Here are five things to watch when the Texans (5-3) take on the Cleveland Browns (3-4) in Week 9 on Salute to the Military day at Reliant Stadium. Kickoff is on Sunday at noon CT.
The Texans are 3-3 all-time against the Browns, including a victory in their last meeting with Cleveland in 2008.
1. Starting fast: The slow starts that plagued the Texans in 2010 are nowhere to be found this season. They have outscored opponents 57-13 in the first quarter this season. The Browns, meanwhile, have been outscored 44-3 in the first quarter.
The Texans have allowed the fewest first-half points and scored the most points in the NFL this season, outscoring opponents 124-42 in the first two quarters. That first-half scoring differential of 82 is the largest in the NFL. Quarterback Matt Schaub has a 104.6 passer rating in the first half this season, fourth-best in the NFL. He has completed 64.9 percent of his first-half passes with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Another fast start against the Browns, who have a -30 first-half scoring differential this season, could allow the Texans to lean on Arian Foster and Ben Tate and grind out the clock in the second half. The Texans rank third in the NFL with 33:31 in time of possession per game this season.
2. Run, run, run: The Texans have the fourth-ranked rushing offense in the league, averaging 141.9 yards per game. The Browns have the fifth-best defense overall but rank 26th against the run, allowing 127.7 yards per game.
Texans All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson is out yet again with a hamstring injury, but Foster is rounding into midseason form. Despite missing two-and-a-half of the first three games with a hamstring injury, Foster ranks ninth in the NFL with 532 rushing yards. He and Tate (508 yards) are the only pair of teammates with 500-plus yards this season.
Foster was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month in October after totaling 499 rushing yards, 310 receiving yards and five touchdowns in five games. His 809 yards from scrimmage were the third-most in the month of October in NFL history. He had at least 100 yards rushing and/or receiving in four out of five games, a ratio he looks ripe to improve this week.
3. Nice to see you: The Browns feature three former Texans in running back Chris Ogbonnaya, punter Brad Maynard and senior assistant coach on defense Ray Rhodes. Texans fullback Lawrence Vickers spent the first five seasons of his career with the Browns.
Ogbonnaya, signed off the Texans' practice squad three weeks ago, will likely be the Browns' starting running back this Sunday. Second-stringer Montario Hardesty is out with a calf injury, and starter Peyton Hills is questionable after re-injuring his hamstring on Friday. Maynard, a 15th-year veteran, was cut by the Texans after training camp in favor of undrafted rookie Brett Hartmann. Rhodes was on the Texans' coaching staff from 2008-10.
Vickers blocked for three 1,000-yard rushers in five seasons in Cleveland, but the Browns did not offer to re-sign him this offseason. He should continue to play a prominent role as a lead blocker in the Texans' rushing offense as James Casey works his way back from a chest injury.
"I'm excited about it," Vickers said. "It's a challenge. We're looking forward to going out there, playing our hard-nose football game, but at the same time, I get to see some of my buddies I missed. I spent the last five years with them, so they're excited about it. They've been texting me, telling me don't try to do all my little stuff. They know me… They've just been telling me, 'Hey man, don't try to take my head off. I'm going to knock you out.'
"I'm physical. I like to drive people into the ground, talk smack and finish them. Really I don't like the people I go against until the clock is over with. They know that, but they know I know how to show love and still pound on people. I know how to do that."
4. Containing Cribbs: Cleveland wide receiver Joshua Cribbs is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and the Browns find plenty of ways to get it to him.
Aside from returning kickoffs and punts, Cribbs ranks third on the Browns with 248 receiving yards, leads the team with 14.6 yards per catch and is tied for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns. He also has a rushing attempt and has even has lined up at quarterback this season.
But special teams is where Cribbs is at his best. An All-Pro returner in 2007 and 2009, he has the NFL career record with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns. Cribbs is averaging 10.8 yards per punt return and 25.1 yards per kickoff return this season, right on line with his career averages of 10.7 and 25.8.
"He can beat you by himself," Kubiak said on Wednesday. "We've got to have a plan for him. You can't keep the ball out of his hands. He'll bring it out of the end zone nine yards deep. He's done it many times. This guy's capable of putting 14 points on the board on you as a returner. Big problem this week."
5. Wrapping up McCoy: This will be Browns quarterback Colt McCoy's first NFL game in his home state of Texas. The former University of Texas star was the winningest quarterback in FBS history, compiling a 45-8 career record while setting numerous school records for the Longhorns.
A dual-threat quarterback, McCoy is ninth in the league in passing attempts but has only nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He ranks 25th in passer rating (76.4), 26th in completion percentage (57.0) and 32nd in yards per attempt (5.66). He has been sacked 16 times in seven games. Still, the 2010 third-round pick has drawn favorable reviews from Texans defensive players, who are well aware of his elusiveness and ability to make plays outside the pocket.
"There's a lot of guys where you're watching the film and you think, 'Wow, they got a good sack here,' and all of a sudden he squirts out, so that's what we're trying to do," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We're trying to make sure we get him wrapped up. We're trying to make sure we keep him contained and get those sacks that other guys might have missed."