Here are five things to watch when the Houston Texans open their 2013 regular season at San Diego on Monday Night Football.
1. Safety First- Future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ed Reed signed as a free agent with the Texans on March 22, but injured his hip in the weeks that followed. After surgery in early May, the free safety's been on the comeback trail and is a bit of a question mark for Monday night. If he's active, it'll be interesting to see how many snaps he gets.
“We’re going to be smart about it," Reed said Friday. "It probably will be a decision that’s made right before the game. That’s the way this has been going. Kind of 50-50 right now honestly."
In his place, keep an eye on third-year free safety Shiloh Keo, who will start against the Chargers. Keo started the first three preseason games while Reed was on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Keo was a special teams standout in 2012, and played sparingly at safety towards the end of the regular season and playoffs. But the growth he's shown this offseason and preseason has been impressive to head coach Gary Kubiak.
“He’s just a much improved player through opportunities and repetition," Kubiak said. "He has much more confidence in what we’re doing and had a real good preseason."
Whether it's Reed or Keo starting, also check out second-rounder D.J. Swearinger, who's logged hte most snaps on defense during the four preseason games. He'll play quite a bit on passing downs.
2. Foster's Carries- Due to calf and back injuries, Arian Foster was on the PUP list for the bulk of training camp, and didn't suit up in any of the Texans' four preseason contests. But the fifth-year pro has maintained that he's fresh and set for the opener at San Diego.
“I feel like I’m game ready to carry the load," Foster said Thursday. "It’s game one. I’ll get my feet wet this game. However the game plays, that’s how it’s going to play. But I feel like I’m game ready.”
Kubiak said that Foster won't get "30 carries", or a heavy workload in his return from injury. Especially with Ben Tate in the fold and looking as fresh as he did in the third preseason game against the Saints. In that matchup, Tate rumbled for 74 yards and a score on just 11 carries.
Additionally, Foster played a couple years of high school ball at San Diego's Mission Bay High School. His number has since been retired, so his first opportunity to play at Qualcomm Stadium is an occasion about which Foster is excited.
“It’s going to be fun," Foster said. "Every high school kid in San Diego wants to play at Qualcomm. It’s going to be fun.”
3. Hey J.J.- 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt played a grand total of two snaps during the preseason.
Will all that rest make him fresher? Will the lack of reps make him rusty? Either way, Watt embraces the challenge facing him and the defense in San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers.
“It’s my job to get to the quarterback," Watt said. "I guess, if he’s thinking about me every single play and looking for me every single play, that’s one moment where his mind is not on something else, so that’s good. I love a challenge. I love it when people throw stuff at me, throw different things at me. It’s a great opportunity.”
With 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defensed and 23 tackles for loss in 2012, Watt set a goal of surpassing 20-20-20 in those three categories this season.
4. Inside Job- How will the inside linebacker combo of starters Brian Cushing and Joe Mays look on Monday night? Cushing is returning from a torn ACL that kept him out of the final 11 games of 2012. Mays, meanwhile, was done for the 2012 campaign when fractured his left fibula at the end of Ocotber.
Both have looked crisp in games, though, and the defense has been energized by the return of it's leader in Cushing. The duo will have its hands full with running back Ryan Mathews and tight end Antonio Gates.
5. Crick starts- Defensive end Antonio Smith will not play because of suspension. He'll be back for Week 2, so second-year end Jared Crick will start in Smith's place. Watt however, is confident in the former Cornhusker's ability.
"Crick’s going to play great," Watt said. "He had a great camp, great preseason."
Crick doesn't just have the trust of his teammate in Watt. Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips are both confident in him to
“I’ve come a long way and I’m proud of that," Crick said. "I’ve put in a lot of work to get into this position, but it’s just week one. I’ve got a long ways to go yet. I’m going to go out and just play football.”