Linebackers glance

There's plenty of outside interest on the defensive side of the ball heading into Houston's third training camp.

While the Texans' inside linebacker duo of Jay Foreman and Jamie Sharper has been healthy and productive through two seasons, the same can't be said for the outside linebacker slots.

"Outside linebacker is a position that's been a little bit of a nemesis to us," head coach Dom Capers said.
The success of the 3-4 defense is predicated upon pressure from the outside linebackers. And the Texans certainly can't be faulted for lack of trying. But some players have left and some just haven't panned out. Jeff Posey racked up eight sacks in 2002 but shuffled off to Buffalo the next season. Steve Foley was starting to flourish towards the end of 2003 but signed with San Diego this past March. Charlie Clemons was plagued by a foot injury last season and was recently released.

But as the Texans prepare for their third season, the outside linebacker position has never looked stronger. And that has defensive coordinator Vic Fangio energized

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"I'm excited," Fangio said. "From top to bottom, we definitely have the best group that we've had since we've been here. We've got guys that have a chance to blossom into the position, which is encouraging.

"I think we've got more guys that have a future there than maybe stopgap guys."

Rookie first-round pick Jason Babin has been plugged into the left outside slot, shifting six-year veteran Kailee Wong over to the right side.

"We felt like we needed to add a guy there who was physical against the run and could also rush the passer, so we traded up for Jason Babin," Capers said. "He's a 262-pound guy so he's got about 15 pounds on Kailee."

Babin – a converted defensive end -- registered 30 sacks over his last two seasons at Western Michigan but now he has to learn new techniques, as well as adjusting to the speed of the pro game.

"I think everything is progressing well," Fangio said. "Babin is doing a good job of picking up his responsibilities and learning how to play on his feet without his hand down. The biggest thing for guys like that getting the run-pass key, figuring out whether it's a run or a pass and how quick to drop."

It's a trial by fire, sure, but Babin embraces the challenge.

"I'm just trying to take it one step at a time," he said.

Meanwhile, Wong's move to the right has been relatively seamless.

"If anybody can handle it, Kailee can handle it," Capers said. "He's such a technician and I think he's actually excited about it because more often than not he'll be rushing the blind side of the quarterback."

For Wong, the essence of the position remains the same. It's just a bizarro world version of his two seasons on the left side, where he managed 175 tackles and 9 ½ sacks.

"Kailee has switched to the right side without any hitches at all," Fangio said. "All of the angles are different. The left side of your body is inside rather than your outside. Everything is just the opposite. But he's fine with it."

Meanwhile, Antwan Peek is backing up Wong on the right side. Peek started four games for Clemons last season, putting up modest numbers. But he's been one of the team's most pleasant surprises in the off-season. In Babin, Peek and Wong, the Texans boast a mixture of raw talent and experience that should pay dividends in this scheme.

"We feel those three guys are going to give us a good combination, however it works itself out," Capers said.

The Texans also have some young guys further down the roster that could bolster the position. Anthony Dunn, who played in two games for the Titans last season, is currently backing up Babin. The Texans also drafted two more defensive ends that are trying to make the switch to outside linebacker in Charlie Anderson and Raheem Orr.

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Inside, the Texans boast the league's reigning tackle leader in Sharper and another workhorse in Foreman. Neither has missed a start in 32 games in Houston.

Sharper racked up four sacks, three forced fumbles and an exhaustive 195 tackles in 2003 for a defense that was ravaged by injury in front of him and behind him. It's a mark he wants to build on.

"When I was getting close to leading in tackles, I made up my mind that I wanted to lead the league," Sharper said. "What I did those last couple of games, getting as many tackles as possible, that's the mindset I'm going to carry into 2004 -- to lead the league and try to make every tackle that I can."

Foreman has averaged 186 1/2 tackles since arriving in Houston via a trade with Buffalo. He's the primary signal-caller for the defense.

The Texans also have Travis Carroll, Troy Evans and Shantee Orr returning inside. Evans has been solid on special teams and Orr made some plays at outside linebacker as a rookie. Houston signed special teams ace DaShon Polk away from the Bills.

If the Texans can make plays from the inside out in 2004, their overall defensive effort will considerably improve.

LINEBACKERS:Sharper, Foreman, Wong, Babin, Peek, Dunn, R. Orr, Anderson, Carroll, Evans, S. Orr, Polk, D.D. Acholonu, Marcus Bell, Antonio Rodriguez. **

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FUN FACT: **Wong's brother-in-law is actor Mario Lopez, of "Saved By the Bell" fame (admit it, you watched it). Lopez was visiting his sister, Marissa, this week in Houston and swung by the Texans' facility for a workout. As you can see, our equipment crew was ready. No word on Screech's whereabouts...




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