HOUSTON (AP) - The real hard knocks start in Houston for Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Picked eighth overall in the NFL draft, he may have the toughest test of any of the five rookie quarterbacks starting on the NFL's opening weekend. He goes against a Texans defense that ranked second in yards allowed and set a club record with 44 sacks in Wade Phillips' first season as coordinator.
"They don't have as many exotic pressures and zone blitzes as you will see from other teams, but they're really good at what they do," Tannehill said. "They believe at what they do and they're crisp at it."
Tannehill will make his NFL debut at Reliant Stadium, where he led Texas A&M to a bowl victory over Northwestern in his final college game last December. Mike Sherman, Tannehill's college coach, was fired a few weeks before the bowl game and hired as the new Dolphins' offensive coordinator before the draft.
It's eased Tannehill's transition to the pros by having much of the same playbook from A&M, and he won the starting job in training camp over Matt Moore, who started 12 games last season. Veteran David Garrard was also in the mix until he hurt his left knee and needed surgery in early August. The Dolphins waived Garrard this week.
Tannehill is the first rookie quarterback to start for Miami in a season opener, something not even Dan Marino got to do. John Beck, currently No. 3 on Houston's depth chart, was the last rookie to start any games for the Dolphins and he went 0-4 in 2007.
Miami has question marks on the right side of the line, where rookie Jonathan Martin will start at tackle and backup John Jerry will start at guard. Left tackle Jake Long was limited at practice this week with a right knee injury. That isn't dimming Tannehill's eagerness heading into his first game.
"It's been a whirlwind, kind of nonstop," Tannehill said, "but I'm really excited in the position and the opportunity that I have. Now it's just about taking advantage of it. This is not the end of the road. It's just starting as I see it, and it's about going out every day, getting better, learning from each mistake you make and not making it again and just trying to become the best player you can be."
Phillips said he kept his defensive calls "vanilla" in the preseason, but there's no reason to hold back now, especially with a rookie quarterback first on the schedule.
"We're going to put some chocolate and strawberries and everything on that vanilla," Phillips said. "We've got some wrinkles for him."
The Texans have adopted the "Super Bowl or Bust" mantra after winning their first division title and making their postseason debut in 2011, and they get to open at home, where they've started the past two seasons with dominating victories over Indianapolis.
"You want to jump out of the gate quick," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We're here at home. You want to come out running. We have a great football team here, high expectations obviously. We want to show the world what we're about early."
Houston finished 10-6 in 2011 with many of its key players injured. Quarterback Matt Schaub and star receiver Andre Johnson are ready to go, and Arian Foster has emerged as one of the league's elite running backs, averaging 140.25 all-purpose yards per game in his first two seasons as a full-time starter. The trio played together only twice last season.
"Me, Matt and Arian are a big part of what we do," Johnson said. "It's great to have us all out on the field finally together and for everyone to be healthy."
Franchise career sacks leader Mario Williams left for big money in Buffalo and veteran linebacker DeMeco Ryans was traded to Philadelphia, so Houston drafted 2011 Football Bowl Subdivision sacks leader Whitney Mercilus and signed linebacker Bradie James, who played for Phillips in Dallas.
In last year's opener, the Texans held the Colts to 236 yards, recovered two fumbles and sacked Kerry Collins three times in a 34-7 victory. The Texans want to put the same kind of pressure on Tannehill.
"You want to fluster him," Watt said. "You want to confuse him, make him uncomfortable. It's his first game, and I know one thing that's going to make him very uncomfortable is our fans. Our fans are going to do a heck of a job getting loud, making his checks tough, making it tough to hear their audibles. So really excited to have him come into our environment and see what it's all about."
Miami ranked third in rush defense last season and held Houston to 138 yards on the ground in their game last year. Foster sat out last year's opener with a hamstring injury, but had a star-making performance in the first game of 2010 when he rushed for 231 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts.
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