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Slaton happy with starting role


Rookie running back Steve Slaton has shown plenty of toughness to go along with his blistering speed, as seen in this 50-yard run against the Titans last Sunday.

Steve Slaton cruised into Tennessee on Sunday without a ripple of attention, just another anonymous rookie making his first NFL start. It didn't take the Titans long to start asking themselves, "Who IS this guy?"

Slaton, the latter of the Texans' two third-round draft picks, introduced himself to the Titans' defense with a first quarter run of 50 yards, the second-longest in Texans history. He finished with 116 yards and a touchdown. He was the lone shining star on offense in a dark, 31-12 loss. Because of his efforts, he was nominated for NFL Rookie of the Week honors.

The surprising performance gave running backs coach Chick Harris at least a brief sigh of relief after working feverishly since early training camp to find a productive running back who could stay healthy.

"His effort made the day," Harris said. "His effort caused the big run because he broke a tackle and got down the sideline. His effort on a number of runs was the type of effort that will make him successful.

"If you can do that over and over again, you'll have a lot of 100-yard days. That's what we talk about all the time. He's got to play like a hungry man every time he gets out there."

Ahman Green was supposed to be the Texans' starting running back this season, kicking in those 100-yard games and leading the Texans' rushing attack. Green has been too hurt to be productive, and that opened up new possibilities.

"We knew he had all kinds of talent,'' guard Chester Pitts said of Slaton. "There were no worries about him running the ball. We knew he was fast. We knew he was explosive when he showed up at OTAs and when he showed up at training camp. He squirted through there a few times when there wasn't a lot of room.

"He's a little banged up right now, but we'll see if we can get him another 100 this week.''

Slaton's performance might have surprised the Titans. He won't sneak up on Jacksonville this Sunday.

"A good football player, a nice addition to their team," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said via conference call Wednesday. "(He) ran on Tennessee, which nobody does. Broke tackles. Ran tough. Showed vision. Showed acceleration. Good addition to their football team and obviously someone we'll have to contend with."

Slaton expects to see more attention paid to him.

"I think they'll scheme a little different now, but I have a great O-line in front of me, so hopefully their scheme doesn't work," Slaton said. "It's going to be a tough defense. There are fast guys in the secondary, big up-front guys. You just have to beat them to the point."

{QUOTE}Left tackle Duane Brown, the Texans' first-round pick, was pleased to see a good performance from a fellow rookie.

"I was probably the happiest person here to see that experience for him, seeing him break 100 yards in his first start," Brown said. "That's a great accomplishment for him. I knew he had all the ability in the world, but to see him go out and get that done, it's a great feeling."

Slaton didn't keep his anxious coaches waiting. He ripped off a 50-yard run in the first quarter, which took a lot of the first game jitters away.

"The first big run I had, I didn't think it would come this fast, but it gave me energy to keep working," Slaton said. "My whole thing was to get positive yards, to eliminate all negative yards and keep it positive."

Slaton had 104 of his 116 yards at halftime, when the Texans were down 24-12.

"We passed more in the second half. There weren't nearly as many called runs," Pitts said. "You can't gain yards if you don't run the ball. If we'd have run more, he would have kept on running."

How long does it take for an offensive line and running back to get used to each other?

"There's no manual," Pitts said. "You want it to happen as soon as it can and you work hard to make it happen as soon as it can. He's got a lot of heart. He'll drop his shoulder. He'll try to outrun you. Thus far, No. 20 is doing a lot of nice things for us."

Slaton's biggest challenge has been pass protection. He's 5-9, 197, and didn't have to worry much about blocking as the featured running back at West Virginia. He certainly didn't have to square off against the likes of Tennessee lineman Albert Haynesworth (6-6, 320) or Jacksonville defensive tackle John Henderson (6-7, 335).

"Pass protection, the range of people you are going to have to pick up, defensive tackles, corners, safeties, it's a big difference," Slaton said. "I did blocking, but I had a great fullback at West Virginia (Seattle Seahawks' Owen Schmitt), and we let him do a lot more pass protection than I did."

So is he ready to step up to the challenge of taking on Henderson?

"Yes, if I have to,'' Slaton said. "I think Albert is a little bigger, but they are all big guys. I'd try to get in his way and stay in front of him as long as I could."

There is a challenge there for Harris, too.

"We take the size of the player and use the technique that should get him down," Harris said. "We won't face up on them all the time. We're going around the legs and get them down that way."

Harris won't try to make Slaton into a battering ram.

"We'll rotate him if he gets tired and bring someone else in and give him another time at bat when he's ready to go," Harris said. "As long as he's fresh and can control himself and he's running with some energy, he can play. If he starts to tire, we'll put another guy in there so he can get his breath."

Slaton is comfortable with the Texans' zone-blocking scheme.

"There are easy cuts," he said. "You see what read you get and take it. It's usually one, two or three steps and you hit the hole. It's not overcomplicated, and it seems all the runs we have are the same format. You get into a rhythm and keep running with it."

So far, so good.

"He's grown," Harris said. "He's got a long way to go, but he's making the right strides to be a good player in this league. But you are as good as your last game and there's a Sunday coming up, and we won't know how it's going to be until he plays it."

EDITOR'S NOTE:Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky. Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports.

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