Here are five things to watch when the Texans (8-3, 4-0 AFC South) take on the Atlanta Falcons (7-4, 1-2 NFC South) on Deep Steel Sunday at Reliant Stadium in Week 13. Kickoff is on Sunday at noon CT.
1. T.J.'s turn: Matt Schaub was the Texans' starting quarterback until two games ago. Last week, it was Matt Leinart. This week and for the rest of the season, it's rookie T.J. Yates.
A fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, Yates is making his first-career start against his hometown team. He was a football and basketball standout at Pope High School in Marietta, Ga., and grew up a fan of the Falcons. He's now the Texans' starting quarterback after season-ending injuries to Schaub (foot) and Leinart (collarbone) in back-to-back games.
Yates made his NFL debut last Sunday at Jacksonville, going 8-of-15 for 70 yards in place of Leinart. The Texans raved all week about his poise, but they also stressed how the entire team will have to step up around him.
"Everybody keeps talking about T.J.," wide receiver Andre Johnson said on Thursday. "T.J.'s going to be fine. T.J. can't do it by himself. We have to all go out and play and step our play up. T.J.'s going to be fine. He'll get the job done."
Yates was a four-year starter at North Carolina. He set every major school passing record and led the Tar Heels to an 8-5 record as a senior despite numerous key players being suspended. He got a jump-start on learning the Texans' offense during the lockout in player-organized workouts at Rice University. He also got a week of extra reps during training camp before Leinart joined the team.
The Texans called an ultra-conservative offense with Yates last week, but they should open things up for him now that they have Jake Delhomme – and not tight end Owen Daniels – as his backup. Yates showed promise in his first drive last Sunday, starting 3-of-4 for 40 yards and leading the Texans to a field goal.
2. Falcons run defense: Fortunately for Yates, the Texans have one of the top running games in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Texans, the Falcons have one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL.
The Texans rank third in the league in rushing at 151.7 yards per game. The Falcons rank second in rushing defense at 83.5 yards per game. They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 14 consecutive games dating back to 2010.
Texans running back Arian Foster leads the NFL with 141.6 yards from scrimmage per game and has scored in five consecutive games. He ranks third in the AFC with 805 rushing yards and second on the Texans with 38 catches for 469 yards. Ben Tate has 712 rushing yards and ranks third in the NFL with 5.6 yards per carry.
The Texans averaged 206.0 rushing yards in the first four games of their current five-game winning streak. They had only 88 yards on 31 carries (2.8 average) last Sunday against an injury-depleted Jaguars defense. Foster, who fumbled twice at Jacksonville, has a tendency to bounce back well from subpar games. Yates will have to make plays in the passing game to keep the Falcons' defense honest.
3. Injury questions: Falcons running back Michael Turner (groin) and wide receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) are questionable to play in Sunday's game. Both are expected to start on Sunday, but they were limited in practice on Friday after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday.
Turner ranks fourth in the NFL with 948 rushing yards. He's second in the league with 219 rushing attempts (19.9 per game), but he could cede some carries to Jason Snelling and Houston native Jacquizz Rodgers this week.
Jones, the explosive first-round pick out of Alabama, averages a team-high 16.6 yards per catch. He forms a formidable tandem with All-Pro wideout Roddy White, but Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas is no slouch, either. Douglas has at least 45 receiving yards in five of the last six games.
The Falcons will be without starting cornerback Brent Grimes (knee). Starting linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quadriceps) and nickel cornerback CB Kelvin Hayden (toe) are doubtful to play.
The Texans are relatively healthy aside from at the quarterback position. Fullback Lawrence Vickers (hamstring), who was inactive last Sunday, is listed as questionable. He did not practice this week and will be a game-time decision.
4. Texans D's tough task: The Texans' No. 1 defense faces its toughest challenge since October in a balanced Falcons offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan.
Turner, White, Jones, Douglas and tight end Tony Gonzalez give Ryan one of the most potent groups of skill position players in the NFL. Ryan has a 40-17 career record as a starter and has thrown for 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. The Falcons have scored at least 23 points in six consecutive games.
The Texans have held five consecutive opponents to 14 points or less. Their defense carried the team in the second half last week, limiting the Jaguars to a field goal and 111 yards of offense after halftime. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin had four of the team's seven sacks, giving the Texans 35 on the season to rank second in the NFL. Rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed has recorded a sack in five consecutive games.
Defensive players said they don't feel any more pressure because of the Texans' situation on offense. If anything, they feel like there's a target on their back since because of their No. 1 ranking.
"Everybody's starting to talk about us being number one, and with that comes offenses trying to exploit that and people are going to get more pumped up to play you, so you got to get more amped up to play them," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "I think that's the most pressure that's on us. Offense is going to handle their business, I guarantee. That's just who they are. That's what they're going to do, and we got to handle ours."
5. Texans return game: The Texans rank in the top 10 in the NFL in kickoff and punt return average this season. Establishing good field position in Week 13 could go a long way in helping Yates and the offense put points on the board.
Last week, the Texans' average starting field position was their own 37-yard line. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones averaged 13.0 yards per punt return, including a 42-yarder that set up a quick touchdown drive. Cornerback Sherrick McManis had a career-long 45-yard kickoff return.
Jones ranks sixth in the NFL and third in the AFC in punt return average (11.7). What's especially impressive about that is he has the second-most punt returns in the NFL (34) because of how good the Texans' defense has been; four of the top five punt returners have between 19 and 21 returns this season. The Texans rank fifth in the league as a team in kickoff returns average (27.5).
The Falcons allow only 5.4 yards per punt return, which ranks second in the league, but have been susceptible to big plays on kickoffs. They rank 24th in the league on kickoff with 25.7 yards per allowed per return.