Here are five things to watch in the preseason home-opener when the Texans host the Dolphins Saturday night at Reliant Stadium.*
1. First Glimpse- It's been over 10 months since Brian Cushing has suited up for game action. His 2012 campaign was silenced in New Jersey when he went down with a tear in his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
But he's been on the rehab grind, has practiced throughout training camp and will hit the field Saturday night at inside linebacker against Miami. He won't likely play more than a quarter, if that, but seeing the 2011 team MVP back in action has everyone in the organization excited.
"When Cush is in there and we're doing a lot of our inside stunts, it frees people up," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "We lost some of that last year when we lost Cush. It's been back to business as usual."
2. Bad Blood?- In Week 1 of 2012, defensive end Antonio Smith locked up with Miami guard Richie Incognito. Following one play, when the two were tangled up on the ground, Smith kicked the Dolphin and was later fined for it by the NFL. But Smith claimed Incognito was playing dirty, and twisting his ankle. It's not the first time Incognito has been accused of extracurricular activity, and you literally should keep your eyes on him. The ninth-year veteran wears jersey number 68.
Incognito's listed on the official depth chart as a starter at left guard, but the Dolphins tinkered with their line during camp and he practiced at right guard for a bit. If he were to see time on the right side, that would mean a steady diet of matchups with J.J. Watt.
3. Quarterback Shuffle- T.J. Yates was the backup to Matt Schaub last season, while Case Keenum was a practice squad member. Yates remains the backup, but Keenum will actually be the first off the bench behind Schaub.
The former University of Houston Cougar has continued to improve, and after going 13-for-18 with a touchdown pass and 125 yards last week in Minnesota, Kubiak wants to see Keenum in a new situation. That means he'll play a bit more with some of the second-teamers, and he'll also have more information to process.
"Obviously, he's got another game plan that came at him this week," Kubiak said. "He's got more to digest. Can he go handle that with the group like he did last week? He's probably going to play against a little bit different level of competition from the standpoint of when he goes into the football game this week against Miami. You're just looking for him to progress like any other player."
Keenum, meanwhile, said he'll prepare like he always does and will seize whatever opportunity comes his way. It also doesn't hurt that he gets to play in front of the Houston crowd again, after spending six years at U of H.
"I've gotten to wear the city of Houston name on the front of my jersey for a long time now," Keenum said after Thursday's practice. "To be able to play here again in front of the hometown crowd is always special for me."
4. Running Jumble- With Pro Bowler Arian Foster out because of a calf and back injury, the running back position has seen a quartet of players behind Ben Tate battling for a spot. Entering last week's preseason opener at Minnesota, undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson was first off the bench. But it was fellow undrafted rookie Cierre Wood who shined. Tonight, can either of those two, along with fourth-year veteran Deji Karim and undrafted rookie Ray Graham, rise to the top?
Karim wears number 39, and judging by what Kubiak said on Wednesday, he'll get a good chunk of chances.
"I would just say that 39 is really practicing well, so we want to see him more this week," Kubiak said. "We want to see Deji a little bit more. We want to take a look at him."
Karim carried six times for 37 yards in the win over the Vikings, with a long run of 13 yards.
5. J.J.'s Day- After he and several Texans starters rested during the win at Minnesota, Watt will be back on the field for game action against the Dolphins. A week ago he was held out of contact drills because of his left elbow, so it will be interesting to see how much playing time he gets on Saturday night. No matter what, though, he'll be full bore when he's in the game.
"I approach it pretty much the same," Watt said. "A game is a game to me doesn't matter if it's preseason, postseason, or regular season. There's only one way I know and that's game mode and that's beast mode, so you got to go out there and play your best."
The last time he was on the field at Reliant Stadium, Watt had five tackles, a sack and a pair of batted passes in the playoff victory over the Bengals. The stakes obviously aren't as high Saturday as they were then, but Watt will be ready to go.