The Houston Texans have been cursed this season when it comes to injuries.
Just when they get one star player back, another one goes down. Talk about a vicious cycle that still has us all wondering what type team we really have as the season approaches Week 8.
But with All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson and versatile fullback James Casey both possibly returning to the lineup Sunday against Jacksonville, there does seem to be a silver-lining in the time they and some of the other star players have been sidelined.
Let’s consider what we know now that we never would have known were it not for Arian Foster’s pesky hamstring, Mario Williams torn pectoral muscle or the hamstring injury that has shelved Johnson for the last three weeks and counting.
Just looking at the offensive side alone, we’ve seen some real growth from some players who have been forced to step up. We have learned second-year running back Ben Tate is far more than a quality backup. He’s a quality running back who would be starting for several other teams that don’t have the NFL’s reigning rushing champ sitting in front of him.
You don’t find many backups who’ve already had three 100-yard rushing days and the season isn’t halfway over. His latest gem came last Sunday while giving Foster a breather, gaining 104 yards and averaging 6.9 yards per carry on 15 carries. It won’t end up this way as long as Foster remains healthy but Tate actually is ahead of his more celebrated teammate in rushing yards and average per carry for the season with 466 rushing yards and a 5.1 yards per carry average.
But the Texans’ backups doing big things doesn’t end there.
Remember how we all thought the season was over as we watched Johnson lay on turf in obvious agony as he grabbed at his leg against Pittsburgh? Who would fill the void of the Texans chief play-maker and Matt Schaub’s always reliable security blanket?
No individual on the roster seemed promising. But collective effort from the receivers and tight ends has given us the confidence the Jacoby Jones, Kevin Walter and Joel Dreessen all are capable of more than just the occasional big play.
After a suspicious performance in his first start in place of Johnson, we watched Jones come into his own against Baltimore and show for the first time he is ready to move beyond the proverbial potential stage. Then there was Walter diving for ball and doing all the little things that primary receiver does.
“A lot of times those guys don’t really get chances to go out and show what they can do,” said Johnson, who practiced for the first time this week but still remains uncertain for Sunday. “A lot of times when you talk about the Texans the first people you think about are Matt, Andre, Arian and Owen (Daniels), but you look at Joel, Jacoby and Kevin. All those guys, they may not do it every game but there is always a play here and there that guys make to keep drives going.
“To be honest man, I really expect it out of them because you see them do it every week, especially in practice. Now they have just been given more opportunity to go out and make the plays. It doesn’t surprise me at all. I get excited to watch them play.”
But the most exciting development in Johnson’s absence could be the legitimate pass receiving weapon Foster has become out of the backfield. It grew partially out of necessity and also by the sheer fact it was the only way Foster could produce positive yards with defenders crowding the line of scrimmage and giving him little room to run.
Foster showed signs of the damage he could do as a receiver during losses against Oakland and Baltimore, but then came the real breakthrough during Sunday’s dominating win over Tennessee. Not only did come through with 115 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the ground, he also had 119 yards and a touchdown receiving.
Foster, who became the first Texans player to rush for over 100 and have over 100 yards receiving in the same game, took home AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors a result. But more important, the Texans gained another wrinkle in the offense that will stress out defenses even more once Johnson returns.
“People always look at him as far as running the ball,” Johnson said. “Now that he can show he can hurt you out of the backfield running routes and things, it just adds another weapon to the offense.”
For Schaub it’s been opportunity to explore some possibilities in the offense that may not have existed were it not for Johnson injury or even Casey’s for that matter. There is comfort in knowing Jones will make plays in clutch situations or that backup fullback Lawrence Vickers is capable of picking up a blitzing linebacker though he might not be quite the receiving threat out of the backfield Casey has become.
“It’s never a good thing when you have injuries because you never want to have guys miss time but that’s the way this league work. It’s a league of opportunity,” Schaub said. “When things happen and some guys miss some time you hope it’s not for too long but it does allow guys to take advantage of that opportunity.
“Then when you get the guys back that were injured then it just adds more weapons to your arsenal. You need all your guys, you need all hands on deck when you get to the stretch run and the push for the postseason.”
Surprisingly not only have the Texans (4-3) remained in position to make their first playoff appearance, but they are also on top of the AFC South despite significant time missed by several key players. Defensively, rookie Brooks Reed has filled in admirably at outside linebacker for Williams, who is lost for the season. We’re about to see what third-year free safety Troy Nolan is made off now that starter Danieal Manning will be lost for at least six weeks and possibly the remainder of the season.
“We’ve lost some players, so we’ve had to have some new guys step up,” head coach Gary Kubiak said. “You got a guy like Ben Tate pitching in this year. Offensively, we’re trying to play without two key players for a few weeks, so a lot of things going on with the team that could either be problems or you work through them and get stronger and it looks like we’re trying to get stronger.”