- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Coach Bill O’Brien claimed the Houston Texans’ quarterback battle was close in the preseason. Perhaps it was closer than many expected.

Only one week into the season O’Brien has made a change, turning to Ryan Mallett to start Sunday against Carolina after Brian Hoyer struggled in a 27-20 season opening loss to Kansas City.

Hoyer had won the starting job in training camp, but was benched in the fourth quarter after committing two turnovers. Mallett led Houston on two scoring drives in the final six minutes, although it wasn’t enough to win.

“I learned at a young age in this league, you got to prepare as the starter regardless of whether you’re two or three,” on the depth chart, Mallett said. “It can change with one play. Something can happen and you’ve got to be ready to go.”

Mallett is 1-1 as a starter since coming into the league in 2011.

The Panthers say they are prepared for both quarterbacks - the strong-armed Mallett and the more mobile Hoyer.

“We don’t really worry about who is going to start,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said. “We have to continue to do what works best for our defense, go out and start fast, do the little things and get some turnovers and keep the momentum going.”

The Panthers’ defense forced three turnovers, made five sacks and scored a touchdown in a 20-9 win over Jacksonville last week. However, the Panthers may be without star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly after he suffered a concussion in Week 1. Kuechly remained in the league’s concussion protocol.

Here are some things to watch in the Texans-Panthers game:

KUECHLY FALLOUT: A.J. Klein would shift from strong side to middle linebacker if Kuechly can’t play. The Panthers limited the Jaguars to 75 yards and no points in the second half with Kuechly out of the game, but Klein doesn’t have the same sideline-to-sideline speed as Kuechly.

“You’re talking about the best defensive player in the NFL,” Klein said of Kuechly. “The opportunity for me to learn from him these last two years has helped me - and it will help me on Sunday.”

CLOWNEY’S HOMECOMING: This will be a homecoming for Houston outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Last year’s top overall pick grew up about 30 minutes from Charlotte in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Sunday will be his first NFL game here.

“I used to love the Panthers. Julius Peppers played there, Mike Minter, (Chris) Gamble was out there,” Clowney said. “I used to love their defense. I used to get out there, so it’s going to be a good feeling to be out there playing against them.”

Clowney is being brought along slowly after sitting out all preseason following microfracture surgery on his right knee in December. He was in for about 30 plays last week, but could play more against Carolina.

I’M OK MOM: J.J. Watt’s mother Connie Watt was more than a little concerned after her son got his helmet knocked off by a block, yet still finished the play by sacking Alex Smith against Kansas City.

“My mom called me twice after the game - once, immediately after, and once, later that night,” Watt said. “She just wanted to check and make sure I was OK - twice. I assured her that I was fine.”

He has a plan to guard against that happening again this week.

“I’ve put more air in the helmet now and hopefully 330-pound men won’t try to rip it off again because it comes off pretty easy if they try,” Watt said.

NORMAN’S YEAR: The Panthers’ Josh Norman, entering his contract year, is out to prove he’s a shutdown cornerback - and he’s off to a great start. Norman had an interception return for a touchdown, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against the Jaguars.

Norman is expected to be matched up on DeAndre Hopkins, who had two TD receptions last week for the Texans.

“He is their bell cow,” Norman said.

CAROLINA DROPS: The Panthers dropped three passes last Sunday, two by Ted Ginn Jr., including one that would have been an easy touchdown. It’s part of a problem that has plagued the Panthers since the second week of the preseason.

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AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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