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Johnson set to return for Leinart's first start


Just in time for Matt Leinart's first start with the Texans, All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson will return from a six-game absence on Sunday.

Johnson was a full participant in practice every day this week, a first since he injured his hamstring in Week 4. He'll be in the starting lineup at Jacksonville and will play without any physical limitations.

"I can see how hungry he is to get back to be a part of what's going on," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Friday. "He's practiced good this week. Y'all know what Andre means to this team, and for him to be putting the uniform on again on Sunday… it will mean a lot."

Before his injury, Johnson was averaging 105.3 receiving yards through three games (2011 league leader Wes Welker is averaging 102.8). He still ranks third on the Texans with 352 yards on 25 catches.

He returns against a Jaguars defense that has lost both starting cornerbacks, Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis, to season-ending injuries in the last two weeks.  

Think the Texans are glad to have him back?

"It's huge," fellow wide receiver Kevin Walter said. "I told him (Wednesday), 'Hey, it's great seeing you in the huddle.' It's been a long time waiting. He's our man of this franchise and we need him back, and he's back this week and he's looking great, feeling great. It's going to be exciting to watch him play this weekend."

Perhaps no one has more reason to be excited than Leinart. Set to make his first start since 2009, Leinart is taking over an offense that has the top running game in the AFC. In Johnson, he gets back the top receiver in the NFL – Leinart called him "a Hall of Fame player" this week – which will prevent defenses from being able to sell out against the run.

"It's going to make us that much tougher to stop, and that's exciting," Leinart said. "We're trying to get our timing down, and he's probably a little rusty coming off of a bunch of weeks, but I know that he's been anxious to get back and help this team, and I expect him to be the same old Andre he's been for a long time."

Johnson and Leinart have never played in a game together, but it shouldn't take Johnson long to make his presence felt on Sunday. The last time he missed this much time was in 2007, when he was sidelined for seven games by a knee injury. In his first game back, he caught a 73-yard touchdown pass against the New Orleans Saints on the Texans' sixth play from scrimmage.

In Johnson's first game with Matt Schaub in 2007, he caught seven passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. He had nine catches for 82 yards in his first game with Schaub's former backup, Sage Rosenfels, late in the 2007 season.

Johnson said he's not sure what he can do to help Leinart aside from their standard communication, but he thinks that's a moot point to begin with.

"Everybody is making it as if Matt has to go out and win the game by himself," Johnson said. "I think that's the thing everybody is getting caught up into, but we have to help Matt. It's not a one-player game. We all have to be on one page as a team in order for us to win. We all have to go out there and play well for us to win. It just doesn't have to be Matt."

That's been the theme of the Texans' season, and it's how they've gotten to 7-3 despite injuries to Johnson, Mario Williams, Arian Foster and Danieal Manning. When one player goes down, another steps up. The entire team steps up.

Johnson has been waiting for this type of team since 2003, when the Texans drafted him third overall out of Miami. The Texans are deeper than they've ever been, more talented than they've ever been and in a better position to make the playoffs after 10 games than they've ever been.

And that's with the best player in franchise history missing the last six games.

"It's a great feeling," Johnson said. "At the same time, we have to stay focused on the task at hand. The biggest thing is just winning this game Sunday. The motto hasn't changed. We're trying to go 1-0 every week, and so that's what we're going to try to do on Sunday.

"We're in a great position. Everybody knows that. We're going to try and do everything we can to make sure we are the top team in the AFC when it's all over."

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