HOUSTON -- The pieces seem to be in place. All the Houston Texans have to do is go out and prove they’re championship contenders on the field.
Houston had a breakthrough season in 2011, winning the AFC South and then battering Cincinnati in the expansion franchise’s first playoff game. The magical year ended in Baltimore, and the Texans walked off the field feeling like they were a handful of plays from advancing even farther.
Every key player is back, running back Arian Foster and left tackle Duane Brown signed long-term deals and the Texans think they filled most of the gaps through the draft and free agency.
"I appreciate the fact that people are saying a lot of good things about us," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think we’re going to be a good football team, but we want to be great and I think we’ve got some work to do."
Wade Phillips also returns to guide a defense that made one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NFL history in 2011, ranking second in 2011 (285.7 yards per game). Career sacks leader Mario Williams bolted for big money in Buffalo and linebacker DeMeco Ryans was dealt to Philadelphia, but Houston used its first-round draft pick on Whitney Mercilus and signed veteran Bradie James, who’s well-versed in the defense after playing for Phillips in Dallas.
Kubiak had questions about the team’s depth at tight end, fullback and in the secondary heading into the final preseason game. Otherwise, the Texans have no reason not to aim for the biggest prize of all in 2012.
"We took the next step as a team," quarterback Matt Schaub said at the start of training camp, "and the only next step after that is to get to the Super Bowl and win it. So anything short of that will be a disappointment in our eyes."
Schaub fractured his right Lisfranc joint in Week 10 last year, the most crippling of several in-season injuries. He completed 15 of 18 passes in the third preseason game in New Orleans and seems to have rekindled his chemistry with Andre Johnson. The five-time Pro Bowl receiver is also healthy again after missing nine games last year with injuries to both hamstrings.
"You can see them, in practice, starting to come together a little bit," Kubiak said. "That’s very important because that gives confidence to our whole offense."
Johnson turned 31 in July, and Kevin Walter enters his seventh season in Houston. The depth behind those two has been bolstered by the emergence of Lestar Jean, an undrafted free agent in 2011, and fourth-round draft pick Keshawn Martin. DeVier Posey, a third-round pick, has been slower to develop.
Backup tight end Garrett Graham sparkled in the first three preseason games, sharing the team lead in receptions (seven) with Jean and Martin. Graham, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, looks to be a capable backup to Owen Daniels, who’s back for a seventh season.
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison says versatile fullback James Casey "can play darn near everywhere," and Foster and Ben Tate offer one of the league’s most potent 1-2 punches in the backfield. Foster rushed for 1,224 yards last season and Tate ran for 942.
Houston’s offensive line paved the way for the duo, and the Texans finished second in rushing (153 yards per game). Right tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel signed with other teams in free agency, and Kubiak staged competitions for replacements in the preseason.
Derek Newton, a seventh-round pick in 2011, started the third preseason game at the tackle spot ahead of Rashad Butler, who spent most of last season on injured reserve with a triceps injury.
"Newton’s a big, powerful guy," Kubiak said. "He’s younger than Butler, he’s probably making a few more mistakes than Butler, when it’s all said and done. Butler’s played a lot more football than Newton has, he’s been in this league a lot longer, went against some good players."
Antoine Caldwell seems to have the edge at right guard over Brandon Brooks, a third-round draft pick. Center Chris Myers made his first Pro Bowl last year, Wade Smith is back for a third season in Houston at left guard and Brown anchors the left side after signing a six-year contract.
"We’ve seen a lot as an offensive line but the continuity, having new faces, isn’t the main problem," Brown said. "We’re all still pretty young players and have to get better individually and continue to grow as a unit."
The defense, meanwhile, made the third-largest single-season improvement since 1970, allowing 91 fewer yards than it did in 2010. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning provided instant stability in the secondary, and rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed made immediate impacts.
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin made 11 ½ sacks, defensive end Antonio Smith added a career-high 6 ½ sacks and defensive end Tim Jamison has stood out in the preseason with three sacks.
"The defense is never where you want it to be, you always want to make it better," Smith said. "Wade’s got us on the track of doing that. I think each and every week we won’t be satisfied with where we are. I’m not satisfied at all if the defense ain’t at its best."