Five things to watch: Texans vs. Jaguars

Here are five things to watch when the Texans (4-3) take on the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5) at Reliant Stadium in Week 8. The Texans are 7-5 all-time in their Battle Red jerseys, including 4-2 against Jacksonville.

1. Rookie welcome: Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert is the first of three rookie quarterbacks the Texanns will face in the next eight weeks. Drafted with the 10th overall pick, Gabbert became the Jaguars’ starter in Week 3. He has a 1-4 record and has completed 48.3 percent of his passes with 810 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions and a 69.4 rating.

Expect to see plenty of pressure from Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense on Sunday. Gabbert has been sacked 17 times in five starts, and the Texans are tied for fourth in the league with 19 sacks. Defensive end leads the Texans with 4.5 sacks. Linebacker and defensive ends and all have two sacks apiece.

Barwin moved to the weakside last Sunday, swapping with Reed, who moved to the strongside. The result: Reed notched his first-career sack, and Barwin had an active day that included two tipped passes at the line of scrimmage.

2. All about MJD: Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew leads the AFC and ranks second in the NFL with 677 rushing yards, carrying a Jaguars offense that ranks last in total yards (252.4) and passing yards (128.4) per game and 31st in scoring (12.0 points).

The two-time Pro Bowler has averaged 107.3 yards from scrimmage, almost half of the Jaguars’ total weekly output. He has been a model of consistency this season, with at least 84 rushing yards in every game and an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Since becoming a starter in 2009, Jones-Drew has two 100-yard rushing games in three tries against the Texans. He averaged 98.3 rushing yards (4.2 per carry) with five rushing touchdowns in those three games, all Jaguars victories. The Texans rank seventh in the NFL in rushing defense this season after limiting Tennessee’s Chris Johnson to 18 yards on 10 carries last week.

3. Texans ground game: With All-Pro wide out yet again because of a hamstring injury, the Texans will rely on their running game to move the ball on offense.

ran for 115 yards and 119 had receiving yards last week, becoming the 32nd player in NFL history with 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. He was the eighth player to accomplish the feat in the last 10 years.

Foster had averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in the previous two games and said he just now feels he’s getting into football shape after an early-season hamstring injury. He and backup , who has three 100-yard games this season, will be a handful for a Jaguars defense that ranks sixth overall (299.7 yards per game) and 10th against the run (103.4).

4. Spreading the wealth: Johnson will miss his fourth consecutive game this week. The Texans have gone 1-2 in his absence, using a wide variety of receiving targets along the way.

Foster, tight ends and and wide receivers and have all had 75-yard receiving days in the last four weeks. Foster has two 100-yard receiving games, including a 119-yard effort last Sunday. Quarterback completed passes to seven different receivers last week.

Underscoring just how important Johnson is to the offense, it took three-and-a-ahlf games after his injury for someone to pass him as the Texans’ leading receiver. Daniels now has 27 catches for 355 yards on the season, just ahead of Johnson’s 25 catches and 352 yards.

5. Replacing Manning: Sunday’s game will be the Texans’ first of at least four without free safety , who fractured his left fibula in Week 7 at Tennessee.

Third-year safety will replace Manning in the starting lineup. He’ll be backed up by , who was signed this week and will likely play on third downs in nickel situations. Rookie safety and rookie cornerback also could see time at safety.

Nolan, a third-year pro, has played in every game this season. A seventh-round draft pick in 2009, he had 10 interceptions in two years at Arizona State and three interceptions last season. Kubiak likes the progress he has made under first-year Texans defensive backs coach Vance Joseph.

Manning has been a big part of the Texans’ improved pass defense this season, helping them improve from 32nd in the league in 2010 to sixth this season. The sixth-year veteran has two interceptions and 32 tackles since signing from the Chicago Bears as a free agent.

Manning also ranks sixth in the league with 27.4 yards per kickoff return. Cornerback , Demps or wide receiver Jacoby Jones could return kickoffs for the Texans. Jones or Demps could return punts.

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Johnson, Casey return to practice; Johnson day-to-day

All-Pro wide receiver , who has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury, returned to practice on Wednesday at the Methodist Training Center.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak said he will listen to Johnson this week to decide if Johnson is ready to play on Sunday against the Jaguars.

“He went the whole practice,” Kubiak said. “It’s a huge step forward. It’s just good to get him out of working on his own mode and work with the players. I think it’s going to be a process this week, but there’s obviously a chance, the fact that he practiced. So it’ll be a day-to-day deal.”

Johnson was injured against Pittsburgh in Week 4. He had minor surgery two days later to remove scar tissue behind his right knee. He had been running and rehabbing on a side field at practice for the last two weeks.

