Week 6 Preview: Texans @ Titans

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This is going to be a weird thing to say about a game involving a 1-4 Texans team, but there are true, real stakes here for the rest of the season. Beat the Titans and you’re 2-4, you’ve got two division games in hand, and you can’t really look at the rest of the AFC South and say you can’t compete. After all, you just went and beat the undefeated team on the road. Lose, and you’re four games back in the division, you’ve got a real chance to backpedal into the bye 1-6, and at that point you hit the trade deadline looking very hard at what you can part with to jumpstart the plans for 2021.

When you fire the head coach at 0-4, you aren’t firing him because you think the season’s over. You’re firing him because you think he is actively a detriment to your players, and there’s still a lot of season left. The version of the 2020 Texans that was supposed to be a playoff team, a true contender? That squad is still fighting to project its real image on to the NFL.

The Texans defeated the Titans last year in Nashville, a Week 15 affair that mostly turned on a red zone pick that Justin Reid forced and Whitney Mercilus brought back inside the Titans 20. I wrote about that game here. It’s funny to think about what a thorn in the side that game was for a Titans team that would eventually overwhelm the Patriots, upset the Ravens, and lose to the Super Bowl champions in Kansas City in the AFC Title game. The Texans also started A.J. McCarron against the Titans in Week 17, a game nobody should spend even five minutes thinking about. In case you are also a sadist, I wrote about that game here.

The Titans were favored by 5.5 points at open, and that line has already been bet down to just 3.5. It’s an interesting turn of events from Vegas to say that an undefeated 4-0 Titans team coming off an impressive win on Tuesday is barely home-field better than a 1-4 Texans team. Of course, one of those teams has a full week’s rest, one of them doesn’t. And, you know, all the weirdness of the coaching change requires a more dynamic set of analysis and energy than the glazed-over look you could approach the O’Brien Texans with.

When the Texans have the ball

Running on the Titans is something that sounds appealing if you look at box scores. Tennessee has allowed a league-worst 5.5 yards per carry, and every single one of their opponents has racked up at least 123 rushing yards. At the same time, the advanced stats see them as only a slightly-below average run defense.

They’ve played two of the best 10 DVOA run offenses in Minnesota and Denver. They’re also one of the teams that would seem to struggle with the one thing David Johnson does well: get outside. In their first three games of the season, the Titans allowed 6.5 yards per carry on 23 runs at left end or right end. Some of those are scrambles, yes. But the Vikings repeatedly were able to gash them. If there is to be any kind of coalescing around David Johnson’s Texans tenure as more than a meme, it has to start in this game. He barely got going at all against the Jaguars and his stats were padded by two big end-game runs. The Texans have made some good noise this week about avoiding areas that aren’t productive for them. That starts with keeping Johnson away from the middle of the field against a Titans defense that can whiff on the edges. DaQuan Jones destroyed Nick Martin on power moves a couple of times last year. They will need to use the interior run game as a change-up, in my opinion.

While Deshaun Watson has been humming well enough this season, we haven’t really seen a transcendent performance from him yet. That needs to change this week. The Titans were able to come away with two Watson interceptions last year in Week 15 — one tipped, one a coverage disguise — and Watson didn’t seize control of that game like you’d expect a $40 million player to. Watson mentioned in his press availability after their win against Jacksonville that he’s been very hard on himself this year. I think Romeo Crennel’s energy will let him be more comfortable ripping it as we continue the season, and I’m expecting bigger and better things from him than we’ve seen so far.

The Tennessee pass defense is not very imposing on paper. They may be 11th in pass defense DVOA, but they were shredded by Josh Allen for most of last week’s game. They happened to bait him into a few big interceptions — they have nine turnovers this season compared to just one giveaway for their offense. But they didn’t generate those turnovers because of the pass rush or anything like that — the Titans have just 34 SportsRadar pressures this season, third-fewest in the NFL — and only five sacks. The Texans have 14 sacks as a team, if you want to compare. Jadeveon Clowney is still a monster player, but the rest of this pass rush simply hasn’t developed as everyone thought they would yet. Harold Landry has no sacks and just a 9.5% pressure rate through 74 rushes. Jeffery Simmons has been up to the task of replacing Jurrell Casey, but otherwise it’s been tough sledding. The Titans last year under Dean Pees did not believe in blitzing Watson at all, sending just one blitz at him in the entirety of the Week 15 game. I’ll be curious to see how they feel after watching the Jaguars game last week.

And while Kevin Byard is a star, the Texans should feel reasonably confident they can win every wideout/corner matchup on the board. Adoree Jackson is on IR. Malcolm Butler hasn’t been good for years. Johnathan Joseph is smart and heady but not fast — absolutely not the guy you want guarding Brandin Cooks. Chris Jackson took back-to-back DNPs on the practice report (the Titans had no actual practice on Wednesday) and carries a toasty 28.9 PFF rating this year. As long as the Texans offense doesn’t fall into bad habits, I’m not really seeing a lot to be concerned about here. Tennessee will make you march the long way — Josh Allen had just one 20-plus yard completion, Kirk Cousins three.

