With key starters out, 'next men up' have Texans in first place

HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans are successfully employing the motto coined by their AFC South rivals in Indianapolis for years.

Key players have gone down with injuries for the Texans over the last five weeks, but the "next men up" have played well enough to keep the season headed in the right direction.

Backup linebacker Darryl Sharpton was the latest Texans player lost to an injury, tearing a quadriceps tendon in Sunday's 24-14 win over Jacksonville.

Star receiver Andre Johnson is still sidelined with a right hamstring injury, outside linebacker Mario Williams is out for the season after tearing a chest muscle and safety Danieal Manning is out indefinitely with a broken left leg. Fullback James Casey returned Sunday after missing two games with a strained chest muscle.

The Texans (5-3) have still managed to take control of the division, relying on improved depth they've lacked in past seasons.

The Texans may still be without Johnson in Sunday's game against Cleveland (3-4). He sat out Wednesday's practice, but coach Gary Kubiak said Johnson went through a hard workout on Monday and will return to practice on Thursday. Kubiak was still hopeful that Johnson would play on Sunday.

"We're still in a day-to-day process," Kubiak said, "but I think every day it tells us something."

Receivers Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter, tight ends Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen, and running back Arian Foster have all caught touchdown passes from Matt Schaub in Johnson's absence.

"This is the NFL," Dreessen said. "You've got great players at every position, and there just can't be that much drop off from a starter to a guy who's not a starter. Honestly, on this team, I don't think there is.

The defense has been hit harder with injuries, yet somehow continues to improve. Houston ranks third overall (287 yards allowed per game) and fifth against the pass (189.4), a remarkable turnaround for a defense that ranked 30th last season.

Outside linebacker Brooks Reed, a second-round pick last year, has 14 tackles in three starts since Williams' injury, including sacks in the last two games.

Troy Nolan replaced Manning, one of Houston's key offseason acquisitions. Nolan, a seventh-round pick in 2009, made five tackles in his first start of the season Sunday.

Notes: The Texans signed LB Derrell Smith and promoted Mister Alexander from the practice squad.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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