Houston coach Gary Kubiak would’ve told anyone who asked that the Texans were going to be fine with rookie T.J. Yates playing quarterback.
He was right.
Yates threw a touchdown pass in his first NFL start, Arian Foster rushed for 111 yards and Houston overcame another injury to Andre Johnson to beat Atlanta 17-10 on Sunday.
The Texans (9-3) have won a franchise-record six straight games, a remarkable feat considering they’re down to their third-string quarterback and have played many of their games without their star receiver.
The Falcons (7-5) sputtered offensively most of the game in losing for the second time in seven games. Houston’s top-ranked defense knocked down two passes by Matt Ryan in the end zone in the closing seconds.
Kubiak couldn’t bear to watch the final play, turning his back and walking down the sideline. When the ball hit the turf and the crowd cheered, general manager Rick Smith told Kubiak what happened and patted him on the back.
”It’s a great win,” Kubiak said, ”because of everything this team has been through.”
Yates went 12-for-25 for 188 yards without an interception, an impressively poised performance after a dizzying week.
”I test my guys the night before every game,” Kubiak said, ”and when I tested him, I was so impressed. I went in there and told the whole team, ‘I wish you could have been in there. He is ready to play.”’
The fifth-round pick was thrust into his pro debut last week in Jacksonville when Matt Leinart broke his collarbone. Leinart was starting in place of Matt Schaub, who broke a Lisfranc joint in his right foot in Houston’s previous game.
The 24-year-old Yates went 8-for-15 for 70 yards in his earlier-than-expected debut against the Jaguars. He was sacked three times by the Falcons, but never looked overwhelmed.
”I was extremely comfortable out there,” Yates said. ”Coach Kubiak, throughout the week, we had a lot of talks and he instilled a lot of confidence in me.”
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp worked day and night preparing Yates for the Falcons’ ninth-ranked defense. When Kubiak quizzed Yates at the end of the week, he knew the rookie was ready.
”The job they did with that kid in the quarterback room was tremendous,” Kubiak said. ”It’s been a heck of a challenge. T.J. held up his end of the bargain well.”
Johnson looked like he’d be Yates’ go-to guy early, making leaping catches on the quarterback’s first two completions. The All-Pro receiver also atoned for an earlier drop by pulling in a perfect 50-yard pass from Yates to the Atlanta 5 in the second quarter.
Yates then snapped a quick pass to tight end Joel Dreessen for his first career TD, and chants of ”T.J.! T.J.!” emerged from the capacity crowd.
”I was studying my butt off all week long,” Yates said, ”and it paid off.”
Naturally, the Texans couldn’t make it through a game without more adversity.
Johnson left in the third quarter after hurting his left hamstring. He injured his right hamstring in Week 4, underwent minor surgery and sat out six games.
Kubiak said after the game that he was told the injury was not severe, but he couldn’t be certain until Johnson underwent tests on Monday.
”I don’t think you ever know about the hamstrings until the next day,” Kubiak said.
After Johnson went down, Foster ably took over the offensive load, carrying 10 times on Houston’s decisive drive. Foster scored on a 1-yard run with 6:05 left, and then it was up to the Texans’ defense to finish.
Atlanta got the ball back with 59 seconds left, and Ryan threw a deep pass to Julio Jones to the Texans 25. But Ryan overthrew Roddy White in one corner of the end zone and Kareem Jackson swatted away a pass to Jones in the other corner as time expired.
”I had the opportunity to make that play and I just had to come up with the catch at the end,” Jones said.
Ryan completed 20 of 46 passes for 267 yards with two touchdowns, but also threw two interceptions. The Texans have intercepted a pass in 11 consecutive games.
”We played in spurts,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. ”We didn’t do the things we wanted to accomplish. We had way too many dropped footballs, way too many things that we normally don’t do.”
After Johnson went down, Foster kept Houston on track, converting a fourth-and-1 with a 7-yard run to the Atlanta 2. The Texans took more than 10 minutes off the clock with the decisive, 19-play drive, which tied a team record.
Notes: Atlanta allowed a 100-yard rusher for the first time in 15 games. . . . Gonzalez has a catch in 175 consecutive games, the league’s longest active streak. Gonzalez also reached 60 receptions for the 13th consecutive season, an NFL record. . . . The Texans had a positive turnover ratio (plus-1) for the eighth time in 12 games. . . . Houston has already matched its highest single-season win total (9-7 in 2009).