The Titans defense is well-coached and well-oiled. They have some very good pieces. The sum of the parts … I don’t think it’s quite come together yet. Opponents are converting a league-high 60% of third-down attempts against them. They’ve allowed 10 of 12 red zone trips against them to turn into touchdowns. I think they miss Jackson a lot and are being held together by the obscene amount of turnovers, which I would say is likely to regress.

When the Titans have the ball

So, remember last year when the Titans ran all over everybody with Derrick Henry? That’s not exactly what’s happening this year. He’s got some great highlights, of course:

And he’s still a very good back. But the Titans are averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, and they are relying on positive game scripts to boost their rushing attack. They averaged a 9-point lead throughout the Bills game and 7.7-point lead throughout the Jaguars game. They haven’t been out-right boat raced in any game so far. Derrick Henry actually has a negative DVOA on his carries this year: -0.5%. Now, he still carries a great success rate, and the Titans are still a dangerous run attack that are liable to blow up on the Texans … but they haven’t really dominated a game yet this year.

Meanwhile, the Texans actually stepped up as a run defense and stopped the Jaguars after their first two drives last week. A lot of that was driven by the fresh eyes and fast legs of Tyrell Adams, who steps into the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to Benardrick McKinney. Does that mean that the Texans run defense is completely turned around? Great question! I have no idea. But unlike this time last week, when I would have told you the Texans had zero chance at even keeping a Henry outside zone contained, I believe that there is a chance they can contain things.

No, this week’s real problem is a play-action defense that was heavily flammable against the Vikings and how that figures to play out against Ryan Tannehill and Arthur Smith’s bag of tricks. Smith has been a wildly successful coordinator since taking over last season and the Texans absolutely showed little aptitude in stopping it last year in a game where they were outgained by nearly half a yard per play.

So what’s changed from last year? One is that Bradley Roby is very much shadowing everyone in sight and doing a credible job of it, and he figures to be stapled to A.J. Brown’s hips after Brown torched the Texans in both games last season. Then there’s the COVID complications: Both Corey Davis and Adam Humphries missed Week 5’s game. Neither of them have passed the protocol to get back on the field as I’m writing this. Not a single Titans receiver not named Brown had more than two targets against the Bills. Davis had an impressive beginning to the season, him playing would be a big deal if the Titans could bring him up against Vernon Hargreaves.

Those targets mostly got redirected to Texans killer Jonnu Smith, who caught all five of his targets in Week 15’s game for 60 yards. Smith has built on his late year breakout last season and has a 24.6% DVOA on 27 targets this year. The Texans have not exactly been devastated by tight ends this year, and their best bet to stop Smith might actually be to try to keep him blocking.

Ryan Tannehill’s biggest weakness in his career has been his predilection to getting sacked. Predicted by everybody with a calculator to take a step back this year on the mountain of regression evidence, what Tannehill has done instead is simply stop taking sacks. He took 31 sacks in 10 starts last year. In 2020, he has taken only three sacks in four starts. The Bills are one of the most aggressive blitzing teams of the year 2020, but Minnesota, Denver, and Jacksonville are more selective blitzers. Tannehill didn’t take a single sack against the Bills and scrambled for 39 yards to boot.

Houston’s game plan last year, and one I expect them to replicate this year — especially if Brown is the only Titans receiver that features — is to blitz the daylights out of Tannehill. They sent 18 blitzes on 36 dropbacks at Tannehill last year and sacked him twice. If this new-found pocket presence on Tannehill is legit, well, there’s really not a lot anybody can do to stop him at this point. He was a good quarterback in a good system for him last year. If he’s erasing sacks, it might just be time to throw some respect on his name.

Special teams

Brett Kern is probably the best punter in the NFL over the last three years. The Titans had a hilarious first game with Stephen Gostkowski but he seems to have turned the corner, sadly. Kickoffs have also gone well for the Titans this year.

The Texans don’t seem to have come together quite as well as they were under Brad Seely. It’s been five weeks and DeAndre Carter is still bad while the coverage units are not as otherworldly as they have been the last couple of seasons. Also, the main coverage players keep getting stuck playing on the real defense.

The read

Listen, if you want to throw your hands up and wash this season down the drain, I get it. The coach got fired. It’s not fun to have the preseason-built dream be dead so early.

But I think the Texans might just be beginning to congeal into something good. The offense showed a lot of firepower in Week 5 and not just in a “ha ha the Jaguars defense is bad” kind of way. Watson started hitting a rhythm in the game and Tim Kelly has said the right things this week to make me think he understands a little about how to take this offense up a notch. Maybe it’s too late to save the season — I have no idea — but what O’Brien left behind was less shipwreck and more a team that was the victim of a bad schedule that kept shooting itself in the foot.

One way or another, I think we will have a better idea of exactly what the Texans are at 3:30 on Sunday. I believe in Deshaun Watson’s ability to elevate his game to the next level. I think that begins this week. I am picking the Texans to win outright in Tennessee, 29-28. I think Watson will prove himself to be the best player on the field, and I don’t know that this Titans defense is situated to stop him unless they are just able to keep winning the turnover battle by an obscene margin every game.

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