Here are five things to watch when the Texans (6-1, 2-0 AFC South) take on the Buffalo Bills (3-4, 0-2 AFC East) on Salute to Service Day presented by Bud Light at Reliant Stadium in Week 9. Kickoff is Sunday at noon CT.
1. Mario's return: The top storyline all week has been the return of Bills defensive end Mario Williams, the former Texan who signed a $96 million contract with Buffalo in free agency this offseason.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Williams spent the first six seasons of his career in Houston. He set the Texans' career (53) and single-season (14.0 in 2007) sack records, made two Pro Bowls and had two double-digit sack seasons.
"I've got a lot of respect for Mario," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "You all know that. I think a lot of him as a person and a player. He's a hell of a player. You got to pay a great deal of attention to him. We've had a few of these situations come up with some guys coming back here and us playing them… That's just part of it, but we've got to beat their football team. We've got to play good to beat their football team, and Mario is a big part of that."
Williams plays mostly on the left side of the defensive line, so second-year right tackle Derek Newton will have the challenge of blocking Williams for much of the game. Newton has been rotating with Ryan Harris, while left tackle Duane Brown has not allowed a sack all season. Williams had surgery on his left wrist last week during the Bills' bye but did not miss any practice time this week.
2. Special teams: Special teams has been the Texans' biggest concern through seven games, and the Bills have the best return game in the league.
Buffalo leads the NFL in kick return average (30.8 yards) and punt return average (24.0). Cornerback Leodis McKelvin averages 32.0 yards per kickoff return and has an 88-yard punt return for a touchdown. Wide receiver Brad Smith averages 34.6 yards per kickoff return, which includes an 89-yard touchdown.
"I told my team that we could singlehandedly get beat by these two returners," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Thursday. "They're excellent."
The Texans rank last in average starting field position after kickoffs (18.5-yard line) and opponent starting field position (26-yard line). They've allowed two returns for touchdowns. They're 23rd in kickoff return average allowed (26.4 yards) and 24th in punt return average allowed (10.6).
The Texans studied their special teams exhaustively during the bye week. Kubiak said they're starting from scratch. Starters such as Kevin Walter and Brooks Reed will likely see a few snaps on special teams plays to help the unit improve.
3. Dynamic duo: Led by running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, Buffalo ranks third in the league in rushing at 150.3 yards per game. Kubiak said it may be the best tandem in the NFL this season.
"It's a tough run game, too, because it's not your conventional I-back," Kubiak said. "They spread the field, a lot of motions, a lot of the three wides, four wides and then here comes the run game and two very good players with Spiller with the big play. You're very concerned about that."
Spiller leads the league with 7.3 yards per carry, totaling 523 rushing yards and four touchdowns. A top-10 pick out Clemson in 2010, he also has 19 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown. Jackson, who missed two games with a knee injury this season, has 53 carries for 197 yards and 17 catches for 134 yards and two total touchdowns.
The Texans rank fourth in rushing defense, allowing only 83.0 yards per game. They have not allowed a run of 20 yards or more and have not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. No other team in the league can lay claim to either distinction.
4. Ground attack: Arian Foster and the Texans' sixth-ranked rushing game (140.9 yards/game) could be in line for a big day against a Bills rushing defense that ranks last in the NFL (176.9 yards/game).
Foster leads the league in rushing attempts (168) and ranks fifth in rushing yards (659). He also has a league-high nine rushing touchdowns and 10 total touchdowns. He has scored in every game this season and has two rushing touchdowns in three of four home games.
Ben Tate will not play Sunday because of a hamstring injury, leaving Justin Forsett as the backup to Foster. Recently re-signed rookie Jonathan Grimes will be the Texans' third running back on Sunday but will likely only play on special teams.
Kubiak said Forsett will rotate with Foster in the same way that Tate normally does. A fifth-year pro who signed with the Texans in May, Forsett led the Texans in rushing in the preseason and has averaged 5.2 yards per carry this season.
5. MegaWatt: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is for pace of a historic season in sacks and swats. He'll look to continue his torrid start against quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills.
Watt leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks. He's tied for sixth in the league with 10 passes defensed, four of which have been intercepted. With his next sack, he'll become the 11th player with at least 10 sacks and 10 passes defensed in a season since 1991. The last one to do it was Jared Allen in 2007.
Since passes defensed were officially tracked beginning in 1991, no player has ever recorded 14 sacks and 14 passes defensed in a single season. Watt is on pace for 21.5 and 23, respectively. The NFL sack record is 22.5, set by Michael Strahan in 2001. The record for passes defensed by a defensive lineman is 13, set by Reggie White in 1991.
Watt had a six in each of the first six games of the season and leads the Texans' third-ranked defense in quarterback hits (16), tackles for loss (16) and fumble recoveries (2). He ranks second on the team in tackles (34).
Asked this week how to stop Watt, Bills head coach Chan Gailey replied, "Wow. I think that is the $64,000 question. How do you do that? We are just going to do our stuff and hopefully we can get on him, occupy him long enough to get some runs and get a pass off every now and then. He is a dynamic player, to say the least."