Here are five things to watch when the Texans (10-6 last season, 1st AFC South) take on the New Orleans Saints (13-3, 1st NFC South) in their third preseason game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Kickoff is on Saturday at 7 p.m. CT.
1. 'Bulls' vs. Brees: The Texans' starters will likely play for three full quarters on Saturday in their most extensive and final tune-up for the 2012 regular season. It'll be an especially tough test for the Texans' "Bulls on Parade" defense, which had its worst performance last season against Drew Brees and the Saints.
Brees threw for 370 yards against the Texans in Week 3 at New Orleans last season. The Saints scored 23 points in the fourth quarter to win 40-33. The Texans' second-ranked defense gave up 454 yards and allowed a 300-yard passer for the only time last season. Brees went on to set the NFL single-season passing record with 5,476 yards.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said the Texans will stick to their base defense against New Orleans. That puts the onus on the Texans' individual defensive backs and pass rushers against the NFL's reigning number-one offense.
"We're trying to play our base defense as good as we can play it," Phillips said. "I like to see if our guy can beat their guy one-on-one (during the preseason). I don't really think you get a whole lot out of hitting the quarterback in the back with a cornerback and then say he played good. He didn't do anything if nobody picks him up."
"Right now, I'd rather see the one-on-one coverage, the one-on-one pass rush and one-on-one against the run, how you come off blocks, those kinds of things. Our base stuff has to be good enough to hold up against anything, and you've got to believe in what you're doing."
2. Texans trio: Quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson played together for less than four full quarters in 2011. They didn't play in a single game together for longer than a half. They could surpass the latter total on Saturday night.
Johnson probably won't play as much as the rest of the Texans' starters. The Texans have monitored his reps closely since he returned from a groin injury suffered in the first week of training camp, and Kubiak is generally cautious with injured players on turf. But the 31-year-old receiver should play at least two quarters after catching two passes for 49 yards last week in his preseason debut.
Schaub has looked like his old self in two games back from a season-ending Lisfranc injury. This will be his most action since November of last year. So far, he is 14-of-20 (70 percent) for 180 yards, one touchdown and one interception, building plenty of positive momentum as the season approaches. Foster, who did not play at New Orleans last season because of a hamstring injury, has 11 carries for 57 yards (5.2 average).
3. Special questions: The Texans have a couple of unanswered questions on special teams. Kick returner Trindon Holliday has made a strong case for a roster spot but likely doesn't have one locked up quite just yet. Kickers Randy Bullock and Shayne Graham are still competing for one spot.
Holliday (5-5, 169) has been the star of the Texans' preseason with two returns for a touchdown, one on a 90-yard kickoff return at Carolina and the other on an 87-yard punt return against San Francisco. The Zachary, La., native plays Saturday in the stadium where he won the 2007 BCS National Championship Game with LSU.
Even without his 90-yard touchdown, Holliday would still average 32.5. yards per kickoff return this preseason. The former NCAA sprint champion runs low to the ground with toughness and has proven to be difficult to tackle. He also has started covering punts, which would be part of his role if he makes the team. Consistency and ball security in the next two weeks should be enough to make that happen.
At kicker, Bullock and Graham are locked in a tight competition. Graham, a 12th-year veteran, is 4-of-4 on preseason field goals with a long of 49. Bullock, a rookie fifth-round draft pick who won the Lou Groza Award last year at Texas A&M, is 2-of-3 with a long of 52. His lone miss was wide right from 51 yards.
4. O-line battle: Rashad Butler or Derek Newton? Derek Newton or Rashad Butler? Rashad Butler and Derek Newton?
Two weeks from the start of the regular season, the Texans' starting right tackle job is still up for grabs. Coach Gary Kubiak did not name a starter at the position for this weekend's game and said that a time-share could be in order once the regular season begins.
Butler, the presumptive favorite for the job after the release of longtime starter Eric Winston in March, has split time with Newton in practices and games all offseason. Butler, a seventh-year pro who has been with the Texans since 2007, started the preseason opener at Carolina. Newton, a seventh-round draft pick from Arkansas State in 2011, started the second preseason game against San Francisco.
No matter who starts on Saturday, both players will rotate throughout the first three quarters. Kubiak wants to see how they fare in the noise of the hostile Superdome on FieldTurf against the Saints' speedy edge rushers. A decision on who wins the job will likely be announced next week.
5. DL rotation: Injuries have thinned the Texans' depth on the defensive line, presenting opportunity for young players on Saturday and in the upcoming preseason finale.
Defensive end Tim Jamison will make his third consecutive start for J.J. Watt (elbow). Nose tackle Earl Mitchell will make his second consecutive start in place of Shaun Cody (back). Hebron Fangupo, a 27-year-old undrafted rookie from BYU, is the Texans' only other healthy nose tackle. Sunny Harris suffered a season-ending injury in practice this week.
Jamison and rookie defensive end Jared Crick can also play nose tackle. Crick, a fourth-round draft pick, impressed Phillips in his preseason debut last Saturday. Another strong performance or two before the end of the preseason could go a long way in Crick earning a spot as a rotational player come regular-season time.