INDIANAPOLIS –Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (4-2) take on the Indianapolis Colts (4-2) on Monday Night Football at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 8. Kickoff is at 8:30 p.m. ET (7:30 CT).
The Texans beat the Colts 34-24 in Week 1 in Houston. A victory on Monday would give them their first-ever season sweep of the Colts and first victory at Indianapolis. The winner of Monday night's game will be in first place in the AFC South.
1. Spotlight on Foster:All eyes will be on Texans running back Arian Foster, who had a team-record 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries against the Colts in Week 1. Foster and the Texans' run-blocking were so good that quarterback Matt Schaub only had to throw 17 passes – Schaub has averaged 18 passes per *half *in the other five games this season.
That game put Foster on the national map, and he has shown that it wasn't a flash in the pan. An undrafted free agent from Tennessee in 2009, he ranks third in the league with 5.5 yards per carry and 105.8 rushing yards per game. He also has 19 catches for 180 yards and has scored seven total touchdowns. This will be his first-career game on Monday Night Football.
Running back Derrick Ward could give the Texans a dynamic 1-2 punch against the Colts' 28th-ranked rushing defense. Ward, 30, is averaging 8.3 yards per carry and has scored a touchdown in three consecutive games. Texans coach Gary Kubiak has said that he would like to get Ward more touches as the season goes on.
If the Colts put too much focus on slowing down Foster, it could lead to a big night for Schaub and the likes of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels.
2. Colts injuries:While the Texans are as healthy as they've been in quite some time, the Colts have been ravaged by injuries, particularly on offense. Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark is out for the season with a wrist injury. Wide receiver Austin Collie is out this week, running back Joseph Addai (neck) is doubtful and backup running back Donald Brown (hamstring) is questionable.
Clark, Collie and Addai are the Colts' second-, third- and fourth-leading receivers, respectively. Clark had 34 catches, 262 yards and 17 first downs in his last three games against the Texans. Collie is ninth in the league with 83.8 receiving yards per game, including 163 yards in Week 1 at Houston.
Still, the Texans know they're not catching a break as long as Peyton Manning is in the lineup. In his 13th season, Manning leads the league with a 103.4 quarterback rating. He's 15-2 lifetime against the Texans and had 433 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1.
Manning still has wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon at his disposal, and he has made a career of turning unknown players into stars. Undrafted rookie wide receiver Blair White and seldom-used tight end Jacob Tamme will be the latest players to get the call.
3. Cushing at MLB:For the first time since the Dom Capers era, somebody other than DeMeco Ryans will start at middle linebacker for the Texans. Brian Cushing was moved from the strong side to the middle on Monday after Ryans, the Texans' defensive captain, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 6.
Cushing was given the reins to the defense because of his leadership and playmaking ability. The 2009 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year will now wear the coach-to-defense earpiece communicator in his helmet. He's responsible for making calls at the line of scrimmage and lining up his teammates on every snap.
"You're obviously throwing a new load at him from that standpoint as far as what you're expecting, so that's a challenge for him as a player," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "But the key for us defensively is to wipe the slate clean and improve as a football team as we move forward. That's what we've got to do… so we're asking him to lead the way."
Cushing was a backup middle linebacker at USC and started one game there as a senior, so he does have some experience at the position. Cushing's replacement at strongside linebacker, Kevin Bentley, is not expected to get many defensive snaps this week since the Texans will likely be in nickel for most of the game.
4. Finding a rush:In 22 games since 2009, Manning has been sacked more than once only four times. Three of those games have been against the Texans, who have sacked him twice in each of their last three meetings.
The Texans' relentless pressure on Manning was critical to their Week 1 victory. They recorded 10 quarterback hits. Defensive end Mario Williams was a terror with two half-sacks and numerous pressures. Despite Manning's prolific passing numbers, the Colts never got within 10 points in the final 22:03 of the game.
Of course, that game was at raucous Reliant Stadium instead of the Manning-friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts' offensive line was banged up, and defensive end Connor Barwin was still healthy for the Texans. Texans defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who plays on pass-rushing downs, is doubtful for the rematch because of an ankle injury.
The Texans hope to get energy up front from rookie defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard, who was called up from the practice squad last Monday. They hope to get speed off the edge from defensive end Mark Anderson, who has been eased into the rotation after signing with the Texans three weeks ago. The Texans have only 10 sacks this season, but pressure on Manning would significantly ease the burden on the secondary of a defense that ranks 32nd against the pass.
5. Brown's return:Left tackle Duane Brown makes his return from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. Brown said that that he unknowingly took a tainted supplement, which snapped a streak of 34 consecutive starts for the 2008 first-round pick.
His 'welcome back' present will be a matchup with All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney and his lightning-quick spin move. Freeney has 5.5 sacks in four games against Brown, including one sack in Week 1.
The Texans went 2-2 during Brown's suspension with Rashad Butler filling in at left tackle. During his absence, Brown worked out with a personal trainer in Houston. He has had two full weeks to practice with the team and get back up to speed since his suspension was lifted on Oct. 18.