AFC South: Houston Texans

Titans vs. Texans preview

November, 28, 2014
Nov 28
video When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: NRG Stadium, Houston TV: CBS

As the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans dive back into a part of their schedules that are heavy on division games, there's a chance both teams are playing for the future more than the present. That's in large part due to the strength of the AFC.

The AFC South is the only division in its conference that doesn't have three teams with winning records. In fact, this is the first time in NFL history one conference has had 11 teams with winning records through 11 games.

The Texans (5-6) are currently second in the division and still have a shot, slim as it might be, to make the playoffs. At 2-9, the Titans are likely out. There's a lot yet to learn about both teams, though. Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.

Ganguli: So Paul, how has Zach Mettenberger progressed since his first start, which was also the last time the Texans saw him? And has he taken any more pregame selfies?

Kuharsky: No additional selfies, though coach Ken Whisenhunt said he wouldn’t put it past Mettenberger to take one this week in sarcastic fashion based on J.J. Watt's reaction last time around. He holds on to the ball too long too often and has been sacked five times in two different starts. They have not won any of his four starts, but he has made progress for sure. He hangs in and can deliver the ball and he threw for an Oilers/Titans rookie record 345 yards in the blowout loss to Philadelphia. The Titans threw a bunch because they were behind and because they couldn’t run. Still, it was a big total and he and the passing offense found some good chunk plays.

He has got some swagger, he takes the blame for stuff that’s not necessarily his fault and the team has rallied around him. Those are all good signs for a sixth-round guy starting just his fifth game.

So Ryan Fitzpatrick got displaced by Ryan Mallett, but Mallett got hurt in just his second game and is finished for the year. What do you expect from Fitzpatrick in his return to the lineup? Any outside chance we see Tom Savage?

Ganguli: O'Brien is going with Fitzpatrick as the starter and said he is leaning toward Savage as the backup. The Texans also signed quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to the roster, but with less than a week in Houston, it's unlikely he'd be ready to take over for Fitzpatrick if necessary during the game.

You've seen Fitzpatrick plenty as he was the Titans' starter for a lot of last year. The thing I've always noted about him is that 10 years into his career, he is who he is. His arm strength isn't great and the vast majority of his passes have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, suiting his skill set. He was effective from the left hash to the right sideline, where he has completed more than 75 percent of the passes thrown 10 yards or less. He has got moxie and isn't afraid to take off running -- his rushing yards (143) and rushes (36) rank ninth among quarterbacks. As you predicted he would when the Texans signed him, he throws too many interceptions (3.1 percent of the time, to be exact, ranking 26th in the league).

One major difference between the Fitzpatrick the Titans faced the first time and this one: He cut his giant bushy beard down to a mini-beard.

How will the Titans account for the loss of offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, who has a high-ankle sprain? Is this good news for the Texans’ pass rush?

Kuharsky: It seems highly unlikely the Titans will have Lewan on Sunday, and obviously he’s a huge part of their chances to slow down Watt & Co. Lewan has been pretty good since taking over for Michael Roos, lost for the season with a knee injury, after five games. Byron Stingily has been the Titans' third tackle since Roos went down. Stingily’s seen regular action on offense as a tackle eligible. Still, as the left tackle in this game he’ll face quite a test. The Titans have to give him a tight end, or even a sixth lineman, on a regular basis to maximize Mettenberger’s chances to stay upright and have any success.

The offensive line will be without center Brian Schwenke, who tore the MCL in his left knee in Philadelphia and is now on IR. Chris Spencer is in line to replace him.

When he has been healthy enough to play, how has Jadeveon Clowney lived up this his billing?

