Here are five things to watch when the Texans (3-3) face the Tennessee Titans (3-2) at LP Field in Nashville in Week 7 for first place in the AFC South. Kickoff is at noon CT on Sunday.
1. Next men up: Texans All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson will not play against the Titans, his third consecutive missed game with a hamstring injury. The Texans have gone 0-2 in his absence and scored 17.0 points per game. They averaged 30.0 points and went 2-1 with Johnson in the first three games of the season.
Johnson could return next Sunday, but for now, wide receivers Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and Derrick Mason will be counted on step up in his place.
"You go back the past two weeks, our tight ends and Kevin played very well, and last week, the ball came to Jacoby," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "I don't know where it's going to go, but obviously the production's got to come from someplace else, and so we'll spread it out amongst them and hopefully they'll all do their part."
Mason will take on a bigger role this week in his second game since being traded from the New York Jets. He caught three passes for 27 yards last Sunday after just two days of practice with the Texans.
"He's got the full grasp (of the offense)," Kubiak said. "Last week, he kind of played in a package. This week, he'll play in the whole scheme of things. He's moving forward."
The last active NFL player who was with the Titans when the team moved to Tennessee, Mason played for the Titans from 1997-2004. He is the all-time leading receiver at LP Field with 230 catches, 3,168 yards and 22 touchdowns in 45 games.
2. Foster in focus: The Texans rank seventh in rushing yards per game (126.2), but they averaged only 3.3 yards per carry in the last two weeks. All-Pro running back Arian Foster is coming off a 22-carry, 68-yard game against the Oakland Raiders and a 15-carry, 49-yard game against the Baltimore Ravens. He said after the Ravens game that he played terribly and vowed to never let it happen again.
"I know we're a good running team, and I think that we've had some tough opponents as far as run defense," Foster said this week. "They've done a good job, but at the same time, we haven't been opportunistic when the opportunity presented itself in certain situations, and I think we've just got to be more aggressive."
Kubiak remains committed to the running game and expects Foster's production to improve now that his early-season hamstring injury is well behind him.
"I think Arian's fine," Kubiak said. "He's played in three games this year. Most of the guys that have played in three games are coming out of preseason and here we go, it's the regular season. Well, we're in Week 7, so that's the difference."
3. Keeping Schaub upright: A more effective running game would help the Texans keep heat off quarterback Matt Schaub, who has taken a pounding in recent weeks.
Schaub was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday because of chest and hip injuries. He missed practice time last week with a sore right shoulder and thigh. He has been sacked seven times and hit 13 more over the last two games.
After those last two games, Schaub's season-long completion percentage has dropped from 65.5 to 59.2. His yards per attempt have gone from 8.5 to 7.9, and his passer rating has dipped from 101.7 to 90.7.
The Titans have 11 total sacks this season. Schaub has 682 passing yards with six touchdowns and only one interception in his last two games at LP Field, and he could be in line for another big game if he gets more time to throw. If not, the Texans could find themselves in trouble soon with four weeks still remaining until their bye.
4. CJ3.0?: Titans All-Pro running back Chris Johnson averaged more than 1,500 rushing yards in his first three seasons, with 5.0 yards per carry. He's averaging 3.0 per carry this season, second-worst in the league, and the Titans rank last with 66.6 team rushing yards per game.
But the Texans know all too well how dangerous Johnson, who signed a four-year, $53.5 million contract extension this offseason, can be. In his last two home games against the Texans, he ran for 197 yards on just 16 carries (2009) and 130 yards on 24 carries (2010).
"They paid him that money for a reason, obviously," Texans linebacker Connor Barwin said. "I've played him when he's had nobody blocking for him and he's gone 80 yards. The guy can make anybody look stupid and can take it all the way in a second, so I'm not really looking at three yards a carry right now."
Johnson had 101 yards on 23 carries against Cleveland in Week 4. In the Titans' other four games, he has just 149 yards on 60 carries (2.5 average). His long run this season is 25 yards.
"He can make a big play at any time," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "He's a home-run hitter. You got to have everybody watching him all the time because he doesn't run the ball where the hole is all the time. If it's not blocked here, he'll go somewhere else. We don't want to get him started on a big game, that's for sure."
5. Stopping Hasselbeck: The Titans were a run-first team for years under Kerry Collins and Vince Young, but things have changed with new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. The 13th-year veteran ranks second in the AFC with a 95.9 passer rating and has been a catalyst to Tennessee's 3-2 start.
Despite losing star wide receiver Kenny Britt in Week 3, Hasselbeck ranks ninth in the NFL with 272.4 passing yards per game. He has completed 64.6 percent of his passes this season with nine touchdowns and only four interceptions.
"I think I'm more used to just spreading it around, anyway," Hasselbeck said. "I've never really had a guy that was a Pro Bowl-type guy that needed to get the ball or that kind of thing. We're just running our offense, doing our thing and taking what the defense gives you and seeing how they want to play coverage and finding one-on-one matchups and spreading the ball around, tight ends, running backs, everybody. Whoever gets the ball gets the ball."
The Texans rank third in the league with 17.0 sacks, a franchise record through the first six games of a season. Hasselbeck has been sacked only seven times. Antonio Smith, Brooks Reed, Barwin, Brian Cushing and the rest of the Texans' pass rushers will have to be on top of their game to disrupt Hasselbeck's timing on Sunday.