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Houston's Johnson, Williams Present Tough Matchups


Game-planning in the NFL is mostly about matchups - finding ways for your best players to perform at their highest level while scheming for ways to limit the impact of the opponent's top talents.

Not to take anything away from dynamic rookie running back Steve Slaton and productive middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, or to discount the expected return from injury of starting quarterback Matt Schaub. But when the Green Bay Packers look at the Houston Texans, without a doubt there's one proven, game-changing talent on each side of the ball that must be accounted for.

They are receiver Andre Johnson and defensive end Mario Williams.

Much like Steve Smith for Carolina last week or Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen for Minnesota a month ago, if everyone is talking about Johnson and Williams after Sunday's game at Lambeau Field, it won't be a good thing for the Packers.

Johnson is the more established of the two stars. Now in his sixth year after being selected third overall in the 2003 NFL Draft, Johnson already has notched his third career 1,000-yard season, and with a league-best 88 catches for 1,146 yards and four touchdowns this year, he's well on pace to eclipse his own season highs for receptions and yards (103-1,147 in 2006).

With his combination of size (6-foot-3, 223 pounds), speed and leaping ability, he's shown he can be downright dominant for prolonged stretches. This season, in a span of four games (Weeks 5-8), Johnson racked up 41 receptions for 593 yards, or an average of 10 catches for 148 yards per game for an entire month.

It's not a coincidence that the Texans posted three of their five victories during that stretch, and lost a game to Indianapolis they probably should have won.

This year the Packers secondary has done an admirable job against some of the league's top wideouts, holding Dallas' Terrell Owens and Indy's Reggie Wayne to two receptions apiece. But when Smith burned the Packers a week ago for two catches totaling 90 yards in the fourth quarter, each of which went to the 1-yard line to set up touchdowns, don't think Johnson didn't notice.

"I think the big thing with him is how he works," Houston head coach Gary Kubiak said. "All the great players I've been around in this league, they have one thing in common and it's their work habits. You talk about Jerry Rice, Rod Smith, you have to see these guys practice. Every day is gameday. It's full-bore. He doesn't ask for any reps off, he challenge players in practice.

"I don't even think he's touched the surface. He's got a chance to set some marks around here that will be very difficult to catch. The key with him in his career is us settling down here at quarterback and having one guy that stays healthy and works with him every day."

Johnson almost certainly will benefit from the return of Schaub, who was the quarterback for most of that impressive four-game stretch back in October. And it also helps Johnson to have Slaton coming into his own, giving defenses another legitimate weapon to worry about. The rookie third-round draft pick has 1,154 yards from scrimmage (904 rushing, 250 receiving) and is averaging 5.4 yards every time he touches the ball.

But Johnson is the prime weapon on offense, with 73 career receptions of 20-plus yards, including 14 this season, and 14 career catches of 40-plus.

"Very physical, productive receiver and really has been for some time," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "He can do it all. He's a big target. He's their premier target as far as their passing game from a perimeter standpoint, and he'll definitely be a focus for our secondary."

Same goes for Williams for the Green Bay offensive line.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Williams has steadily improved and is making the biggest impact in his career of late. With 11 sacks this season, he's one away from cracking the league's top five, and he put his skills on display for a national audience this past Monday night, posting three sacks and a forced fumble in a win over Jacksonville.

"He has the ability to change a game," McCarthy said. "I think he showed that Monday night. His ability, it jumps off the film at you."

Williams will switch sides in a game at will, so both of Green Bay's offensive tackles, Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, likely will match up with him Sunday.

{sportsad300}Like many pass rushers, Williams seems to get his sacks in bunches. Before Monday night, he had three two-sack games this season, meaning nine of his 11 sacks have come in just four of 12 games. It was similar last year, his second season, when Williams racked up 10 of his 14 sacks during a span of six games in November and December.

"When we drafted him he came to a team that, let's face it, we weren't very good," Kubiak said. "We had a lot of holes to fill and we wanted to start to build a defense around him.

"He's been everything we thought he would be and then some. He's becoming a great player, and he's really become a pro. He understands how to study, how to go about his business as he prepares to play opponents. He should be playing here at a high, high level for a very long time."

Like Carolina's Smith was able to last week as a receiver, Minnesota's Allen is the only top-flight defensive end to create ongoing havoc for the Packers' offense this year, and it took until his second meeting with Green Bay to do that.

Others, like Dallas' DeMarcus Ware or Tampa Bay's Gaines Adams, have made a play here or there. If Williams' impact can at least be limited to a certain extent, it bodes well for the Packers to continue their productive run on offense, which includes 90 points over the past three games.

"He's a challenge," McCarthy said. "He's definitely a player in their defense that we have targeted."

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