Ganguli: Healthy enough to play and healthy enough to live up to his billing are two different things. It's unfortunate that the discussion about first overall picks always takes that tone. The fact is, Clowney is a talented player who will likely have a long and disruptive NFL career. Right now, though, he's dealing with the recovery from a meniscus tear he suffered in Week 1 of the season. Clowney played against the Titans last time these teams met, in his first game back since that surgery, and he said after the game he knew he wasn't right. Clowney missed the next game because his knee was still bothering him and he had the flu. He returned to playing shortly thereafter. He's playing through pain, but lately has experienced some swelling in his knee as well, so he could be out Sunday. It's been frustrating for him because his transcendent ability is very much dependent on his being able to move like he wants.

You seem to write often about how bad the Titans receivers are. What’s going on there?

Kuharsky: I was part of setting big expectations, I’m afraid. Both Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter were great through camp. I figured Wright would pick up on two good seasons at the start of his career and Whisenhunt would find ways to use Wright more effectively, sending him deep more often. Hunter was snatching stuff away from defensive backs when the games didn’t count. He has been a far bigger disappointment than Wright. As receivers from his 2013 draft class and this year’s group are on these steady inclines, he’s plotting a much more jagged course. He mistimes jumps, some of which don’t even seem necessary. Like Wright, he has too much trouble keeping his feet. Too often he looks like a great athlete who’s not much of a football player.

Nate Washington had a huge touchdown against Pittsburgh, but he’s slowed down. Tight end Delanie Walker is the Titans’ best pass-catcher, and their best player on offense.

Top backs, including Arian Foster, have shredded the Titans this season. Is he healthy enough to have a chance to run wild on them again?

Ganguli: I think so, yes. He has been careful with the recovery from his latest injury -- a groin injury he suffered on Nov. 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles -- not wanting to rush back like he did in Week 4 after suffering a hamstring injury in Week 2. Foster is among the group of veteran players O'Brien trusts to know their bodies well enough to dictate their rehab processes.

When healthy, Foster has been great for the Texans. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in six games this season. The only times he didn't were when he was inactive, hampered by an injury or had to leave the game early.

HOUSTON -- Hearing the news that his friend and former teammate Eric Berry was facing a possible lymphoma diagnosis shocked Houston Texans safety Kendrick Lewis. He immediately reached out and quickly realized something about Berry.

"His mindset and his approach to how he’s going to attack it is just far beyond what you expect," Lewis said. "I know him. I know what type of person he is. If anybody could be strong about that, it’s Eric Berry."

Berry and Lewis were part of the same draft class in Kansas City. Berry was a first-round pick, and the Chiefs took Lewis in the fifth round. They grew close in their time together there through the end of the 2013 season. Lewis became a free agent and joined the Houston Texans before this season.

This week, news broke that a mass was found in Berry's chest that is suspected to be cancerous. Berry was placed on the nonfootball injury list. It was an all-too-familiar tale here in Houston. Texans offensive tackle David Quessenberry is currently battling lymphoma; he was diagnosed in June.

Quessenberry also reached out to Berry via Twitter and he's texted him every day since. When he called Berry, though, their conversation wasn't much different from normal conversations they might have. After asking how he was doing, Berry quickly turned the conversation back to football, Lewis's new team and what else was new in their lives.

"He’s a strong, very mentally tough guy," Lewis said. "It takes a lot to get Eric down and get him out of his comfort level. He’s always smiling, he’s always happy. … He’s got an obstacle that he’s facing, but he knows that with support and stuff like that, he’s going to be fine. With the grace of God, he’ll see him through."
HOUSTON -- It's not an easy thing to know that your team has just used the No. 1 pick to draft someone at your position.

There might not have been a better way to handle it than Whitney Mercilus did.

"Everybody can have their worries about it, speculate about a lot of things, somebody's going to get replaced or things like that, but that's what happens year in and year out," Mercilus said. "They're always trying to find somebody better at each position. All you can do is control what you can do and just go out there and make the best of your opportunities."

That opportunity came for Mercilus as opportunities often do in the NFL -- as the result of an injury. When first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney suffered a torn meniscus in his first game, that outside linebacker spot went back to Mercilus.

