Texans superstars Mario Williams and Andre Johnson will start against Dallas. Johnson missed two preseason games with a groin injury.
Here are five things to watch for as the Texans look to improve to 3-0 in the preseason when they take on the Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium on Friday.
1. Slaton could shoulder the load: The Texans turned to a running back-by-committee approach when starter Ahman Green went down in the first preseason game with a strained groin. So far, the star of that committee has been rookie Steve Slaton.
In the team's second preseason game against the Saints, he led all players in yards rushing with 57 on 13 carries. By comparison, Saints running back Reggie Bush recorded 29 yards rushing on six attempts.
Slaton often looked like the fastest back on the field. Coach Gary Kubiak was so impressed with the rookie's play in pass protection and on kickoff returns that he kept Slaton in for the majority of the game and didn't sub in second-year pro Darius Walker.
"I can feel the speed on the field," Kubiak said of the former West Virginia star. "When he's out there, you can feel his speed and the chance to make big plays and the kickoff return. He's growing in what we are doing run-game wise. He makes some bad cuts, but then he makes some great cuts. It's obvious that this kid's going to be a big part of (our offense), if he keeps heading the way he's heading."
During practice this week, Slaton worked with the first team. The coaches plan to start Chris Brown against Dallas, but they want to see how Slaton (5-10, 201) handles going against a 3-4 defense that is stacked with some of the best pass rushers in the league (ie: linebacker DeMarcus Ware). It will be Slaton's chance to prove that he can be an every-down back with the big boys.
"We've asked a lot of him, young guy in a totally different system for him - what we do compared to what he did in college," Kubiak said. "He's progressed every day. He's got a lot of self-confidence right now. I think he's starting to feel like, 'Hey, I can do this. I know I can contribute.'
"We'll just keep pushing him forward. I don't think you can ever know how far a rookie can go, but this one shows no sign of us needing to let up on him. So, we are going to push him."
2. The blitz is on: Kubiak has not been satisfied with the way the team has been rushing the passer this preseason. The Texans' defense has recorded just one sack, courtesy of backup defensive end Tim Bulman.
The coaches have been going with fairly basic defensive packages, trying to evaluate players from a one-on-one standpoint. That could change on Friday, as defensive coordinator Richard Smith looks to get aggressive, call more blitzes and unleash the beast the Texans call Mario Williams.
Smith will continue to rotate in defensive ends to see what he has as a pass rushing threat opposite Williams. Earl Cochran, N.D. Kalu and Rosevelt Colvin could all see time with the first team, especially in nickel situations.
Colvin looked faster off the line of scrimmage against the Saints, but the Texans will need him to find another gear in Dallas as the coaches get ready to make their first round of cuts this weekend.
"He (Colvin) made a step forward," Kubiak said. "This one is extremely important as we get towards these tough, tough decisions. It's important for a lot of players, not just him. It's important for the team so we just have to get out there and try to get better, including him."
3. O-line toughens up: Left guard Chester Pitts probably will miss Friday's game with a sore ankle and starting in his place will be second-year pro Kasey Studdard.
Studdard saw action in only three games last season, contributing primarily on special teams, but he made huge strides in the offseason. Assistant head coach/offense Alex Gibbs got Studdard to stop moving with reckless abandon and starting using proper technique. The former Longhorn still plays with a high motor, which the coaches love.
"He's got a lot of energy as a player," Kubiak said. "I like that. I think our football team respects the way he plays the game, how hard he plays. He fits in with our group. He's had to eliminate some mistakes he's made in the past and he's working towards doing that. You're just trying to see if he's come far enough that you can say, 'Hey, maybe this guy can start for a long time in this league.' I know he expects himself to. We're kind of looking at it that way ourselves."
The coaches also have been all over rookie left tackle Duane Brown to improve his run blocking, especially when sealing off the backside pursuit. If Studdard gets the O-line riled up, Brown could start putting up some mean cut blocks against a tough Dallas front seven.
4. Barber brothers reunite: Texans free safety Dominique Barber will get his first chance to play against his brother, Cowboys running back Marion Barber III, at the professional level.
Dominique was selected by the Texans in the sixth round of the 2008 draft and hasn't shared the field with his brother since the two played at the University of Minnesota. This week, the rookie hasn't been able to hide his excitement.
"The fact that you're at the highest level of football and to be able to be on the field at the same time as my brother, I'd be speechless," Dominique said. "It would be a dream come true, but I'd just go out there and play football."
The brother talks every day, if even just to check in with each other. But their close relationship won't keep Dominique from laying a huge hit on his Pro Bowl brother.
"It would be cool, but our relationship that we have, it's not about who beats up who," Dominique said. "He was never the type of guy to beat me up as the older brother. But if I could get a nice little lick on him, that would be nice.
"I'm sure if I get out there and he's out there then we'll exchange some words. But my mind is on helping the team and finding a way to get a 'W.' That's the main goal."
5. Turning of the tide: Last season, the Texans killed themselves with turnovers. Their minus-13 turnover margin ranked the second-worst in the NFL in 2007.
To emphasize the importance of winning the turnover battle, Kubiak had the phrase "PROTECT THE BALL!" printed on the seat of every offensive player's workout shorts.
The players got the message loud and clear. The offense has not committed a turnover in the preseason so far and the defense has intercepted the opponents twice, giving the Texans a plus-two turnover margin.
But that margin isn't big enough for Kubiak. He would like to see the defense make more plays on the ball, especially cornerback Jacques Reeves who struggled in coverage against the Saints and got beat on several deep balls.
"From a coverage standpoint, he's not going to get outrun," Kubiak said of Reeves. "He's got a lot of speed. He was right there on the big play, just got to find the football. And you know, it was a great throw. It was a perfect throw, but we have to find a way to get to that ball and knock it down.
"He's an excellent tackler. He'll come up and do his job from that standpoint. I like the fact that he's in position. We just have to work like heck on finding a way of getting the ball out."