Here are five things to watch as the Texans (2-0) take on the New Orleans Saints (1-1) at the Louisiana Superdome in Week 3. Kickoff is Sunday at noon CT.
1. No. 1 test: As litmus tests go, they don't get much bigger than the one facing the Texans' defense in Week 3. Houston has the league's number one defense through two games under new coordinator Wade Phillips. New Orleans has had the league's number one offense in three of the last five seasons under head coach Sean Payton.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads the league in passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage since 2006. He has 689 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions in two games this season. Among the weapons at his disposal are running backs Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram, who handle much of the work between the tackles, and Darren Sproles, a dynamic runner, receiver and returner.
Wide receiver Marques Colston is out with an injury, but the Saints still have a dangerous set of deep threats in Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore, along with tight end Jimmy Graham. Their offensive line features two of the best guards in the game in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks.
"I'm really looking forward to the challenge that this team brings, because it's just a great team," said Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, a second-year captain. "I can't wait to see us go against them and us battle."
2. Foster and/or Tate: In what has become a weekly game of wait-and-see, Arian Foster will be a game-time decision on Sunday. The 2010 rushing champ didn't play in Week 1, the last time he was a game-time decision, but was able to practice on a limited basis this week on Thursday and Friday. The Texans will work him out Saturday and Sunday morning before determining his status.
If Foster can't play, Ben Tate will make his first-career start. If he runs for more than 100 yards, Tate will join Cadillac Williams as the second player in NFL history to do so in his first three games. The second-year back out of Auburn had 116 yards in Week 1 and 103 in Week 2, making him one of 11 players in league history with 100 yards in his first two games.
Tate is third in the NFL with 219 rushing yards, 10 yards off the league lead. He's averaging 4.8 yards per carry without having a single run longer than 18 yards. Derrick Ward is out this week with a sprained ankle, so Steve Slaton would be the Texans' second running back after Tate. The Saints have only allowed 81.5 rushing yards per game this season, but they gave up 112.3 a game in 2010.
3. Blitzing away: Whether or not Foster plays, the Texans will look to establish their running game to avoid putting Matt Schaub in harm's way.
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is notorious for blitzing from anywhere and everywhere. The Saints had six sacks against a banged-up Bears offensive line in a 30-13 victory in Week 2. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said that the best way to keep those aggressive blitzes at bay is to run the ball well on first and second down to avoid third-and-long situations.
The Texans have had no problem piling up rushing yards in their first two games. They rank fifth in the league with 152.5 rushing yards per game and second in time of possession, holding the ball for 35:25 per game. A mix of runs and short passes could be a crucial part of their game plan in Week 3.
4. Crescent City shootout?: The Texans will want to run the ball, but the two quarterbacks in this game sure can throw it. It wouldn't be a shock to see aerial fireworks on display on Sunday in the Superdome.
Since 2008, Schaub ranks second in the NFL with 293.3 passing yards per game on the road. Since 2007, Brees ranks first in the league with 300.4 passing yards per game at home. Brees led the league in passing in 2008 with 5,069 yards, which was the second-most all-time. Schaub led the league in passing in 2009 with 4,770 yards, which was sixth-most all-time.
Schaub ranks fourth in NFL history with a 65.0 career completion percentage, right behind Brees at 65.3 percent. So far in 2011, Schaub leads the league in completions percentage (71.7) while Brees ranks seventh (67.4).
Schaub only has 450 passing yards so far this season, but he's averaging a career-high 8.5 yards per attempt (Brees is at 8.0 through two games). Should the Texans need to rely on his his arm to move the ball, look out for a big day from Schaub and Andre Johnson.
5. Return factor: Both teams feature dynamic kick returners who could be the X-factor in a game that looks relatively even on paper.
Texans safety Danieal Manning has been a lightning rod every time he touches the ball on kickoff returns, ranking fourth in the league with a 41.7-yard average. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who's questionable with a knee injury, ranks third with 25.4 yards per punt return. Sproles is sixth in kick return average (33.3) and fourth in punt return average (23.3) for the Saints.
Working in the Texans' favor on kickoffs is their punter, Brett "The Hitman" Hartmann. The undrafted rookie from Central Michigan has consistently boomed the ball out of the end zone for touchbacks. Texans opponents' average starting field position has been at the 19.2-yard line. The average starting field position for Saints opponents has been at the 27.3-yard line.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead has eight touchbacks on kickoffs, equal to Hartmann, but the ones he has left in play have been returned for an average of 42.4 yards. Hartmann's have been returned for an average of 25.2 yards.