According to Pro Football Focus, Mercilus's 27 quarterback pressures from the right side rank seventh among 3-4 outside linebackers, a total that includes four sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 13 quarterback hurries. He garnered all four of those sacks in two games -- two against the Pittsburgh Steelers and two against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Mercilus said the process was tough, but he started to feel comfortable in the Texans' defense around the third preseason game.

"Being introduced to the new system, definitely a different system -- especially from what I was used to, so that was interesting," he said. " ... Most important thing is to know exactly where you're supposed to fit up. Knowing that actually allows you to know whether you have help, whether it's outside or inside. Where are your bodies at on the field?"

Understanding the concept of the defense as a whole was critical for Mercilus.

"Before it was pretty much just go, go, go," he said. "That's it."

Mercilus remained the Texans' starter when Clowney returned to playing. He's been an important piece of the Texans' defense.

What about Tom Savage?

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
HOUSTON -- For the past six months, since being drafted in the fourth round by the Houston Texans, Tom Savage has understood this: It's not his time yet.

[+] EnlargeTom Savage
AP Photo/Pat SullivanTom Savage's only NFL experience so far is in practice, but is it time to give him a shot in a game?
"I think that’s my main goal right now is just to keep improving and kind of put myself in a good situation so that whenever that time comes, whether it’s next year or this year, just be ready to go," Savage said the day before Ryan Mallett was named the Texans' starter, supplanting Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Texans' quarterback situation has changed significantly since then, which begs one question: Is it his time now?

Making Mallett the starter during the Texans' bye week was equal parts Mallett being ready to take the helm, a belief that Fitzpatrick had done all he could and a desire for better evaluation. Mallett had developed for three seasons as a backup quarterback in New England and improved steadily as Fitzpatrick's backup in Houston.

Now that Mallett is out of the picture for this season with a torn pectoral muscle, the Texans have broader evaluation needs.

Therein lies the argument to start Savage.

Nearly everything we know about him comes from his limited time playing in college. Here's Matt Williamson, ESPN's resident scout:
"He is a big strong kid with a great arm. He is tough in the pocket, but very limited mobility. He wasn’t at Pitt his entire college career and had a lot of learning still to do when he entered the draft. How much has he progressed since then on the mental aspects of the position? I really don’t know. But much like [Zach] Mettenberger in TEN, he has starting QB traits and if mentally prepared, should get a shot before the end of the season."

That arm drew attention during training camp. Strength was something he'd been asked to improve once he got to the NFL. The two quarterbacks ahead of him have helped his mental progression.

"Mallett has a good grasp of the offense just from being around it for so many years," Savage said. "Fitz is a vet and he’s been around the league and he’s kind of got that mental toughness that young rookies need to kind of learn. He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around, so it’s good to get both of their features and kind of instill it in myself."

A franchise quarterback is a tough thing to find, but when you find him, that sets up a team for years. Finding that player, and developing him if necessary, is the most important factor in any NFL team's success. Devoting resources and time to that process is often necessary but can require patience. If Savage struggles at first -- a bigger risk with Savage than Mallett given Savage's limited time in both college and pro practices -- that doesn't necessarily mean he'll never grow into a solid quarterback. But it does mean the Texans' immediate future could be rough.

That's a tough ask of a team that is not yet out of the playoff race.

The Texans' loss Sunday to the Bengals combined with Indianapolis' win made that harder, especially since there are now nine teams in the AFC with at least two more wins than Houston, but the Texans aren't out of it yet.

With a postseason berth still at stake, it'd be difficult to hand over the reins to a rookie who's had almost exclusively scout-team repetitions so far. You can bet that will matter to the Texans' thought process.

And if we've learned something from Mallett, it's that waiting can sometimes be the best thing for a young quarterback's career.

QB snapshot: Ryan Mallett

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
A quick observation of quarterback Ryan Mallett and how he played in the Houston Texans’ 22-13 loss in Week 12.