“From the day he fell down against Pittsburgh to where we’re at today, that’s pretty amazing,” Kubiak said. “So I think we’re all very fortunate, and we know that we’re all going to get a great player back here at some point, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

“I’m going to listen more than anything. He looked good running to me (Wednesday), but we’ve got to see like (when) he wakes up tomorrow, how sore is he, those type of things. I’m going to listen to him. We’ve got a long way to go this season and we need to make sure we do the right thing here. We’ve got a long week. We’ll see what happens.”

Fullback also returned to practice for the Texans on Wednesday. He will play in Week 8 after missing the last two games with a strained pectoral muscle. Kubiak did not say whether the versatile Casey would start over , who’s more of traditional lead blocker.

“We’ll see,” Kubiak said. “It all depends what we’re doing. I think there’s a place for both of them as we move forward here and (that) gives us other avenues offensively, but we’ll see.”

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2010 season in review: Safety

Top performers: (112 tackles, four forced fumbles), (3 INTs)

Newcomers: (undrafted free agent), (free agent)

Major injuries: (knee, Week 11), Williams (knee, Week 12)

Position coach: David Gibbs (9th NFL season, 2nd with Texans)

Year in review: The Texans’ safeties were the last line of defense in a defense that ranked 32nd in passing in 2010. Even so, their season was not without encouraging performances from young players.

Pollard led the team with a career-high 112 tackles despite sitting out Week in 17. The hard-hitting strong safety had a career-high 2.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He also had five passes defensed, although he had zero interceptions after recording four in 2009.

Veteran free safety Eugene Wilson saw action in 14 games with 13 starts. He finished sixth on the team with 55 tackles, including 40 solos, while batting down three passes. He did not have an interception for just the second time in his seven-year career.

Nolan, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, was essentially a rookie after missing his first season with a hand injury. He tied for the team lead in interceptions despite starting only three games. He had two interceptions in Week 4 at Oakland and a career-high seven tackles the next week in his first-career start. He had a fumble recovery and interception in the season finale against Jacksonville.

Barber played in eight games, including one start at free safety against the Raiders. He was a key backup and one of the Texans’ top special teams players before he was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 11.

The Texans signed Demps in Week 14. The former Philadelphia Eagle played in the final two games of the season and made one special teams tackle. Wililams, an undrafted rookie from Purdue, was called up from the practice squad in mid-November. He played in one game before going on injured reserve with a hamstring injury on Dec. 1.

Season highlight: Week 4 at Oakland. With Wilson inactive because of an injury, Nolan pulled down two interceptions in the first significant playing time of his career. He also had four tackles while rotating with Barber at the free safety spot.

Nolan’s first interception came late in the third quarter. He returned the ball 20 yards to set the Texans up for a short touchdown drive. Nolan’s second interception, with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, put the nail in the coffin on a 31-24 Texans victory.

Season lowlight: Week 11 at . After a spirited comeback, the Texans led 27-23 with 49 seconds left to play. The Jets had the ball at their own 28-yard line and no timeouts, needing a touchdown to win the game. They scored one in five plays and 39 seconds.

The key play on the Jets’ drive was a 42-yard pass from Mark Sanchez to Braylon Edwards. The Texans designed for safety help over the top on the play, but Edwards was able to catch the ball on the right sideline and get out of bounds, stopping the clock with 16 seconds left at the six-yard line. The Jets scored the game-winning touchdown on the next play.

Notable number: 22.2 – Percentage of the Texans’ takeaways that Nolan accounted for on the season. He had three interceptions and one fumble recovery, giving him four of the team’s 18 takeaways.

Key splits: Nolan started three games in 2010 – against the Giants in Week 5, at Denver in Week 16 and against the Jaguars in Week 17. In those three games, he had 19 tackles, one interception, one sack and one fumble recovery. In 13 games as a sub, he had 17 tackles and two interceptions, with zeroes in the other categoriers.

Pollard had at least nine tackles in five of the first eight games of the season. He didn’t top eight tackles in the second half of the season. However, all of his 2.5 sacks and two of his four forced fumbles came in December.

Quotable: “At the end of the day, when teams play us, they look for a highlight game. And we continue to give teams highlight games. That’s the only way I can put it. You look at the last three games we’ve played, look at the last three receivers we’ve played. Their fantasy statuses went up, and it’s ridiculous.”
– Pollard, after the Texans’ last-second loss to the Jets in Week 11, on the defense’s continuing struggles

Looking ahead: The Texans will have two new opening day starters at safety in 2011. The team has released Wilson, their starting free safety since 2008, and has not re-signed Pollard, their starting strong safety since 2009. Both will be unrestricted free agents this offseason.

Cornerback might be moved to free safety, a position where the Texans think he could thrive. Whether or not that happens depends on the coaching staff’s evaluation of the rest of the team’s cornerbacks.

Nolan and Barber both have starting experience at strong safety. Both have shown promise in their young Texans careers, and both should be in the mix to compete for playing time in 2011.