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Five questions entering training camp

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Head coach Gary Kubiak has said the Texans must run the ball better if they want to be a playoff team this season. To make that happen, the team hired assistant head coach Alex Gibbs, the NFL's zone blocking guru, and added talent to the position. As the Texans enter training camp, all eyes will be on the ground game. But this team also has a lot to prove on the other side of the ball.

Here are the top-five questions entering the Texans' training camp with insights from wide receiver Kevin Walter. Listen to Walter further analyze each question by watching the accompanying video.

1. Who will be the top-four running backs? Five ball carriers will be competing in camp this year and most likely only four will make the active roster, maybe less. Veterans Ahman Green (11th-year pro) and Chris Brown (6th-year pro) currently are slated to shoulder the load on the ground. Each player gives the offense a very different look, as Brown is a taller runner who looks to hit holes and then use his breakaway speed to get past defenders. However, both players have struggled with injuries. Coaches may decide to reduce their reps during camp to keep them fresh for the regular season, but Green and Brown will have to prove they are durable enough to be the double-headed monster the team needs for 16 games.

Rookie Steve Slaton will come into camp as a third-down back who can catch passes in the backfield. The offense lacked that type of player last year. The biggest question marks surround backs Chris Taylor and Darius Walker. After proving himself on the practice squad last year, Walker was activated late in the season, appearing in four games and finishing second on the team in rushing with 264 yards. Walker, an undrafted rookie free agent from Notre Dame, certainly got the job done, but the coaches also are excited about Taylor, a third-year pro who was sat out 2007 with a knee injury. Taylor showed off his speed during OTAs, making single cuts and exploding through seams. His style complements the team's new zone blocking scheme because he's such a north-south runner.

"We have some studs back there," Walter said. "We're going to be running the ball quite a bit this year. We have coach Gibbs in there. It's going to be a lot of fun. We've got Ahman. Hopefully, he's going to come back healthy. We need him back 100 percent. We need all the guys working together to even have a chance to win."

2. Will Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme help the running game? The mastermind behind the Texans' new zone blocking scheme is Gibbs, one of the best offensive line coaches in NFL history who came out of retirement to help Kubiak improve the run game. Gibbs spent 13 combined seasons (1984-1987 and 1995-2003) in Denver. During his nine seasons there with Kubiak, the Broncos led the NFL in rushing with 20,150 yards. From 2004-2006, Gibbs guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFL-best 8,157 rushing yards in his capacity as assistant head coach/offensive line.

{QUOTE}Gibbs' brand of football is athletic, tough and successful. And with the help of offensive line coach John Benton, whose line only allowed 22 sacks last year, Gibbs has added athleticism to the unit. Chris Myers, who played in a similar system in Denver, will start at center. Left tackle Duane Brown, the 26th overall draft pick, will compete against veteran Ephraim Salaam for first-team duties. During OTAs, the Texans' O-line looked quicker and more agile than it did last year, but these linemen haven't put on pads yet or performend cut blocks and gotten to the second level. They will have to show that they can do that during camp, clearing the way for the running backs and attacking the defensive line on the play side or back side of the defense.

The beauty of Gibbs' scheme is that it doesn't require a premier ball carrier to be effective. Instead, it's proven to be successful using a running back-by-committee approach, highlighting players who can hit the seams with little hesitation. Right now, the scheme looks like a recipe for success for the Texans.

"From last year to even OTAs and mini-camp this year, our running game looks a lot better," Walter said. "He (Gibbs) tells the running backs, 'You make one cut and you get up north. You don't want to be dancing around behind the line.' He does some good things telling our offensive line and running backs what to do. I've already seen improvement, and it's going to help the passing game for sure because we are going to run the ball well."

3. Is left tackle Duane Brown ready to start? Brown was overwhelmed by information during mini-camp and OTAs, taking most of the snaps with the first team and squaring off against defensive end Mario Williams. With Gibbs in his face, Brown improved dramatically in a few short weeks, but he still has a long way to go to before he is the team's answer at left tackle. This season he will have to face the likes of defensive ends Dwight Freeney (Colts) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (Titans), who can turn Brown into a spinning top if he isn't ready.

Gibbs would like to see Brown utilizing his agility and footwork to work in tandem with guard Chester Pitts and secure the left side of the line. Together they can create a huge advantage for the line by double teaming a defensive lineman in their area and opening up a crease for the running back. Brown also will have to perfect his cut blocking, which occurs when an offensive lineman on the backside of the play goes below the knees and block the defensive player(s) in front of them. This technique helps seal off backside pursuit and opens up a cut-back lane for the running back. It's a lot to ask of Brown, who also played right tackle and tight end in college, but Gibbs sees promise in the rookie.

"He's going against one of the best in Mario Williams every day," Walter said of Brown. "Duane, he's got good feet and he's a big guy, and I'm glad we have him."

4. Can the new talent bolster the secondary? Going into camp, the Texans will have a new starter at cornerback. Lining up opposite second-year pro Fred Bennett will be Jacques Reeves, who started in Dallas last season. Reeves and third-round pick Antwaun Molden will be asked to make up for the loss of cornerback Dunta Robinson as he recovers from knee and hamstring surgery. Robinson is expected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list, which means he will miss the first six games before the team has to decide whether to activate him or place him on injured reserve for the season. The Texans think Reeves is well-suited for their 4-3 scheme, whereas in Dallas Reeves worked in a 3-4 defense with a lot of zone coverage. Molden also has impressed coaches with his speed and instincts off the ball. He could see a lot of action early in the season.

At safety, C.C. Brown and Will Demps are the returning starters. Strong safety Dominique Barber, the sixth-round pick and brother of Cowboys running back Marion Barber, will be pushing them for playing time along with Glenn Earl. Brandon Mitchell and Brandon Harrison are young safeties who didn't see the field last year, but they possess size and have worked hard with defensive backs coach Ray Rhodes during the offseason. Rhodes, in fact, could be the biggest addition to this unit. The former NFL Coach of the Year knows how to bring out the best in his players, so the team's young corners and safeties could come a long way during a few weeks of camp.

"We have a lot of corners that could start," Walter said. "The secondary is looking good. We have a lot safeties, big guys that can come up and stop the run."

5. Who will emerge as a pass rusher opposite Mario? General manager Rick Smith was committed to finding a pass rusher opposite Mario Williams to keep the defensive end from being double-teamed this year. Smith signed 10th-year pro Rosevelt Colvin, the former New England Patriots outside linebacker who has made a career out of sacking quarterbacks. Colvin is coming off a foot injury he suffered last year with the Patriots and will be used primarily on passing downs. He can step in as an outside threat, but the defense will need more heat from the left side of its line.

During OTAs, utility lineman Tim Bulman took reps with the first team as a nickel rusher and impressed coaches with his work ethic and aggression. Defensive end Anthony Weaver, who has been slowed by various ailments, wants to prove that he is the player he was in Baltimore, where he notched 14.5 sacks in four seasons. Weaver would like to get back to the nickel three-technique role he used with the Ravens because he had great pass-rushing success moving inside on third-down situations. Kubiak has said that Weaver will play inside some once the season begins, but during camp he wants the defensive end to focus on rushing from the outside.

"Rosevelt is a proven veteran," Walter said. "He's won Super Bowls. He can do it all. He can pass rush. He can drop back and cover guys. I'm glad we picked him up. That's definitely going to help our defense out."

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