AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — Andre Johnson has long been the star of the Houston Texans and his steady play has often been the only bright spot for this oft-struggling franchise.
Everyone in the organization knew what a great player he was, but it wasn’t until he returned after missing almost two months with an injury that many realized how his presence made the entire team better.
Players on offense and defense raved how having Johnson back in uniform gave the team a newfound swagger. Johnson, who sprained his knee Sept. 16, had six catches for 120 yards in Sunday’s win over the Saints.
Guard Chester Pitts knows the team like few others as the only player to have started each game since Houston’s inception in 2002.
“He’s the heart and soul of this team,” Pitts said. “So goes Dre, so goes the Texans. He’s that good of a player. He affects the game that much.”
The Texans are 5-0 in games where Johnson has played going back to last season, but lost five of seven while he was injured. Quiet and humble, the two-time Pro Bowler is uncomfortable when told his teammates attribute much of their success on Sunday to him.
“I don’t think just because I’m playing that other guys are doing something different,” Johnson said. “But if that’s how it’s seen, then hey, I’ll pick my play up even more so they can pick their play up even more. So it’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.”
Johnson is averaging 127 yards this season and 12 of his 20 receptions have been for first downs. A 100-yard game on Sunday would give him four straight 100-yard receiving games for the first time in his career.
The Texans trailed 3-0 early against New Orleans after a fumble by Owen Daniels. Johnson soon changed that. His first catch since September was for a 73-yard touchdown that put Houston ahead 10-7.
“It just reconfirmed that if we do our job they couldn’t stop us,” offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam said. “That lifted everybody up. The defense came out and they played better. We came out and we played better as an offensive unit.”
The Texans defense played perhaps its best game against New Orleans, allowing just 10 points, with none coming after halftime. It was the fewest points they’d allowed since a 20-3 win over Kansas City in the season opener.
While everyone seems to get a lift when Johnson plays, Matt Schaub is the player who gets the biggest benefit. In the three games Johnson has played, Schaub has thrown five touchdowns and just one interception. In the six games he played without Johnson, he managed two touchdowns and had six interceptions.
“It’s so much easier,” Schaub said. “He just brings a presence to our huddle and to our offense as a unit. It opens up our run game because they’re taking another guy out of the box and having to help out at corner. It just changes the complexion of what we can do as well as it dictates the defense that they have to account for playmaker of his caliber.”
Johnson, who normally plays almost all the offensive snaps, was limited to about 35 plays against the Saints. He said it was a relief to come back from his injury with a 100-yard game and the performance gave him confidence he is getting back to his old self.
Coach Gary Kubiak expects to increase his playing time this weekend against the Browns. That’s not good news for Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel.
“It’s going to be tough for us to get ready for it because he’s one of those guys that makes you guys better,” Crennel said. “That’s the kind of ability that you guys have been missing for seven games. If you had that ability on the field, your record is probably a different record.”
Houston’s 5-5 record is a franchise best after 10 games. Johnson, who had missed just three games in his career before this injury, believes it could have been better if he hadn’t missed so much time. He recalled a moment during Houston’s 38-36 loss to Tennessee where he was particularly agitated.
“I can just remember being on the sidelines and being really frustrated,” Johnson said. “Because I just felt like if I could be out there helping my teammates things could probably be different.”
After going through four losing seasons in Houston, Johnson is optimistic this season can be a success.
“You have your bad times and we’ve had our bad times around here and now it’s time for the good things to happen,” Johnson said. “So we’re just going to go out and hopefully keep playing good football like we have been the past two games and with these last six games, we’ll see what happens.”