Welcome back to the big time, Matt Leinart.
The former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, who didn't take a snap in 2010 after signing with the Houston Texans and hasn't started consecutive games since 2007 while with Arizona, officially stepped back into the spotlight on Wednesday when starter Matt Schaub was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a foot injury.
Schaub will need surgery after hurting his right foot during a 37-9 win at Tampa Bay two weeks ago. As a result, Leinart inherits a team that leads the AFC South by two games and is in line for the first five-game winning streak in team history.
Leinart's return comes this Sunday, when the Texans visit the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field.
"I've just got a job to do, be efficient and get the guys and this team in the right situation," Leinart said. "I'm extremely bummed for Matt [Schaub], just because of what he's put into this organization and to get us to this point. At the same time, it's an opportunity for myself to step up."
Leinart will be buoyed by the return of standout wide receiver Andre Johnson, who's expected to play for the first time since Oct. 2 after missing six games with an injured hamstring. Johnson had nine catches for 146 yards and a touchdown in a previous matchup with Jacksonville last November.
"It's a great offense to be a part of, and now we get the best receiver in the NFL back, which is awesome to have," said Leinart. "That's going to be great."
Johnson did not play in Houston's 24-14 home victory over the Jaguars on Oct. 30. In that game, Schaub passed for a touchdown and ran for another, and Arian Foster rushed for 112 yards and a score.
Houston, winless in Jacksonville since 2006, will face a Jaguars team coming off a difficult 14-10 loss at Cleveland in which rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw twice from the Browns' one-yard line in the final seconds rather than handing off to running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Additionally, the Jaguars let 28 seconds elapse after Jones-Drew picked up a first down inside the five.
"If I could do it again, I'd like that play to be pulled off a little quicker so that we would get a fourth down there," head coach Jack Del Rio said. "In the end, we had two really, really good looks at the end zone -- well-designed plays that gave us a chance."
In his initial meeting with the Texans, Gabbert connected on a career-worst 33.3 percent of his passes (10-of-30) for just 97 yards and was intercepted twice.
Houston is giving up a league-low 269.7 yards per game and is second in the NFL with averages of 16.6 points and 178.4 passing yards allowed.
Additionally, the Texans held Jones-Drew, the NFL's second-leading rusher with 941 yards, to a season-low 63 yards on 18 carries. Previously, Jones-Drew averaged 98.3 rushing yards and scored five times while leading Jacksonville to three straight wins over Houston before losing the last two matchups.
Foster, meanwhile, has run for 292 yards and scored three touchdowns in those two Houston wins, though he gained only 56 yards on 15 carries in the most- recent game in Jacksonville. The Jaguars won that one, 31-24, when Mike Thomas caught a deflected 50-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
Houston took a 10-9 edge in the overall series between these divisional foes with its aforementioned victory in Week 8, but has lost in each of its last four trips to EverBank Field and is just 3-6 lifetime in Jacksonville. The Jaguars won a 31-24 thriller against the Texans on their home turf last year, with the deciding points coming on a 50-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from then-quarterback David Garrard to Thomas on the final play. Houston's most recent triumph on the road in this set was a 13-10 decision in 2006, also the last year the Texans had a season sweep of the Jags.
Del Rio has an 8-9 overall record against Houston during his tenure in Jacksonville, while the Texans' Gary Kubiak is 6-5 against both the Jaguars and Del Rio over his head coaching career.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL Quarterback Leinart will make his first start since November 2009 with the Cardinals. The Texans are tied with Oakland and Minnesota for an NFL-best 13 rush touchdowns in 2011 and running back Foster leads the NFL with 148.1 scrimmage yards this season. He is the first running back to have three 100- yard receiving games (116, 119, 102) in a season since Richie Anderson in 2000. In his past four games, Foster is averaging 108.8 rush yards. He aims for a fifth consecutive game with at least one rush touchdown. Foster has totaled 292 rush yards in his past two against Jacksonville ��� averaging 146 rush yards per game. Running back Ben Tate is averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Wide receiver Johnson (698) needs two receptions to reach 700 in the second-fewest games (120) in NFL history behind Marvin Harrison���s 114. Johnson had nine receptions for 146 yards (16.2-yard average) with a touchdown in his last game against the Jaguars.
Jacksonville linebacker Paul Posluszny has 1.5 sacks in his past two games. Fourth-year end Jeremy Mincey had 37 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Free safety Dawan Landry has 66 tackles, a half-sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions.
