Here are five things to watch when the Texans (3-2) face the Baltimore Ravens (3-1) at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore in Week 6. Kickoff is at 3:05 p.m. CT on Sunday.
1. Life after Mario: With Mario Williams out for the season, rookie second-round pick Brooks Reed moves into the starting lineup at weakside linebacker.
Williams has five of the Texans' 15 sacks this season. Since 2007, he has 48.5 of the Texans' 131 sacks (37.02 percent); no player in the league has accounted for a higher share of his team's total.
"Obviously, there's a lot of pressure," Reed said. "I'm a rookie and first year playing and stepping in for a Pro Bowler. There's pressure, but I like that. I think I'll respond well to it."
Reed, who coaches praise for his tenacity and get-off on the snap, had four tackles and two quarterback hits against the Raiders last Sunday. Strongside linebacker Connor Barwin has two sacks, seven quarterback hits and two pass deflections this season.
The Texans obviously would still like to have Williams, but defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said that the combination of Reed and Barwin might help Houston disguise its pass-rushing plans.
"There were certain things that we would run that Mario was going to rush no matter what," Phillips said on Friday. "Now, we have some versatility that they don't who's going to rush and who isn't."
Undrafted rookie Bryan Braman and practice squad call-up Jesse Nading are the backups to Reed and Barwin.
2. Mason's debut: Wide receiver Derrick Mason will make his Texans debut on Sunday, just four days after being acquired via trade from the New York Jets.
A 15th-year veteran who has 12,006 career receiving yards, Mason played for the Ravens from 2005-10. He had 61 catches for 802 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He played at Baltimore two weeks ago with the Jets and had two catches for 37 yards.
With All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson out again with a hamstring injury, Mason will have a chance to make an immediate impact. Jacoby Jones had only one catch for nine yards starting in Johnson's place last week, and backup receiver Bryant Johnson has been hobbled by a hamstring injury of his own.
Mason, 37, is excited to face his former team after getting a crash course in the Texans' offense from wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey.
"I didn't know how fast I would pick up on the playbook, but once I spent a lot of time with Coach Larry in the meeting rooms, it started to come to me," he said on Thursday. "I don't know how or why, but it just started to come to me, and that's a good thing. So I feel confident that I can go out there and play at full speed."
3. Familiar faces: Two former Texans now play prominent roles for the Ravens after leaving Houston in free agency this offseason.
Fullback Vonta Leach, who played for the Texans from 2006-10, earned All-Pro honors last season as the lead blocker for Arian Foster. He signed with the Ravens in the offseason and has helped Baltimore imitate the Texans' stretch zone running scheme.
"He's going to be excited to play and see all of us and we're excited to see him," wide receiver Kevin Walter said. "It's going to be a dog fight. He's going to be out there trying to hit us."
Bernard Pollard, a Texan from 2009-10, is starting for the Ravens at strong safety. Despite not being re-signed by Houston this offseason, Pollard said he doesn't harbor any resentment and that Sunday's game is just another one on the schedule.
"I can't look at it and be pissed about whatever because this is a business," Pollard said. "This is what happens in this league. You make business decisions. You keep guys, you keep coaches. You let go of guys, you let go of coaches. That's just what happens, so I have no hard feelings. I'm just ready to play football."
4. Rolling on the road: The Texans have the AFC's best road offense since 2008, averaging 391.0 yards in 26 games. Quarterback Matt Schaub ranks second in the NFL in that same span with 295.7 passing yards per game on the road. He has completed 65.8 percent of his passes and thrown for 7,097 yards and 40 touchdowns in 24 games.
It'll be a tall order to replicate those numbers without Johnson against the Ravens. Led by future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and perennial Pro Bowlers Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, the Ravens rank third in total defense (284.5 yards/game) and are tied for eighth in passing defense (212.0). They've allowed only three passing touchdowns all season.
"We all need to step up and make plays," said Walter, who had five catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in Week 5. "I think we all need to go out there and execute our game plan and fly around, and for the receivers, there's some big plays to be made out there. Obviously, there's some man coverage on third down and some different things that they're going to do. We need to go out there and beat our man and make big plays. There's some holes out there."
Protecting the football will be critical to the Texans' offensive success. The Ravens have forced 14 turnovers this season and scored four defensive touchdowns, most in the NFL.
5. Rushing to win: This is the first time all season the Texans will have three top three running backs – Foster, Ben Tate and Derrick Ward – healthy in the same game.
Foster missed two of the first three games with a hamstring injury. Tate missed most of the last two games with a groin injury. Ward hasn't played since suffering a sprained ankle in Week 1. The Texans still have managed to rank fifth in the NFL in rushing (132.8 yards per game) and third in time of possession (33:25 per game).
Tate, a Maryland native, will back up Foster on Sunday. Ward, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season, will be the third running back.
"I see all of three of them getting touches in this game somehow, some way," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said Thursday. "We've had problems there all year long, so hopefully we settle down there and stay healthy and Arian starts to move into midseason form."
The Texans are 3-0 this season and 26-3 under Kubiak since 2006 when rushing the ball 30 or more times in a game. The Ravens have the league's second-best rushing defense, allowing 72.5 yards per game, but Foster ran for 100 yards on 20 carries against them last season at Reliant Stadium.