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Year in Review: Defensive line


Williams, with 14 sacks in 2007, silenced plenty of doubters and left a number of opponents scratching their heads in his sophomore season.

After drafting a defensive lineman in the first round for four consecutive years, the Texans now boast one of the most promising young defensive fronts in the NFL.

Defensive end Mario Williams, 22, finished third in the NFL and set a franchise record with 14 sacks in 2007. Rookie defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, 20, set a team rookie record with 5.5 sacks. Their 19.5 combined sacks were the most by any defensive end/defensive tackle tandem in the NFL.

The 2006 No. 1 overall pick, Williams set a team record with a sack in six consecutive games (11/18-12/23), the only player to do so in the NFL in 2007. He accounted for 45.2 percent of the Texans' sacks this season, the highest percentage of team sacks for any player in the league.

With 59 tackles, 43 solo, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries and his first career touchdown, Williams twice earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors and was named AP second-team All-Pro.

The explosive Okoye was the youngest player ever drafted in the first round at the age of 19. He took home NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors in September and finished second in sacks among all AFC defensive tackles on his way to a spot on the Pro Football Weekly/PFWA All-Rookie team.

Defensive tackle Travis Johnson, the Texans' 2005 first-round selection, made vast improvements in his third season and was a key cog against the run. Johnson started 13 games and had 41 tackles, 27 solo, his first career interception and a career-high five passes defensed.

Sixth-year end Anthony Weaver played in 15 games with 13 starts and totaled 41 tackles, 32 solo. Weaver spent eight months with the Texans' training staff in the offseason recovering from surgery on his right rotator cuff and right knee, for which teammates voted him the 2007 Ed Block Courage Award winner.

Eleventh-year veteran end N.D. Kalu provided a consistent pass rush, finishing third on the team with three sacks. Fourth-year tackle Anthony Maddox, third-year linemen Earl Cochran and Tim Bulman and 15-year veteran Jeff Zgonina rounded out the reserves.

Accolades come early
Williams was a driving force in the Texans' 20-3 season-opening victory over the Chiefs, recording five tackles and a career-high two sacks along with three hurries of Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard.

He also scooped up a fumble and raced 38 yards into the end zone for his first career touchdown en route to Week 1 AP NFL Player of the Week and AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Though members of the media pointed out that Williams had more touchdowns at the time than New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, Williams refused to be drawn into any of the hype surrounding the 2006 draft.

"I don't feel like I'm on the end of the pressure," Williams said. "If pressure is applied from the critics, or media, or whatever, I'm always behind anyway. I was drafted number one, but I was never really whoever else you might try to compare me to.

"When I'm here, or even when I'm at my house, there's only 11 people that I bleed with every day. No matter what is said outside these walls, the only thing that matters here is us, our team."

A strong supporting effort had helped Williams stifle the Chiefs' attack. Kalu, playing with a cast on his broken right hand, added a sack in the game, while Johnson had an interception late to seal the Texans' victory.

And with his first professional start, Okoye became the youngest player to appear in an NFL game since 1967.

The rookie out of Louisville exploded in his second start at Carolina, harassing Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme to the tune of two sacks, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble as the Texans won 34-21. Maddox also had a sack as the Texans moved to 2-0.

Okoye kept rolling with three tackles, two hurries and a takedown of reigning Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3.

He recorded a sack in a third consecutive game when he brought down Atlanta Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington for a four-yard loss the next week.

For his play, Okoye was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month – becoming the youngest player to ever win NFL honors.

Multiple contributorsAgainst Miami, Williams flashed his pure physical talent with a jaw-dropping sack of Dolphins quarterback Cleo Lemon. On the play, while grappling with a blocker, Williams grabbed Lemon with his one free hand and slammed the quarterback to the ground.

Maddox, in one of his three starts on the season, sacked quarterback David Garrard in the Texans' road loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars, his former team.

Johnson had a season-high six tackles and continued to disrupt the opponents' passing game with two pass deflections against Tennessee.

Williams sacked Phillip Rivers in the Texans' tough loss at San Diego.

Okoye was the team's most active defensive lineman in the win at Oakland, with five tackles and two quarterback hurries. He also sacked quarterback Josh McCown for a one-yard loss, his fifth sack of the season. That broke Williams' team rookie record as the Texans headed into the bye week at 4-5.

Six in a row
The next game provided the much-anticipated first meeting between Williams and Bush.

Williams had six tackles and brought down Saints quarterback Drew Brees for a 10-yard loss, forcing a fumble on the play. Bush, meanwhile, finished with 15 carries for 34 yards, a critical lost fumble near the goal line and several dropped passes as Williams and the Texans moved to 5-5.

"Mario was out there in a whole other world," Johnson said after the game. "He was in Super Mario World. Up up, down down, left right, B A, B A, you know what I mean. He was playing original Super Mario, just enjoying himself."

'Super Mario' continued to squash the opposition the following week at Cleveland, notching another sack and forced fumble.

He then racked up three hurries, 2.5 sacks and a career-high seven tackles against Vince Young and the Titans.

Williams made it four in a row against the Bucs with a sack, two hurries and six tackles in the Texans' win. Cochran also got to Tampa Bay quarterback Luke McCown for his first career sack, while Okoye and Kalu teamed up for another sack to help the Texans to victory.

On the biggest stage of the season, Williams piled up seven tackles, four hurries and a career-high 3.5 sacks in the Texans' Thursday night win over the Denver Broncos on the NFL Network. Weaver tied a career high with eight tackles in the game. Kalu added three hurries and 1.5 sacks to give the Texans' defense a season-high five sacks.

Williams earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for the second time, becoming the only AFC defender to do so in 2007.

"This kid is a tremendous football player," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's a great young man. He keeps working. I'm just happy that good things keep coming his way. 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. I'm just very proud of the kid and his effort."

By bringing down the Colts' Manning in Week 16, Williams tallied a sack in his sixth consecutive game. Cochran, in a strong finish to the season, set a career high with five tackles, two passes defensed and his first career fumble recovery at Indy.

Bulman, signed off the practice squad late in the season, contributed two tackles in the final two games.

High hopes
The Texans hope Okoye, who seemed to struggle adapting to the length of his first professional season, will improve just as Williams did between his first and second NFL seasons.

One of the keys to the offseason will be Weaver having more time to get back to full strength. The former Baltimore Raven was hampered in his second season with the Texans by having to sit out all of OTA's and most of training camp.

"I think Anthony's health was a factor this year," Kubiak said. "Us finding some balance, whether that's Earl (Cochran) or whether it's somebody that we bring in, whether Tim Bulman becomes a player, we need to find some balance. It can't all come from 90 (Williams). People catch on to that. They find a way to offset that. Finding balance in our defensive line is very important."

With a plethora of improving, talented young defensive linemen already on the roster, that balance should come sooner rather than later.

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