The Houston Texans have mirrored the Vikings in many respects this season. They have struggled on the road and, for the most part, beat the teams they should and lost to the teams they should. In their first four games, the oddsmakers made the Texans underdogs in each game. They lost them all. In their last three games, they have been a favorite and won all three games. As a four-point underdogs against the Vikings, it would seem if history continues to repeat itself, the Texans should lose. But don't tell them that.
The progress of the Texans since joining the NFL in 2002 has been slow. Houston finished 8-8 last year and that represented their first non-losing season in franchise history. Looking for their fourth straight win, the Texans are riding their top offensive weapons back to respectability.
There have been more questions than answers at the quarterback position for the Texans since their inception. David Carr never panned out as the franchise QB and the blockbuster trade that brought Matt Schaub to Houston last year was marred with injuries that had him sidelined for much of the 2007 season. This year, Schaub has provided a spark, completing almost 68 percent of his passes for 1,623 yards and 10 touchdowns. Running a Denver-style offense, Schaub has successfully been able to continue drives by spreading the ball around – he has four receivers on pace to catch 50 or more passes. It will be imperative for the Vikings defensive front to put pressure on Schaub. He will take chances down the field and, if the Vikings can bring the heat and force him to throw before he wants to, Minnesota could force a key turnover or two. He is averaging one interception per game and the Vikings will have chances to make big plays.
One of the more pleasant surprises in the league this season has been rookie running back Steve Slaton. Expected to be part of a time-share with veteran Ahman Green, Slaton has been pushed into the limelight due to continuing injury problems for Green. Slaton has 104 carries for 476 yards and five touchdowns, as well as 22 receptions and another TD. He has been to the Texans offense what they hoped Green would be when he signed a free-agent deal last year. He doesn't have great size and the Texans have tried to limit his touches, but he is dangerous in the open field and will pose problems for the Vikings run defense. Green is still nursing a knee injury, but has just 48 carries through seven games. At best, he will be a change-of-pace back to give Slaton some time off. Veteran Ryan Moats was picked up during the season and, while also undersized, he is a hard runner who gets used in short-yardage situations. Fullbacks Vonta Leach and Cecil Sapp are little more than glorified blockers – to date neither has a rushing attempt and have combined to catch just four passes for 22 yards.
There is no questioning who the big man is in the Houston passing game. Andre Johnson has a whopping 56 catches for 772 yards and two touchdowns. He has been the primary target of Schaub and has 10 or more receptions and 130 or more receiving yards in each of the last three games – all Houston wins. However, he isn't the only weapon. Wide receiver Kevin Walter has 29 catches for 363 yards, but five of those receptions have been touchdowns. When teams double Johnson in the red zone, Walter has become a reliable receiver in the end zone who has half of Houston's TD receptions. Tight end Owen Daniels has also stepped up his play. He is second on team with 32 receptions for 395 yards and two touchdowns. He has the speed to make plays down the seam and has become targeted more by Schaub as the season has progressed. Depth at receiver will come into play with veteran Andre Davis ruled out for Sunday. Third-year man David Anderson and second-year rookie bust Jacoby Jones have combined to catch just five passes through seven games. They will be the third and fourth receivers against the Vikings and will need to do more than they have thus far this season. At tight end, ageless Mark Bruener remains one of the game's top blocking TEs in his 14th season, but isn't much of a receiving threat, limiting the passing game to primarily the Big Three receivers and Slaton.
Duane Brown is going to be asked to stop Jared Allen. Expect to see the Texans keep a tight end on Brown's side to try to neutralize the damage Allen can do. The rest of the line returns intact, with seventh-year man Chester Pitts at left guard, four-year pro Chris Myers at center, second-year right guard Mike Brisiel and third-year right tackle Eric Winston. This isn't a dominant group, but it's one that is improving in the zone-blocking scheme being used by the Texans. With the size advantage the Vikings will have up front, this could be a matchup that has the potential for a dominating Vikings performance.
The Texans defense has been built primarily through the draft, as three of the starters are former first-round picks. Mario Williams is in his third season and was the first overall selection in 2006. He had 14 sacks last year and already has seven this year and will pose a monstrous challenge to Bryant McKinnie. In the middle, another pair of first-rounders – fourth-year man Travis Johnson and second-year man Amobi Okoye – have become anchors in the middle that are both run-stoppers and effective pass rushers. On the left side, the Texans have a pair of strong run-stoppers in Anthony Weaver and veteran N.D. Kalu. Both are good at holding the point of attack in the run game and will pose a daunting matchup for Ryan Cook. Houston has made it clear on draft day that it values the defensive line and has backed up that belief on draft day. If the Texans are to make it to the top of the AFC, it will likely be on the strength of the defensive front.
The player for fans to keep an eye on in the Texans defense is middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. A tackling machine in college, he came to the NFL with the tag of being too small to be an every-down LB in a 4-3 set. He hasn't missed a game in his two-plus seasons and has led the Texans in tackles in his first two seasons. He is flanked by eight-year veteran Morlon Greenwood and second-year man Zac Diles. Greenwood doesn't jump out at you on tape, but he doesn't make many mistakes and is a sure tackler. Diles has good speed on the strong side but is inexperienced. Depth is decent with rookie Xavier Adibi and sixth-year pro Chaun Thompson on the outside and seven-year vet Kevin Bentley in the middle. This group can be taken advantage of, but Ryans could be the difference-maker Houston needs for an upset on the road.
The Texans are missing their top secondary player in CB Dunta Robinson, who suffered a horrible knee injury a year ago. He has returned, but hasn't played enough to get his starting job back. Ideally, the Texans see their future as being Robinson and second-year man Kevin Bentley as their starters, but for now they're going with five-year vet Jacques Reeves and seventh-year man DeMarcus Faggins. Reeves, a former Cowboy, has proved to be a sure tackler and solid in coverage. Faggins has a history of getting beat over the top, so expect to see the Vikings take at least a couple of shots at him. At safety, former Raven Will Demps is the leader and very strong in run support. He will likely be sneaking into the box consistently to stop Adrian Peterson. Injuries have allowed first-year man Brandon Harrison to move ahead of Dominique Barber and Nick Ferguson and, if Demps gets sucked in on play action, don't be surprised to see the Vikings go after Harrison over the top.
The Texans are a team on a roll and improving, but they are a team that has enough weaknesses that the Vikings should be able to take advantage of matchups on both sides of the ball. A team with confidence is always dangerous, so the Vikings won't have a cake walk, but these are the types of opponents that playoff teams put away at home and there's no reason to believe that the Vikings can't handle Houston.
Texans preview: Shootout in store?
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