Here are five things to watch when the Texans (10-1, 3-0 AFC South) take on the Tennessee Titans (4-7, 0-3 AFC South) in Week 13 at LP Field in Nashville. Kickoff is Sunday at noon CT.
1. New-look LBs: The Texans will have a completely different starting linebacker corps on Sunday than they had at the beginning of the season. They’ll likely use three-man rotations at outside and inside linebacker.
Mercilus, a first-round raft pick from Illinois, is making his first-career start. The 26th overall pick in the draft has three sacks
and two forced fumbles in limited action this season. He led the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011. Special teams standout
Barwin is comfortable on the strongside, having started there for the first six games of last season. He’ll have more responsibility to drop back into coverage but will now be matched up with right tackles, tight ends and running backs when he does rush the passer.
Dobbins has been battling a shoulder injury but is expected to play after sitting out last week. Sharpton is two games removed from the Physically Unable to Perform list but has played well since his return. Ruud, who played for the Titans in 2011, broke up two passes in the fourth quarter in Week 12 while filling in for James.
2. CB shuffle: With
Joseph is missing his second consecutive game with a hamstring injury. Ball sat out of practice on Friday with a sore foot after starting for Joseph last Thursday at Detroit. McCain has started five games in his four-year career, while Harris and Carmichael have both played sparingly since being drafted in 2011.
The Texans' young cornerbacks will be helped by the presence of veteran safeties
3. New wrinkles?: The Titans rank 24th in offense and 19th in scoring, but the Texans don’t know exactly what they’ll be facing this week.
That’s because Tennessee fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer on Monday, replacing him with 32-year-old former quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, who has never before called a game on any level. Loggains essentially has a five-game audition for his job, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pull out some inventive plays on
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said this week that the Texans expected to see a similar offense to what the Titans have run all season. No matter what wrinkles Loggains might implement, the Texans will have to stop a talented, mobile young quarterback in Jake Locker and a game-breaking running back in Chris Johnson, who ranks sixth in the league with 942 rushing yards.
The Texans limited the Titans to 14 points and 325 yards with Palmer calling the offense in Week 4. Locker was knocked out of the game in the first quarter on a sack by safety Glover Quin.
4. Johnson’s hot streak: Texans wide receiver
Johnson set an NFL record for receiving yards in a two-game span with 461 in the last two games. He had a franchise-record 273 yards in Week 11 in the Texans’ overtime victory against Jacksonville. He followed that up with 188 yards in the Texans’ overtime victory at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
Johnson, 31, was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month after leading the conference in receptions (35), receiving yards (614) and yards from scrimmage (614) in four November games. He averaged 153.5 receiving yards per game.
In 17 career games against the Titans, Johnson has 90 catches for 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns. He has averaged 5.3 catches and 70.6 yards per game.
5. Special game for Foster: Running back
In four games against the Titans since 2010, Foster has averaged 152 yards from scrimmage (90 rushing/62 receiving) per game. He has scored four touchdowns. He had perhaps the best all-around game of his career in 2011 at Tennessee, racking up 115 rushing yards, 119 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a 41-7 victory.
Foster has topped 100 rushing yards in each of his five road games this season. He has averaged 26.2 carries and 114.2 yards (4.4 average) and scored four touchdowns. He ranks third in the AFC overall with 1,064 rushing yards and is the first player in Texans history with 1,000 rushing yards in three consecutive seasons.