HOUSTON – The Philadelphia Eagles have done a good job of protecting Nick Foles despite having to piece together an offensive line hit hard by injuries.
This week, the makeshift group has perhaps its biggest challenge to date: stopping J.J. Watt.
Watt has scored two defensive touchdowns, leads the league with 24 quarterback hits, has seven sacks and has swatted down seven passes this season for the Houston Texans.
"He does things that defensive linemen don't do," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "His contacts with the ball, it's the most we've seen and we've faced. And then the ability to just disrupt things if he doesn't get to the quarterback by batting balls down is really a unique set of skills that he has ... You've got to know where he is on every play."
The Eagles were without two starters on the line last week and have employed five different starting configurations in six games. All-Pro guard Evan Mathis remains out, but center Jason Kelce returned to practice this week after missing the last four games following sports hernia surgery and could play Sunday.
"I think they've done a good job of filling in those spots," Watt said. "They've had injuries along the way and they've done a good job of putting guys in places and they know what they're doing and they fit in well."
The Eagles have allowed only two sacks in the last six games; Watt has piled up five in his last three.
Houston's pass rush could get a boost with the return of top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. The outside linebacker had one tackle in limited action last week after missing six games following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
Coach Bill O'Brien expects Clowney to play more on Sunday, but thinks it will be a while before he's on the field for most every play with Watt. O'Brien said Clowney still has to improve his conditioning to be able to play 80 snaps a game.
Even though Clowney isn't back to full strength, the Eagles are concerned about dealing with him and Watt at the same time.
"Now you add what can be two game wreckers to the front," Philadelphia offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "Those are two dynamic players. They can rush the passer, they're hard to block when you're running the football, and if you throw the ball in and around them, they've got a lot of reach and range, where they just don't tip it down, sometimes they pick it off."
Some things to know about the Eagles-Texans game:
OLD FRIENDS: The Eagles have seven players who were once Texans, led by linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin. Ryans played his first six seasons in Houston and is the team's all-time leading tackler with 636 stops. The Texans also drafted Barwin and he played in Houston from 2009-12, leading the team with 11 ½ sacks in 2011.
"Four wonderful years for me," Barwin said. "Obviously it's a big game for both teams, though. I'm excited to see a lot of those people, but once we start playing it will be back to business."
MACLIN'S BACK: Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin has starred for the Eagles in his return from a second ACL surgery that cost him all of last season. He leads the team with 39 catches for 632 yards and six touchdowns and is coming off a career-high 187 yards receiving.
"Coming back from injury is hard enough, and playing a skill position like he plays is even harder," Shurmur said. "He's done a tremendous job. He's really battled through it."
FOSTER RETURNS TO FORM: Houston running back Arian Foster is off to a great start in his return from back surgery that caused him to miss the last eight games of 2013. He is second in the NFL with 766 yards rushing despite missing one game with a hamstring injury.
He is one game shy of setting the NFL record for most 100-yard games by an undrafted player with 32.
RETURN TOUCHDOWNS: The Eagles need one return touchdown to tie the franchise record of eight set in 1952. They've scored on a kickoff return, a punt return, two blocked punts, two fumble returns and an interception return.
MR. 300: Foles has four 300-yard passing games and needs one more to tie Sonny Jurgensen (1961) and Donovan McNabb (2004) for the most 300-yard passing games in franchise history during one season. He set a team record with 36 completions and had his third career 400-yard passing game last week.
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