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Five things to watch for - Texans vs. Panthers


Mario Williams looks to leave his opponents speechless yet again when he returns to his native North Carolina on Sunday.

Here are five key players, matchups and things to watch for in Sunday's road opener against the Carolina Panthers:

He's back: There's no question that defensive end Mario Williams has returned to his collegiate form after he won just about every league accolade possible following his five-tackle, two-sack and one-touchdown highlight show performance against Kansas City.

Fittingly, on Sunday Williams will find himself back where he made a name for himself. The 2006 No. 1-overall draft pick grew up in the town of Richlands, N.C., and played his college ball at N.C. State in Raleigh, less than a three-hour drive from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

"It's going to be different," Williams said. "It's going to be the first I'm going back playing as the opponent. It's something that I look forward to doing and have a good time with."

And despite having the game of his career last Sunday, Williams' focus is now solely on shutting down the Panthers and quarterback Jake Delhomme.

"That was last week," he said of the Chiefs game. "We've got a great challenge this week, but I will do my best and, hopefully, go out there and do better than I did last week."

Slowing down Smith: The Texans' defense shut down the first superstar it faced this season, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson. They now face arguably the league's top receiver in the Panthers' Steve Smith.

Smith's rapport with his quarterback looks as good as ever. Delhomme hit Smith seven times for 118 yards and a 68-yard touchdown in the Panthers' 27-13 victory over St. Louis last Sunday. But standing across the line of scrimmage from the dynamic 5-9 wideout this week will be a cornerback who's licking his chops over the matchup.

"Whenever you play against the better guys, you prepare yourself as hard as you possibly can because you want to do good in these situations," Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "You definitely get pumped up more.

"I haven't faced Steve Smith yet. I think I've played against every other great receiver in this league, so it'll be exciting and I'm really looking forward to this challenge."

Robinson and cornerback Demarcus Faggins' efforts to limit Smith's explosiveness will be crucial in the Texans' bid to start 2-0 for the first time in franchise history.

Peppers assault: The offense faces the daunting challenge of keeping Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers away from quarterback Matt Schaub.

"Julius Peppers is a special athlete," backup tackle Jordan Black said. "290 pounds, former basketball player at North Carolina, he's a special guy. He's everything. He doesn't have a deficiency.

"He's 290 and runs like a deer. Everything you could want in a defensive end, he's got."

Peppers had 53.5 sacks in his first five NFL seasons, but was held without one against the Rams. He'll be hungry to get on the board against the Texans this week.

Running back Ahman Green knows his blocking responsibilities will be more important than ever.

"We're going to have to chip and watch for the blitz and know it's coming," he said. "And we're going to see it most of the time. There ain't going to be no bones about it. They're going to be ready to fire off every play."

Strong enough?: The strong safety position is probably the biggest question mark on the Texans' roster after season-ending injuries to starters Glenn Earl and Jason Simmons. Head coach Gary Kubiak definitively named Von Hutchins as the new starter after Friday's practice. It will be the second start in the fourth-year veteran's career, and his first with the Texans.

"He's earned that right," Kubiak said. "He's played well. But those other two kids, you're going to see them play."

Those other two kids would be safeties Michael Boulware and Will Demps. Neither was on the team two weeks ago, but both now find themselves thrust into action as the Texans try to fill the void created by the injuries.

Boulware picked up a solo special teams tackle against the Chiefs and should see increased defensive responsibilities this week. Demps, who started all 16 games for the New York Giants last season and amassed a career-high 116 tackles, will see the field plenty as well.

"I would say Michael (Boulware) is probably a little ahead, just naturally from being here a little bit longer," Kubiak said. "They're both ready to play. Our defense is set this week. We know that we have to get those guys in position to play, there's no way around that right now. We approached our defensive scheme this week and our game plan knowing that those guys had to be ready to play."

The Carr factor: Much has been made about former Texan David Carr being on the opposing sideline this Sunday as the Panthers' backup quarterback. Aside from the personal issue of players going against their longtime teammate, the media has been wondering aloud if Carr will be an asset to the Carolina coaches in their game-planning.

But Kubiak didn't change a thing in terms of game preparations.

"I've been around where people say, let's make this call or let's do this and do the opposite," Kubiak said. "You get so consumed with that that you forget to just go play. We're going to go play. We're going to worry about our stuff and try to go play well."

Carolina head coach John Fox shares Kubiak's mentality.

"Our game is decided between the lines," he said. "Whether I have their whole play book, I don't know when it's coming, so it doesn't matter. Too much is made of that stuff. The game is played between the lines with the players and that kind of stuff is not nearly as big as people try to make it."

Whether that's all politically correct coach-speak and Carr's knowledge does in fact help the Panthers remains to be seen.

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