Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (4-4) take on the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-4) in a critical AFC South matchup at EverBank Field in Jacksonville on Sunday. Kickoff is at noon CT.
The Texans are 8-8 all-time against the Jaguars, including a season sweep by Jacksonville last season.
1. Schaub to Johnson:Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson has 76 career catches against the Jaguars, more catches than he has against any other team. Johnson is listed as questionable with a high-ankle sprain, but he will play on Sunday and does not expect to be limited after making it through last week's game unscathed.
The Jaguars rank 28th in passing defense and have allowed the most passing yards per play (8.32) in the league. They lost their best pass rusher, defensive end Aaron Kampman, to a torn ACL in practice this week. Kampman had a team-high four sacks and 30 quarterback pressures.
Johnson has caught a pass of at least 25 yards in three consecutive games against the Jaguars. His quarterback, Matt Schaub, has thrown for more yards per game on the road (291.4) than any other quarterback in the NFL since 2009. The recipe is there for a big day from Johnson and Schaub on Sunday.
2. Foster, MJD:Two of the best running backs in the league will be on display on Sunday.
Nobody has been better than the Texans' Arian Foster in the first half of the season. Foster leads the league in rushing yards (864), yards from scrimmage (1,179), first downs (67), touchdowns (10) and 100-yard games (five). He's only 136 yards away from becoming the third Texan to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Nobody is harder to tackle than Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who runs like a bowling ball at 5-7, 208 pounds. Jones-Drew made the Pro Bowl last season after piling up 1,391 rushing yards. He has 645 yards this season, ranking 12th in the league. He's also averaging a career-low 4.0 yards per carry and has only one rushing touchdown after recording 15 in 2009.
3. Cushing outside:After two games at middle linebacker, Brian Cushing will move back to the strongside position on at least a part-time basis. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said that Cushing could play middle linebacker in nickel situations and outside linebacker in base defense. Kevin Bentley will play in the middle when Cushing plays outside.
Cushing and the Texans are hoping that a move to his natural position will free him up to make more impact plays, like he did last season when he was named the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
From the strongside last season, Cushing led all NFL linebackers with four interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He ranked third among all 4-3 linebackers with 4.0 sacks.
The Texans have only 12 sacks and five interceptions this season. They'll need to do everything they can to rattle Jaguars quarterback David Garrard, who ranks fourth in the league with a 98.8 passer rating. Garrard is near-automatic when he has time to throw, as evidenced by his 67.8 completion percentage.
4. Tight ends stepping up:With Owen Daniels out for the second consecutive week because of a hamstring injury, Joel Dreessen and James Casey will once again be Scahub's primary targets at tight end.
Dreessen, Daniels' top backup, matched his season high with five catches and had 67 yards against the Chargers in Week 9. Casey, a second-year pro with great hands, had a career-high four catches for 48 yards in the game.
"We've got a lot of confidence in them," Kubiak said. "They had, between the two of them (last week), nine catches for over 100 yards. Those guys made some plays. Joel has always been confident in what he's done, but you could see James' confidence grow this week at practice knowing that he's going to play, and I'm going to give him an opportunity."
5. Slowing down Marcedes:The Jaguars' catalyst on offense has been tight end Marcedes Lewis (6-6, 275), who has seven of their 15 receiving touchdowns. And the Texans' Achilles heel has been their passing defense, which ranks 32nd in yards allowed per game with 298.3 and in touchdowns allowed with 20.
Lewis has three games this season with two touchdown catches.
"He does a great job now of running the routes and understanding where the holes are and where the zones are, how to beat man coverage," Garrard said on Wednesday. "He's such a big target. He has soft hands. He really allows me as a quarterback to put the ball anywhere and him go and make a play on it. We just feel that Marcedes has stepped up his game and has really turned himself into one of the better tight ends in the league. He just continues to grow with confidence, and I continue to grow with confidence in him."
In eight games this season, starting tight ends have caught 46 passes for 470 yards and six touchdowns against the Texans. That's more catches than any tight end in the league (league leader Jason Witten has 45); more receiving yards than all but two tight ends (Antonio Gates, 663, and Witten, 506); and more touchdowns than all but two tight ends (Gates, 9, and Lewis). The Texans will look to buck the trend this week and slow down the red-hot Lewis.