Salaam continued to impress the Texans' coaching staff with his second successful year as the team's starting left tackle.
The Texans' offensive line took another drastic step forward in head coach Gary Kubiak's second season in Houston. After cutting its 68 sacks allowed in 2005 to 43 in 2006, the Texans this season held opponents to a franchise-record 22 sacks, sixth-fewest in the NFL.
The improved protection gave quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels time to throw for 3,925 yards and 24 touchdowns, both team records.
The 21-sack decrease from 2006 to 2007 was the third-best improvement for any line in the NFL, behind only Cleveland and Oakland.
Tenth-year left tackle Ephraim Salaam, second-year right tackle Eric Winston and sixth-year left guard Chester Pitts started all 16 games.
Pitts, drafted by Houston in 2002, is the only player to start all 96 games in Texans franchise history and just one of just seven NFL offensive linemen to start every game from 2002 to the present.
Steve McKinney began the regular season at starting center but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. Mike Flanagan stepped in to start the final 13 games.
Sixth-year right guard Fred Weary had one of his strongest pro seasons, but his year also ended abruptly due to a leg injury in Week 12.
Practice-squad call-up Mike Brisiel impressed at starting right guard in the final four games, staking a claim to playing time in 2008.
Uncertain beginningsThe Texans thought that second-year offensive tackle Charles Spencer would recover from the broken leg he suffered in 2006 and be ready for action in 2007. When that didn't happen, the 6-4, 352-pound Spencer was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List in the hopes that he would be able to return after Week 8.
Salaam, brought to Houston to mentor young linemen and groom a future starting left tackle, was called upon to take Spencer's spot in the starting lineup for the second consecutive season.
The center position was up for grabs through the final preseason contest with a heated battle between McKinney and Flanagan.
McKinney won out prior to the season opener against Kansas City.
Smooth start quickly derailedThe Texans' offensive line started well in the first two games, allowing only two sacks and paving the way for an average of 114 team rushing yards as the Texans totaled 54 points in back-to-back season-opening wins.
That progress was diverted in Week 3, when McKinney injured his left knee against the Colts. The 10-year veteran, who had played in every game in Texans history to that point, battled through the injury to stay in the game before eventually having to leave in the fourth quarter.
It turned out McKinney was done for the season with a torn ACL, thrusting Flanagan into the starting lineup.
The Texans struggled in the next several games, failing to top 100 yards rushing four straight times.
Back on track
With an unchanging starting rotation, the line soon developed a renewed chemistry.
Beginning in Week 8, the Texans reeled off three consecutive games with more than 100 yards rushing: at San Diego (115), at Oakland (a season-best 178) and against New Orleans (103).
In Week 9, Rashad Butler began serving as the primary backup to both tackles after impressing coaches and teammates in practice. He maintained that role for the rest of the season.
Consistency interruptedTwo weeks later, disaster struck in the December divisional showdown at Tennessee.
Weary broke the tibia in his right leg late in the first half. Before the game ended, his backup, center/guard Chris White, also was lost for the season with a knee injury. Rookie guard Kasey Studdard finished the game in White's place.
After the game, the Texans signed Brisiel from the practice squad.
"(Weary) means a lot to our team," Kubiak said. "Our guys really respect him. He's the first on the field, the last one to leave. He's played really well for us. We're going to really, really miss him."
Following a competitive week of practice, Brisiel earned the starting right guard spot over Studdard. The second-year former practice squad player had never played a snap in an NFL game.
"It's exciting," he said. "It's a big-time opportunity for me. I just dreamed of this day for so long, and now it's here. I've just got to make the most of it."
Good as newBrisiel was a pleasant surprise in the stretch run of the season, helping Houston to some of its best offensive outputs as he held firm to his starting gig.
In the final three games, the patched-up offensive line allowed only one sack. The Texans also had their second- and third-best rushing days of the season, compiling 158 yards against Denver and 170 against Jacksonville.
More in store
Several young players gave a glimpse of what promises to be a competitive offseason along the offensive line.
In limited snaps in three games, Studdard showed a tenacity that coaches loved. Brandon Frye, one of the most athletic linemen in the 2007 draft class, rotated between tackle and guard and was on the 53-man roster by season's end.
White was valuable as a multi-position backup and should be an asset again once he recovers.
Spencer never made it to the field in 2007, but Kubiak expects him to be ready in time for the Texans' offseason program in late March. If Spencer can return, he and Butler give the Texans two intriguing young tackle prospects with great frames.
But the Texans will continue to search for a franchise-type left tackle that Salaam can groom into an NFL starter.
"Everybody in this league's looking for somebody who can protect the quarterback's blind side for many, many years, and we're no different at this point," Kubiak said.
How about that?In assessing the group's successful year, Kubiak started by dishing out credit to the position coach.
"I'm going to tell you what, John Benton, the job he did this year … he's done a tremendous job," Kubiak said. "He's bringing along young players. He's great with the older guys."
It also helped that the Texans only had to use three different starting lineups, compared to eight in 2006. The lineup that finished the season received high praises from their head coach.
"Ephraim (Salaam), the way he played all year long," Kubiak said. "Chester (Pitts) was out there every snap, has become a better player in the last two years. Every time I've been around him, he's gotten better.
"Mike Flanagan was healthy. Played extremely well; held the group together. Brisiel is a guy who got one opportunity and, boy, did he take advantage of it. He's going to be hard to get out of there.
"And then I think Eric (Winston) has become a pro. We're in the last week of the season, he had a back problem, he went out there and played every play. He's got it figured out."
The linemen appreciated finally having some heat off their backs after enduring endless criticism in the Texans' first five sack-filled seasons.
"How about that?" Salaam said to the media following the season. "The first thing you guys asked me when I came in here at the beginning of camp was the sacks. Now, nobody is even talking about it. We only gave up 22 sacks and next year we'll try to improve on that and be in the teens.
"How about that? From two years ago allowing 68 to 22."