HOUSTON (AP) – Rare athleticism got Mario Williams through his first NFL season.

In year two, the top pick in last year’s draft is learning the nuances of the game, how to work around schemes designed to slow him and moving closer to being the player Houston insisted he could be. Still, the defensive end knows he must do more for the Texans to be successful.

“I want to improve what’s going on around here,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve improved, but I’ve still got to get a lot better and be more productive.”

Nine games into the season, Williams is just a half-sack away from matching his rookie total of 4, has 23 tackles and recovered a fumble for a touchdown. Coach Gary Kubiak has been impressed with him and said he’s been the most consistent player on the defensive line.

“It’s a combination of effort and I think his knowledge of the game … is getting better,” Kubiak said. “A lot of teams game-plan him, max protect on him. He’s starting to understand what they’re trying to do.”

Williams started the season strong against Kansas City with two sacks, three hurries and a 38-yard fumble return. He’s been solid since then, but hasn’t had a repeat of that game-changing performance that earned him AFC defensive player of the week.

“I expect more out of myself,” he said. “I need to have more two- or three-sack games.”

As a rookie, Williams said he was so worried about making mistakes that he became “too mechanical.” He’s gotten over that problem.

“Things are easier for me because I’m a lot more comfortable and relaxed out there,” he said. “I just understand the pro game so much more now.”

Kubiak credits much of the improvement in 2007 to defensive line coach Jethro Franklin and senior defensive assistant Frank Bush, who are both in their first seasons in Houston.

The former North Carolina State star’s time in Houston hasn’t been easy. He was booed on draft day by fans who wanted the Texans to pick Reggie Bush or Vince Young and endured endless questions and criticism throughout his rookie year.

The Texans are off this week before hosting the Saints in the sure-to-be-hyped first meeting between Bush and Williams.

He doesn’t like to talk about the draft drama and only mentions it in passing by referring to “all I went through last year.” However, those around Williams have noticed a difference in the 22-year-old.

“Mario’s got a new attitude about him in what he’s doing, and I’m just very excited about the direction that he’s heading,” Kubiak said. “I think he’s loving football and he’s working really hard at being good and that’s the key to his career.”

Now that Williams has mastered the basics of Houston’s defense, the Texans are able to experiment with how they use him. Against the Raiders on Sunday, he stood up for a handful of plays, drawing rave reviews.

“He was very quick off the ball in some of those situations,” Kubiak said. “If it’s something he feels good about and it will help his game, then we’ll do more of it.”

Changing his stance might not seem like a big deal, but for a player of his size (6-foot-7, 291 pounds) it is rare or “not normal,” as Williams called it.

“I like to stand up actually,” he said. “I feel a little bit better when I’m standing rather than down in my three-point stance. I can see the field a little better and it’s easier to see the play develop.”

Another factor in Williams’ growth has been the play of rookie defensive tackle Amobi Okoye.

Although inconsistent, the rookie’s five sacks have established him as an interior rushing threat and helped take pressure off Williams.

Despite Houston’s 4-5 start, Williams is optimistic about the possibility for a winning record, which would be a first for the young franchise.

“We’ve got a lot of football left and the biggest thing I want to do is help this team into the playoffs,” he said. “That’s something that has never even been talked about around here.”

That’s an encouraging sentiment from a player whose development will likely dictate how quickly the Texans can become contenders.

“We continue to try to get more out of him,” Kubiak said. “I think for our football team to reach another level of play, he’s got to continue to find another gear. Is his gear good now? Yeah, it’s pretty darn good, but we need Mario to become a great, great player – a Pro Bowl player for a long, long time for our organization. So we’re going to keep pushing him.”

AP-ES-11-07-07 1609EST

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