HOUSTON — The stars and even their backups keep falling for the Houston Texans.
This team has weathered season-ending injuries to linebacker Mario Williams and quarterback Matt Schaub as well as playing for six games without Andre Johnson, yet managed to remain atop the AFC South standings.
Now this resilient bunch will face its toughest test when rookie third-string quarterback T.J. Yates makes his first NFL start against the Atlanta Falcons (7-4) today.
Yates saw his first NFL action in a 20-13 win over Jacksonville last week after backup Matt Leinart was injured. Leinart broke his left collarbone and is out for the season, leaving Yates as the Texans’ best option (for now) as they try to secure their first playoff berth.
This certainly isn’t the scenario the Texans envisioned when the season began. Still, they insist there’s no reason for panic and that they’ll deal with this setback just as they’ve handled everything else thrown at them this year.
“Nothing’s changed. We’ve been dealing with injuries all year,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s running around here like things are supposed to be bad, but the team is fine.”
Johnson has plenty of reasons to be confident. The Texans (8-3) have the league’s top defense (measured by yards allowed), the third-most potent running game and have won five in a row heading into today’s game.
Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, doesn’t seem daunted by his new responsibility.
“I wasn’t expecting for it to come under these circumstances and this quick in my career, but I’ve been preparing for it all season long just in case something like this was going to happen,” he said.
Yates was 8 of 15 for 70 yards against Jacksonville after Leinart was injured in the second quarter.
Falcons coach Mike Smith isn’t expecting much of a drop-off with Yates in at quarterback.
“It is a system offense. Coach (Gary) Kubiak’s offense has a system and it’s really based, in my mind, around the running game and the running game sets up everything else,” Smith said.
The Falcons are looking to make a playoff push and have won two straight to sit second in the NFC South behind New Orleans. Their recent success has been aided by the solid play of Matt Ryan, who has thrown for 578 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in those last two games.
Smith knows Ryan and his offense will be in for a challenge against a Houston defense that is getting better every week.