It takes certain traits to earn a spot on the Texans' offensive line. "You need intelligence, and you have to be able to run," says left tackle Duane Brown of Houston's vaunted cut-blocking scheme, a key component in the team's first trip to the playoffs in its 10-year history. Not to mention, left guard Wade Smith says, "you have to have guys who are nasty."
A fierce ground game has kept the Texans on the move despite season-ending injuries to Pro Bowl pass rusher Mario Williams and quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, and the limited availability of receiver Andre Johnson, who missed nine games while battling injuries to both hamstrings. Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined to rush for 2,166 yards this season on 4.8 yards per carry, taking pressure off rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina who took over the starting job in Week 13. If Houston can forge a successful rushing attack in the postseason, Yates could become the 10th rookie quarterback to win a playoff game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
"He continues to get better," Texans coach Gary Kubiak says of Yates. "And for where we're heading, he needs to."
The 6'4", 220-pound Yates began the season bringing apple fritters to the training facility every Friday (he still does), and he earned teamwide respect both as a practice partner for the convalescing Johnson and as a clutch performer in a last-second 20--19 win at Cincinnati in Week 14. Still, Houston needs to keep Yates's workload light in the rematch with the Bengals on Saturday, especially with the rookie nursing a sore left shoulder from the season finale. "If we do our job, we will run the ball 40, 50 times," Smith says. "We don't want to drop back and throw it 50 times. For a defense, it's more demoralizing if someone is running the ball down your throat. Those four- or five-yard runs are going to turn into 15, 20 and 50-yard runs."
The Texans' grind-it-out offense and pressure defense seem perfectly built for the rigors of the postseason, no matter the venue or the opponent. Though Houston, which rushed for 144 yards against the Bengals in December, is new to the playoffs, its methods are time-tested.
"When you can run the football, you can impose your will," Smith says. "It's like taking your opponent's manhood away."
Texans with postseason experience, of the 48 on the team's active roster. Four—QB Jake Delhomme, DB Danieal Manning, K Neil Rackers and DE Antonio Smith—have played in a Super Bowl.
Places Houston jumped in the total defense rankings, from 30th in 2010 to second in '11, under new coordinator Wade Phillips. The Texans' D was third against the run and fourth against the pass.
ON THE SPOT
A year ago Connor Barwin was a backup 4--3 defensive end who didn't play a snap after dislocating his right ankle in the opener. Since replacing the injured Mario Williams in Week 5 this season, Barwin has become a linchpin of new coordinator Wade Phillips's 3--4 defense, an outside linebacker with 11½ sacks. Now opponents are devoting extra blockers to the 6'4", 264-pound Barwin or having their QB shorten his drops and make quick throws. "You have to recognize that and get your hands up," said Barwin, who had seven pass deflections. "And then when they keep guys in to protect, you've got to beat the protection and then cover the guys up inside."
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (FOSTER)
LOAD BEARING With two quarterbacks sidelined and an All-Pro receiver hobbled, the rugged Foster will have to carry the Texans' attack.
TOM DIPACE (BARWIN)