1. Return of Cush: Linebacker Brian Cushing returns from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances on Sunday, providing a major lift to the Houston defense.
The Texans went 3-1 without Cushing, their leading tackler in 2009, but they currently rank 32nd in yards allowed per game and 25th in scoring defense. Cushing trained vigorously at home in New Jersey during his suspension, when he was restricted from being at the Texans' facility or communicating with team members.
"Football is his life," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's just been sitting around, chomping at the bit to get back out here, and we've been waiting on him, too. There's a lot of guys counting on him, and his teammates told him they'd have him in good shape when he came back and they've done their part. Now he's got to step up and do his."
Cushing's first game back happens to be against his hometown team. He'll have about a dozen of his closest family and friends from New Jersey at the game. He's good friends with Giants left tackle David Diehl, with whom he trains in New Jersey, and Giants receiver Steve Smith and cornerback Terrell Thomas, his teammates at USC.
"There's definitely a bunch of familiar faces that I'm going to be going against, but on top of it, the game is going to be televised back home," Cushing said. "I've got a lot to prove to people back home, what they've missed the past couple of years not being able to watch me play.
"I feel like I have something to prove every time I step on the field. That's just my kind of attitude, the kind of way I play the game. Nothing's going to change. I'm sure some people are going to be looking for drop-offs and stuff like that, but nothing like that is going to happen. Come Sunday, I'll be right back out there again. I'm looking forward to it."
2. In or out?: This isn't so much something to watch during the game as it is before the game. Will wide receiver Andre Johnson, defensive end Mario Williams and wide receiver Jacoby Jones play? All three will be game-time decisions on Sunday.
Jones is the least likely to suit up. The Texans' punt returner missed the entire week of practice with a calf injury and is listed as doubtful. If he's out, wideout David Anderson and cornerback Glover Quin are candidates to return punts. Anderson and rookie Dorin Dickerson's reps would pick up at receiver.
Johnson is listed as questionable a high-ankle sprain, the same injury that kept him inactive last Sunday. Kubiak was encouraged by Johnson being able to practice on Thursday and Friday.
"He's obviously much further along," Kubiak said Friday. "Last week at this time, I think we did not feel good about it. We were still hoping, but we feel much better from what we've seen from him this week. As long as there are no setbacks, I feel a lot better than I did last week."
Williams is also listed as questionable. The two-time Pro Bowler has a sore groin that required an MRI on Thursday but checked out fine. Williams has started all 68 games in his career, and he said he plans to play this week if Kubiak sees fit.
3. Slowing down the rush: The Giants' 10 sacks last week against the Chicago Bears were two shy of the NFL record of 12. They also amounted to only one less sack than the alarming 11 that the Texans gave up in their first three games combined.
Giants defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck accounted for three sacks apiece against Chicago. The Giants forced three turnovers and knocked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and his backup, Todd Collins, out of the game.
"What they did in that game hadn't been done many times in this league," Kubiak said. "We've got our work cut out for us from that standpoint, because they can get after you. They can cause you a lot of problems, so we're going to have to protect Matt (Schaub). The best way we can protect him is to play well on the line of scrimmage with our guys up front. Like I said all along, it will be the most physical test we've had as a team."
The Giants had six sacks in their first three games this season, a much more reasonable total. Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who has four sacks, is out this week with a neck injury. The Texans did not allow Schaub to be sacked last Sunday against the Raiders.
4. Sudden impact: Around this time last season, Bernard Pollard stepped into the Texans' starting lineup at strong safety and helped key a dramatic turnaround for what had been a woeful Texans run defense. A year later, it might be Troy Nolan's turn with the Texans' pass defense.
Nolan filled in at free safety for injured starter Eugene Wilson last week and, splitting time with Dominique Barber, recorded two interceptions against the Raiders. They were the Texans' first two interceptions of the season.
"I really didn't know when I was going to get in, but I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity that I was given," Nolan said after the game. "I wanted to go out there and do good and get out there and make plays."
After missing his entire rookie season with a hand injury in 2009, Nolan showed a nose for the ball in practices this offseason as well as preseason games. The former seventh-round pick out of Arizona State could prove to be a difference-maker for a defense that has allowed a league-worst 337.8 passing yards per game. Even with Wilson returning from injury this week, Nolan will get a significant amount of reps.
5. More in store?: Conventional wisdom says that since the Giants have the NFL's second-ranked pass defense and 21st-ranked run defense, the Texans will run the ball early and often this week. Though their running game centers on league-leading rusher Arian Foster, a player to keep an eye on is Derrick Ward, the former Giant who signed with the Texans right before the start of the season.
Ward is coming off a 12-carry, 80-yard performance at Oakland that included a 33-yard touchdown. Some of that production was a byproduct of Foster's temporary benching, but Kubiak said that the Texans have been impressed with Ward in practice and might get him more involved in the offense as the season progresses.
Ward, 30, spent his first five NFL seasons with the Giants. He ran for 1,025 yards and caught 41 passes for 348 yards in New York in 2008, then had a disappointing season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009. He's listed as questionable for Sunday's game with sore ribs, but Kubiak said that "shouldn't be a factor" this weekend. Don't be surprised to see him give an inspired performance against his former team.