 It seemed an odd departure and a stark contrast from his first start. In Week 11, Mallett had the 10th-best Total QBR for a quarterback making his first start since 2001. Then in Week 12, Mallett was suddenly sailing passes, missing his receivers and unable to do what he did the prior week.

It seemed an odd departure because it was: Mallett was playing with a torn right pectoral muscle. He'll have surgery and should miss the rest of the season, likely sending the Texans back to benched former starter Ryan Fitzpatrick for Sunday's game against the Titans. And while Mallett is in the final year of his contract, his future could still be with the Texans. NFL Network reported the Texans have told Mallett they want him back in 2015. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Mallett wants to be back and should be healthy by April.

The Texans would be wise to give Mallett more time. In his Week 11 win over the Cleveland Browns, he made smart decisions, got rid of the ball quickly and commanded the Texans' offense authoritatively. He showed enough promise to deserve more time.
HOUSTON -- Though we know quarterback Ryan Mallett has a torn right pectoral muscle, Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien declined to confirm that Monday during his press conference.

"Basically, we'll have more to report toward the end of the week," O'Brien said. "He's still being evaluated."

Those two sentences recurred each time O'Brien was asked anything to do with Mallett, until O'Brien added: "I'm trying to get ready for Tennessee. Whether he's there or not, the next guy's going to step up, whoever that might be. We'll figure that out."

Mallett struggled with his accuracy throughout Sunday's loss to the Bengals, throwing many passes high. That was likely a function of this type of injury, which can impact your throwing motion. He still had a lot of velocity on his throws, which might have saved a few interceptions.

Still, O'Brien said he never considered taking Mallett out of the game. He wanted to give Mallett a chance to lead the Texans back to victory.

Were it not for his limitations from the injury, Mallett probably could have.
HOUSTON -- Looking back, Ryan Mallett's teammates can't help but be impressed.

 There were certain plays when Texans left tackle Duane Brown could see him grimace, a hint at the pain he felt as he played through a torn pectoral muscle in his second NFL start. Mallett finally had the chance for which he'd waited three-and-a-half years -- he gave everything he could.

"He’s tough, man," Brown said. "He’s tough. You can just tell that by his character. He’s tough. He wants to win. He wants to compete. Like I said, I could tell there was something there towards the end. He didn’t back down at all. He didn’t ease up at all. He showed his fight to even try to get a score on that last drive there. That is just the kind of player that he is and the kind of person that he is. We really respect that."

It was clear throughout the Texans 22-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that Mallett's accuracy was off. He just wasn't playing like the quarterback who led the Texans to a win in his first start, showing the necessary quarterback leadership skills beyond what the Texans had with any of the other three full-time starters in the franchise's history.

This time, though, Mallett only completed 21 of his 45 passes for 189 yards. He threw an interception and narrowly missed several more.

"The guy, he wanted to win," receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. "You could see it in his eyes. He never showed that he was hurt. He really never let us down on the sideline."

HOUSTON -- Ryan Mallett put it bluntly.

"I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from five yards away," the Houston Texans quarterback said, perturbed as he stood in the middle of a locker room that had mostly cleared out by then.

He should have given himself a break.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
AP Photo/David J. PhillipPlaying with an injured pectoral muscle, Ryan Mallett had trouble connecting with receivers downfield.
On the heels of an impressive first career start, Mallett played hurt on Sunday. A week after showing an impressive command of the offense and leadership that elevated the Texans, his season will at least be shortened and at worst be over.

Mallett played through an injured right pectoral muscle in the Texans' 22-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, which dropped them to 5-6. An MRI will reveal the extent of the injury. It's another setback in a career that's involved so much waiting he sometimes wondered if he'd ever get a shot. And it's yet another setback in the Texans' seemingly never-ending search for a franchise quarterback.

