The Texans (10-1) are preparing for Sunday's game at Tennessee (4-7) with a handful of worrisome injuries, most of them in the linebacking corps.
Coach Gary Kubiak said Monday that outside linebacker Brooks Reed is going to miss time with a "significant" groin injury suffered in the Texans' 34-31 overtime win in Detroit on Thanksgiving. Reed, a second-round pick in 2011, has 15 solo tackles and 2 1/2 sacks this season.
Houston was already short-handed at linebacker after losing Brian Cushing for the season to a torn left knee ligament in the Oct. 8 win against the New York Jets. Tim Dobbins, who took Cushing's role, hurt his left shoulder against Chicago, though he was back on the field Monday.
Kubiak says linebacker Bradie James is day-to-day with a hamstring injury, and the depleted depth chart creates opportunities for rookie Whitney Mercilus and 2011 undrafted free agent Bryan Braman, who've both played mostly on special teams.
Mercilus, the 26th overall pick, led the nation in sacks last season at Illinois (16) and he's played well in the last four games, recording nine solo tackles and three sacks. He'll move into Connor Barwin's starting spot on the weak side, and Barwin will move into Reed's position on the strong side.
"I'm definitely ready for it, I've been coached up and all that," Mercilus said. "It's what I've been preparing for, what I've been training for, and the time has come now for me to step up and show the coaches that I've taken all the coaching and I'm ready to play."
Kubiak said Braman will see action at both outside positions on Sunday. Braman has a solo tackle in each of the last two games and had four in Houston's 38-14 win over Tennessee in Week 4. He feels a higher level of responsibility this week.
"Because I don't get a lot of playing time on defense in the first place, there are a lot of things fundamentally and mentally that I do need to go through, things I don't see as much as the other players do," Braman said. "It's definitely something I'm going to be working on a lot, making sure I'm fundamentally sound and knowing exactly what I'm supposed to do in every situation I'll face."
Lead cornerback Johnathan Joseph and backup running back Ben Tate worked out with trainers on Monday as they recover from hamstring injuries. Tate has missed the last four games, but is confident he'll be ready to play in Nashville.
"I've just been listening to my body, and I'm ready to go now," Tate said. "A hamstring is a thing where you have to listen to it. If you don't, you're going to, instead of missing three or four weeks, you're going to end up missing double that. It's frustrating, but at the same time, you have to be patient with it."
Arian Foster leads the NFL with 269 carries, and Justin Forsett has moved into the backup role with Tate sidelined. Forsett had 87 yards in the Thanksgiving victory, including a controversial 81-yard touchdown run. His yardage has increased in each of the last three games, and Kubiak says he'll have a minor dilemma when Tate gets back in the fold.
"We've got to get Ben back to playing, to working with the team, practicing all week, contributing," Kubiak said. "But Justin's done too good a job and been too productive for us as a player, both backing up Arian and as a special-teams player for his role not to continue.
"That's a nice problem to have, if we've got them all available," Kubiak said. "Hopefully, Ben has a good week of work and that's the case, come Sunday."
Kubiak said nose tackle Shaun Cody is back at practice after missing three games with a back injury.
Right tackle Derek Newton was also day to day with a right knee injury, Kubiak said. Ryan Harris, signed at the end of training camp, played 72 snaps on Thanksgiving and Kubiak said he'll start on Sunday if Newton can't play.
"I'm concerned about the health of our team right now," Kubiak said. "But that's part of this business this time of year, so we've got to figure out a way to be as good as we can be on Sunday. It's something we've got to deal with. The players understand it, the coaches understand it. We've got ourselves in a good position. We've got to just figure out a way to keep stepping to the plate."