After finishing with a franchise-best 9-7 record last season and missing the playoffs on the last Sunday of the season, the Texans believe they are destined for their first postseason appearance.
Armed with a new three-year contract that runs through 2012, coach Gary Kubiak enters his fifth season on a mission to do something for the first time in franchise history: compile a winning record in the AFC South.
Last season, the Texans finished 5-3 record on the road and went 3-1 against the NFC for a third consecutive season. But once again, they struggled in their division, finishing 1-5. "We've got to find a way to be better in our division," Kubiak says. "I don't have any excuses. That'll be a big focus for us."
Offense: New coordinator Rick Dennison inherits a unit that ranked fourth in total offense last year, including first in passing and 30th in rushing. Dennison, a longtime offensive line coach at Denver, will employ the same scheme the Texans used under former coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who joined his dad, Mike, in Washington. The running game relies on backs who can excel in a one-cut zone while Houston's play-action passing game emphasizes the bootleg, short drops and a quick release. With Dennison and new quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, the Texans expect Schaub to be even better this season. But if he gets hurt, it could be trouble. Backup Dan Orlovsky didn't see any time in 2009.
The running game was the biggest disappointment last season, ranking 30th with an average of 92.2 yards a game. After Steve Slaton's tremendous rookie year, the running game seemed to be the least of the coaches' worries heading into 2009. But Houston lost starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel early and Slaton's play declined. He also developed a fumble problem before suffering a neck injury that required surgery.
Defense: The Texans let cornerback Dunta Robinson leave as a free agent, so 2010 first-round pick Kareem Jackson will battle veteran Jacques Reeves to replace him. Reeves, who suffered a broken leg in camp before the 2009 season, never returned to 100 percent, and it showed in his performance. Jackson was a shutdown corner for BCS champion Alabama last season and looks to be NFL-ready.
The team received a significant blow in the offseason when it learned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing would be sidelined for the first four games after violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. He likely will be replaced at strongside linebacker by Xavier Adibi, a finesse player known for his speed. When Cushing returns, expect him to be a beast against the run, as he likes to hit hard and hurt ballcarriers. He tied for the team lead with four interceptions and, though he doesn't rush much, Cushing still recorded four sacks as a rookie.
Connor Barwin, DE. Barwin has the athleticism and nonstop motor that could catapult him to the 10-sack range after he registered four as a rookie behind Mario Williams. Last season was his second year on defense after making the transition from tight end in college.
"He's playing stronger at the point of attack, and he's a lot quicker off the ball, which will help him as a pass rusher. He's really shown a lot of improvement in areas we need him to improve in. Obviously, he looks a lot better than he did this time last season, but he's still got a long way to go. The more reps he gets, the faster he'll improve."
— defensive line coach Bill Kollar
"I thought they were right on the verge of becoming a 10- or 11-win team last year, and I'm almost sure of it this year. They were in every game except one (a 17-point loss to the Jets). They lost a lot of close ones (six defeats by eight or fewer points). And they did that with a lot of injuries (six starters on injured reserve). They did it without a running game. I'm certain Kubiak will make the running game a whole lot better because he's always prided himself on running the ball, at least he did in Denver. …
"The biggest improvement on offense was (Matt) Schaub. He threw for close to 5,000 yards (last year). (Linebacker) Brian Cushing was a huge addition to their defense. Not only was he a monster, but you could see the way (his play) rubs off on his teammates. If they ever get Mario (Williams) to play hard on every play, there's no telling how good he'll be and how much better he'll make their defense."
But it will likely come down to how the Texans perform in the AFC South, where they've yet to dominate. Beating division favorites Indianapolis and Tennessee at least once during the season would mean a big boost in confidence and a hopeful playoff appearance.
QB: Matt Schaub, Dan Orlovsky
FB: Vonta Leach, James Casey
RB: Steve Slaton, Arian Foster
LT: Duane Brown, Rashad Butler
LG: Kasey Studdard, Mike Brisiel
C: Chris Myers, Wade Smith
RG: Antoine Caldwell, Chris White
RT: Eric Winston, Rashad Butler
TE: Owen Daniels, Joel Dreessen
WR: Andre Johnson, Jacoby Jones
WR: Kevin Walter, David Anderson
LE: Antonio Smith, Tim Bulman
LT: Amobi Okoye, DelJuan Robinson
RT: Shaun Cody, Earl Mitchell
RE: Mario Williams, Connor Barwin
SLB: Brian Cushing, Xavier Adibi
MLB: DeMeco Ryans, Kevin Bentley
WLB: Zac Diles, Darryl Sharpton
LCB: Glover Quin, Brice McCain
SS: Bernard Pollard, Dominique Barber
FS: Eugene Wilson, Troy Nolan
RCB: Kareem Jackson, Jacques Reeves
K: Kris Brown
P: Matt Turk
KR: Jacoby Jones
PR: Jacoby Jones
LS: Joel Dreessen
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Woodson back to the beginning
ProFootballTalk: Charles Woodson's career has come full circle after inking a deal with the team that drafted him. But was the deal done out of desperation on Woodson's part?
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.