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Pass protection an emphasis


The offensive line continues to improve under the watch of John Benton.

The Texans have allowed 272 sacks in six years. New quarterback Matt Schaub, meanwhile, has only been sacked 12 times in his three years in the NFL.

The Texans know all too well what sacks can do to a promising young quarterback. With Schaub in his first season as a starter, his offensive linemen are on a mission to protect him from the get-go and allow him to gain confidence in the pocket.

"You've got to make sure he knows that he can take his drop, he can take his steps and not worry about getting hit," right tackle Eric Winston said. "That's always a big thing on our minds. We want to keep him clean, but especially at the very beginning he needs to know that."

"It's very important," left tackle Ephraim Salaam said. "We want him to be able to be comfortable and not rattled out there. We want him to come out and be crisp and clean, not have to worry about protection breaking down so he can go through his reads and get comfortable in the system as a starter."

Schaub's first season in Houston is the second for head coach Gary Kubiak. Under Kubiak's watch, the offensive line reduced its allowed sacks total by 25 from the previous season. This year, the players have a new goal for the number of sacks they'll allow.

"None – that's the goal," Winston said. "None. We're not going to be happy about one. We don't want him touched, and that's all of our mentalities.

"We don't even like to see him even getting touched at all. We don't want him on the ground. We don't want him anywhere. We want him back there feeling comfortable, throwing the ball like he knows how and just hitting receivers. So that's our goal for this year."

While that goal is lofty, it reflects the attitude change that has permeated its way through the Texans' offensive line since the end of last season.

"I think we're much more advanced and much more cohesive together," Salaam said. "We're a group that's just really working well together, getting the second year of this offense under our belt, and I think we've got tremendous talent across the o-line."

Offensive line coach John Benton has made some modifications to blocking schemes, and is looking for his front five to pick up where they left off.

"We've really took a hard look at our protection schemes to start off with, with the players out here," Benton said. "We've made some adjustments that are working out really well so far, and then it's been a matter of implementing them.

"In practice, we're putting ourselves in more stressful situations consistently throughout practice. And it's starting to pay off. We feel pretty good about our drop-back protection right now – we feel like that's progressing well, anyway. We're still working on some of the play action pass-type things. But that's been the focus, all the way from schematics to personnel."

{QUOTE}Earlier in camp, the Texans suffered a blow when tackle Charles Spencer was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The versatile lineman started the first two games as a rookie last season before breaking his leg. He was expected to see significant playing time this year at both tackle positions.

But the Texans added some depth with tackles Kevin Barry and Jordan Black. And Salaam, a nine-year veteran, has taken his game to a new level, also helping to ease the loss of Spencer.

"We're disappointed, obviously," Benton said of Spencer's injury. "It'd be great to have a player like Charles around. But fortunately for us, Ephraim Salaam has been a great asset. He's improved his game, even over the offseason. He'll tell you it's the best offseason he's ever had."

The offensive line also should benefit from the presence of running back Ahman Green. If Green can match any of his six 1,000-yard seasons, the Texans' offense might quickly come to resemble Kubiak's dominant rushing teams from Denver.

That would reduce the number of third-and-long situations that put so much pressure on pass blockers, and it would open up the field for more effective play-action passes by forcing opponents to commit more defenders to the box.

Green also will bolster the pass protection with his dedication to pass-blocking.

"If it's up to me, my quarterback is not getting touched," Green said. "As a running back, you take it personal. That's going to be one of my priorities outside of running the ball and scoring points and making yards, it's to protect (Schaub) back there throwing the ball.

"I'll put it like this: I'm going to be his Kevlar back there stopping the blitz. I'm going to do my job, along with the offensive linemen, tight ends, guys of that nature, and give the quarterback a little bit of extra time to get the ball down the field."

That's good news to Winston, who knows the entire offense is responsible for pass protection.

"It's not just an offensive line thing," Winston said. "It's an offensive thing. It's the receivers breaking off their routes at the right time. It's the running backs blocking. Ahman and Ronnie (Dayne) are great pass blockers, and that's important. Tight ends, they play a big part in it. So I think everyone as a group has a goal of doing the right thing and I think if we do the right thing, that sack total's going to take care of itself."

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