When the Texans kicked off their inaugural season in 2002, they knew they would encounter a road with a few bumps along the way -- the normal ride for any expansion team. And one of the most glaring bumps was the play of the offensive line, which allowed a well-documented NFL-record 76 sacks.
During the off-season, the Texans' front office targeted free agent offensive linemen, acquiring free agent offensive guards Todd Washington and Zach Wiegert as well as offensive tackle Greg Randall in a trade with the New England Patriots.
Washington and Wiegert brought with them experience, but also veteran leadership and a knowledge for the game. The mix between these free agent offensive linemen and the extra year of experience under the belt of Chester Pitts and Steve McKinney, has produced a collective improvement on the line.
The front five have only surrendered a modest 12 sacks through the first seven games in 2003. At this same mark last season, Houston had allowed David Carr to be sacked 43 times, a difference of 31 sacks over one year. The 12 sacks they have allowed tie them with the Giants for allowing the 10 th fewest sacks in the NFL.
"This unit plays better together," Pitts said. "I'm a year better, we have more experience, and when you bring in someone like Zach, he's a doggone good player. He and Todd are both really smart players and how they communicate to the younger guys is one of the biggest things."
Not only has Carr not had to pull himself from the turf after being sacked as much, the offensive line has also sparked other areas of the Texans offense. In the past two weeks, they have been clearing lanes for rookie running back Domanick Davis, who has had the first two 100-yard rushing performances in team history.
"Offensively, the most encouraging thing to me against Indianapolis is the way we ran the football," head coach Dom Capers said. "Domanick really ran strong and ran tough, broke a lot of tackles and was physical in terms of running the football. We ended up with five big plays, four of those being in the run game."
One of the keys that has led to the success of the offensive line this season can be attributed to the improved communication between Pitts, Washington, McKinney, Wiegert and Randall. Being able to pick up opponents various defensive packages is a critical part of the offensive success. The communication by the offensive linemen to relay various reads to each other can be the difference between a first down and a sack.
Time spent away from the playing field as a group has also helped their communication skills.
"We haven't had our steak dinner in a while, but we do some stuff together," Pitts said.
This time spent outside of Reliant Park helps to build the camaraderie off the field that can turn it to wins on the field.
"I think the biggest contributing factor from a year ago is that we're playing smarter as a unit," offensive line coach Tony Marciano said. "We understand what we need to do. The communication between the whole offense, everyone's on the same page as far as the continuity. We're not doing anything different as far as our technique goes, we're just playing better as a group, as a unit."
This unit has set the groundwork for the improved overall offense, and it all starts with the five guys up front blocking and protecting for the rest of the offense.
Through the seventh game this season, the Texans rank fourth in the AFC and 11
th in the NFL in total offense. Last season, the Texans offense finished the season last in the AFC and last in the NFL in total offense, and much of that drastic improvement can be attributed to the men up front who do the grunt work.