Here are five things to watch for in the Texans' third preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night at Candlestick Park. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. CT.
1. Dress rehearsal: The Texans' starters will play well into the third quarter in their final and most extensive tune-up for the regular season. Head coach Gary Kubiak said that he wants to see the first-team offense and defense get 45-50 reps apiece.
The only Texans starter whose health is a question mark is inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who didn't practice all week because of an elbow injury. Quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson will be looking to follow up on strong performances against the Saints, when the Texans rolled up 323 yards of offense in the first half.
This will be the Texans' first look at cornerback Johnathan Joseph and most extensive look yet at Mario Williams at outside linebacker, both of which we'll get to in a minute. Players like Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin and Danieal Manning will get valuable reps as they continue to learn Wade Phillips' defense.
2. Joseph's debut: Joseph, who missed the first two preseason games with a groin injury, will make his Texans debut at Candlestick Park.
The former Cincinnati Bengal was one of the most significant free agent signings in Texans history. He and Manning, both sixth-year veterans, were brought in to stabilize the back end of a passing defense that was the league's worst in 2010.
Kubiak says that it's noticeable at practice how much the Texans' young defensive backs already lean on Joseph for leadership. Phillips and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph both say that Joseph looks special at practice in terms of his footwork, speed and ball skills.
After watching the first two games from the sideline, Joseph is excited to get a chance to join his new teammates on the field.
"I think it's a big game because I haven't played yet in my first preseason game," he said. "You always want to shake off the rust a little bit. I'm looking forward to playing."
3. More of Mario: Three weeks into the preseason, Williams is still adjusting to his new position at outside linebacker. His switch from defensive end has been the perhaps biggest story of the Texans' offseason, with many fans and media questioning whether he can successfully make the switch.
Kubiak and Phillips insist that Williams is making noticeable progress and getting better every game. Phillips pointed out this week that Williams has only played about a half of football this preseason, and that he had three pressures on Saints quarterback Drew Brees last Saturday.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Williams said that he's feeling more comfortable with his technique, ability to get off the ball and how he sees things on the field. He also feels like he's becoming more instinctive at his new position. Saturday's game, when he could play up to three quarters, will be an indication of just how far he has come.
4. Return game: The Texans have struggled on kick returns this preseason, averaging 16.9 yards with a long of 21. They haven't fared well in a limited number of punt returns, either, with only 11 yards on three returns (3.7 average).
Part of the reason for the Texans' struggles is that they haven't been using their primary returners. Kubiak said this week that Manning will be the Texans' kickoff returner and wide receiver Jacoby Jones will be the Texans' punt returner during the season, and neither returned a kick in the first two games.
That should change against the 49ers, at least in Jones' case.
"I think you'll see Jacoby," Kubiak said. "I'm very confident in knowing what Danieal can do, and I'm more concerned with him getting our defense down right now, so that answer's probably a no. But we know he'll be ready to go. He's been successful doing it, but I want him to concentrate on what he's doing on the back end right now."
Jones has averaged 10.0 yards per punt return in his four-year career and has the team record with two punt returns for touchdowns. Manning led the NFL with 29.7 yards per kickoff return in 2008. Kubiak said that second-year cornerback Sherrick McManis also could get a look on kick returns.
5. Run defense: There has been some concern about the Texans' interior run defense after they allowed 86 yards and 4.8 yards per carry to the Saints. It was just one half of one preseason game, but Saturday night will be a chance to right the ship and quiet those concerns.
The 49ers will be as good a test as any. Led by Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon and rookie fourth-round pick Kendall Hunter, they have been the best rushing team in the NFL this preseason with 187.5 yards per game (5.4 yards per carry). San Francisco racked up 236 rushing yards against the Raiders last week.
The Texans might be without Ryans, their starting Mo linebacker, and nose tackle Earl Mitchell, who suffered a minor knee injury against the Saints. Otherwise, they should have a full complement of defensive players with which to try to stop the 49ers' ground game.