Here are five key players, matchups and things to watch for as the Texans return home to Reliant Stadium to take on the surging 8-4 Tampa Bay Bucs during the 2007 Texans Homecoming game.
1. Williams on a roll:Defensive end Mario Williams never stopped looking to better himself despite all of the distractions involved with being the number one overall pick last season. That determination has paid off in a Pro Bowl-worthy sophomore campaign.
His 8.5 sacks are already a club-single season record, and he has added 40 tackles, one pass defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery that he took back for a touchdown.
"If you watch the kid out here, he enjoys himself," head coach Kubiak said. "Mario's found the love for the game, and I think Mario looks at himself and says, 'Dang, I could get a lot better. I could be a great player.'
"The light has come on for him from that standpoint and Mario enjoys being here, he enjoys working, and if you're going to last a long time be a great player those things are very important. You can see it happening for him every day."
Williams has tallied at least one sack in three straight games, and last week posted a career-high seven tackles and 2.5 sacks of quarterback Vince Young at Tennessee. He has more sacks this season than Jason Taylor (8) and Shaun Phillips (7.5), and is just behind the likes of Michael Strahan (9) and Shawne Merriman (9.5).
But he and his fellow defenders have a tall order in getting to the Bucs' quarterback, whether it be Jeff Garcia or Luke McCown. Tampa Bay has surrendered only 11 sacks all season.
"Their offensive line is probably by far the best that I think that we'll face at this point," Williams said. "They're very young but they work very well together and they're very physical, so our hands are going to be full and we're just going to go out and play ball. We're going to have to play better than we've ever played."
2. Ryans relentless:Linebacker DeMeco Ryans leads a Texans defense intent on slowing down the Bucs and running back Earnest Graham.
The second-year star ranks second in the league with 88 solo tackles and fourth with 108 total tackles, but he's focused on only one thing this week: winning.
"I don't take much pride in it," Ryans said. "Stats are what they are, but winning is a lot more important. I'd rather be last in tackles and winning a lot more games than we've been winning, so it doesn't matter to me because if you're losing, it really doesn't matter."
Ryans said the defense and entire team needs to find a way to make game-changing plays in the fourth quarter to win games.
"We've been close, but it's just a matter of guys stepping it up and turning it on when the game's on the line, trying to be that guy who's going to go out there and make the play for the team to win," he said. "Everybody has to have that mindset. It's something that you have to dig deep within yourself to figure out."
3. Sage starts again:Prior to this season, quarterback Sage Rosenfels had only started twice in his professional career. He'll match that total with his second start of the season on Sunday.
"The more you play, the more comfortable you feel," Rosenfels said. "Usually, you end up playing better when you feel comfortable and confident."
Rosenfels and injured starter Matt Schaub have similar styles that allow Kubiak and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman to stick to the same game plan for the most part regardless of which quarterback is in the lineup.
"I really don't think it's any different because we feel comfortable with either one of those guys in there," wide receiver Andre Johnson. "We have a lot of confidence in both Matt and Sage.
"Injuries happen and you hate to see Matt go down. Sage is in for Matt now and we're going to rally behind him and go out and do the same things we would do if Matt was out there."
In five games this season, Rosenfels is 78-of-123 for 914 yards, 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions, good for an 83.9 passer rating. Last week at Tennessee, he went 17 of 30 for 185 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
4. Plenty in reserve:Rosenfels is far from the only Texan stepping in for an injured teammate. With running back Ahman Green now ruled out for the remainder of the year, the Texans have an NFL-high 17 players on the injured reserve list.
"We've got quite a few guys on IR and it's disappointing," Kubiak said. "But you can't sit around here and feel sorry for yourself. You've got to go right back to work, and we'll plug the guys in and we'll find some more players because of our issues.
"There's opportunity for other players on the football team, and they'll have to step up and prove that they're capable of getting the job done."
Many players have already answered the call this season. Among them, Fred Bennett leads the team with three interceptions and nine passes defensed in only four starts; André Davis leads the NFL in yards per reception (18.3); and running back Ron Dayne has averaged more than 4.9 yards per carry and 93.8 yards per game with two touchdowns over the last four weeks.
A few more players are being counted on against Tampa Bay. Guard Mike Brisiel will start at right guard for the injured Fred Weary and Chris White. Brisiel had never been more than a practice squad player until earlier this week. Rookie guard Kasey Studdard will join him in the rotation in just his third NFL game.
Third-year quarterback Shane Boyd was called up from the practice squad for only the second time in his career, and he will be counted on for insurance behind Rosenfels.
"It all boils down to continuing to be ready at all times, and your number could be called any time," Boyd said. "You know how football is. You're always one play away."
5. In their defense:Tampa Bay's swarming defense has given up a meager 15.6 points per game, second in the NFL, and 291.8 yards, which ranks fourth in the league.
"I think if you take the last 10 years into effect, what's been the most consistent defensive football team and the best overall, it's (defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin's group in Tampa Bay," Kubiak said. "They haven't given up points. They've given up 180-something points – that's not a lot. They're playing extremely well."
Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks attributes the Bucs' current four-game winning streak to their success in the turnover battle. The Texans will be on high alert against Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber.
"They all rally to the ball, tackle, and they cause turnovers," Rosenfels said. "There's usually not just one guy making the tackle. Usually one guy hits you first and about four or five guys are piling on. That usually creates turnovers and they're huge on the plus-turnover ratio as far as winning games."