- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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The Houston Texans' running game has been stagnant without Ahman Green. Injuries are preventing the team's best player, receiver Andre Johnson, from playing freely. Veteran center Steve McKinney suffered a season-ending knee injury three weeks into the season.
This is a team with issues, but protecting the quarterback is not one of them. Opponents are hitting Matt Schaub once every 20 pass attempts, giving Houston the lowest rate of any team in the league. It's one of the surprises of this young NFL season. The Texans consider it a reminder that protecting the quarterback starts with the quarterback protecting himself.
"He has to be a guy who makes quick decisions and gets rid of the ball," offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. "Some guys have no anticipation. Tom Brady does, Brett Favre does and I think Schaub is getting to be that way."
Sherman knows a quarterback can't prove much in five games. Defenses adjust once they become familiar with a young passer's tendencies. Schaub will face new challenges that way. But in considering the available indicators for evaluating an unproven quarterback's potential, the ability to make correct decisions quickly ranks near the top.
No franchise knows this better than the Texans do.
David Carr absorbed a league-high 249 sacks as Houston's starter from 2002 through last season. Sacks tell one part of the story. Quarterback hits tell another.
League stat crews began tracking QB hits last season, counting every time a defender knocked a quarterback off his feet. In 2006, a shared sack resulted in one QB hit. This season, a shared sack counts as two hits. Other small changes have broadened the definition, but the Texans have still reduced their hit numbers dramatically.
The category remains unofficial, but it's helpful in determining how quickly quarterbacks process information, and which ones could be more vulnerable to injuries than even sack numbers might suggest. Quarterbacks who take a lot of hits won't last, even if they aren't getting sacked every time.
Schaub has taken eight hits all season, fewest among quarterbacks with five games played. Carr took 18 hits during the first five weeks last season, even with a bye week.
Quarterbacks don't need flashy 40-yard-dash times to avoid the rush. Mobile ones sometimes take more hits, holding the ball too long as they try to make plays with their legs.
David Garrard has provided Jacksonville with an upgrade over plodding former starter Byron Leftwich. He has a passer rating in triple digits and a three-game winning streak, but the Jaguars are also taking a league-high 6.5 quarterback hits per game. That average is two more per game than Leftwich took through five games last season.
Philadelphia (6.3), Detroit (5.8), St. Louis (5.8), Cincinnati (5.8), Minnesota (5.3), Miami (5.3), Atlanta (5.2) and the New York Jets (5.2) are also taking more than five QB hits per game. Those teams have a combined record of 8-29.
Oakland's Andrew Walter had no chance against the rush last season, but this season the Raiders rank third in fewest QB hits per pass attempt.
The schedule has provided another big assist. The Raiders opened last season against San Diego, Baltimore, Cleveland and San Francisco. While the Chargers and Ravens combined for 18 QB hits against Oakland, the Raiders' early 2007 schedule served up Denver and Miami -- teams with 15 fewer combined QB hits (21) than league-leading New England (36).
The Patriots are taking three QB hits per game and dishing out 7.2. No team in the league comes close to that kind of differential, but Schaub's ability to get rid of the football makes the Texans more competitive than their talent might otherwise allow. Sherman recognizes what he sees.
"Favre was unique in that the first guy never hit him," said Sherman, Favre's coach in Green Bay from 2000 to 2005. "He had a sixth sense to make the first guy miss. Schaub is pretty instinctive that way, too."
Building an offensive line with multiple Pro Bowlers is one way to keep a quarterback on his feet. Sending draft choices to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for Schaub saved Houston the trouble. And while it's unwise to declare a guy the real deal after five games, Schaub looks like a good fit.
The Texans are helping him. They generally limit him to only four or five seven-step drops per game. Most of those deep drops will come on third down or off play-action. Schaub tends to throw five or six times off three-step drops. The rest of Houston's pass plays tend to feature five-step drops and plenty of play-action.
The Texans remain a bit enigmatic on offense. Green's injury status partly explains why they have averaged only 2.5 yards per carry on first down, worse than every team but San Francisco and Kansas City. That number doesn't figure to grow against the Jagaurs on Sunday.
On the flip side, Houston somehow averages better than 8.8 yards per pass attempt on second down, a figure trailing only New England's 11.0.
The Texans hung with Indianapolis, lost to Atlanta and then barely beat Miami last week despite 10 plays Sherman categorized as "explosive": 16-plus yards for a pass or 12-plus yards for a run.
One thing has remained consistent: Opponents scarcely touch Schaub. Give the line credit. But don't overlook the guy under center.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Quarterbacks who take a lot of hits won't last, even if they aren't getting sacked every time, Mike Sando writes.