Week 15 Preview: Texans @ Titans

The Houston Texans come into Tennessee for a game that will define the rest of their season. It is by no means do or die, but a loss would effectively confine the Texans to the fourth or sixth seeds in the playoffs, and force the return match against the Titans in Week 17 to be a must-win. A win would allow them to all but clinch the division. Their magic number with Tennessee would be one and, if Indianapolis wins to stay alive, their magic number with the Colts would also be one. It would also keep the Texans in contention for the No. 3 seed with a tiebreaker with the Chiefs that could come into play, as well as the vague possibility of a No. 2 seed should they manage their way to a tie with New England or Kansas City for that spot. It will also set the terms by which we see the entirety of Houston’s win-now moves — no pressure!

Unfortunately, the Titans are red-hot. Since Ryan Tannehill took over, Tennessee has had the second-best offensive DVOA in the NFL. There is something to the notion that Tannehill will regress long-term, but Houston’s defense allowed Drew Lock to bake up 31 offensive points for the Broncos with the EZ Bake oven. That is the dark shadow hanging over this game.

Recent history of these games have been mixed for the Texans. Houston’s 97-yard Lamar Miller touchdown run came against the Titans last year, and that keyed a 34-17 win. But in Week 2, the Texans suffered one of the bleakest losses of the Deshaun Watson era when they were felled by Blaine Gabbert. The Titans have historically been whipped by O’Brien’s Texans — they’ve lost seven of the 10 meetings since O’Brien took over in 2014 — but those were mostly Zach Mettenberger-aided cupcake games. It’s been 3-3 since Mariota actually started playing against the Texans in 2016.

Vegas has installed the Titans as three-point favorites, and that has raised from an initial line of 1.5, essentially saying the game is even. It’s an interesting line because I think the Titans, on recent run of play, probably deserve to be favored by even more. The over/under has raised 2.5-3.5 points since it was posted from its original 47 as well, meaning the initial Vegas lean didn’t quite believe in the Titans. That is an interesting development on its own.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy of Football Outsiders

While Tennessee’s offense has been soaring, their defense has been average at best since Tannehill took over. They’ve got a 2.9% DVOA since Week 7 and have given up 355 total yards or more in each game since then. Mostly it has been the pass defense not holding its weight — the Titans have allowed a 20.1% passing DVOA since Week 7. The run defense has been stellar all season.

In that way, this game presents as a bit of a trap for the Texans, who have a run-first identity — they’re 12th in rushing attempts despite an average lead of -3.17 per offensive possession. The Texans did not run the ball much in last week’s game despite good per-attempt numbers, and are likely going to see that and be tempted to run more. Particularly when you pair that with how Houston beat the Titans in 2018 with Miller’s big carry.

As self-depreciating as Vrabel is, he definitely knows that O’Brien wants to run. If I were Dean Pees, I’d welcome those runs. The Titans are a much-improved rushing defense (up from -9.4% in 2018) and have only allowed two major blemishes (against Carolina and Indianapolis). This isn’t to say that the Texans couldn’t run on the Titans — they absolutely have enough talent to — but it will be inconsistent at best as long as O’Brien stays with the inside zone as he is wont to do.

Passing is a different story. I worked on a post about the play-action pass game and how it’s been broken. The Titans actually did quite well against play-action from Houston last year as well, holding Watson to 7-of-13 for 88 yards and one touchdown in their two meetings. Adding to the reasons to abandon max-protect: the Titans have quarterback knockdowns on just 5.1% of their defensive dropbacks this year, second-lowest in the NFL. The Titans have some players with good prestige in Harold Landry and Jurrell Casey, but neither of them is tearing up offensive lines this season.

The Titans are one of the few teams that run almost zero shadow coverage, so the Texans should be moving DeAndre Hopkins into the slot to dominate. Throwing to the slot last year against the Titans, Watson was 12-of-14 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Hopkins only had one of those targets. With Adoree Jackson out with a foot injury (two DNPs) and Malcolm Butler on IR, the Titans ran with Tye Smith, Logan Ryan, and waiver claim Tramaine Brock as starters last week against the Raiders. Tennessee’s got great safeties between Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, but the short passing game should favor the Texans.

This is a game where I think the absence of Will Fuller won’t be too bad if the Texans actually pass out of 12-personnel. The Titans have allowed 9.6 yards per attempt and a 60% success rate on passes out of 12 this year, along with five touchdowns and zero interceptions in 80 dropbacks. Of course, if Fuller plays, he scorched the Titans in his first game of 2018 for 100 yards and he’s obviously got the talent to do that in any given week.

