NFL Preview - Oakland (2-2) at Houston (3-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Football is not a forgiving sport, and the human body isn't meant to go through the rigors of what it takes to be successful on the field.
Houston Texans running back Arian Foster is one of many athletes who put his body at risk, and he became a casualty of the injury bug with a hamstring problem during the preseason. Foster missed two of the first three weeks of the regular season as well before returning healthy in last week's 17-10 win over Pittsburgh.
It wasn't all good news for the Texans, as All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson is expected to miss at least three weeks with a hamstring pull he suffered during the game. Johnson's injury and Foster's revival further illustrate the fact that the NFL is a give-and-take business, and without their dynamic offensive duo, the Texans' plans on making the playoffs for the first time in team history don't appear as promising any more.
Houston intends to defy those odds in Sunday's showdown against the Oakland Raiders from Reliant Stadium, a place where it topped the Steelers last weekend courtesy of Foster's 42-yard touchdown run with about 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Johnson was out of the game by then, as he went down without being touched in the second quarter. He finished with 36 yards on four receptions and leaves a major gap in the Texans' offense.
If Johnson, who underwent extended observation and a surgical procedure this week, is going to miss almost a month of action, then Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and tight end Owen Daniels will have to take on more prominent roles. Johnson leads the Texans with 25 catches for 352 yards, with Daniels second with 14 receptions for 182 yards and a team-leading three touchdown grabs. He finished with 69 yards and a touchdown on five catches last Sunday.
"If we're missing time with Andre, you don't replace Andre," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. "What you do is you've got to pick it up across the board at other spots. "[Sunday], O.D. (Daniels) did that for us from a receiving standpoint. If [Johnson's] going to miss some time, we're just going to have to play better as a group."
Kubiak's team has been playing well as a group, as evidenced by its 3-1 mark and first-place tag it shares with Tennessee in the AFC South Division. The Texans are also already half-way to last season's win total of six.
The Texans have never reached the postseason since their inception back in 2002, and some believed they wouldn't prevail over the visiting Steelers. However, Foster's 155 yards on 30 touches took a lot of pressure off of quarterback Matt Schaub, who passed for only 138 yards, and helped Houston bounce back from a 40-33 loss at New Orleans the week before.
Houston is 3-1 for a second straight season and has never won four of its first five contests.
Oakland was aiming for a 3-1 start of its own last Sunday, but ran into Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a 31-19 loss at the Coliseum. The Raiders entered the game with the NFL's best rushing attack and managed to rip off 160 yards on the ground, including 75 yards on 14 carries for Darren McFadden.
McFadden, the NFL's leading rusher with 468 yards, has been bothered by groin and shoulder issues lately and was coming off a 171-yard performance in a hard- fought win over the New York Jets the previous week. Quarterback Jason Campbell couldn't carry over his strong meeting with the Jets, however, and struggled against the formidable Patriots by throwing two interceptions, one of which occurred right before halftime.
"I think it kind of steered the momentum; we were pretty much going tit for tat, they score we score," said Campbell. "So when you're playing a team like New England that's an offensive juggernaut, you can't have those mistakes in the red zone like that."
Campbell passed for 344 yards and a touchdown, while the Raiders' defense struggled in all phases of the game. Campbell noted how dangerous it is to make mistakes against an offensively-gifted team, and his defense failed to bail him out. Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker racked up 158 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions, while running backs Stevan Ridley and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for 172 yards and two scores.
The Raiders are in trouble if last year's matchup with Houston has any bearing for this weekend's tilt in Space City. Much like he did against the Steelers in his first start of the season, Foster terrorized the Raiders for 133 yards and a score on 17 carries in a 31-24 victory on Oct. 3 of the 2010 campaign.
Oakland is currently 29th in the NFL against the rush, allowing 136.0 yards per game.
Houston has had the upper hand in this short-lived series, winning five of six lifetime matchups with Oakland that includes the previously-noted 31-24 decision at the Coliseum last season. The Texans have also taken both games between the teams held at Reliant Stadium, claiming a 30-17 victory in 2004 as well as a 29-6 triumph in 2009. The Raiders' lone win over Houston took place in 2008, a 27-16 verdict in Oakland.
Kubiak is 4-1 against the Raiders during his tenure with Houston, while Oakland's Hue Jackson will be taking on both the Texans and Kubiak for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski has made a name for himself with his strong left leg, but calling on his services after red-zone failures has to eat at the coaching staff. The hefty kicker banged a pair of field goals after the Raiders were unable to cash in against New England, and Campbell did his team no favors with an interception by Patrick Chung in the end zone. Jackson apologized to the fans afterwards and said the team had its chances. It's not often Darrius Heyward-Bey (9 receptions) leads the Raiders in catches, but he did so against the Patriots, ending with a career-high 115 yards on four receptions, It was only Heyward-Bey's second 100-yard game of his career, and the former first- round pick is second to Denarius Moore (12 receptions, 2 TD) in season receiving yards. Moore had a touchdown catch versus New England and is second on the team in receptions. McFadden (468 rushing yards, 3 TD) leads the Raiders with 15 catches totaling 132 yards and a score, but his ground game has improved tremendously behind this offensive line. The group has allowed only two sacks as well for an offense rated No. 1 in rushing with an average of 178.8 yards per contest. Michael Bush (101 rushing yards, 3 TD) and McFadden had 87 yards combined against Houston last season, and Bush owns three touchdown runs in 2011.
