Week 17 Preview: Texans vs. Titans

Normally this is where I’d give you the stakes of the game, but if the Chiefs win at noon, there are practically zero stakes to this game. The Texans can’t improve their seeding if the Chiefs win. They could improve their seeding incrementally with a Chiefs loss and a Texans win, but either way, they’re playing next weekend. I wrote about why I would rest the starters this week. I’m not in charge of this team, and everything we’ve been fed seems to indicate the Texans are playing to win and playing their starters as long as the game is competitive. So this preview will be written as if that is the case.

The Titans have lost two games in a row, but they were both close-fought games against real competition. Tennessee’s primarily zone-based defense has been a major weakness, and they’ve now given up at least 355 yards in every game since Week 6. Their offense has been dominant, even without Derrick Henry last week they still found 149 rushing yards.

We went over recent history in Week 15’s preview post. The Titans and Texans have been fairly even since Bill O’Brien joined and the Titans stopped pretending they could start Zach Mettenberger and win football games.

Vegas’ line for this game has been all over the place, primarily because there was an assumption of rational coaching. It opened as a pick’em, the Titans were favored by as much as 6 before news of O’Brien playing to win this game trickled in. Now it’s stabilized around Titans -3.5 and I expect this is going to be one of those games that goes way further one way or another before kickoff.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA figures courtesy of Football Outsiders.

I’m sorry, but since this game last happened a whopping two weeks ago, a lot of this is going to be repetitive. I’m going to quote from the last one a lot and talk about what has changed:

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.

Now, what happened in Week 15 was that the Texans actually were able to run on the Titans. Carlos Hyde, for perhaps the first time since Week 8, was able to break off massive chunks of yardage on a consistent basis. Hyde ran 26 times for 104 yards and had a long of just 11 — so he set up many second- and third-and-shorts. I say this, and yet the Texans barely were above positive rushing DVOA on the game. That should tell you a lot about how things got to where they were with this offense. Obviously, the O’Brien goal will be to run this back.

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.

I don’t have legitimate numbers for you yet, but Houston’s play-action absolutely worked on this Titans defense in Week 15. The plays themselves were not the culprit, but rather — DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson made the plays work:

The Titans could not be less interested in pressuring Deshaun Watson. In Week 15, they blitzed Watson on one (1) of his 28 dropbacks. For the sake of comparison, Tampa Bay blitzed Watson on 19 of 37 dropbacks. I’m not sure if the Titans are feeling like changing anything up in this game, but it probably couldn’t hurt given how much Watson chewed them up last game with time to throw.

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.

The Texans were 7-of-9 for 11.1 yards per attempt throwing out of 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends, two wideouts) in their first game against the Titans. The only real negative was Watson’s goal-line pick that was batted up by Jeffrey Simmons. I think this is an area you’ll continue to see the Texans attack with, particularly since the Texans averaged 4.4 yards per carry out of 12 against the Titans in Week 15.

Of course, Fuller did play in that game. Won’t play in this game. The Texans have shown a huge split in favor of being a better passing game when Fuller is healthy.

When the Titans have the ball

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.

Houston is up to -2.2% rushing DVOA allowed after the last two games since the bye, but they continue to allow over five yards per carry and I think the DVOA allowed is mostly about good situational stuffs. Likewise, while Houston’s pass defense has gotten a bit better since the last time we ran these numbers, a lot of it is on the backs of Jameis Winston’s turnover adventure.

As predicted, the Titans didn’t do much in 12-personnel runs against Houston, getting only 31 yards on 10 carries in Week 15. In fact, a lot of their best runs came out of 21-personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers), where they averaged 7.3 yards per carry on six attempts. The Titans barely rushed out of 11-personnel in Week 15. They should probably do that more, but if they don’t want to, I’ll take it.

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.

On the very first play of the game, the Titans went right after Johnathan Joseph and torched him.

Joseph has since seen his role monumentally reduced, and the Texans’ pass DVOA has improved significantly for it. They allowed 6.1% passing DVOA to the Titans in Week 15 and largely managed the game smartly. By that, I mean they did this:

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.

The Texans blitzed Tannehill on 18 of 38 dropbacks, largely turning him into a checkdown thrower. Now, it’s possible a lot of that was game-script influenced — the Texans jumped out to a 14-0 lead, remember. It’s possible that this completely changes around in this game. But if the Texans are able to limit Tannehill like that again in Week 17, it will go a long way towards them winning.

The Titans got Corey Davis out of concussion protocol on Thursday so they should be rocking pretty much the exact same healthy players as they had for Week 15. Adoree Jackson down is the thing that really matters.

Special teams

The major difference in Week 15’s game, as well as Week 16’s game against Tampa Bay, has been dominant special teams play. Two blocked kicks are awesome, but the Texans are also doing an excellent job pinning opponents deep. The Titans didn’t start a single drive off a punt or kickoff against the Texans past their own 25.

Tennessee’s on to Greg Joseph at kicker — Joseph missed 6-of-9 kicks from 40 for the Browns in 2018, as well as four extra points. The Titans probably can’t call him worse than what they got out of Ryan Succop this year, but he’s probably not going to be a major net positive either.

The read

The Titans have several more reasons to care about winning this game than the Texans do. There’s a chance that the Titans get out to a big lead and the Texans understand that they’re better off packing it in. Frankly, even if the Texans were assured to try, their offense looks different without Will Fuller.

I’ll be picking Titans 27, Texans 25 — I just think there are way more paths open to the Titans winning this game.

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