Steve Slaton: Battle ready

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Houston Texans *Gameday *magazine on Sept. 27, 2009, for Houston's Battle Red Day showdown at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

NFL combines, computers, stats and measures of every imaginable kind don't always get it right on draft day.

For all that research, there are always busts and surprises. The human factor defies analysis. Highly publicized college players get drafted in the first round and flop. Can't misses can't always make it.

Other times, there is a feel-good story like Steve Slaton.

Slaton was the Texans' second pick of the third round in last year's draft. The West Virginia running back had good speed and quickness but was smallish. The Texans thought of him, as they indicated in comments on draft day, as a third-down back.

Every Texans fan knows how quickly that label disappeared. Slaton, thrust into the starting lineup in the second game of the season for the injured Ahman Green, dinged the proud Titans defense for 116 yards and kept on running for the rest of the season.

"About the middle of the year, we realized that he's the guy, let's bank on him and ride him until his shoes fall off," right tackle Eric Winston said. "He played with bruises, he played with bumps. You thought, 'This guy's going to wear down at some point,' but he kept a smile on his face and he kept rocking."

Slaton led all rookie running backs with 1,282 rushing yards, including five 100-yard performances. He led the AFC with 1,659 total yards from scrimmage.

He was at his best in the fourth quarter, when he led the NFL in rushing with 464 yards and five touchdowns.

"By his week-to-week play, he was able to go in there and play in our base offense on first and second down," running backs coach Chick Harris said. "He did well there, and he also did well on third down. We felt if he kept making plays, we had to keep him on the field."

Despite Slaton's emergence last season, coaches don't like to talk about last year. They get paid to build on what happened before, not dwell on it.

"We have to stay on top of making sure that our standards remain higher and higher so he can go on and be more successful," Harris said. "It's so important that young guys forget what you did last year and get on with the work of making yourself better technically, being tougher, understanding situations and just being a solid player and mature player."

Slaton is more ready for this season than he was as an unsure rookie.

"This year is different," Slaton said. "I know my role and what I can do to help this team out. I've got to take a bigger role and be a leader at the running back position. I want to be 100 percent sound. Everyone makes mistakes, but I want to minimize mine."

Slaton played at 190 pounds in college. He bulked up some last year and plans to play this season at 215 to help his durability.

"I really don't look at the weight," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "I want him to be as big and strong as he can without losing any quickness or speed. If he comes here and he looks slower or stiffer, he's overweight. If not, you keep putting the weight on so you can handle the season."

Slaton feels fine at his present weight.

"I'm close to my playing weight last year, so I'm comfortable," he said.

{QUOTE}Rookies often fade late in their first NFL seasons. They aren't accustomed to the 16-game schedule and the brutal toll of playing with the big boys. Slaton did the opposite. He got stronger as the season progressed.

He was the AFC Rookie of the Month for December. Slaton earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after Week 13, when he burned the Jaguars for 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the last Battle Red Day at Reliant Stadium before today.

"We expected him to be more of a role player," Shanahan said. "We were counting on a healthy Ahman. We were surprised he was able to do it for 16 games and handle it well. He actually got better each week. He was better at the end than he was at the beginning.

"When you're a rookie and especially not a real big guy, those guys can wear down fast. He didn't."

The players also noticed.

"The thing that impressed me about him last year was he got better every week," Winston said. "That's what you want to see, especially out of the young guys, and he did that. He came out and found a way to improve. If he keeps doing that, he's going to be special."

Shanahan is hoping Slaton doesn't have to carry too much of the rushing load this season.

"I wouldn't say I'd like to see fewer carries," Shanahan said. "I would like to see some other guys step up and help. We've got Chris Brown healthy this year. We're expecting some guys to help in all situations."

Brown, healthy after missing last season with a back injury, is ready to bring a bigger-back aspect to the mix.

"We know that we can both go out there and do the job," Brown said. "We bring different things to the table, so I think we complement each other pretty well. He did a great job last year, and we're trying to get everything going this year in the run game so we can keep moving forward.'

"We know we're in this together and we've got to help each other out."

And so, it's onward into Week 3 of season number two.

"He's no longer a rookie," Shanahan said. "He doesn't have that excuse for mistakes. We throw him in situations and we're trusting him to know the stuff. He's gone through all the rookie mistakes, and we expect him to be much more on top of it with the X's and O's part of the game."

The Texans' offense ranked third in the NFL in yards last season, and Slaton was a big part of the surge. Quarterback Matt Schaub threw for 3,043 yards. Andre Johnson caught 115 passes for 1,575. With Slaton's total added on, they were the second trio this decade to have 3,000 or more yards passing, 1,200 rushing and 1,500 receiving.

Even though Slaton has struggled to get on track through two games this season, Harris has confidence that his young pupil can put up good numbers again this year and get even more push.

"It's tied in with our offensive line," Harris said. "You can move the ball up field and then finish with your legs. The offensive line did a heck of a job finishing last year. That enabled Steve to finish even more, and it caught on to being something really good. That's what you want."

Slaton is being counted on to lead the way this season with the rushing attack.

"He knows his spot on the team, and that's big," Winston said. "When you come in as a rookie, your role isn't defined. Coming into this year, he knows he's going to be the workhorse. He's got to be that sparkplug for us that he was last year."
Slaton has a strategy for tuning out the hype and scrutiny that come with higher expectations. It's the same method he used last year.

And what was that, exactly?

"I stayed in my playbook," he said. "That's the best place to be."

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 teams.

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