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Unheralded line drives Texans' offensive success


Only at the third or fourth tier of postgame analysis do they get mentioned. First comes the quarterback, followed by running backs and receivers and then, if there is enough time, "let's hear it for that offensive line."

In the past two seasons, the Texans' O-line has blocked for the NFL's leading rusher (2010) and protected for the NFL's top passer (2009). Throw in blocking for a top-four offense in each of the last three seasons and yet, none of the current starters has been to a Pro Bowl.

The rest of the offense knows that nothing moves unless their teammates up front are doing their jobs. They make sure the offensive line gets mentioned.

"They deserve a lot, because for a group like that to stick together for this many years, it helps me," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "It helps the running backs. They don't have to communicate as much as other offensive lines do."

Center Chris Myers, guards Wade Smith and Mike Brisiel and tackles Duane Brown and Eric Winston have been together long enough to know that a certain twitch or hand movement isn't meant for swatting a fly.

"They just know, based on looks, who's helping and where their help is and everything like that," Schaub said. "I know what they're doing as well. It just helps the whole group because they are so cohesive in what they're doing."

Arian Foster sat out the season-opening 34-7 victory over Indianapolis. Still, the offensive line opened inviting holes for Derrick Ward, Ben Tate and Steve Slaton. Tate rushed for 116 yards in his first regular-season game.

Offensive line coach John Benton has been with the Texans since 2006. He worked under Mike Sherman, now head coach at Texas A&M, and Alex Gibbs. For the past three seasons, control of the offensive line has been his.

Coach Gary Kubiak calls him creative. His players like his approach.

"I think he's been that consistent cog in the machine, since I've been here," tackle Eric Winston said. "Through a lot of different assistant head coaches or whatever you want to say, he's been that guy and that steady hand I think around this offense and especially around the offensive line for so long."

Kubiak credits Benton and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison with helping get the Texans' offense ready for gameday.

"These guys, Rick and John, they understand how to protect the quarterback," Kubiak said. "They help me a great deal, 'Hey Kube, keep us in this formation, keep us in this type of protection, this will give us the best chance to handle their front this week.' They work very, very well together."

Dennison came over from Denver in 2010 to guide the overall offense.

"I don't think you ever have enough of those minds because so much of the game offensively, you can't do a darn thing if you can't block people," Kubiak said. "If you can't protect the quarterback and you can't block people in schemes, you better start with that premise.

"It's easy to draw up all the routes and all these great things that you want to do, but if you can't get the plays off, it doesn't matter."

The entire starting line returned from last year, along with backups Rashad Butler and Antoine Caldwell. Aside from Smith (a key free agent addition in 2010), this same starting group has essentially been together since 2008.

Brown is becoming a force at left tackle.

"Duane's quietly become really a heck of player," Kubiak said. "We're letting him play about 10 to 12 pounds bigger than he did last year. I think it's helped him, and any time you get out of a game against Dwight (Freeney) and you don't give up a bad play, that's a good day.

"We play good up front as a group, but Duane's improving every day."

Brown is feeling the comfort of having the same coach and same teammates.

"It's been a work in progress with us over the years, just all of us getting on the same page, but now it's just second nature," Brown said. "We've been together so long that we can bring different things that we see to him (Benton), and whenever he sees something different, he brings it to us and we just feed off each other."

Myers keeps the offensive line on the same page, but others are familiar with the center position as well.

"I think that's a huge thing," Schaub said. "When Wade came in, we had him running some center (in practice), and Mike has always been a fill-in center for us. It just helps having them having made calls in the past. They know what calls are coming before Chris actually tells them.

"So from that standpoint, that helps even the tackles, because they have basically a center right next to them rather than having to listen to Chris the entire time."

Benton has pounded home the Texans' zone blocking scheme to his linemen.

"We don't really run that many different plays," Benton said. "We try and vary those up and manipulate the defense as best we can and put ourselves in favorable situations."

If they can continue to do just that, the Texans could be following their offensive line to another dominant season offensively.

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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