Here are five key trends, themes and position battles to watch on Saturday night when the Texans (1-0) face the New Orleans Saints (1-0) in their 2009 home preseason opener at Reliant Stadium:
Let's get physical:No less than four fights broke out during the Texans and Saints' joint practice on Thursday morning, setting the stage for what should be an intensely physical game on Saturday.
"It normally gets real competitive, especially the second day because they get tired of beating on each other," head coach Gary Kubiak said on Thursday. "It's almost like playing a game for three days and wearing on each other. But I thought it was pretty good, good competition… and now we compete Saturday night."
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey were counterparts in the biggest brawl of the day. Both Ryans and Texans fullback Vonta Leach said afterward that while there was nothing personal between the two teams, the Saints were taking cheap shots during practice that would not stand.
"It gets us more pumped up to go out and play Saturday," Ryans said.
Big test for defense: Coordinator Frank Bush's defense will face the league's No. 1 offense from a year ago. The Saints led the NFL in scoring (28.9 points/game), total yards (410.7) and passing yards (311.1) in 2008. Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 5,069 yards, the second-highest total in NFL history, and 34 touchdowns.
"He's a great player," Kubiak said. "I think he is one of the best quarterbacks in the past 10 years to play in this league. Our defense will see a team that throws it around as good as anybody, so it will be a good test for us."
The Texans had a strong defensive showing last week at Kansas City. But the Chiefs' offense, which was being led by a new quarterback, new offensive coordinator and new head coach, is a long way from the Saints' high-powered attack.
Starting cornerback Fred Bennett and rookies Glover Quin and Brice McCain will be under the microscope, especially as Quin (6-0) and McCain (5-9) go up against a much taller receiver in Marques Colston (6-5). The Texans' front seven generated solid pressure against the Chiefs, but the Saints allowed only 13 sacks last season – third-fewest in the NFL.
More reps for first-team "O": The first-team offense will get about 25 reps, which should translate to about a quarter-and-a-half for Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Steve Slaton and the rest of the unit that ranked third in the NFL in 2008.
Last preseason, the Texans won a 31-27 shootout at New Orleans behind Schaub's sparkling 14-of-16 passing performance for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Kevin Walter torched the Saints for six catches and 100 yards, and Slaton ran for his first NFL touchdown.
Last week, Schaub was a perfect 7-of-7 for 70 yards and led the Texans on a 94-yard touchdown drive. He also was dropped for a vicious sack on the first drive of the game, something the Texans don't want to see any more of in the preseason.
Slaton was limited at Kansas City, getting only four carries for seven yards. Look for him to get a few more touches this week. Running back Chris Brown was a big factor in goal-line and short-yardage situations last Saturday, and this game might give a clue as to how the Texans plan to deploy Slaton and Brown in tandem this season.
Linebackers down:The depth at linebacker has become precariously thin over the past two weeks. The Texans are without rookie linebacker Brian Cushing (sprained knee) for at least another week, and veteran Cato June broke his forearm in practice on Thursday and will miss 6-8 weeks. Chaun Thompson also is "iffy" for the game, according to Kubiak.
It all amounts to a big opportunity for reserve players including middle linebacker Buster Davis and outside linebackers Toddrick Verdell and Khary Campbell – and Thompson, if he plays. Davis has been running with the second team in Cushing's absence. Verdell, an undrafted rookie from Florida State, and Campbell, a seven-year veteran whom was signed off the street this week, will have ample opportunities to shine on defense and special teams.
Emerging players: Young players like defensive end Connor Barwin, tight end James Casey, receiver Darnell Jenkins and defensive tackle Frank Okam caught the coaches' eyes with big games last week. All of those players should be on the field for at least a quarter-and-a-half against New Orleans, so they'll have a chance to build on their respective performances as the regular season approaches.
There are plenty of other breakout candidates this week, including third-year receiver Jacoby Jones, a New Orleans native who loves playing against his hometown team, and rookie running back Arian Foster, who missed the Chiefs game with a hamstring injury but should be ready to play against the Saints.
Another player to keep an eye on is defensive end Tim Jamison, an undrafted, little-talked-about rookie from Michigan who has had some strong practices during camp. After watching film of the Chiefs game, Kubiak singled out Jamison for rushing the passer well and doing some nice work on special teams.