Ryans, Williams symbolic of improved defense

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. –Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans were the first two draft picks of the Gary Kubiak era in Houston. Four years later, the building blocks of the Texans' defense are together at the Pro Bowl, taking their place this week among the league's best players.

Ryans didn't have any teammates with him the last time he came to the Pro Bowl, which was after the 2007 season. The Texans have improved by leaps and bounds in the two years since then, especially on defense.

Ryans and Williams, who are both in their second Pro Bowls, are steadily emerging superstars. Several Texans coaches feel that Ryans had his best season in 2009, when he was the leader of a defense that allowed the fewest points (333) and yards (5,198) in team history. Williams had nine sacks, giving him 35 over the last three seasons.

Linebacker Brian Cushing, the 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, also was selected to the Pro Bowl after finishing second in the AFC in tackles. Cushing withdrew from the game due to injuries and is not in Miami this week, but he helped the Texans tie for the NFL lead with three defensive players selected for the game.

"The more guys that we have (in the Pro Bowl) on defense, it lets me know we're getting a lot better and that we can go out and stop some people," Ryans said. "It's great having Mario, and Cushing couldn't make it, but with him being selected also, having three guys from our defense says a lot."

The Texans' young defense – which didn't feature a single starter older than 28 in Week 17 – made tremendous strides in defensive coordinator Frank Bush's first season. From Week 4 on, the Texans ranked second in the NFL in run defense (84.3 yards/game) and fourth in overall defense (312.9 yards/game).

{QUOTE}"We're just getting better," Williams said on Saturday after the final practice before the Pro Bowl. "That's the biggest thing that we're trying to do, and that's what all we're looking at doing. We don't look at any awards or anything like that, it's just all about playing together and getting better as a unit."

That vastly improved defense helped the Texans to finish 9-7 in 2009, the first winning record in franchise history. The defense's production over the final 13 games of the year matched the season-long production of the offense, which ranked fourth in the league with 383.1 yards per game. The offense had a pair of Pro Bowlers of its own in quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson.

Ryans sees it as a sign of progress that the Texans have a team-record four players set to play in the Pro Bowl on Sunday.

"We're definitely headed in the right direction," he said. "It says a lot about the guys that we're bringing in. We have great players on our team, and we just have to go out and get it done on the field and go win some more games.

"I look forward to having a great 2010."

Follow Nick Scurfield on Twitter at *twitter.com/NickScurfield or find him on the "I'm A Texan Club" at imatexan.com/profiles/Nick_Scurf/.*

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