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Dennison aims to rescue red zone offense


It doesn't take a genius to figure out the missing link in the Houston Texans' offense.

Just answer this one question and then go to the head of the class in football IQ: Which statistic does NOT belong in this group?

Last season, the Texans led the NFL in passing. They scored a club-record 388 points. They ranked fourth in the NFL in total offense. They were 30th in rushing.

Getting the answer is easy. Solving the problem gets a little sticky. The Texans need to bring the rushing game, particularly in the red zone, up to the standards of the passing game that took the them to the franchise's first winning season (9-7) and agonizingly close to the playoffs in 2009.

Coach Gary Kubiak addressed that issue in the offseason. He hired Denver offensive line coach Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator to replace Kyle Shanahan, who left to coach for his father in Washington.

"Seven points as opposed to three points is big in the NFL, but we're looking at everything," Dennison said. "There have been some questions about the red zone and they had some problems last year, so we're trying to do some good things."

{QUOTE}Houston's red zone scoring was an immediate red flag for Dennison as he studied his new team. The Texans scored touchdowns only 52.4 percent of the time inside the 20 last season. At least, that was an improvement over 45.9 percent in 2008. For comparison, division champion Indianapolis hit pay dirt 68 percent of the time last season.

Dennison watched plenty of game film before OTAs. At times, the red zone was more like a fire drill.

"It looked like the line didn't know what the backs were doing and the backs didn't know what the line was doing," Dennison said. "I believe if we're all in there and on the same page, (defenses) can't be successful in stopping our run game.

"We're trying to be consistent and do some things that fit to our strengths. That's all we're trying to do and to execute very well."

Kubiak thinks Dennison is the guy to get it done. He tried to bring Dennison along when he left Denver to become the Texans' coach in 2006, but Dennison couldn't get permission from the Broncos. Instead, Dennison took Kubiak's place as Denver's offensive coordinator.

In three seasons with Dennison leading the Denver offense, the Broncos averaged 350.5 yards per game and rushed for 124.4 yards per game, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Even with young starters in 2008, the Broncos gained 6,333 yards to rank second in the NFL, and the offensive line allowed a franchise-record-low 12 sacks on the season. Dennison was Denver's offensive line coach last season.

Now, Kubiak is expecting similar results.

"It's something I've looked forward to doing, working with Gary again and I'm excited about it," Dennison said. "It's hard to leave a place like Denver after coaching and playing there, but the opportunity was just too great to pass up.

"I think I'm fitting in and they're fitting in. We're all kind of blending. It's great personnel and great workers, both coaches and personnel, so I think it will be a good combination."

The Texans reached the 20-yard line 63 times last season. They scored 33 touchdowns and 17 field goals.

Offensive line coach John Benton doesn't see big changes ahead, just better results.

"There's no magic formula," Benton said. "I don't think it's anything different, it's just attention to detail down there. We're going to do everything to tighten up what we do and see what other teams are doing.

"I don't know that you could put A,B,C down on paper that, 'This is what we're going to do,' but we have a definite plan of attack. It's a matter of play selection and executing once you get down there. So we're going to work harder to find the better plays to run down there and execute what you select."

Dennison doesn't have much time to make his mark on the Texans' offense. The Texans started slowly last year and missed the playoffs despite their first winning record. Although they have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, Texans fans expect to see the final push to the playoffs.

"The NFL isn't about rebuilding," Dennison said. "It's about winning, and we've got some players that can do some very good things. It's a matter of winning the games and making the plays during the games."

Right tackle Eric Winston thinks the reuniting of Kubiak and Dennison will be good for the Texans.

"His philosophies are the same as what Coach Kubes wants to do and what we want to do," Winston said. "His transition here compared to another offensive coordinator is easier than if you brought someone in who hasn't been in this system before."

The O-line likes having a former offensive line coach as their leader.

"(Dennison) is a little more laid-back, plus he was an offensive line guy at Denver so he focuses a little more on the O-line whereas Shanahan was more quarterbacks and receivers," left tackle Duane Brown said. "It helps us out, which in turn will help the offense as a whole. I think we'll be a better running team than last year, so I think we'll be more balanced."

A running game anywhere nearly as efficient as Houston's passing game would make the offense even more spectacular.

"I think it's very important, just for the makeup of the football team, to know that we can line up late in games and close games out and control the ball better in some situations where we weren't able to control or finish some football games last year,"
Kubiak said. "Obviously, we've been poor in that area and it's a big point of emphasis in this camp."

And, coaches and players realize they aren't working on a five-year plan. It is results time, regardless of schedule, injuries, whatever.

"If I was a fan, I'd be the same way," Benton said. "We're judged on production, not by our obstacles. We've taken that to heart."

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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