Texans' run game showing signs of life

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Inch-by-inch, yard-by-yard, the Texans' running game is improving. Nobody is satisfied with the first three games. Still, the boulder has started to move, even if it's been at an agonizing pace.

The first forward grunt in the stagnant running game came in Sunday's 31-24 loss to the Jaguars. Steve Slaton ripped off a 20-yarder and had 76 yards rushing. The rushing attack accounted for 111 yards and averaged five yards per carry.

OK, so that's not going to be the lead story on SportsCenter. It is a start.

"I think we took a step forward last week," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "We got a few things going. We got into a better rhythm in the third quarter. We'd have liked to have finished with more carries. But we were behind in the game, so we had to play catch up and throw a little more than we wanted."

Slaton had a super rookie season with 1,282 rushing yards to lead all NFL rookies in 2008. It hasn't been that easy so far this season.

"The holes were better and Steve had a little more urgency to him, not that he didn't in the first two games," Shanahan said. "He definitely raised his level."

Slaton averaged 1.9 yards per carry in the season opener against the Jets on nine carries for 17 yards. He got 34 yards on 17 carries for a 2.0 average against Tennessee and finally felt a little better against Jacksonville with a 6.3 yards per carry average.

"You've got to give it everything you've got every week, and sometimes you don't always realize that you're not until you get a wakeup call," Shanahan said. "Sometimes, you need that. We got as much from him as we can get and we gave him some chances on holes and when we don't, you've still got to make some plays out of it and he did that. It will get better as it goes."

Slaton had several runs that impressed Shanahan.

"One in particular where he just hit the hole fast, didn't try to make anyone miss and he squeezed through a tight little seam and he busted out about 12 (yards)," Shanahan said. "That was the best I've seen him all year. After that, he got on a little roll."

Slaton liked the feeling of breaking past the line of scrimmage.

"It felt good. It was a long time coming," Slaton said. "We need to keep with it. We wore down Jacksonville a little bit and the running lanes opened up. That's what coach (Gary) Kubiak preaches, to keep on with the running and hitting the holes when they were there."

Slaton's key runs helped inspire the offense, right tackle Eric Winston said.

"Anything in a game can be a spark in a game," Winston said. "When you are falling into a lull and then hit a big play, things suddenly open up for you. I thought we were running the ball pretty good early in the game and then we had a couple of good runs and you could see that was a definite spark."

The offense is still misfiring too often to suit Shanahan, who vows never to say the offense has arrived.

{QUOTE}"It would be hard for me to ever say we're where we want to be," he said. "If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. You never stay the same. We've got to keep getting better each week. We definitely started worse than we wanted to the first couple of games. We played decent last week but not good enough. Whether we need to score 10 points to win or 30, we need so score more than the other team. We didn't do that last week."

Fullback Vonta Leach had a front row seat to watch the offense. He sees the mistakes dwindling.

"Last week was a little improvement," Leach said. "Steve ran the ball better. The offensive line, they blocked better, I blocked better. So, the running game, everyone has to be on the same page. In the zone blocking scheme, if somebody isn't cutting off the back side - whether it's me, the tight end or the linemen - (and) if Steve's not pressing the hole hard enough, it's not going to go. So, it's a combination of all that."

Sadly, the offense hasn't been on the same page with the running game for much of the first two games.

"We were one block here or a cutoff there from knocking a home run," Leach said. "When you have that, it's frustrating and brings your average down a whole lot. If you break one, it can turn from a 30-yard day to a 100-yard day. It's frustrating for Steve, but we're getting on the right track, so we'll just stay with it."

Guard Kasey Studdard sees the running game as the remaining link to make the offense whole.

"We need to get this team running and make this offense even better than it is," Studdard said. "We've got to buy into the same thing and be on the same page and execute what the coaches are teaching. I know we can do it. I have no doubts that we can't."

Everyone is encouraged about the running game improvement.

"Our average per carry was where we want it to be, but we didn't get a ton of touches," Winston said. "That's how it goes. We were playing catch-up and sometimes you can't have any many carries as you want. You can't ask much better than that.

"If we can keep it at 5.0 or 5.5 that would be really good."

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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