Here are five things to watch when the Texans (10-1, 3-0 AFC South) take on the Tennessee Titans (4-7, 0-3 AFC South) in Week 13 at LP Field in Nashville. Kickoff is Sunday at noon CT.
1. New-look LBs: The Texans will have a completely different starting linebacker corps on Sunday than they had at the beginning of the season. They'll likely use three-man rotations at outside and inside linebacker.
Rookie Whitney Mercilus will start on the outside in place of Brooks Reed, who's out for several weeks with a groin injury. Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins, or perhaps Barrett Ruud, will start on the inside. Bradie James is out with a hamstring injury, while Brian Cushing has been out for the season since Week 5 with a knee injury. The only opening-day starter on the field will be outside linebacker Connor Barwin, but he'll start on the strongside for the first time this season with Mercilus playing on the weakside.
Mercilus, a first-round raft pick from Illinois, is making his first-career start. The 26th overall pick in the draft has three sacks
and two forced fumbles in limited action this season. He led the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011. Special teams standout Bryan Braman, a second-year pro, will be the first outside linebacker off the bench.
Barwin is comfortable on the strongside, having started there for the first six games of last season. He'll have more responsibility to drop back into coverage but will now be matched up with right tackles, tight ends and running backs when he does rush the passer.
Dobbins has been battling a shoulder injury but is expected to play after sitting out last week. Sharpton is two games removed from the Physically Unable to Perform list but has played well since his return. Ruud, who played for the Titans in 2011, broke up two passes in the fourth quarter in Week 12 while filling in for James. Jesse Nading also could see action at inside or outside linebacker.
2. CB shuffle: With Johnathan Joseph out and Alan ball questionable because of injuries, Brice McCain may start at cornerback opposite Kareem Jackson, with second-year cornerback Brandon Harris playing nickel. Second-year cornerback Roc Carmichael also could get significant snaps on defense.
Joseph is missing his second consecutive game with a hamstring injury. Ball sat out of practice on Friday with a sore foot after starting for Joseph last Thursday at Detroit. McCain has started five games in his four-year career, while Harris and Carmichael have both played sparingly since being drafted in 2011.
The Texans' young cornerbacks will be helped by the presence of veteran safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quin, who are having outstanding seasons, and the pass rush of defensive end J.J. Watt, who already has a team-record 14.5 sacks. The Texans have allowed 791 passing yards in the last two gams, but the Titans rank 20th in passing with 220.8 passing yards per game.
3. New wrinkles?: The Titans rank 24th in offense and 19th in scoring, but the Texans don't know exactly what they'll be facing this week.
That's because Tennessee fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer on Monday, replacing him with 32-year-old former quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, who has never before called a game on any level. Loggains essentially has a five-game audition for his job, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him pull out some inventive plays on
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said this week that the Texans expected to see a similar offense to what the Titans have run all season. No matter what wrinkles Loggains might implement, the Texans will have to stop a talented, mobile young quarterback in Jake Locker and a game-breaking running back in Chris Johnson, who ranks sixth in the league with 942 rushing yards.
The Texans limited the Titans to 14 points and 325 yards with Palmer calling the offense in Week 4. Locker was knocked out of the game in the first quarter on a sack by safety Glover Quin.
4. Johnson's hot streak: Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson is on a historic run. Can he keep it up?
Johnson set an NFL record for receiving yards in a two-game span with 461 in the last two games. He had a franchise-record 273 yards in Week 11 in the Texans' overtime victory against Jacksonville. He followed that up with 188 yards in the Texans' overtime victory at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
Johnson, 31, was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month after leading the conference in receptions (35), receiving yards (614) and yards from scrimmage (614) in four November games. He averaged 153.5 receiving yards per game.
In 17 career games against the Titans, Johnson has 90 catches for 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns. He has averaged 5.3 catches and 70.6 yards per game.
5. Special game for Foster: Running back Arian Foster said this week that the University of Tennessee, where he played collegiately, was like a second home to him and that going back to play in the state is still special for him. Foster has been outstanding against the Titans, and against all opponents on the road this season.
In four games against the Titans since 2010, Foster has averaged 152 yards from scrimmage (90 rushing/62 receiving) per game. He has scored four touchdowns. He had perhaps the best all-around game of his career in 2011 at Tennessee, racking up 115 rushing yards, 119 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a 41-7 victory.
Foster has topped 100 rushing yards in each of his five road games this season. He has averaged 26.2 carries and 114.2 yards (4.4 average) and scored four touchdowns. He ranks third in the AFC overall with 1,064 rushing yards and is the first player in Texans history with 1,000 rushing yards in three consecutive seasons.