carries in that game, and a whopping 416 carries last season, so there's no secret what the Texans' defense has to prepare for on Sunday.

"When you're playing a team that runs the ball a lot, (the key) is assignment defense," Weaver said. "If one guy tries to do something out of the scheme, then (Johnson) finds that hole and creates a big run.

"It's discipline and not succumbing to fatigue. Fatigue can make idiots of people sometimes. But as long as you stay in the game and do what you're coached to do, we can go out there and shut him down."

There are several factors working in the Texans' favor Sunday. Uncertainty surrounds the Chiefs' offense after a miserable preseason in which they went 0-4, scored 32 points and compiled less than 900 yards of total offense.

It's unclear how the Chiefs' offensive line will perform after the departure of three starters from last season, including Pro Bowler Will Shields. The offseason-long quarterback competition between Brodie Croyle and eventual winner Damon Huard might rattle Huard's confidence and allow the Texans to stack up against the run. And Johnson missed almost all of the preseason because of a prolonged contract holdout.

The running back insists he's fresher for having sat out. But Weaver, having missed the preseason himself, admits to being behind conditioning-wise and suspects the same will be true with Johnson.

"I think he'll be rusty," Weaver said. "He hasn't been hit yet. So (if) we go out there and put the pads on him, hopefully we can shut him down."

That remains to be seen, but with an encouraging preseason and sky-high confidence on the Texans' side, this could be a breakout game for the entire defensive line.

"We're excited," Weaver said. "We're confident in the preseason we had. Defensively, we made a lot of plays out there, and we're confident. We just want to go out there now and get a win when it all counts."

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