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Thursday, December 2, 2010
Five things to watch: Texans at Eagles

By Paul Kuharsky

Brian Cushing
Brian Cushing and the Houston defense will have their hands full against Michael Vick and Philadelphia.
The Houston Texans had given up at least 24 points in each of their first 10 games. Now they are coming off a shutout of the Titans.

As we prepare for Houston’s game in Philadelphia tonight, here are five things to consider.

Can the defense contain Michael Vick? Titans rookie quarterback Rusty Smith was no scrambling threat. Against Smith, Texans defensive tackle Amobi Okoye had one of his best games. But the defensive line might be coached not to be overly aggressive in this game. Get too far upfield and you risk taking yourself out of the play -- leaving Vick with one fewer guy to get past when he decides to run.

The Giants and Bears had success against Vick pushing the left-hander from left to his right. If the Texans can guide him that way, he’s clearly less comfortable and less dangerous when he’s moving against his throwing arm. But whichever way he’s moving, he tends to keep plays alive for a long time, and the Texans do not have defensive backs who can cover quality, speedy receivers downfield for extended periods of time.

“The guy can throw ball for miles,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “He can run like a running back. Then you have a two-headed monster in the backfield along with some dynamic receivers. We know and understand that and we are ready to go.”

Will they punch it in from the red zone? Houston’s really worked on improving its red-zone offense and has had pretty good results once it gets inside the 20-yard line. The Texans are ninth in the league with a touchdown percentage of 59.5.

That lines up nicely with a Philadelphia weakness. The Eagles have the league’s worst red-zone defense, by a mile. They allow touchdowns 76.7 percent of the time an opponent crosses the 20, and that’s a substantial lead on the second worst team (Kansas City, 67.9 percent.)

If we see much of Neil Rackers on field-goal attempts of 37 yards or under, that will be a bad sign.

Can they stand toe-to-toe? The Texans get sick of hearing themselves branded a finesse team, and the tough, physical Arian Foster has helped them fight the label this season.

Philly isn’t super physical, but the Texans haven’t been great in their three games against NFC East opponents so far. They mounted a great comeback to win in Washington, but got pasted by Dallas and the Giants. Houston’s AFC South competition is 1-2 against the Eagles, who beat Jacksonville and Indianapolis but lost to the Titans.

“Coming off a short week, it’s about getting fresh and being mentally ready to go with your game plan,” Matt Schaub said. “It will be a physical battle up there, always is. We’ve played a few physical games this year, none more physical than the one we played on Sunday. We just have to bounce back and be ready to step to the plate.”

Will they be able to protect the ball? The Eagles lead the league in turnover differential at plus-14, and no one has more than their 26 takeaways. The Texans are at plus-1.

“They do a lot of different things, a lot of different complex looks and you just got to be aware of what coverages they’re playing behind and they’ve got some veteran guys that know what you’re trying to do, as far as routes,” Schaub said. “They jump things. They’re opportunistic. You got to be right with your protections and where you’re going with the football. You can’t guess, because you’ll be wrong more often than not.”

Texans wide receivers Kevin Walter and David Anderson are both dinged up. They are both more dependable than Jacoby Jones, who will be featured more if one or both of them are missing or limited.

Can Brian Cushing build off last week? Insert your PED joke here. But since returning from his four-game suspension to start the season, Cushing’s hardly been the impact guy he was as defensive rookie of the year. Last week against the Titans,  he played like the 2009 version.

If he can fly around and handle LeSean McCoy the way he helped stop Chris Johnson, the Texans' chances will improve greatly.

“If I’m going good or if someone else is going good and the defense is playing well, it’s just one of those spark kind of things,” Cushing said. “It’s momentum. It’s a snowball effect that just keeps it going.”

Philadelphia cornerback Asante Samuel leads the league with seven interceptions, but is questionable with a knee injury.

Will they get it to Foster? He’s showing himself to be not just a great running back but also a great pass catcher. In half of the Texans’ six losses, he’s had fewer than 20 touches. Last week he had 39 touches in the shutout of Tennessee.

Houston can still fall into the idea that it’s a passing team, because in 2009 it was unable to run the ball. But now, Foster’s the second-best player on the team next to Andre Johnson. Coach Gary Kubiak needs to remember it and be sure to get Foster the ball no matter how the game unfolds. The Texans have also had too many games with too few offensive snaps.

“I hope we run 76 plays again,” Kubiak said. “That’s the first time in a while we were able to hold the football that long. There were plenty of snaps to go around. We ran a football game that demanded that we hang on to the football and run the ball well. When he’s able to touch it that many times, usually good things happen.”