Mallett was listed on the injury report all week as having a chest injury, but practiced fully throughout. It's likely he suffered the injury during last week's win in Cleveland, aggravated it on Sunday and gutted through what must have been an incredibly painful day.

The Texans began the game with two runs, and then threw a pass on which every receiver ran shallow a shallow route. Mallett's passes still had power, but they were uncharacteristically off target. He didn't complete a pass longer than 22 yards and completed only 3 of 12 passes targeting Andre Johnson -- a season-low reception percentage for Johnson.

It didn't help that this time, unlike in Mallett's first start, the Texans couldn't run the ball, gaining only 64 yards on the ground. Their only touchdown came from an interception returned by cornerback Johnathan Joseph, with Houston unable to do anything productive offensively.

"That was our plan," Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "To shut down the run and force the young quarterback in Mallett to try to win the game for them. It played right into our hands."

Said Mallett, who was 21-of-45 for 189 yards: "If they're playing two high safeties, we've got to run the ball better. We have to throw the ball better. That's about all you're going to get today, because we didn't do anything very well."

The trouble started early as Mallett was nearly intercepted on his first pass of the game. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman caught the ball, but a pass interference penalty on the defense negated the play.

Mallett's only official interception proved more costly as it was on the first play of the second half. The Texans took the second-half kickoff, but gave it right back that quickly on a pick by Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga. Down only six points at halftime, the Texans found themselves trailing by 13 soon after the turnover.

"I was at the right place at the right time," Maualuga said.

Despite all that, the Texans had a chance late. With a healthy quarterback, the complexion of this game might have been very different.

It's unfortunate for Mallett, who's waited so long to be a starter. He spent three years backing up Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, learning, waiting, and, admittedly, wondering whether or not he'd ever get his chance.

It's unfortunate for the Texans, who saw signs of hope from Mallett in his first start last week.

The Texans have Mallett under contract for the rest of the season, but after that an unclear future awaits both parties. The waiting isn't over yet.
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Texans' 22-13 loss to Cincinnati at NRG Stadium:

Clowney limited: Jadeveon Clowney walked gingerly in the locker room after the game, his gait not that of someone fully healthy yet. Clowney had knee surgery in September to repair a torn meniscus and has been playing on a limited basis since then. "Some things are holding me back still, but I'm just out here trying to do what I can do and have fun," he said. Having not been through a serious injury before, the return is an adjustment. "You never know if you're going to have an injury or not coming into the league," he said. "So when that happened to me, it was a setback."

Joseph has moment: Cornerback Johnathan Joseph's emotions overtook him after he returned an interception 59 yards for a touchdown. "I had an anxiety attack or something," Joseph said. "It was a great play. It picked us up from a team standpoint. ... Just one of those things. It's part of the moment. I'd like to be out there with my teammates and all, but that play right there, it just took over my body and controlled my body. I had no control."

Dalton stays clean: The Texans hit Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton only twice and never sacked him. Part of that was a function of how quickly Dalton got rid of the ball. "There's not a whole lot the defensive line can do when he is doing that," defensive end Jared Crick said.

Shift nets safety: Cincinnati's defensive front shifted to the left in anticipation of the Texans' play out of their own end zone. The result was a safety when running back Alfred Blue was tackled in the end zone. Blue never really had a chance. "They just overloaded that side," left tackle Duane Brown said. "We had nothing there. We had nothing over there, basically."
HOUSTON -- Although Texans running back Arian Foster practiced on Wednesday, he reverted back to not practicing the rest of the week.

 The Texans have listed Foster as questionable on their injury report. Coach Bill O'Brien said this week that Foster would be worked out before the game to see if he can go. Remember, the Texans also did those kinds of pre-game workouts with Foster earlier this season and also for Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing. None of those players wound up playing.

Foster suffered a groin injury three weeks ago against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Texans have since had a bye week and then traveled to Cleveland to face the Browns on Nov. 16. Foster did not make that trip.

