Now more than ever, it's time for Whitney Mercilus.
The rookie outside linebacker gets his first NFL start on Sunday at Tennessee, taking over on the weakside for Connor Barwin. Barwin has moved to the starting strongside spot to replace the injured Brooks Reed, and Mercilus now slides into the starting rotation.
"He's ready to go," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's working at it. The best thing is he's getting a ton of reps (in practice), so that's been a most important thing this week."
Mercilus enters the Week 13 matchup with three sacks and a pair of forced fumbles on his young NFL resumé. The 2011 NCAA sack leader at Illinois has a simple mantra when he takes the field.
"See ball, go get ball," Mercilus said. "That's it. That's basically what the defense is. I'm just excited to get my shot."
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Mercilus played "about 70 snaps" in the Thanksgiving Day victory at Detroit after Reed injured his groin in the first half. Phillips described how Mercilus will be utilized on Sunday in relation to Barwin.
"They'll be on different sides," Phillips said. "On base defense, you don't know which side they're going to be on because you don't which side the tight end is going to be on. Connor normally rushes from the right side, our defensive right, in third downs."
For Barwin, Mercilus' appearance is part of opportunity in the NFL: Being ready to contribute when injuries occur.
"He's going to have to step up," Barwin said. "He's going to have to play probably about 90 percent of the snaps on defense now. This is what happens. You never know when your opportunity is going to come but at one point, somebody's going to get hurt and you're going to have to step up."
Mercilus picked up the first sack and forced fumble of his career in the Texans' Week 7 pummeling of Baltimore when he strip-sacked Joe Flacco inside the Ravens' 10-yard line. He's taking the simple approach to his new responsibility.
"Bascially, don't think a lot," Mercilus said. "Just do what you're coached and go make plays."
Both Reed and second-year defensive end J.J. Watt are confident that Mercilus will take advantage of his chance to start. Both players complimented Mercilus' work ethic, and Reed looks forward to seeing what's next.
"He works very hard, and now he's going to get his chance to show why we drafted him in the first round," Reed said. "I think it will be fun to watch to see what he can do."
If Mercilus plays like he did in late October and early November, Reed won't be the only one having fun watching the rookie perform.