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Offense focused on red zone, short yardage

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It isn't called the red zone because more blood is left there. And the players' faces don't turn particularly scarlet inside these mystical lines.

But this Red Zone problem is leaving the Texans very red-faced – as in a little angry and embarrassed.

Red Zone play has troubled the Texans this season, especially the last two games. And third-and-short yardage hasn't been their forte in those games either.

The Texans are 10th in the NFL in scoring at 23.5 points per game. But in losses the last two weeks, they have had trouble in the red zone – that highly scrutinized area from the opponent's 20-yard line to the goal line.

Houston went inside the red zone seven times the last two games and scored just two touchdowns. Last week, Houston scored a 35-yard touchdown pass from Matt Schaub to André Davis (which doesn't count in Red Zone stats), then had to rely on Kris Brown's accurate foot for the rest of its points in a 10-point loss to the previously winless Falcons.

Agonizingly for the Texans, they ran up 398 yards of total offense, 94 more than Atlanta. But they were a dismal five-of-13 on third downs while the Falcons were seven-of-15.

{QUOTE}Admittedly, the Texans have been without Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson and standout running back Ahman Green in these two games. But the players aren't accepting that excuse.

"You have to find a way to dig down a little bit deeper," guard Chester Pitts said. "Those are pressure points, turning points in the game. You have to find a way to really hone in and execute on those plays in the red zone.

"Down there, you want to score touchdowns not field goals. You don't get all that many opportunities to get down there, so of course you want to maximize every possession down there."

Field goals don't necessarily equate to failure, but they do mean frustration.

"I wouldn't say you feel like you failed," Pitts said. "If every time you're on the field you put points on the board, you should find a way to win those games.

"But you're disappointed if you don't get a touchdown."

Running back Samkon Gado agrees, but knows the problem is not so cut and dried.

"Obviously, you're trying to get six," Gado said. "And a lot of times you can put an emphasis on that, but there are 11 guys on the other side of the ball who are paid to stop you and you're not going to get in every time.

"Now it stinks that we didn't get in as often as we could've this past game. It's frustrating, but you just kind of get up and do it again. And you don't change anything you're doing. The formula's still the same and you just go back to work and hopefully next week you'll get in as opposed to getting held out."

Coach Gary Kubiak also is concerned about the lack of touchdowns generated inside the 20.

"Whatever it is, we've just got to be more effective," Kubiak said. "When you're 0-3 down there – really 0-2 because one of the other ones was when we stepped inside the 20 on our third down and kicked a field goal, even though that counts against you – looking at it realistically, you're down there twice inside the five, and that ends up being a difference of eight points when it's all said and done, from field goal to touchdown.

"When you don't do that, that's the difference of winning and losing and actually this week, we had three because we missed a field goal there at the end. We've got to be better in the red zone, and to get better in the red zone it seems to always go back to running the ball."

Schaub knows how critical it is to punch it in once you get down inside the opponent's 20. But he also knows the game takes a different complexion then. Red zone yards are much harder to come by than those between the 20s.

"Definitely, because it's a shorter field," Schaub said. "The defense doesn't have as long of a field to defend. They don't have to drop back in coverage so the windows are tighter, things happen faster.

"In the run game, things are a little bit tighter, so you have to make a couple guys miss. Definitely, the field is shorter."

Whatever it takes, Schaub agrees the Texans must solve the puzzle soon.

"I think we just have to stick to what we do and do it well," he said. "We've hurt ourselves. In the Colts game, I threw an interception. Last week, we had a fumble down there. We just have to continue to do what we do in the field and just get touchdowns, rather then settling for three."

The running game must get better, too. The last two games the Texans have been woeful on third-and-short situations, where muscle and grit rule on most plays. They have converted only 10-of-24 third downs the last two weeks and many of those were short yardage.

It has become an issue.

"It has because we didn't convert them," Pitts said. "We didn't execute. We didn't do what we needed to do to get a yard.

"In this business, the attitude and response from coaches, it's if we have 20 people out on the field, we have to get a yard. It falls back on us. It's obviously disappointing and we have to find a way to correct that ship in a hurry."

That isn't as easy as it sounds.

"It's just focusing on technique, getting off on the snap count," Pitts said. "The little things turn into big things and we just have to lock in on a way to fix it."

Kubiak admits he is concerned about the Texans' lack of success on third-and-short plays.

"I'm very concerned," he said. "We punted twice (against Atlanta) and we punted because we couldn't make a third-and-one. If not, we're staying on the field. That's keeping our defense off the field.

"There's no reason for us not to make the first one. I think (running back) Ronnie (Dayne) should make that first down. The next one, we don't do a very good job up front of knocking them off the ball. In this league, when it's third-and-one, it doesn't matter if everybody knows where you're running, you better be able to get one and stay on the field.

"That's just a mindset, an attitude, and us doing things better. So we have to get that corrected."

In the end, scoring touchdowns from the red zone also is mostly mind over matter. As the saying goes – if you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

The Texans mind.

"Every time we get down there we have to find a way to get it in," Pitts said. "Throw it in, run it in, quarterback sneak it in, it doesn't matter. We just have to find a way to get touchdowns."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Carley is a veteran Houston sportswriter who has covered the NFL for more than 25 years. He has worked for such newspapers as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Houston Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the National Sports Daily covering such teams as the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Oilers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders.

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