He's missed two games this season, including Week 3 against the New York Giants with a hamstring injury.
HOUSTON -- J.J. Watt faced a creature bigger than he on Thursday after practice.

A horse named J.J. Watt. He wanted to ride it, and so he did.

The horse was one of the horses used by the Houston Police Department's Mounted Patrol. It, and two other horses, are sponsored by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair's foundation. McNair has owned race horses, too. The other two horses are named Cushing 56, after inside linebacker Brian Cushing, and Texan Star. The horse named J.J. Watt used to be named Sergeant Swatt #99, but he's made things simpler now.

Word is, horse J.J. Watt and horse Cushing love being part of the action. That figures, doesn't it?
HOUSTON -- Houston Texans running back Arian Foster missed Thursday's practice, after practicing Wednesday.

Foster suffered a groin injury on Nov. 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Texans didn't play the following week, and when they returned to prepare for the Cleveland Browns, Foster did not practice all last week. He stayed in Houston rather than making the trip to Cleveland, and was ruled out for Sunday's game on Saturday.

So far this season, Foster has missed two games because of injury. He suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 against the Oakland Raiders and missed the following game. Though he returned the next week, he wasn't himself. Foster only had eight carries for a total of six yards.

That result could factor into Foster's thinking in his timetable for return. When he is as close as possible to fully healthy, he is a dynamic player. He has rushed for 822 yards this season despite playing in eight games and only having six yards in one of those games. He might consider it worth it to be cautious.

During his Thursday news conference, Texans coach Bill O'Brien repeated that Foster was day-to-day. He added that the Texans will give Foster until game time to make a decision on his playing status. The Texans play the Cincinnati Bengals at home on Sunday.
This weekend, two former LSU teammates will have to fade back into the background to some degree.

Alfred Blue and Jeremy Hill were productive for their NFL teams in the absence of their starting running backs. In a way, they were uniquely suited for it.

"At LSU, the running back room, we were always competitive," Blue said. "We had a lot of great running backs there. ... Running back coach always told us, the hot hand will get the ball. We never really had a starter. If you were the hot hand that week, you were going to get the ball. ... He used to tell us the starter was just the person who starts the game. It doesn't matter who starts the game. It's about who's going to go out there and dominate."

For the Bengals, Hill rushed for 361 yards in the past three games without starter Giovanni Bernard.

For the Texans, Blue rushed for 156 yards on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns while starter Arian Foster nursed a groin injury.

The Texans' quick tempo on Sunday meant they ran a lot of plays with their first-time starter, most of them on the ground. Blue set a franchise record, rushing 36 times in the Texans' 23-7 victory. He also played punt team and kickoff return, which meant he was very, very sore after the game and the next morning. When he started at LSU, he also played on every special teams unit.

"I’m kind of used to it, knowing that the coaches believe that I’m a dominant player on special teams," Blue said. "I just know my role that I might become a starter one week and still have to play on special teams. I prepare myself for that load."

Blue showed a tremendous amount of patience, a nod to his growth since getting to Houston. His stats weren't padded by any huge runs. He had one 21-yard run and two 14-yarders, but the other 107 yards came methodically.

"It's still difficult because at times you just want to lick your chops and cut it and break loose," Blue said. "You just gotta keep telling yourself before the ball, 'Okay, look at the defense. He might do this, he might do this.' Just keep pressing, pressing. You've just gotta keep telling yourself, 'Patience, patience, patience.'"

Patience will be key for him on a bigger scale, too. Foster returned to practice on Wednesday, and if he returns to the field this weekend fully healthy, Blue's carries will drop.

In the story linked above by my colleague Coley Harvey, Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson says Hill has earned more carries even with Bernard's return. I asked the same question on the Texans side of Bill O'Brien.

Has Blue earned more carries even when Foster is healthy?

"Alfred will play," he said. "Alfred will be in there."

