Here are five things to watch when the Texans take on the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 at Reliant Stadium. Kickoff is at noon CT.
1. Game-time decisions: Running back Arian Foster and outside linebacker Brooks Reed will be game-time decisions on Sunday, which means the Texans will announce if they'll play 90 minutes before kickoff. Foster is dealing with soreness in his knee area. Reed is dealing with a sore hip.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak said Friday he was optimistic that both will play, but either player would be a significant loss. Foster, a two-time Pro Bowler, leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage since 2010. Reed, who starts on the strong side opposite Connor Barwin, set a team rookie record last season with 5.5 sacks and tied for the NFL lead with 3.5 more sacks in the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Texans, they have good backup options If Foster or Reed can't play or are limited. Running back Ben Tate started twice last season and had 942 rushing yards on 5.4 yards per carry, which ranked seventh in the NFL. He ran for 100 yards in both of the first two games of the season, including the Texans' Week 2 victory at Miami. Justin Forsett, a dynamic back with excellent pass-catching ability, is next on the depth chart behind Tate.
First-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus is next in line behind Reed. While the Texans would rather give him more time to develop than thrust him into a full-time role in Week 1, they drafted him in the first round for a reason. The rookie out of Illinois led the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011 and led the Texans in the preseason with 3.5 sacks.
2. Welcome to the NFL: The Texans' "Bulls on Parade" defense comes out of the gates against rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who makes his first NFL start in the hostile confines of Reliant Stadium.
Tannehill, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Texas A&M, played his final college game at Reliant in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 31. He was 27-of-40 for 329 yards in that game, leading A&M to a victory and earning MVP honors.
Instead of facing the Northwestern defense, Tannehill gets a Wade Phillips-led crew that set a team record with 44 sacks in 2011 and led the AFC with 17 preseason sacks. Tannehill is trying to get his NFL career off on the right foot. Texans defensive players are chomping at the bit to knock him off his feet.
"We're really excited about him coming in here," linebacker Brian Cushing said. "Everyone kind of has that welcome to the NFL moment. We're hoping to bring it Week 1."
Cushing (ribs), defensive end J.J. Watt (elbow) and nose tackle Shaun Cody (back) are all healthy and ready to go after missing time in the preseason because of injuries. If the Texans can contain running back Reggie Bush on first and second down and consistently put the Dolphins in third-and-long, Sunday could be a day Tannehill remembers for all the wrong seasons.
3. 8 and 80: Quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson are both healthy and ready to lead the Texans' offense in Week 1.
Schaub and Johnson played in only three full games together in 2011. Johnson missed nine games with hamstring injuries, while Schaub missed the final six games and the playoffs with a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his right foot. Many observers felt the Texans could have been a Super Bowl team last year with Schaub healthy.
Schaub showed that he is all the way back from his injury this preseason by leading the AFC with a 113.3 passer rating. In five quarters, he completed 29-of-38 passes for 374 yards (76.3 percent), two touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked only once. Last season, Schaub led the Texans to a 7-3 record with 15 touchdown passes to only six interceptions. He ranked second in the AFC behind Tom Brady with 8.5 yards per attempt pass and a 96.8 passer rating.
Johnson, 31 and now in his 10th season, has been hounded by questions about his age and injuries all offseason long. He said Friday that he's "ready to go" and that he plans to show people he can still play the game at a high level. In five career games against his hometown Dolphins, Johnson has averaged 7.4 catches and 103.8 receiving yards per game. He has 79.1 receiving yards per game in his career, the highest number in NFL history among players with at least 100 games played.
4. New-look O-line: The Texans' offensive line, a team strength over the last few years, has two new starters in right guard Antoine Caldwell and right tackle Derek Newton.
The Texans' line paved the way for Schaub to lead the league in passing in 2009, Foster to lead the league in rushing in 2010 and the Texans to rank second in rushing and first in time of possession in 2011. That was with Eric Winston starting at right tackle and Mike Brisiel as the primary starter at right guard. The Texans parted ways with both players this offseason.
With Caldwell, a fourth-year pro from Alabama, has started 13 games at right guard for the Texans. Newton, a second-year pro from Arkansas State, makes his first-career start after winning the right tackle job over veteran Rashad Butler in the preseason.
Will Caldwell and Newton be in sync with the rest of the line? Will the Texans have any issues establishing their running game on the right side? How will Newton fare when he lines up against Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, who has 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons? Those are the big questions. We'll find out the answers on Sunday.
5. The Holliday factor: Kick returner Trindon Holliday was the star of the Texans' preseason with three returns for touchdowns in four games. Can he do it in the regular season?
Holliday (5-5, 169) was the first player to make the Texans' roster as a pure return specialist since Jerome Mathis in 2007. He has 4.2-second speed in the 40-yard dash and won the NCAA 100-meter sprint title in 2009 with a time of 10.00 seconds, one of the fastest times in history for a football player.
Holliday showed in the preseason that it isn't just track speed. He scored on a 90-yard kickoff return at Carolina in the preseason opener, an 87-yard punt return a week later against San Francisco and a 76-yard punt return in the preseason finale against Minnesota. He averaged 39.9 yards per kickoff return and 21.1 yards per punt return.
The only questions will be ball security – Holliday fumbled twice in the third preseason game at New Orleans, although he also had a 62-yard kickoff return in that game – and whether or not the Dolphins kick to him. But one way or another, look for the player who safety Danieal Manning described as "a little dynamite" to make a big impact on field position in today's game.