Cutler is one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the league.
With his team fighting for its first-ever playoff berth, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak knows that Thursday night's game against the Denver Broncos means much more than just facing his former employer for the first time. When the Texans and Broncos square off tonight on national television (NFL Network), both teams know that they must come out with a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Kubiak's close friend and former boss, Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, has seen his team play inconsistently this season. His offense is performing at a high level (ranked fifth in the NFL), while his defense has not (allowing a 29th-ranked 25.8 points per game). Denver has struggled on the road this season (2-4), so if they must come up big tonight in order to keep their slim division championship hopes alive.
Second-year quarterback Jay Cutler leads the high-powered Denver offense. The former Vanderbilt star is coming off a huge performance last week over the Kansas City Chiefs, when he threw for 244 yards and four touchdowns in the Broncos' 41-7 win. On the season, Cutler has thrown for 2,842 yards and 17 touchdowns with a passer rating of 90.3.
The key to stopping Cutler is keeping him in the pocket. When he has time to scramble and roll out of the pocket, he becomes one of the most deadly quarterbacks in the league, able to make strong, accurate throws on the run.
Starting in the backfield is Denver's big free agent acquisition of the offseason, running back Travis Henry. The seven-year veteran has had a turbulent season, dealing with injuries on the field and questions regarding his off-field behavior.
In recent weeks, Henry seems to have shaken the injury bug and has been cleared of any indiscretions off the field, so he is looking to end the season on a positive note. On the year, Henry has rushed for 653 yards and four touchdowns.
With Henry on the shelf for several games this season, Houston native Selvin Young, Henry's backup, has stepped up in a big way. The former Texas Longhorn has twice rushed for over 100 yards this season, including a career-best 156 yards on only 17 carries last week against the Chiefs.
Fifth-year veteran Cecil Sapp clears the way at fullback and also is a receiving threat, hauling in two touchdown passes this season.
Leading the wide receiver corps is Brandon Marshall, having a breakout year in only his second season. Marshall leads the team in receptions (75), receiving yards (1,029) and touchdown receptions (six).
Brandon Stokley starts opposite Marshall. The reliable nine-year veteran is a dangerous receiver himself, snagging 40 receptions for 635 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Also in the mix is Javon Walker, who is still recovering from knee surgery earlier this season. When healthy, Walker is one of the most dangerous deep-ball threats in the league. However, Walker is questionable for tonight's game.
Denver also employs two dangerous passing threats at tight end in Tony Scheffler and David Graham. Scheffler and Graham rank third and fourth, respectively, on the team in receptions. Both big targets are most dangerous in the middle of the field.
The strength of the Denver offense lies on its always-reliable offensive line. Built with small, quick linemen, the Denver zone-blocking scheme is very well known and implemented by several teams throughout the league (including Houston).
Anchoring the line at left tackle is 11-year veteran Matt Lepsis. Starting opposite Lepsis at right tackle is youngster Eric Pears. Replacing mainstay center Tom Nalen (lost earlier this season due to injury) is third-year man Chris Meyers. The interior of the line contains Chris Kuper at left guard and Montrea Holland at right guard. Holland's size (6-2, 322) makes him massive for this system.
A big reason for the slip on the defensive side of the ball has been the play against the run, a category in which Denver ranks 29th heading into tonight's game. When teams struggle against the run, it usually means that they are suffering along the defensive line. Denver's defensive line is built to pressure the quarterback, not stop the run.
Second-year man Elvis Dumervil is a sack master at defensive end. The "diminutive" Dumervil (5-11, 260) ranks in the top 10 in the NFL for sack leaders with 11. Dumervil's counterpart is eight-year veteran John Engelberger, replacing 2007 first-round pick Jarvis Moss, who is out for the season. Rookie Tim Crowder has contributed four sacks in reserve duty.
The interior of the line needs to get more production from tackles Alvin McKinley, Antwan Burton and rookie Marcus Thomas.
At linebacker, Denver boasts one of the speediest groups of playmakers in the league. Leading the way is middle linebacker D.J. Williams, who is among the league leaders in tackles with 112. On the weak side is Nate Webster, who has piled up 77 tackles this season, while eight-year vet Ian Gold is solid on the strong side. Gold has 71 tackles this season.
Another talented group on defense is the secondary, led by Pro Bowler Champ Bailey. Teams have shied away from Bailey's side of the field this season, but he has still accounted for 63 tackles and three interceptions. Starting opposite Bailey is 'Dre Bly, who Denver acquired via trade this past offseason. Bly has played well, picking off four passes to go along with 12 passes defensed.
The secondary did suffer a blow when starting strong safety Nick Ferguson was ruled out for tonight's game due to injury. In his place is second-year man Steve Cargile.
The good news for Cargile is that he will have starting free safety John Lynch with him in the defensive backfield. An eight-time Pro Bowler, Lynch may be near the end of his career, but he is still widely regarded as one of the most punishing hitters in the game.
Longtime kicker Jason Elam is having another fine season, making 22-of-26 field goal attempts and accounting for 96 points this season.
Punter Todd Sauerbrun ranks fourth in the league in punting average with 47.1 yards per punt.
Reserve wide receiver Glenn Martinez is a dangerous punt returner, averaging almost 12 yards per return, including an 80-yard return for a touchdown earlier this season.
Reserve running back Andre Hall handles the kickoff return duties.