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Five things to watch: Texans at Rams


Wide receiver Andre Johnson is coming off of an 11-catch, 193-yard game against the Seahawks.

Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (6-7) take on the St. Louis Rams (1-12) at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Sunday. Kickoff is at noon CT.

Swine flu effect:A swine flu outbreak caused the Rams to cancel practice on Thursday, the major work day of the week for many NFL teams. Eight Rams players are questionable for the game due to illness, including running back Steven Jackson and quarterback Kyle Boller, who both sat out of practice on Friday.

Losing Jackson this week would be a devastating blow for the 1-12 Rams. Jackson, the NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,271 yards, has accounted for 40 percent of the team's 3,886 yards and four of its 14 touchdowns. He has played through a back injury for the last few weeks, so chances are he'll play if he can walk.

Boller also has a thigh injury and didn't practice at all this week. If he's unable to go, Keith Null will make his second-career start. The rookie out of West Texas A&M threw five interceptions against the Titans in his first start last week.

Texans players say they're not concerned with being at risk during the game. The team's medical staff will monitor players and have Tamiflu, an antiviral medicine, on hand in case any players need it after the game.

Big chance for Foster:Texans coach Gary Kubiak said that rookie running back Arian Foster will play "a lot more" against the Rams 27th-ranked rushing defense (147.2 yards/game) than he did against the Seahawks. In his offensive debut last Sunday, Foster had 13 carries for 34 yards and four catches for 54 yards

"We'll see how he handles it," Kubiak said. "He's got some ability. He's got the ability to play in this league for a long time if he handles his business the right way."

Depending on what play the Texans run to start the game, Foster could get the starting nod. Kubiak said that he plans to use a rotation of Foster, Chris Brown and Ryan Moats, but that Foster will get every opportunity to build on what he did last week. The team is counting on Foster to take another step forward.

"He's getting an opportunity because of the misfortune of Steve (Slaton) being out and us searching for a back to step up and take it upon their shoulders," Kubiak said.

"It's up to him how hard he studies, how hard he works, the attention to detail that he goes into this game with. We'll see. Consistency is something we're looking for in a player."

An undrafted free agent of Tennessee, Foster began the 2009 season on the Texans' practice squad. He's excited about the opportunity in front of him, four weeks after he earned a spot on the active roster.

"This is what you work for," he said. "This is what you dream for as a little kid, so I'm going to go out there and try to make things happen."

Aerial assault:With a sputtering running game, the Texans have depended on their fourth-ranked passing attack to move the ball and put points on the board. That trend could continue against a Rams defense that ranks 30th overall and 19th against the pass (222.8 yards/game). The Rams haven't intercepted a pass since Week 10 at New Orleans.

Quarterback Matt Schaub is 186 yards away from the first 4,000-yard passing season in Texans history. He ranks fourth in the NFL in passing yards (3,814), fifth in passing touchdowns (24), second in completions (324) and completion percentage (68.5) and sixth in passer rating (98.2).

Wide receiver Andre Johnson said before the Dec. 6 Jacksonville game that he wanted to finish the season with the best five games of his life. He's done a pretty good job of making good on that vow so far. Johnson is coming off the second-best game of his career, an 11-catch, 193-yard outing against the Seattle Seahawks. He leads the NFL with 1,237 receiving yards and is on pace to become the first player since Jerry Rice to lead the league in receiving yards in consecutive seasons.

"Special" teams:Special teams coordinator Joe Marciano has gotten excellent punting from 41-year-old Matt Turk and outstanding coverage to match in recent weeks.

The Seahawks had zero punt yards at Reliant Stadium last Sunday, when Turk had a net average of 44.3 yards per punt. His net average over the last five games is 42.6 yards per punt. Only five of his 20 punts have been returned in that span, while eight have been downed inside the 20.

"Man, he's like what, year 25 in the league or something?" special teams captain Kevin Bentley said of Turk, who's actually in his 14th NFL season. "It's amazing to see this guy, and he continues to get better each week. You say, 'Alright, this is probably the best this guy can punt,' and then next thing you know, we don't even get a chance to make tackles. We're fighting just to touch the returner because we're not getting an opportunity to make tackles. I think he's playing just as well as anybody in the league right now."

The Texans have not allowed an opponent more than 12 total punt return yards since Week 2 at Tennessee. They've given up just 84 punt return yards this season on 21 returns, a 4.0 yards per return average that ranks second in the league.

The Texans also are tied for eighth in average yards allowed on kickoff returns, seventh in punt return average and are 16th in kickoff return average.

Bentley leads the coverage units with 18 special teams tackles, which is tied for fourth in the NFL. He attributes the Texans' success on punt and kickoff returns with his group's willingness to compete.

"We've got a lot of guys out there that could be starters in other places," said Bentley, who started seven games at linebacker last season. "We're not getting opportunity to play defense, so you've got to get the productivity somewhere, and it's coming on coverage teams. We're fighting for tackles. We're racing to see who can get down there first, and we've made it fun for ourselves."

Completing the circuit:This is the Texans' first visit to St. Louis, the last NFL city that the Texans had yet to visit in their eight-year history.

The Texans are 2-1 against the NFC West this season, with their lone loss coming by seven points at Arizona in Week 5. A victory would make the Texans 3-1 against NFC opponents for the third consecutive season.

With an 0-6 at the Edward Jones Dome, the Rams are the only team in the NFL without a home victory this season. St. Louis has lost five consecutive games and is tied with Tampa Bay for the worst record in the NFL at 1-12.

Head coach Steve Spagnuolo's team lone victory was a 17-10 decision at Detroit in Week 8. The Rams have scored the fewest points (146) and allowed the second-most points (361) in the league this season and are coming off a 47-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 14.

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