HOUSTON — The Houston Texans are opening training camp with a few questions to answer.
How will the right side of the offensive line hold up without stalwarts Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel? Who can emerge as dependable receivers behind Andre Johnson? How will Johnson and quarterback Matt Schaub hold up?
The most pressing question may not be answered until season's end — how will the Texans handle higher-than-ever expectations?
The Texans reported for training camp on Friday, a trendy pick to make a run to the Super Bowl and it's easy to see why. Houston had the league's second-best defense in 2011, Arian Foster stamped himself as one of the NFL's elite running backs and Schaub and Johnson are healthy again.
"I think everybody would agree with me on the team that expectations for us can be no lower than getting to the Super Bowl," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "Everybody should have that goal. If you don't have that goal, then it's like a defeatist type of mindset."
Houston went 10-6 last season, won its division and the franchise's first playoff game before losing to Baltimore in the divisional round. Now, the Texans say they're ready to embrace the pressure of being a marked team.
"We have the right frame of mind and the right leadership on this team to attack those type of environments," Schaub said. "To get to where we want to go, you have to go through those things. You have to go on the road in tough environments, and win those types of games."
Schaub says his surgically repaired right foot is fully healed. After starting all 16 games in 2009 and '10, Schaub missed the final six games and the playoffs last season with a fractured Lisfranc joint.
Johnson, meanwhile, says he's been running routes for Schaub for "the past few weeks." He says he'll be "full-go" when practices begin following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in May. Johnson sat out nine regular-season games last season with hamstring injuries.
Johnson turned 31 on July 11 and he's heard from outsiders that he's getting old and his best years are behind him — some added incentive for this season.
"I know I can still play at a high level, I know I can still put up big numbers," he said. "It's definitely motivation. It's fun, I laugh at it."
Kevin Walter is back as the No. 2 receiver, but Houston drafted DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, then cut Jacoby Jones in May as they restock the depth at receiver. The Texans re-signed Bryant Johnson, who caught six passes in 16 games last season, and coach Gary Kubiak has liked what he's seen from Lestar Jean, an undrafted free agent in 2011.
Schaub says he needs to take on the responsibility of helping the receivers learn Kubiak's complex offense and develop the kind of chemistry he has with Johnson.
"Coaches can do so much, and explain so much in meetings and on the field," Schaub said. "Ultimately, we're the ones out there on the field, between the lines playing and in the huddle."
The Texans finished second in rushing offense (153 yards per game), led the league in time of possession per game (32 minutes, 41 seconds) and ranked 12th in sacks allowed (33) behind an experienced offensive line. Houston surprisingly cut Winston, who'd started 87 consecutive games at right tackle, and lost Brisiel in free agency. Rashad Butler will move into Winston's spot, and Antoine Caldwell will take over Brisiel's starting role.
Butler played in 16 games in 2009 and '10 before missing most of last season with an elbow injury, while Caldwell has started only 13 games for Houston over the past three seasons. Derek Newton, a seventh-round draft pick in 2011, will push Butler for playing time and the Texans drafted 6-foot-5, 346-pound Brandon Brooks to challenge Caldwell.
"Me, Rashad and the rest of the guys, we all know we've got work to do," Caldwell said. "It's back to the drawing board for us. Every year is a new year and that's the way the whole group is going to approach it. We've got to make our identity for this team, for this offensive line, and that's what we're looking forward to doing."
Right now, the team seems to be defined by its defense, which made one of the biggest statistical improvements in NFL history last season under first-year coordinator Wade Phillips. Houston held 11 opponents below 20 points and set franchise records in sacks (44) and fewest points allowed (278).
The defense isn't afraid to say it wants to be No. 1 this season, and that goes for the entire team, as well.
"Our front seven is as good as any in the NFL," outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. "Our offense is talented across the board. Everybody is worried about our right side of the line. I think those guys are going to be just fine. I don't think expectations are too high. I think they're right where they should be."
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