Statistically speaking, Houston is fifth in scoring (27.3), seventh in total yards (396.2), 15th in passing (238.1) and second in rushing (158.1). On defense, Jacksonville is fifth in scoring (18.0), third in total yards (300.2), fourth against the pass (189.0) and 15th against the run (111.2).
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Leinart will make his first start since November of 2009 with the Cardinals. The Texans are tied with Oakland and Minnesota with an NFL-best 13 rushing touchdowns in 2011, and Foster leads the NFL with 148.1 yards from scrimmage per game this season. He also is the first running back to have three 100-yard receiving games in a season since Richie Anderson in 2000. In his past four games, Foster is averaging 108.8 rushing yards and aims for a fifth consecutive game with at least one touchdown on the ground. The 2010 NFL rushing champion has totaled 292 rushing yards in his past two games against Jacksonville, an average of 146 per game. Backup running back Ben Tate is averaging 5.6 yards per carry as Foster's understudy, while Johnson needs two receptions to reach 700 in the second-fewest games (120) in NFL history, behind only Marvin Harrison���s 114. Johnson had nine receptions for 146 yards (16.2-yard average) with a touchdown in his last game against the Jaguars, which took place at EverBank Field in Week 10 of last season.
Jacksonville linebacker Paul Posluszny has 1 1/2 sacks in his past two games, while fourth-year end Jeremy Mincey had 37 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles for the season. Free safety Dawan Landry has 66 tackles, a half-sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions over the first 10 games.
Statistically speaking, Houston is fifth in scoring (27.3 ppg), seventh in total yards (396.2 ypg), 15th in passing (238.1 ypg) and second in rushing (158.1 ypg). On defense, Jacksonville is fifth in points allowed (18.0 ppg), third in total yards allowed (300.2 ypg), fourth against the pass (189.0 ypg) and 15th against the run (111.2 ypg).
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Gabbert, the 10th overall selection in this past April's draft registered his first win as a starter in his last home game, a 12-7 ousting of Baltimore on Oct. 24. Jones-Drew leads the AFC with 941 rushing yards in 2011 and has rushed for at least 80 yards in nine of 10 games this season. In his past four outings against Houston, the talented running back is averaging 89.5 yards per game on the ground, and he's averaged 94.4 yards per game since the start of 2010, second-best in the NFL to Houston���s Foster (98.2 ypg). Jones-Drew also needs just 59 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the third consecutive season. Thomas tied a career-high with eight receptions and registered a career-best 149 receiving yards, including the game-winning 50-yard touchdown reception, in Jacksonville's home win over Houston last season. Fellow wide receiver Jason Hill, meanwhile, had a touchdown catch in last month's loss at Houston. Tight end Marcedes Lewis needs 43 receiving yards to surpass Kyle Brady (2,500) for the most by a tight end in Jaguar history. He had season-bests in receptions (seven) and receiving yards (64) last week.
For the Houston defense, rookie linebacker Brooks Reed, a second-round pick in the 2011 draft, aims for a fifth consecutive game with a sack and inside linebacker Brian Cushing shoots for a third straight game with one. Rookie end J.J. Watt has 32 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks on the season, while cornerback Johnathan Joseph has 32 tackles, a forced fumble and three interceptions.
By the numbers, Jacksonville is second-to-last in scoring (12.5 ppg), last in both total yards (249.5 ypg) and passing (129.4 ypg) and 12th in rushing (120.1 ypg). Houston's defense is second in points allowed (16.6 ppg), first in total yards allowed (269.7 ypg), second against the pass (178.4 ypg) and fourth against the run (91.3).
KEYS TO THE GAME
He's a former Heisman winner and elite college-level quarterback, but Leinart has never proven ready to succeed on the NFL level. Surrounded by a high-end defense and powerful offensive weapons, he'd be hard-pressed to have a better staging point than this one, however, and may only need to be a serviceable game manager to get Houston another win.
The Jaguars are middle of the pack in the league against the run, which provides an inviting target for Foster, who's likely to be a lean-on commodity for Leinart in his first Houston start.
Jacksonville's Jones-Drew is within shouting distance of reaching 1,000 yards on the ground for the season and his presence is a valuable crutch for Gabbert, even against an elite Houston defense.
On the verge of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and finally in possession of a defense to complement its offense, the Texans must ride the rest of the way with a quarterback who's not yet proven ready to handle the load. This game with the Jaguars, winnable albeit not easy, should be something of a barometer as to whether he'll be able to do so, or how often. Expect the first test to be passed.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 24, Jaguars 10