Four Downs: Texans 24, Titans 21

This year, one where we’ve seen the Texans speak out about their own inconsistency multiple times, has actually been fairly consistent in one way. The Texans falter in a game where they should have won, fail to take control of their playoff destiny, but they settle themselves down.

They look in to the chaotic void that is the middle class of the AFC, and they say “no thanks.”

To me, the Texans didn’t do a whole lot to answer the questions about themselves going forward — and I’ll talk a little bit about why that was as we get further down — but what they did prove was that when you take a game-script offense and put it down 14-0, you greatly increase your chances of winning.

The offense wasn’t always pretty. The defense was never pretty. But after taking care of business in Nashville, the Texans are an overwhelming favorite to make the playoffs. One win or a pair of losses by the Titans and Colts (three games left) would clinch the AFC South. I crack a lot on Bill O’Brien’s vision because I don’t think it’s ambitious enough, but you have to admit — he does set out and accomplish what he actually plans to seize.

1 — The play that swung the season

Tennessee’s run offense had just gotten cranking, with a Derrick Henry 20-yard run a few plays before this one. The Texans had been stymied with an interception deep in Titans territory on their first drive, and had gone three possessions with no points. It looked like Tennessee was about to send the Texans to game-script hell before Justin Reid recognized the play that the Titans were about to run and … well, I’ll let him describe it:

Reid broke up the pass, the ball serendipitously landed in Whitney Mercilus’ lap, and he turned the entire field over by setting the ball up at the Tennessee 12. Two plays later, Deshaun Watson laid up a loft ball over man coverage to Kenny Stills, and the Texans took their first lead in a game they’d never trail.

I want to be realistic about this: The Texans were outgained 432-374, and they lost yards per play 6.4 to 5.9 while losing the turnover battle 2 to 1. By the raw yardage statistics, this was Tennessee’s game to lose. But the ability to avoid getting game-scripted by a run-heavy offense is enormous, and the raw return yardage on this pick was enormous.

This was, literally, the play that saved the season.

2 — Hyde definition

In typical AFC South fashion, this game was won in the run trenches. In unexpected fashion, it was the Texans that won the game there, not the Titans.

Those 18 attempts were weighed down by four clock killing attempts in the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead. From the second quarter on in particular, the Texans were able to get four or five yards whenever they needed to.

I don’t think this is particularly sustainable given how easy New England was able to limit O’Brien’s zone game a few weeks ago, but it was a nice surprise for the Texans to come out and lay 140 rushing yards on a team that hadn’t given up that many since Week 9 and had only given up more than 117 twice all season.

If you want to be supremely optimistic, even Chris Clark made a great block! (If you want to be supremely optimistic, please disregard all other Chris Clark plays.)

We’ll see just how real that is in a tough matchup next week against a Tampa Bay defense that has allowed just 3.4 yards per carry all season.

3 — Houston’s pass defense is entirely dependent on coverage right now

It’s third-and-10, the Titans are driving to the Houston 37 with 1:20 left. Their kicker already had one blocked and has been horrendous all season, meaning they needed positive yardage. The Titans schemed Kalif Raymond open on one side, but Gareon Conley was able to beat him to the ball:

On fourth-and-10, with no ability to even pretend they’d kick a field goal, the Titans attempted a fake punt and had it broken up by Lonnie Johnson:

The Texans had two sacks and six quarterback hits today, one sack came as Ryan Tannehill tried to step up and run and was caught before he could get past the line of scrimmage. The other, from Charles Omenihu, came as Tannehill tried to buy enough time for someone to get open near the sideline in a Hail Mary situation:

But as a whole, with 37 dropbacks today, the Texans put absolutely no pressure on Tannehill. He was rarely hurried. He got wherever he wanted to go, and the play-action that the Titans used largely worked:

With the Texans right now, it’s all about how often they can cause big plays, and those big plays almost never happen as a result of the pass rush. This is purely about how well they read coverages. That is the defense right now. They got about as gashed up as we all thought they would in run defense, but managed to turn a few drives with good coverage.

4 — The Will Fuller factor

Let’s bring back a classic:

Fuller played today, and the Texans went 6-of-9 on balls that went 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, for 154 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. Moreover, it was presented before the game as if Fuller missing the Denver game was more about maintenance than anything else, which is terrific news.

Fuller on his own had a solid day, with only one deep catch of note, but the Texans were able to have a lot more success out of their play-action formations because Fuller draws a ton of attention on those. That attention left Hopkins one-on-one on this backbreaker over LeShaun Sims that put the Texans in scoring position up seven with five minutes to play:

Watson did not have his prettiest game, getting picked a couple of times and throwing some ducks early on. But there’s nobody I can think of who I’d rather have with the ball out of the pocket.

This is a different offense when Will Fuller is healthy and playing. Trying to figure out when those two things will happen is sometimes a headache. But when it all goes together, even if O’Brien doesn’t call a perfect game, Houston can still be dangerous.

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