HOUSTON (AP) -The Houston Texans have no more excuses.
They're no longer a young expansion team building from the ground up and fighting for respect. Gary Kubiak is starting his third season as head coach, so he should be past the growing pains of the job after a decade working as an offensive coordinator. Same for Mario Williams, who's starting his third season and should be used to the media spotlight by now.
Houston went 8-8 in 2007, and all the key pieces are back in place for 2008. Starting the franchise's seventh season, the Texans openly say that anything shy of a winning record will go down as a major disappointment.
``Last year, we made a big step,'' said quarterback Matt Schaub. ``This year, it's time for us to make that giant leap and become a playoff contender.''
Schaub completed 66 percent of his passes last season, his first running Kubiak's offensive system. He missed some time with a shoulder injury and concussion, but he's looked sharp in the preseason.
He's got a deep receiving corps, led by All-Pro Andre Johnson, who's practicing again after a groin injury early in training camp. Johnson missed part of 2007 with a knee injury after catching 103 passes in 2006.
Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones have deep-threat speed and Kevin Walter led the team with 65 receptions last season.
``We have such good rapport and feel for one another,'' Schaub said.
The Texans ranked 11th in passing offense last season (234 yards per game), but 22nd in rushing (99 yards). Kubiak hired offensive line guru Alex Gibbs to implement the blocking schemes that helped Denver rank among the league's top rushing teams in the 1990s.
``We brought the expert in here to make sure we're doing it the right way,'' Kubiak said.
Even with Gibbs, the running game is the team's most pressing concern.
Ahman Green was a bust in his first season, missing most of 2007 with a lingering knee bruise. He came to training camp fully healed, then strained his groin on his first play in Houston's preseason opener. The 31-year-old Green, who has six career 1,000-yard seasons, won't take another live snap until at least the Texans' season opener at Pittsburgh on Sept. 7, Kubiak said.
Houston picked up Chris Brown in the offseason, but the five-year veteran missed part of training camp with a sore back. He rushed eight times for only 19 yards in the Texans' second preseason game.
Chris Taylor and Darius Walker are also in the mix, and the Texans have liked what they've seen from third-round draft pick Steve Slaton, the former West Virginia star.
``He's a player that's getting continuously better every time we go out,'' Kubiak said. ``There are still some mistakes that concern you, the closer you get to the season, but obviously, he can be a big help to us offensively.''
On defense, the Texans need a complement up front to Williams, who set a franchise record with 14 sacks in 2007, living up to the expectations as the top overall pick in 2006.
The Texans added Rosevelt Colvin, but defensive coordinator Richard Smith said following the second preseason game that he's ``a little bit rusty'' after a foot injury kept him out of the last five regular-season games for New England in 2007.
While Anthony Weaver leads the depth chart at left end, Kubiak has also used Earl Cochran and N.D. Kalu with the first unit. Cochran appeared in 15 games last season without a start, but had a sack, one more than Weaver. The 33-year-old Kalu had arthroscopic knee surgery and has surprised coaches with his energy in camp.
``We are trying to evaluate these guys and see who can get there, from a one-on-one standpoint, who can create some pressure,'' Kubiak said. ``The key right now is that we keep moving people around, because I'm not sure that we know who is going to be there opening day.''
The Texans are also hoping for a better year from defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, their first-round draft pick in 2007. Okoye made 32 tackles, including 5 1/2 sacks, as a rookie.
DeMeco Ryans anchors the linebackers after leading the Texans in tackles for the second straight season and making the Pro Bowl. Morlon Greenwood was Houston's second-leading tackler last year and Kubiak has liked what he's seen in training camp from Zac Diles, Houston's seventh-round pick in 2007.
The secondary was shaky last season, but the Texans think they've added speed by signing free agent Jacques Reeves. Cornerback Fred Bennett had three of Houston's league-low 11 interceptions last year and Jamar Fletcher and third-round pick Antwaun Molden have thrived at camp.
Kubiak has also raved about the offseason improvement of safety Will Demps. Cornerback Dunta Robinson, who suffered a devastating knee injury last November, is expected to return by midseason.
The kicking game should be solid again, with Kris Brown handling field goals and Matt Turk punting. Turk set franchise records in 2007 for yards per punt (41.7) and net average (37.9).
After a recent practice Kubiak was optimistic, but still not sure how good the Texans can be.
``To put a finger on right where we're at right now, we've had a good camp. There have been some good things,'' he said. ``We're going to end up with some new faces that are going to make us better. We've got a tremendous challenge ahead of us.''

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