Finally, I am using this paragraph to protest Chris Clark’s existence on the roster. I don’t get it. I’m sure Chris Clark is a perfectly nice man and he’s had a fine career. But he’s 35 fucking years old and moves like he’s had a hip injury all year — and hey, speaking of, who popped up on the injury report this week with a hip injury? So … yeah, please don’t make me watch Chris Clark anymore. Thanks.

When the Titans have the ball

The accolades have mostly been about play-action and Tannehill, but let’s also take a moment to recognize that the Titans have a 14.8% run DVOA since Tannehill has been starting. They’re getting good offensive line play pretty much up and down the board, outside of reserve guard Nate Davis. They’ve integrated Tannehill into the run game with some success, and their tight ends and wideouts — particularly rookie A.J. Brown — have been excellent blockers as well. The gliding style of Derrick Henry is a lot of fun to watch when he’s going.

While Houston’s rush defense is good on the season, they are at 1.3% rushing DVOA allowed since their bye week. They miss the negative plays that J.J. Watt provided, and without having to key on him, offenses can treat the Texans as a lot more predictable. Houston’s run defense especially suffers when playing against 11-personnel, where they have allowed 5.2 yards per carry and a 56% success rate on 75 carries since Watt went down. Tennessee does lean on 12-personnel a bit more than average since Week 7, so perhaps that is a ray of hope in what is otherwise kind of a grim matchup. The Texans only allow 3.4 yards per carry to 12-personnel since Watt went down. Of course, the last time we started looking for rays of hope, the Ravens deathmarched the Texans down the field. The Titans probably aren’t quite the Ravens from a schematic standpoint, but they’re as good as the rest of the league has to offer.

I’m not going to lie to you — the prospect of Tannehill raining death and destruction on the Texans over the air is something that may be somewhat inevitable. Since Week 7, Houston has the absolute worst passing DVOA allowed in the NFL at 41.2%. Houston’s linebackers are very good, but the push-pull between Henry and their underneath assignments is likely to pull them out of position considering how much of Tennessee’s play-action game targets the middle of the field with slants.

The one thing that has limited Tannehill — yes, despite the hype, he has been limited at times — is that he takes a ton of sacks. He’s taken 24 in seven starts, at a 10.6% rate of his dropbacks. To put that in perspective: Deshaun Watson, who still takes too many sacks according to many that I hear, is at 8.0%. That’s why, despite the fact that the Titans have been crushing it, they’ve been held under 200 net passing yards in three of their last six games. Houston should be trying to emulate Indianapolis’ game plan from Week 12, where they sacked Tannehill six times.

The problem with that is that Tannehill has mostly been blitz-proof with how effective the running game has been. He’s been blitzed on fewer than 10 dropbacks in each of his last five starts. Tampa sent 19 blitzes at him and and held him to 5.6 completed air yards per completion. If you can get Tannehill to third-and-long, you’ve got to bring the heat. Houston’s base pass rush has all but disappeared. Teams aren’t needing to even double Whitney Mercilus. Jacob Martin is the only player the Texans have who has a sack since the bye, and he only plays on passing downs.

Romeo Crennel said that the cornerback rotation the Texans used last week was part of the plan. Let me say right now: the cornerback rotation for this game should not include Johnathan Joseph in my opinion. This is not the kind of game he’s built for at 35 — physical pounding and with a lot of necessary man-coverage against big receivers. Gareon Conley needs to be a full-time player with Bradley Roby, and I’d actually lean towards Lonnie Johnson as another corner here given his power. I suspect Crennel will play this a little more passive than I’d like, though.

Special teams

Tennessee’s kicking game has been abominable all season. Ryan Succop has missed time and, currently, has not hit a field goal longer than 40 yards on the season. In contrast, the Texans aren’t doing so bad!

Both teams have good punt coverage units. The Texans have lost a little bit of oomph recently without Dylan Cole — they allowed a 33-yard kickoff return to start the second half against the Broncos.

The read

It’s true that the Texans have ground out wins in big games this season. It’s true that the defense has been better coming off a game where they got their butt kicked. I regard that as mostly noise.

I would not be completely, knock-me-over-with-a-feather shocked if the Texans won. I expect it to be a low-possession game with two teams that like to run, and if Will Fuller plays, the Texans have so much juice that they can’t be counted out. All it would take is a few big plays on defense.

I do not trust this defense to successfully stop Derrick Henry or the play-action pass game. Titans 29, Texans 27. Prove me wrong kids, prove me wrong.

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