*Here are Five Things to Watch when the Texans face the Tennessee Titans this Sunday at noon CT in Nashville.
1. Clowney at last?: For the first time since Week 1, it appears Jadeveon Clowney will be on the field at outside linebacker. The first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft notched a tackle for loss in the win over Washington, but left the game in the first half with a knee injury that would later require
He's been rehabbing it since, and said Thursday that he should be ready to play.
"I would be surprised if I didn't play," Clowney said. "I've been running, but it still isn't the same as running around on a football field. Just getting back out here now, being out there with my team, seeing how I feel."
He practiced with his teammates all three days this week, as well as twice last week, and worked out before the game against the Steelers. He was ruled inactive in Pittsburgh, and although he's said positive things and done positive things on the practice field, the head coach still wouldn't guarantee a Clowney return.
"He's looked better and better every day," O'Brien said. "I do believe that. I wouldn't say that he's 100 percent sure for Sunday."
Whenever Clowney is back in game action, his plays will be limited and so will his role on the defense, according to defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
"Probably third down plays, because he hasn't been practicing," Crennel said. "You can put him in on third downs and you can just rush the passer with him and see how that goes."
2. Zac Attack: For the second time this season, the Texans defense will face a rookie quarterback. Zac Mettenberger gets his first start under center for the Titans, and if his day is anything like Derek
Carr's was in Week 2, it'll be a rough one.
At Oakland that afternoon, Houston Carr and the Raiders by a 30-14 margin. Crennel's crew picked off the rookie signal-caller twice, and held the Raiders to 2-of-9 on third down. Crennel said the Titans will likely try to accentuate the things the 6-foot-5 inch strong-armed passer does well.
"I think that if they think that he has certain strengths, I think they'll try to play to his strengths rather than play to any weakness that he might have," Crennel said. "I think that they'll look to what his strong points are and play to his strong points."
Head coach Bill O'Brien and the Texans evaluated Mettenberger during the path to the 2014 NFL Draft, and O'Brien was impressed with what he saw from the former LSU Tiger.
"I felt like he was a smart guy," O'Brien said. "I felt like he knew his LSU offense really well. I felt like he had a strong arm. He was a big guy. I saw some decent things."
3. Eliminate the bad quarter: In each of the last two games, the Texans have endured a quarter in
which they've allowed 24 points. The Colts came out firing in Week 6 and staked themselves to a 24-0 advantage after 15 minutes of play. On Monday night, the Steelers erupted for 24 points in the span of 2:54 at the end of the first half. In each of those games, the Texans lost by 7 points or less.
A tourniquet would've been ideal, but a heavy bandage could've stopped the bleeding enough to provide for a Texans victory. Fixing assignment errors, according to O'Brien, is just what the Texans need to keep games from getting out of hand.
"It's more about focusing and concentration, taking care of the ball, staying on sides, being able to handle being a good crisis manager," O'Brien said. "When something's going bad, being able to say, 'You know what? We're going to stop this right now.'"
The Titans managed to score 21 points in the second quarter of their Week 5 loss to the Browns. The most they've put up in a quarter outside of that outburst was 10 points in a few different games earlier this year.
4. Linebacker depth: At both the inside and outside linebacker spots, the Texans are banged up. At
various points this week, Brian Cushing, Jeff Tarpinian, John Simon and Brooks Reed didn't practice because of injury. The latter two are outside linebackers, while the former two play inside.
If any or all are absent on Sunday in Nashville, the defense will need some help.
"You've just got to find someone else," defensive end Jared Crick said." We've got plenty of guys that can do that. We have plenty of leaders on this defense."
One such leader is defensive end J.J. Watt, who's best in the NFL with 22 quarterback hits. He's also
tallied five sacks, six batted passes and scored a pair of touchdowns on defense. Watt's seen an array of blocking schemes thrown his way, which is something he put in perspective this week.
"Everybody has their own version of throwing something at me and that's fine, whether it's double-teams, triple-teams, chips, extra guys, slides," Watt said. "You name it, I've seen it and that's fine. That's part of the challenge. I've always enjoyed it. If you're going to send two or three guys at me, there are 10 other guys on the defense you have to worry about."
One player on the rise recently is Whitney Mercilus. The outside linebacker has five tackles for loss in his last three games. On Monday night he dropped Ben Roethlisberger for two sacks, and also forced a fumble. The opposition has noticed.
"I think Mercilus is playing well for them," Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Their defensive front does a nice job. They're very active."
5. Numbers for playmakers: Every week, Andre Johnson reaches another career milestone. If he
gets 42 receiving yards, he'll pass Andre Reed and move into 13th place on the NFL's all-time receiving yards list. He's also just four yards shy of 400 for the season.
Meanwhile, DeAndre Hopkins needs 26 yards to get to 400. In tandem with running back Arian Foster, who's atop the AFC in rushing yards with 615, the Texans would be the only team in the conference with a 400-yard rusher and a pair of 400-yard receivers.
If Foster manges to gain 100 yards, it'd be the first time in his career he had 100 or more in four consecutive games.