The Steelers losing running back Rashard Mendenhall helped the Texans' defense out significantly last week, and the latter took care of any rushing threat Pittsburgh tried to muster afterward. Steelers two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was average at best, throwing for 206 yards and an interception, and wide receiver Mike Wallace was held to 77 yards on four catches. Texans cornerback Jason Allen (15 tackles) recorded the lone interception and fellow defensive back Jonathan Joseph (13 tackles) had a pair of touchdowns nullified because of penalties. Joseph also played a big role in keeping the Steelers' pass attack in check. Five sacks, including two from stud linebacker Mario Williams, kept Big Ben off of his game as well. Roethlisberger was sacked three times during the decisive fourth quarter and Houston defensive end Antonio Smith (9 tackles) registered a sack for the fourth straight week. Williams (10 tackles) also has four sacks on the season and posted one in last year's meeting with Oakland. Smith had two sacks against the Raiders that day. The Texans are 18th against the run this season, allowing 108.8 yards per game, and will have a big job in containing McFadden Sunday.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The Texans have handled adversity rather well, as evidenced by their success without Foster for two of the first three games. Foster (188 rushing yards, 1 TD) led the league in rushing a season ago and left no stone unturned against a hard-hitting Pittsburgh defense. His 42-yard scoring scamper in the fourth quarter sealed the deal and proved his hamstring issue is old news. Foster, who recorded 44 yards on 10 carries in the opening stanza, handled most of the load when backup running back Ben Tate (321 rushing yards, 1 TD) left the game with a groin injury and had the most rushing yards by an individual against the Steelers since the 2003 campaign. Tate leads the Texans in rushing yards and carries (68), and his absence could hurt the Texans in the long run. Houston did not allow a sack on quarterback Matt Schaub, and the protection paid off tremendously. Schaub (961 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) completed 14 of his 21 attempts for 138 yards and a touchdown without an interception, and still managed a 100.9 passer rating. In the previous week at New Orleans, Schaub passed for 373 yards and three scores to go along with an interception. He hasn't thrown an interception in two of his last three games, but won't have Johnson (25 receptions, 352 yards, 2 TD) to throw to any time soon either. Schaub had two touchdown passes and 192 yards against Oakland in 2010.
The Raiders have alternated wins and losses this season, and that's mainly because of their inconsistent play on defense. They have allowed at least 20 points a game this season, and received a big dose of reality after the Patriots invaded the Bay Area. Jackson said afterwards the defense has to tackle better and pay attention to detail a little better as well, but also emphasized that this unit will get better. It would seem easy for a defense to maintain a lead when the offense registers more than 500 yards of offense, which the Raiders did against New England, but hat wasn't the case last Sunday. Safety Tyvon Branch (32 tackles, INT) led the team with eight tackles versus the Pats, while linebacker Rolando McClain (30 tackles) recorded seven stops for a defense that struggled against the run. Oakland is 29th in both run defense and total yards allowed this season, and 22nd against the pass. Brady was sacked only once on Sunday, which was recorded by safety Mike Mitchell, while defensive linemen Tommy Kelly (12 tackles) and Jarvis Moss (5 tackles) lead the Raiders with two sacks apiece on the year. Last season the Texans pounded out 441 yards of offense on the Raiders without Johnson, who missed the game with an ankle injury.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How will the Texans perform after the offense suffered a bittersweet moment last Sunday? That's a question that now must be answered, since the team was able to squash any doubt that success would be futile without Foster in the backfield. Players such as Tate stepped it up then, and now the rest of the receiving corps has to do the same with five-time Pro Bowl pick Johnson nursing a bum hamstring.
Jackson said improvements have to be made across the board for this week and wasn't too pleased with how the defense broke down against the Patriots. He knows this week that containing Foster and Schaub will be a challenge and playing consistently for 60 minutes is vital to Oakland's chances.
The Texans allowed 23 fourth-quarter points to the Saints before grinding out a much-needed win versus Pittsburgh. Foster's 42-yard touchdown run in the final frame signified Houston learned its lesson that games must be played until the final whistle. However, penalties must be kept at a minimum after the Texans were flagged nine times for 61 yards, including twice on scoring plays.
Hall and Oates recently announced they will no longer record new music together, leaving some to wonder what's next for the duo. The same can be said for Houston's offense now that Johnson will not perform with Foster anytime soon because of his ailing hamstring. Instead of the tandem making sweet music on the field, it will be Foster's solo act that will keep the Texans in the driver's seat atop the AFC South standings. Oakland brings a strong running back in McFadden but a subpar defense into this week's tilt, and the Texans appear to be the better team with a one-man act at the controls.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Raiders 16
10/06 18:30:26 ET