In the Texans' first nationally televised game of the season, head coach Gary Kubiak outdid his mentor, Denver's Mike Shanahan, leading Houston (7-7) to a 31-13 victory.
Run for it: Head coach Gary Kubiak knows a thing or two about a run-heavy variation of the West Coast offense. He learned the scheme from Denver head coach Mike Shanahan.
On Thursday, it was Kubiak teaching his former mentor as the Texans' offense ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns. Houston's 5.1 yards-per-carry average was the highest of the season, and Kubiak kept the rushing attack aggressive by calling reverses and outside zone stretch runs.
The Texans didn't showcase any spectacular breakaway runs, but their running backs showed patience and the ability to cut back against the grain. Ron Dayne, who had been hobbling on a sore ankle, notched 67 yards rushing and scored a touchdown, after which he struck the Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone. Rookie Darius Walker rushed for 66 yards on 13 carries in his second game of the season.
"I was just happy to be able to get in and run the ball," Dayne said. "Darius played well, and I was happy for him. We kind of looked good together out there. If I was a little more healthy, then we could've really hit them up."
Dayne impressed right tackle Eric Winston with his ability to forcefully fall forward and pick up extra yards.
"The guy is a freight train," Winston said. "He's not going to be brought down by the first guy or the second guy. You open up a hole for him and he's going to pound it. He's going to get four yards, he's always falling forward, and those are little things that are huge for us."
Also coming up big on the ground were fullback Vonta Leach and quarterback Sage Rosenfels. The quarterback scored on the opening drive of the game with a five-yard run. Leach sealed the victory with a one-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Kubiak said the Texans' rushing attack was the ultimate difference maker in the game. The offense wasn't able to stretch the field, but an efficient, controlled passing game and a consistent rushing attack proved to be a more potent scoring combination.
"I think the fact that we did settle down in the second half and give them a chance to run the ball consistently ended up being the difference in the game," Kubiak said.
O-line on point: A patchwork of offensive linemen played like seasoned veterans for the Texans on Thursday. They did not allow a sack and they helped clear the way for 158 yards rushing.
"Incredible," Walker said. "That's definitely the word for them tonight. Just incredible. They opened up so many holes for me and Ron, and protecting Sage. It was just a great overall game."
Right guard Mike Brisiel, who signed with the team last week and made his first NFL start on Sunday, has helped bring consistency to a unit that had been decimated by injuries and plagued with penalties.
"He knows what's going on, and we're just trying to help each other every way we can," Winston said. "You can't say enough about the guy. It's a pleasant surprise, but at the same time it's not really a surprise because you know what he's doing week in and week out. I'm just so happy that he got the opportunity and he's taking advantage of it."
Winston was not called for a penalty and was instrumental in creating holes for the running game, which he said could have been even more abusive if given the chance.
"I felt like we could've hung 250 on them on the rushing game," Winston said. "But sometimes you want to work your game plan, you want to do some stuff like that and we took some chances. Toward the end of the game to ice it, we settled with the run game."
Center Mike Flanagan helped direct traffic and make calls for Rosenfels, who executed a balanced offensive attack.
Defensive edge: The Texans' defense also turned in their best performance of the season, amassing five sacks and allowing only 72 yards rushing.
"During the week, we wanted to emphasize stopping the run and try to get a chance to get it third-and-long," defensive end N.D. Kalu said. "I think we executed perfectly. That's why Mario had three sacks, myself two, but who's counting. I think we had a lot of pressures executing (defensive coordinator) Richard Smith's game plan to a tee."
Smith kept the pressure on Denver quarterback Jay Cutler as Williams notched 3.5 sacks and Kalu added 1.5. And the unit didn't give an inch in the red zone where Denver converted only one of two opportunities.
"They were moving the ball on us, but we stood up and held them to the field goals," Kubiak said. "That's deflating for an offense when you're moving the ball and all of a sudden you look up at the scoreboard and you've got a 200-yard half and you've got six points. I think the way they held up on big fourth down plays gave our football team a great deal of energy and was the difference on defense."
That energy translated into tackles. Linebacker Morlon Greenwood registered a game-high 12 tackles, which gave him double-digit tackles for the fourth time this season. Defensive end Anthony Weaver recorded a season-high eight tackles, including seven solo tackles. And rookie cornerback Fred Bennett tied a career high with eight tackles, including seven solos.
Williams dominates: Williams stomped his feet. He posed like Superman. He even danced the hula. Really, he did just about whatever he wanted on the field. That's what happens when you register three sacks in one game.
"After the tackle, I did the Superman pose," Williams said. "Travis (Johnson) told me to do the hula - the Hawaiian dance. I tried to do it, but Earl Cochran jumped on my back and messed it up. I was just having fun. I was glad I was in a position where I could do it."
Williams has recorded a sack in a team-record five straight games and has 13 for the season. Williams' nine sacks in the last five games have pushed his career sack total to 17.5, making him the franchise sack leader.
"I'm just so much more comfortable now," Williams said. "As the week goes on, I take a look at the plays and see how they work. I watch film and think about how it would work if we ran this against that."
No one could be prouder of Williams than Kubiak, who saw the defensive end battle a painful foot injury and relentless media scrutiny last season. Kubiak now sees a player mature enough to make defensive calls to defensive coordinator Richard Smith and then execute them on the field.
"It's a great example of a young guy and the pressure he went through last year and the pressure that was on him as a very, very young man," Kubiak. "The most impressive thing about him last year was that he kept playing hurt and never said a word. This year, he's just been battling and battling and he got a big stage to play on tonight, and he stood up and said, 'Hey, I'm having a great year.' I'm just very proud of the kid and his effort."
To read more about Williams' record-breaking game, click here.
Quote of the game: "It was amazing to hear my name being said like that right behind our bench. One thing that was big was after that third sack, I don't know if any of you noticed, but I heard the Super Mario music. I got crunk off of that. I appreciate whoever did that. I heard that music. It was just all amazing!" – defensive end Mario Williams