Houston Texans (1-0) at Carolina Panthers (1-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Gus Johnson, Steve Tasker
SERIES: Second meeting. Houston leads series, 1-0, defeating the Panthers, 14-10, on Nov. 2, 2003. In their only meeting, Carolina dominated the first half, outgaining the Texans 209 to 61 in total yards. Houston QB Tony Banks, making his first start as a Texan, threw for 125 yards and a score in the second half to lead the Texans to their third win of the season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Matt Schaub had a strong debut for the Texans, but must take the next step against a better defense. RBs Ahman Green and Ron Dayne will be the early focal point, but Schaub has to make plays downfield in the face of the Panthers' pass rush for Houston to win. Schaub's pass protection is only adequate, so he must make decisions and fire away quickly. ... The Panthers are excited about the 1-2 punch of RBs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, whose speed is dangerous late in the game after Foster has worn the defense down. The Texans held the Chiefs to 72 rushing yards -- if they get a similar performance, DE Mario Williams can attack Panthers LT Travelle Wharton on obvious passing downs.
KEY INJURIES: Texans: DE N.D. Kalu (broken bones in right hand) is playing through the pain. Panthers: None.
FAST FACTS: WR Andre Johnson is tied with Corey Bradford with 18 touchdowns with the Texans, tied for the most in franchise history. ... Foster is the Panthers' all-time leading rusher with 2,554 yards, and the team is 20-4 when he has at least 15 carries.
--DT Amobi Okoye had to sit out practice with a foot injury Thursday. The Texans are unsure of his game status. They are going to monitor it through Friday and make a decision before the game.
--DT Travis Johnson was back out on the field after missing practice Wednesday with an ankle injury. He was limited Thursday and is expected to play on Sunday.
--DE N.D. Kalu sat out practice for the second-consecutive day because of his broken hand. He is still expected to play with a hard cast on his arm Sunday.
--TE Joel Dreessen was waived on Thursday. The Texans have not filled the vacant roster spot yet.
--DE Earl Cochran is playing a bigger role this year, rotating in and out at left end with N.D. Kalu. He has been valuable in run stopping.
--RB DeShaun Foster ran for 94 yards on 17 carries last week. The Panthers are 20-2 in games when Foster carries the ball at least 15 times. In those 22 games, Foster has averaged 88.5 yards per game.
--QB Jake Delhomme is 4-1 with seven touchdown passes in his last five games against AFC opponents.
--SS Nate Salley did not practice again Thursday and it looks like he's at least another week or two from returning to the field.
--DE Mike Rucker had two sacks in his last game against the Texans in 2003.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
If the Texans want to have a realistic shot at starting 2-0 for the first time, they must get a better performance from their offensive line against the Carolina Panthers.
Pass protection wasn't as big an issue as penalties and mental errors in the 20-3 win over Kansas City last Sunday.
"I want us to be more consistent up front," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Some of the things that took place concern me. We've got too many veteran players that have been playing together for a long time to make some of the mistakes we made.
"We had a couple of communication problems in protection, but the biggest things were the (mental) mistakes. We had a couple of guys (guards Chester Pitts and Fred Weary) downfield, and that's inexcusable."
At one point, Kubiak challenged the linemen, resulting in a heated exchange with Pitts.
"We had a long talk (Monday), and I believe in Chester," Kubiak said. "I think he should be a great player, not a good player. I challenge him every day to do that. He's going to play better."
After Kubiak called out the linemen, he returned to the sideline, and quarterback Matt Schaub went over to calm down Pitts and to help the unit regroup. Kubiak was happy with the way Schaub and the linemen responded after the shouting match.
"I know he saw what was going on and that I was disappointed," Kubiak said. "His job is to keep those guys going for four quarters. You need a big-time commitment to those guys that protect you on a daily basis, and that's what Matt's all about."
After Kubiak's tirade, the linemen responded by leading an exceptional drive when the Texans needed it the most. From late in the third quarter until Kris Brown kicked a 28-yard field goal 10 minutes, 26 seconds later, the linemen were at their best when the Texans wanted to control the ball to secure the victory.
"As an offensive lineman, that's what we want," left tackle Ephraim Salaam said. "We want you to put the game on our shoulders when we have a lead. We didn't want to throw the ball; just let us run it."
And that's what Kubiak and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman did. And they want to continue to do it as much as possible.
"The biggest thing that we've preached to our players since we got here is that we have to be able to run the ball when everybody in the stadium knows we're going to run it," Kubiak said. "You want to be able to do that at the point in the game when everybody's tired, but you line up and drive down the field.
"I don't know that we've lined up and said, 'Hey, we're going to run it, you stop us,' so that was very encouraging. You finish games like that, and you're going to win."
Christian Fauria isn't expected to be a key cog in Carolina's offense, but the team believes his leadership and NFL experience will come in handy.
"I have been in this offense a long time so I think I can help the guys out, especially the tight ends, with some of the finer points," said Fauria, who played under Panthers coordinator Jeff Davidson in New England. "And most importantly (I plan on) being a team player and a leader. Being somebody who has won a couple of (Super Bowls), I think I know what it takes to get there."
Panthers coach John Fox said Fauria's familiarity with Davidson played a big role in the decision to sign him.
"I think he brings some leadership to the locker room," Fox said of the 13-year NFL pro. "He understands what it takes to play this game at that position. We've got some youth in that position, so we felt like he upgraded us."
The Panthers needed a little experience at tight end.
After the retirement of Kris Mangum and the release of Michael Gaines, the Panthers opened the season with three tight ends who had combined for one NFL reception -- King and rookies Dante Rosario and Marcus Freeman.
Fauria has played in 176 games with 118 starts for Seattle, New England and Washington, and has recorded 247 catches for 2,490 yards and 20 touchdowns over 12 seasons.
He spent last year with the Redskins and posted two receptions for 17 yards before being placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Patriots in 2002, Fauria, 35, was a member of the Super Bowl XXXVIII championship team which beat Carolina 32-29. He also won a second Super Bowl ring the following year.
If there's a downside to Fauria it's that he's 36 and he's missed all of minicamp and training camp.
"Darn, that's a shame," he said with a laugh.
He doesn't seem too worried about getting his legs back.
The Panthers waited until after Week 1 to sign Fauria so they wouldn't have to pay his full salary if he's released at a later date. He will be paid on a week-to-week basis.
"I know this is where I wanted to go," Fauria said. "I was looking for the right team and right situation and this is exactly what I wanted."
That is due, in large part, to Davidson's presence.
"The thing about Jeff is he always knew more about the offense than anybody else in New England," Fauria said. "Running backs coaches would ask him questions, quarterback coaches. The offensive coordinator would always game plan with him. So he knew everything and when I say that, I mean everything. So I'm sure it was an easy transition for him. I always thought he had the personality and the temperament to do it. I'm glad he got the chance."