Here are five things to watch for in the Texans' preseason opener against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football at Reliant Stadium.
1. Welcome, Wade: Tonight's game is the debut of the Texans' 3-4 defense under Wade Phillips.
The Texans have four new starters on defense – including free agent additions Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning – and three returning starters at entirely new positions – Mario Williams at outside linebacker, Brian Cushing at inside linebacker and Glover Quin at safety. Connor Barwin has been a buzz-worthy player in training camp at outside linebacker in his return from an ankle injury.
It's unclear how much any key defensive starters will play, if at all. With Ryans (Achilles) and Cushing (knee) on the way back from major injuries, it wouldn't be a surprise to see both sit out. Joseph missed the last two days of practice with tightness in his groin, rendering his availability uncertain. On top of all that, Phillips is likely to use very basic packages – one, because he's only had two weeks to install the defense with players, and two, because there's no sense tipping your hand in games that don't matter.
Still, this will be the first in-game glimpse at the Phillips' 3-4. It'll only get better from here.
2. Watt's debut: Through two weeks of training camp, rookie defensive end J.J. Watt has been everything the Texans hoped for when they drafted him 11th overall out of Wisconsin. He has stepped right in as the starting left defensive end and consistently made plays in practice, drawing praise from coaches and teammates for his maturity, relentless effort and ability to knock down passes, all of which he showed a knack for in college.
The Texans expect Watt (6-5, 290) to be an immediate difference-maker on defense this season. That's no easy task for any rookie, let alone one in this abbreviated 2011 offseason. But the Texans believe Watt has the mindset and skill set to get it done.
Watt was a two-year starter at Wisconsin, earning second-team All-America honors as a junior in 2010 after leading Wisconsin in tackles for loss, sacks, quarterback hurries, forced fumbles and blocked kicks.
"I'm excited," Watt said. "I'm excited to get out there in front of the fans and get in Reliant Stadium for the first time and just kind of get that adrenaline going, get back in that game format. It should be fun."
3. Lots of Leinart: With established starters like Matt Schaub expected to play only 10-12 snaps, backup quarterback Matt Leinart should get the lion's share of reps on the Monday night preseason stage.
It'll be Leinart's first game action – preseason or regular season – in a Texans uniform. The former Heisman Trophy winner and Arizona Cardinals first-round pick, who has been razor-sharp in camp practices, signed with the Texans just before the start of last season.
"He's had a really good camp," Kubiak said. "He's going to have to play with a lot of young players, especially from the receiver position, but I'm anxious for Matt to get out there and get going. I think he's doing everything well. My biggest thing with him is trying to get him to do everything faster."
After serving as the Texans' third quarterback in 2010, Leinart re-signed with the Texans in late July. He'll throw to a smattering of young receivers tonight, but he's excited about the opportunity.
"I hope to carry over what I've been doing in practice to the game, just move the ball and score some points and play confident," he said. "I want to get the guys in the right situations; I'll probably be with some young guys out there. (I) just want to have fun. I'm looking forward to getting out there and playing against another team. My last action was preseason last year (with Arizona), so I'm just excited to get out there and play."
4. Receiver watch: After Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones, the Texans have a wide-open competition at wide receiver. They have 11 receivers total on their 90-man roster, including six first- or second-year players.
Among them are Dorin Dickerson, a converted tight end who was a seventh-round pick out of Pitt in 2010; Derrick Townsel, who spent two weeks on the active roster as an undrafted rookie from Murray State in 2010; Trindon Holliday, last year's speedy sixth-round pick who almost exclusively was a kick returner in college; and a talented trio of undrafted rookies in Lestar Jean (Florida Atlantic), Jeff Maehl (Oregon) and Terrence Toliver (LSU).
Devard Darling, a sixth-year veteran who played in the UFL last year, also figures to get a look in tonight's game after signing with the Texans less than a week ago.
"We need some young guys to step up to the plate and help on special teams, and at the same time go out and line up and make plays for us when those other guys are off the field," wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey said. "So it's awful important for these guys to play well. It's a great opportunity for them, but they've gotta perform and they've gotta produce when they're out there and take advantage of the opportunities that have been given to them. "
5. Opportunity knocks: When Kubiak was asked on Saturday which player he's excited to see in the preseason opener, he didn't hesitate to name running back Chris Ogbonnaya.
"Easy answer to start with is Ogbonnaya," Kubiak said. "When a young man has had the camp he's had for the last two weeks, I think we're all excited as a team and everybody to watch him go play this weekend, because he's kind of been a big bright spot in camp."
Ogbonnaya, who spent part of last season on the Texans' practice squad, entered camp as the fifth running back on the depth chart. Because of hamstring injuries to Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and Ben Tate, his workload increased in practice and he made a strong impression on Kubiak.
A standout at Houston's Strake Jesuit who played collegiately at Texas, Ogbonnaya will likely be one of three running backs to play on Monday along with veteran Derrick Ward and newly-signed Javarris Williams.