Texans head coach Gary Kubiak spoke to the media on Sunday with Houston's 31-27 win over the New Orleans Saints in the books and the team preparing to face the Dallas Cowboys on Friday at Texas Stadium.
Slaton to see first-team reps: Kubiak said he could feel running back Steve's Slaton speed on the field Saturday night. After watching game footage, the head coach got to see just how much the rookie had improved in one week, especially in pass protection.
Slaton picked up a blitz late in the third quarter, allowing quarterback Sage Rosenfels to connect with wide receiver David Anderson on a 43-yard pass.
"He's a much better player this week than he was last week," Kubiak said. "He was better in protections. There are still some mistakes that concern you the closer you get to the season, but it's obvious that he can be a big help to us offensively."
On the ground, Slaton looked more comfortable in the zone scheme, making single-cut runs and hitting holes instead of zigzagging around in the backfield like he did against Denver. He led the team with 13 carries for 57 yards rushing, and Kubiak would like to see Slaton get reps with the first unit when the team takes on Dallas.
"I think he's earned a right to get some reps with that first group," Kubiak said.
That means Chris Brown, who started against New Orleans, and Chris Taylor could see less time on the field. Kubiak said that Taylor looked better in his second game, but still has room for improvement.
"I thought Chris (Taylor) did some good things," Kubiak said. "I thought vision-wise, running, a couple of times he could have been better.
"I just think we need to keep working Chris where he is at. He is always going to get a few reps at fullback, but he needs to step up his game on special teams, too."
Brown, who finished with eight rushes for 19 yards, would have looked a lot better if he hadn't had a 15-yard run called back for a penalty.
Johnson expected to play: Chances are high that wide receiver Andre Johnson will make his 2008 debut on Friday against the Cowboys. The two-time Pro Bowler has yet to play in the preseason after suffering a strained groin during practice on Aug. 2, but participated in all non-contact portions of Texans practice in New Orleans last week.
"We'll proceed with Andre as if he's ready to go this week," Kubiak said. "I think he could have played last week... He's chomping at the bit. We'll work him toward playing in Dallas, but he will have to be 110 percent to play. I expect him to be ready to go."
Running back Ahman Green, who strained his groin in the preseason opener, is unlikely to suit up against Dallas and might not play until the regular season. Fullback Vonta Leach bruised a shoulder in the Saints game and may miss a day of practice.
Kubiak said that linebacker Chaun Thompson appears to still be recovering from a hamstring injury suffered early in camp. Thompson had one tackle in his Texans debut Saturday. --- Nick Scurfield
Duane steps up: After getting beaten a couple of times on the opening drive, rookie left tackle Duane Brown settled down and proved he can protect the quarterback against a physical defensive line.
"I think he's away ahead of any rookie, and the reason he's ahead is because he's been starting from day one," Kubiak said. "It's funny – somebody asked me that after the game, and I said, 'I can't think of anything bad he did, so that means he probably played OK.' When you know an o-lineman is out there, it's probably that something wrong is going on. That hasn't been the case. He's been solid."
Brown's next challenge will be facing the Cowboys' 3-4 defense. Kubiak would like to see Brown become better at sealing off backside pursuit.
"Most of Duane's mistakes are coming in the run game on the backside and technique and those types of things - learning how to take the proper angles in cutting people off, just the speed of the National Football League," Kubiak said. "It's not a lack of effort. He knows what he's doing. (He's) working hard and getting better every day."
In search of special players: Wide receiver Harry Williams drew praise from Kubiak for the second consecutive week for his standout play on special teams. The third-year pro out of Tuskegee made a big stop on a second-quarter punt return, firing up the Texans' sideline, and continues to impress on every snap.
"I think Harry Williams has been the ultimate bright spot on special teams," Kubiak said. "He's been consistent. He's making a big push for us to find a roster spot for him on this team just by how well he's playing on special teams.
"He's the best guy we've got on the field right now when we are in special teams mode. That's a third of the game. When you cut on the film, he is five or six yards ahead of everyone else. It's just the way he's playing the game."
Kubiak lamented the performance of the rest of the special teams besides safety Nick Ferguson, kicker Kris Brown and punter Matt Turk – especially among the young safeties and running backs, where special teams play will set apart those competing for roster spots.
"Our point of emphasis to those guys is when you are getting second or third reps from an offensive and defensive perspective, you have to stand out on special teams and not just be a guy," Kubiak said. "Some of these young kids have to be playing at (Williams') level to help us get better." --- Nick Scurfield
More pressure needed on 'D': The defense played in spurts against New Orleans, holding the Saints to 0-2 in the red zone in the first quarter and then giving up big plays in the passing game and to Saints back Reggie Bush.
"We have to do a better job against the run," Kubiak said. "We continue to search for some pressure. We've moved some people around from week one to week two. We'll continue to do that to give some guys some opportunities to step up and put some pressure on the quarterback."
Kubiak has rotated in undersized speed rushers Rosevelt Colvin and N.D. Kalu with the first unit. Earl Cochran and Anthony Weaver have rushed the passer from the inside. Defensive end Tim Bulman notched the only sack for the team on Saturday.
The head coach thought that Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye and Kalu did the best job of pressuring the quarterback, but he would like to see more consistent pressure coming from all four linemen.
"We did call some blitzes and dogs and those types of things," Kubiak said. "That was when we are at our best pressuring, but it's like I always tell you, in this league you have to be able to find pressure with your four downs and be sound in coverage and not put your people on an island all the time.
"We keep moving people around because I'm not sure that we know who is going to be there opening day right now. I think we'll just keep searching and see who steps up to the plate."
Jones on notice: It took a measure of confidence for Kubiak to put Jacoby Jones back at punt returner after Jones fumbled away the first punt of the game deep in Texans territory on Saturday, a week after Jones lost a fumble on a return against Denver.
Jones responded with a nifty 19-yard return in the third quarter, but then was involved in another fumble in the fourth quarter on a botched exchange on a reverse from rookie quarterback Alex Brink. Though Brink was credited with the fumble, the play fueled concerns about Jones' fumbling problem.
"He's got to have a sense of urgency to get it fixed, because if that's going to take place back there (returning punts), somebody else is going to do it," Kubiak said. "I believe in him. He's got a lot of ability. He can help this team, but he's got to settle down, do his job, do it consistently."
Anderson and wide receiver André Davis will get equal reps at punt returner with Jones during practice this week, and Anderson will probably share punt return duties with Jones in the game on Friday. If the second-year receiver from Lane College can't correct his fumbling woes soon, Anderson or Davis will take his place.
"Whoever is going to be back there has to protect the ball," Kubiak said. "A lot of responsibility there, but hey, this is the big boys and he's got to step up." --- Nick Scurfield