*Here are Five Things to Watch when the Texans face the Browns in Cleveland this Sunday.
1. First Start: After three-plus years in the NFL, Ryan Mallett will start his first game at quarterback.
It was the big story nine days ago when head coach Bill O'Brien announced that Mallett was taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick, and it's the big story now.
Mallett's right arm has been praised by everyone from O'Brien to J.J. Watt to Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer, who said it's the strongest he's ever seen. But Houston's newest starting quarterback believes his brain is even more important.
"I think my football IQ is probably my biggest asset," Mallett said. "You can always improve. You can never be complacent."
O'Brien said one of the main reasons for making the change was Mallett's grasp of the offense, which he learned over the course of three seasons in New England, as well as two months here. The grasp of the offense is evident to Mallett's teammates.
"He's always been a confident guy in terms of the offense," center Chris Myers said. "You can tell he's very comfortable in it. He being around it for a few years now, he's definitely a smooth transition in terms of taking it over."
2. Ground Support: Mallett's thrown four passes in his NFL career. If he succeeds, he'll need a
strong effort from the Texans run game.
Arian Foster's availability is in question, as a groin injury kept him from practicing on Wednesday and Thursday. Further, O'Brien said the AFC's rushing leader will be a "game time decision", and work out before the contest in Cleveland.
So rookie Alfred Blue will be the next man up if Foster doesn't play.
"I'm preparing as I would prepare for any other game," Blue said. "I'm preparing to play significantly in the game. If Arian is not going to play, I'll be ready to go."
Blue's gained 234 yards in the first nine games of his career, while Foster's amassed 822 this year. Behind him is Jonathan Grimes, who's carried just seven times this season. O'Brien said gaining yards on the ground is a major key to victory in the matchup with Cleveland.
"It's going to come down to who can run the ball, who can stop the run, who can take care of the ball, who does the best job of situational football," O'Brien said.
3. Inside job: Stopping the run on defense will rest heavily upon the shoulders of the Texans inside
linebackers. Mike Mohamed and Justin Tuggle have held things down while Brian Cushing and Jeff Tarpinian have missed the past two games with knee injuries. The latter two practiced this week, and undrafted rookie Max Bullough was signed to the 53-man roster after beginning the season as a practice squad member.
The injection of that linebacking trio should be a key, because the Browns are 12th in the NFL in rushing yards as a team, but tied for third overall in rushing touchdowns with 12 this season. Handling the trio of backs in former Texan Ben Tate, as well as Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West will be a key in the eyes of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
"Everybody has to be in the right spot," Crennel said. "Gap control, making sure that you don't let the ball outside and then if you do all of that, you still have to tackle. We have to be good tacklers. Everybody has to play a part."
4. Clowney comeback: In addition to the return of Cushing and Tarpinian, it appears rookie outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney will be active for the third time this season. He started in the Week 1 win over Washington, but left in the first half with a knee injury that would require surgery in the days after the game.
He missed the next six games before suiting up against the Titans for 32 snaps.
Knee soreness kept him from playing against the Eagles, but he's practiced on a limited basis with his teammates this week, and is optimistic about his chances against the Browns.
"Very anxious just to be out there with my team," Clowney said. "I already told them I'm happy to be back at practice, on the field practicing with them guys. Just looking forward to playing now."
O'Brien wouldn't say Clowney's definitely going to be active, but he also is optimistic the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft will be in the lineup on Sunday. O'Brien said Clowney's moved around well in practice, and the team should know better after Friday's practice about his availability.
5. The hits keep coming: Even though Clowney's logged just under a game-and-a-half worth of
action this season, the Texans defense is atop the NFL in quarterback hits with 67. Watt's accounted for a League-best 29 of those QB hits, and rattling Hoyer will help stymie the Browns.
Hoyer joined the long list of competitors who rattled off compliments of the Texans' best defender.
"He's just a beast," Hoyer said. "The skillset, the drive, the passion, it's all there and it jumps off the tape immediately."
Luckily for him, the Cleveland offensive line has done a good job of helping the Browns run and keeping Hoyer upright as well. In fact, that unit's given up just 12 sacks this season, which is the fifth-best mark in the NFL.