The Texans look to improve their road record to 2-1 with a victory on Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals, who are 4-1 and in first place in the AFC North. Here are five things to watch for in the game:
Changing of the (right) guard:Mike Brisiel's streak of 25 consecutive starts at right guard for the Texans will end on Sunday. Brisiel suffered a season-ending foot injury at Arizona and will be replaced this week by a tandem of Chris White and rookie Antoine Caldwell. White will start the game, but head coach Gary Kubiak effectively described this Sunday as a live-bullets audition for the two players for the rest of the season.
"It's a great opportunity for both of them," Kubiak said. "Obviously, we need them to step up very big. We're kind of venturing off into a new area here with these young players up front, which is different, but I expect them to do their job.
"They'll split the time right down the middle, unless one of them is just playing his tail off. We expect to come out of the game and be able to evaluate them right down the middle."
White will be the Texans' second new starting guard this season. Kasey Studdard took over at left guard when Chester Pitts went down with a knee injury in Week 2. The Texans had started all five of the same offensive linemen for 16 games last season.
Defensive momentum:The Texans' defense ranks 23rd in the NFL, but they've made a rapid improvement after being on pace to finish among the worst defenses in the league a few weeks ago.
In the last two weeks, the Texans rank fifth in total defense. They dominated the Oakland Raiders in a 29-6 victory at Houston in Week 4. In the second half last week, the Texans shut down the high-powered Arizona Cardinals offense, allowing only 43 yards and one Cardinals first down.
But the Texans also spotted the Cardinals 21 points and allowed 297 yards of offense in the first half. They face another top-flight quarterback this week in Carson Palmer, who has led the Bengals to three consecutive come-from-behind victories. Palmer's top target, Chad Ochocinco, is in the midst of a bounce-back year with 352 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
If the Texans can transfer their second-half effort against Arizona to a full 60 minutes, any team in the league is going to have a hard time scoring on them. Under first-year defensive coordinator Frank Bush, the young defense is coming together as the season progresses.
Cornerback Dunta Robinson and linebacker Brian Cushing, who missed the entire preseason, are getting better each week. New faces like Antonio Smith, Shaun Cody, Bernard Pollard and Glover Quin are getting consistent playing time and adding to the defense's chemistry as well.
The Texans have forced opponents to go three-and-out on 22-of-62 possessions (35.5 percent of the time). That rate leads the NFL.
Slowing down Benson:The biggest task for the Texans' defense will be shutting down Cedric Benson, who leads the league with 487 rushing yards and is on pace to record the second-most carries in Bengals history. The Bengals have used primarily a one-back offense with Benson, the big, physical former University of Texas back. He has 111 carries compared to backup Bernard Scott, who has only 10 carries.
The Texans' run defense has been the best in the league over the last two weeks, giving up only 89 yards (44.5 per game). That's the two-game mark in franchise history. Houston had been burned by big-play touchdowns in the first three weeks of the season before Pollard moved into the starting lineup alongside Eugene Wilson at safety.
"We've taken more time out and got assignments down. We've taken more time walking through stuff and watching the tape from our 9-on-7 periods, just to make sure everybody is where we need to be," linebacker Zac Diles said. "I think we are better than when we started."
Making plays to win:The Texans' record sits at 2-3 after two last-minute losses in three weeks. In their games against Jacksonville and Arizona, they were stopped at the one-yard line in the closing minutes of a seven-point loss. The Bengals, by contrast, have won each of their last three games by three points, all in come-from-behind fashion, and are atop the AFC North at 4-1.
"They've been in all close games, and in crunch time, they've made every play," Kubiak said. "Except for a tipped ball against Denver on opening day, they've made them all. That's what this league is about. Making those plays in close games is the difference in winning and losing."
The Texans beat the Bengals 35-6 at Reliant Stadium last season, a game that the Bengals played without Palmer. The Texans know that playing with consistent effort for a full 60 minutes will be a key to the game this week.
"We have to stay focused for 60 minutes," Robinson said. "We've got to have 100 percent complete focus if we want to win this football game. Focus means you can't make mistakes. You have to limit the opportunities on third downs. You have to focus and get off the football field. You just have to do whatever it takes to make sure we come out of there with a win."
Special teams factor:This game could well turn on special teams play. The Texans' special teams are on fire under coordinator Joe Marciano, holding opponents to a league-low 18.7 yards per kickoff return and only 4.4 yards per punt return (fourth in the NFL). The Bengals are 30th in kick returns (21.1 avg.) and second in punt returns (13.1).
The Texans also have a decided advantage in returning the ball. They're fifth in kick return average (25.7) and seventh in punt return average (12.2), while the Bengals are 23RD in kick coverage (24.7) and 24th in punt coverage (12.5).
Aside from a blocked Kris Brown field goal attempt and a 29-yard punt by Matt Turk, the Texans' special teams were outstanding at Arizona. André Davis had a 60-yard kickoff return to set the Texans up for a potential game-tying score late in the game. Jacoby Jones, the Week 4 AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, had a 62-yard punt return in the game.
The Bengals released long-time long snapper Brad St. Louis this week. His errant snaps had led to three botched three field goals and two missed extra points this season. Cincinnati replaced him with Clark Harris, who was excellent as the Texans' long snapper in the final four games of the 2008 season. The Bengals also have a solid young punter in rookie Kevin Huber, who has averaged 42.5 yards per kick.