Bengals vs. Texans preview

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
video When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: NRG Stadium, Houston TV: CBS

The Cincinnati Bengals hold a special place in Houston Texans' lore. The Texans, who have been around since only 2002, have had some of their most memorable moments against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Actually, the most memorable moment in franchise history was a pick-six by J.J. Watt in the 2011 playoffs that turned the game in Houston's favor. That was the Texans' first ever playoff win. In fact, the Bengals are the only team the Texans have beat in the playoffs, having done it in consecutive years (2011-12).

Less is on the line this time, but the Texans (5-5) still hang onto hope they can weasel their way into the playoffs with a second-half push. They're currently second in the AFC South and only one game behind the Indianapolis Colts.

With some help from the Texans, who beat the Cleveland Browns last week, the Bengals sit atop the AFC North. Theirs is a division so tight the Browns tumbled from first to last with just one loss.

NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Texans reporter Tania Ganguil discuss this week's matchup.

Ganguil: So Coley, Andy Dalton had a bit of a bounce-back game after an atrocious showing against the Browns two weeks ago. Why was he better? And which Dalton do you think we'll see on Sunday in Houston?

Harvey: There are so many reasons why Dalton was dramatically better this past week, Tania. For starters, he got better protection from his offensive line, specifically from his former TCU teammate Marshall Newhouse, who filled in the past two games for starting right tackle Andre Smith. Newhouse still wasn't great by any stretch, but he was better. Along with that, Dalton did a great job of anticipating pressure, even spinning out of danger on his very first play to scramble and pick up 11 yards for a first down. You saw a calmer, more poised quarterback in the pocket Sunday at New Orleans. He just looked rattled out of his mind against Cleveland during that Thursday night game. Dalton's accuracy also was better. He completed 72.7 percent of his passes, boosting his career record to 10-1-1 in games he has had a 70 percent or higher completion percentage. It's tough to say which Dalton we'll see this week. He's notoriously inconsistent and has had a history of playing poorly at NRG Stadium. It all comes down to whether the Bengals can be balanced offensively, and if he can stay upright in the pocket.

I'm sure every week you do these previews our NFL Nation colleagues ask you about Watt. My question about him is this: What can't he do?

Ganguli: We asked that question of Watt's teammates back in Week 2 when he caught his first touchdown pass. They came up with punting. And, uh, Watt's said he's not great at golf. On the football field, it seems there's little he can't do and the Texans are taking advantage of that. He's a guy who would be on the Jugs machine after training camp practices, waiting his turn with receivers. He works on every skill that could possibly be useful as a football player -- not just as a defensive end -- and that shows during games. Watt doesn't get the ball thrown to him every time he's in on an offensive snap, but he has caught touchdown passes on both of his targets this season. That stuff gets the most attention, but defensively Watt is a problem for every offense he faces. Between batted passes, sacks and quarterback hits, Watt has been the most disruptive player in the league since he entered it. The Browns regularly sent two toward him, sometimes more tried to help.

Since you brought him up: How will the Bengals handle Watt?

Glad you asked. This is where having Smith, the aforementioned tackle who has been out with an ankle injury, will be beneficial. Whether Smith plays or not, I'd imagine the Texans will want Watt to get pressure from that side of the line simply because it's the weakest edge. That's not an indictment on Smith. It's just that left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a Pro Bowler who may be having the best season of his career on the other side. Let’s assume Smith returns and plays right tackle. After practicing Wednesday, it appears that will happen. If I’m Watt, I’d expect double- and maybe even an occasional triple-team. Right guard Kevin Zeitler could provide some help, as could a tight end or H-back lined up on the other side of the right tackle. Per my unofficial film study, the Bengals used an extra blocker next to Newhouse 42.1 percent of the time. They'll also regularly have a running back or H-back Ryan Hewitt lined up in the backfield to give a little extra protection to Dalton. Another tactic? To get the ball out. Dalton has done that well this season, ranking second to Peyton Manning in shortest average time in the pocket. While Watt will be tough to slow, the Bengals also know they will have their hands full with a very talented defensive line.

