Coming off the first playoff appearance in franchise history, the Houston Texans are setting their sights even higher.
A strong ground game and a tough defense - along with a healthy Matt Schaub under center - are big reasons for that optimism, but key members from both units are in doubt for Sunday's season opener.
Star rusher Arian Foster and starting linebacker Brooks Reed are question marks as Houston tries to improve to 7-0 all-time against the visiting Miami Dolphins, who look for Joe Philbin to get them on track in his first season as coach.
A year after dealing with lengthy injury absences to Schaub and five-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, Houston begins this season with health issues involving two more key players. Foster has a sore knee, Reed has a sore hip and both missed practice Friday.
Coach Gary Kubiak said they'll be "game-time" decisions against Miami, though he's "optimistic" that both will be ready to play.
Ben Tate would start for Foster, who averaged a league-high 141.6 scrimmage yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season despite missing three games. The 2010 rushing champion signed a five-year, $43.5 million extension in March and is expected to carry the load again despite the emergence of Tate, who ran for 942 yards as a rookie last year.
First-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus would get the call in place of Reed, who had six sacks during his 2011 rookie season.
Last year, the Texans lost Schaub to a foot injury in Week 10 and played nine regular-season games without Johnson, but earned their first playoff berth behind a formidable rushing attack and an impressive defensive turnaround under coordinator Wade Phillips.
Houston finished second in the NFL with averages of 153.0 rushing yards and 285.7 total yards allowed while posting a franchise-best 10-6 record. Despite starting third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, the Texans cruised to a 31-10 win over Cincinnati in the wild-card round before their season ended with a 20-13 loss at Baltimore.
"We took the next step as a team," Schaub said, "and the only next step after that is to get to the Super Bowl and win it. So anything short of that will be a disappointment in our eyes."
While Houston lost star defensive end Mario Williams to free agency and traded linebacker DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia, its defense figures to just as good - if not better - in its second year under Phillips. Big things are expected from Mercilus and former Cowboy Bradie James, linebackers who figure to make an impact on a unit that ranked fourth in the league with 278 points allowed last season.
"I appreciate the fact that people are saying a lot of good things about us," Kubiak said. "I think we're going to be a good football team, but we want to be great and I think we've got some work to do."
The Dolphins certainly do. They have suffered three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1966-69 - their first four years in the league - and are coming off a 6-10 campaign which began with seven consecutive losses.
"Expectations for this team outside our locker room are pretty low," guard Richie Incognito said. "People don't expect us to do much, which is fine. We have to prove their expectation levels are wrong, and we can only do that by having success on the field."
Philbin, who spent the previous five seasons as Green Bay's offensive coordinator, will be relying heavily on No. 8 overall draft pick Ryan Tannehill. The former Texas A&M standout beat out veteran Matt Moore for the starting quarterback job after an injury to David Garrard, who was released Tuesday.
"The decision-making is always the first thing you evaluate," Philbin said. "When you are sitting there and you have the rush all around you, the decisiveness that (Tannehill) plays with tells you so much about him.
"We always tell the players that you have to react quickly in this game. Ryan has shown that ability. He can run a play quickly and can run it decisively. Ryan can process things quickly and at that position it is a vital part of the game."
Tannehill won't have the luxury of throwing to Brandon Marshall, traded to Chicago during the offseason, and his receiving corps is full of unheralded players following the release of Chad Johnson. However, Tannehill should find comfort in handing off to Reggie Bush, who could be asked to shoulder an even bigger load after running for a career-high 1,086 yards last season - his first with Miami.
While it could take some time for Tannehill to adjust to the next level, the Dolphins defense is hoping to pick up right where it left off. Miami gave up 95.6 rushing yards per game to rank third in the league last year and finished tied for 10th with 41 sacks.
Cornerback Vontae Davis is no longer around after being sent to Indianapolis for two draft picks Aug. 26.
"We don't have a lot of superstars," linebacker Karlos Dansby said, "but we all feel like we're superstars. That's our confidence level."
Houston has taken all six matchups in this series, most recently winning 23-13 on Sept. 18, 2011, in Miami. Tate ran for 103 yards on 23 carries after Foster exited early with a tight hamstring.
- Matt Schaub
- Houston Texans
- Arian Foster
- Miami Dolphins
- Joe Philbin