*Here are five things to watch when the Texans host the Broncos on Sunday (Noon, CT) at Reliant Stadium.
- Schaub stays clean-** Matt Schaub will start at quarterback because of Case Keenum's right thumb sprain. The high hopes of 2013 were scuttled in part due to Schaub's string of interceptions in September and October, as errant throws were picked off and returned for touchdowns in losses at Baltimore, to Seattle and at San Francisco.
In eight games this season, Schaub's thrown 10 interceptions and been sacked 17 times. He needs to play efficiently for the Texans to be in this contest. But his hands will be full against a Denver defense that features outside linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Shaun Phillips.
"They have a great pass rush," Schaub said. "They play a lot of guys in the secondary at linebacker. They disguise a lot of looks, and they make plays. So far this years they've played in a lot of games with leads, and they kind of make teams one dimensional."
One of Schaub's signature games as a professional came last season at Denver. He tossed a quartet of touchdown passes, including a 60-yarder to Andre Johnson and a 52-yarder to Kevin Walter. He
was also knocked from the game, briefly, after Joe Mays wallopped him. The Texans won that contest and moved to 3-0. Schaub recalled what he and the team did well.
"We just made some big plays," Schaub said. "We came out throwing. We had some good plays in the running game, but our guys protected against a very good pass rush, and made some big plays. We've got to go find a way to do that again."
2. Run game help- The Texans were able to strike deep last season because the Broncos bit on the play-action pass. That team featured an Arian Foster who rumbled for 105 yards on 25 carries. This Texans team will be led in the ground game by starter Dennis Johnson, backup Deji Karim and newly-signed street free agent Jonathan Grimes. With Ben Tate shelved due to broken ribs, Johnson and company must be able to keep the Broncos' defense honest, or they'll tee off on Schaub and the passing game.
Interim head coach Wade Phillips said he'll lean on veteran running backs coach Chick Harris to help prepare Johnson for the task ahead.
"Chick does a good job with him preparation-wise and then we try to take away, again, things he's not comfortable with, whether it's protection or whatever," Phillips said. "He's either got to learn it by us working with him or we've got to eliminate those things as far as the game plan's concerned."
Johnson has averaged 4.2 yards per carry in limited action this season, and his longest run has gone for 29 yards. Schaub sounded enthusiastic when asked about his trust in the rookie ball-carrier.
"He's shown that he can run the football and runs hard," Schaub said. "One thing I like about him is he's always falling forward. When you see a running back always getting that extra yard or extra half yard, that counts. That adds up."
3. Tight end depth-Owen Daniels will not play against the Broncos. Garrett Graham didn't practice this week and is listed as questionable. Rookie Ryan Griffin got his first start last Sunday in the loss at
Indianapolis. On the whole, that trio of tight ends has 84 catches for 926 yards in 2013. Those two totals each represent 25% of the total catches and receiving yards for the team.
Griffin had a career-best six receptions for 62 yards against the Colts, and he embraces his increased role in the offense.
"Guys in this locker room are looking to me to make plays on the field being the starting tight end," Griffin said. "That's exactly what I wanted to do. I made some mistakes out there but I'm learning and I'm ready to get after it this week."
4. O-line protection- The offensive line will need to keep Schaub upright. With Phillips and Miller applying pressure, left tackle Duane Brown and company will be tested. According to Brown, some of what was discussed in the first item of this "5 Things to Watch" is applicable.
"It's all about being clean, executing and playing penalty free, being disciplined," Brown said. "We cut those two out, the penalties and cleaner play, we'll have success. The effort is there. The talent is there. We just have to find ways to clean it up. Hopefully, we can do that this week."
5. Dre's Big Day?-With one catch, Andre Johnson will have 100 receptions in 2013. It will be the
fifth time he's accomplished that feat, and Wes Welker is the only other receiver in NFL history to do so. Johnson is also just 205 yards shy of 1,500 yards on the season. In a dreary season for the team, he's remained brilliant.
"I'm looking forward to him breaking that record, or tying that record and going forward," Phillips said. "I'm going to claim him no matter what. I don't know if he'll claim me as a head coach, but I'm going to claim him when he goes in the Hall of Fame."
Johnson reflected on it as well, and remained nonchalant.
"It's pretty good," Johnson said. "I don't think you really realize it until you're probably finished playing, and you look over your career, and you just see some of the things that you accomplished as a player. I think that's when you really realize it."