Ryan Mallett looked really good in last Sunday's game, and clearly his teammates followed his lead in the win against the Browns. Is it too soon to anoint him the Texans' future at quarterback? And what more does he need to do to prove the reins are better in his hands instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick's?

Ganguli: Those are very different questions. Mallett showed on Sunday that the reins are better in his hands than Fitzpatrick's. I think we can already say that. Mallett's total QBR ranked fourth in the league on Sunday. The ball came out quicker with him throwing it than it did with Fitzpatrick, and his arm strength and trust in his arm was on display, even though his numbers were better on more intermediate throws. As for the future, Mallett said it himself: Sunday's game was just one. It was his first ever NFL start and his first win. He played well. The Texans planned well. But what we need to see next is what Mallett can do now that teams have film on him and can adjust better to what he does. Throughout their history, the Texans have struggled to find a franchise quarterback. Mallett showed against the Browns he can be that guy. Now it's up to him to show he will be.

Sticking with offense for you: What impact has the loss of Giovani Bernard had on the Bengals' offense? Will we see him this weekend?

Harvey: We'll take the second question first. It's still a little early in the week to say definitively if he'll play, but I have a feeling he'll be back in uniform for the first time in four weeks. With the Bengals taking his rehab slowly, I can't imagine he'll play his regular load, and I can't imagine he'll be taking the pounding up the middle that he had before. The Bengals have been able to absorb Bernard's loss quite well. Rookie Jeremy Hill has been better than advertised, ripping off a pair of 150-yard rushing performances in his absence. It's not far-fetched to make the claim right now that Hill is the best running back the Bengals have. That said, Bernard is the starter, and has ability in the pass-catching game that Hill and others don't. You'll see a heavy dose of Hill on Sunday. But if Bernard does play, it might not be the role Bengals fans are used to.

The personnel in Houston has changed significantly since the last time these teams met, but what, if anything, can carry over for the Texans from their playoff wins against the Bengals in 2011 and 2012? Those losses certainly have had staying power in Cincinnati, as they were the first of three straight postseason games Dalton has lost to start his career.

Ganguli: You're right that things have changed significantly here. The starting quarterback, head coach and both coordinators have changed. Since that 2011 win, the Texans have turned over most of their starting lineup, too. That 2011 win was the one in which Watt really became someone people noticed. It was before spectacular became normal for him and he made a spectacular play with that pick-six I mentioned earlier. I would say his ascent is the carry-over there. The 2012 Texans who faced the Bengals in that wild-card game were a team already declining. The seeds of their 2-14 season could be seen then as they were never even supposed to be in that position -- as the Texans bolted to an 11-1 start, they seemed destined for a first-round bye. By the way, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien would hurt you for this question. There's been a concerted effort from this team to not talk about the past -- especially not last season. They don't want to let those vibes creep back in.

HOUSTON -- Three days after his backup set a franchise record for carries in a game and rushed for 156 yards on those 36 carries, Texans running back Arian Foster returned to practice.

Foster suffered a groin injury against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 2. The Texans did not have a game the following week. Foster did not practice all last week as the Texans prepared for the Browns and missed Sunday's game in Cleveland.

According to the injury report, the only player who didn't practice was Kareem Jackson. Foster, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (knee), inside linebacker Brian Cushing (knee), inside linebacker Akeem Dent (neck) and cornerback Johnathan Joseph (knee) were listed as limited.

Asked for an update on Foster's condition, Texans coach Bill O'Brien opted for his traditional "day-to-day" designation.

Foster has played in eight of the Texans' 10 games this season, missing their Week 3 contest against the New York Giants. In his eight games, Foster has rushed for 822 yards, ranking third in the NFL behind Dallas running back DeMarco Murray and Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell.