Four Downs: Texans 22, Titans 13

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My Football Feeling in this win was severely challenged because it felt very much like a pyrrhic victory. I understand that just saying that out loud with no context is like dropping a grenade on the ground and then running away, which is why I didn’t say it on Twitter. But let me try to unravel the way I feel as I do so I can get yelled at for more justifiable reasons:

The Titans are 18th in DVOA, barely above average at 0.7% coming into today. They had won their last two games in rather improbable fashion. They were outgained 4.6 yards per play to 6.1 yards per play by the Saints, and won that game because the Saints had the only turnover in a tight game, a fumble on a kickoff recovered deep in NO territory by Tennessee. Tennessee were similarly outgained 4.7 yards per play to 3.5 yards per play by the Rams in a game where the Titans had a pick-six and another turnover deep in Rams territory, and one where the Rams also committed 12 penalties for 115 yards. It would not be a stretch to say that Tennessee’s record versus their underlying statistical profile is one of the major sticking points between analytics and win/loss records this season.

And so what happens when you beat a team that is 8-2 is that it invigorates a lot of good feelings. All wins do that, but now you get to point to this one as a guiding star that things are back on the right track. I’m not all that sure that’s true. The run game remained a disaster after all the good things said about only “running plays that work” out of the bye. The Texans went three-and-out six consecutive times to end the game, pausing only to kick a field goal after one of Desmond King’s picks set them up deep in Tennessee territory.

The team was outgained 420 yards to 190, and on a per-play basis, 3.1 to 5.3. Every Titans drive ended in Houston territory except a three-and-out on their third drive, King’s second pick, and the end of game run.

It is a hell of a relief to win an NFL game, and I’m extremely happy for the players and the coaches because eight in a row is True Disaster hours. But nothing that happened today jumps out at me as easily repeatable or anything to get excited about as dominating a top-notch opponent. The Texans got five turnovers that an average Titans group — one that didn’t have Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, or A.J. Brown for most of the game — didn’t get. They used those to win.

Let me throw aside the tanking thing for a minute, because I bet that’s where you thought I was going when I dropped pyrrhic. I think the difference between picking No. 2 and No. 7 (or whatever) in this specific draft feels kind of negligible, and I don’t think this team has ever aspired to tanking so I’ve never entertained that mindset. That doesn’t change the fact that this team still has a 0.0X% playoff chance and that they learn almost nothing about their few young offensive players every game. Today David Culley learned he can win a game against an 8-2 team with Tyrod Taylor never throwing deep and Rex Burkhead and David Johnson getting 31 carries, while he punts like crazy. I don’t think that’s a lesson that’s good for this team’s long-term health.

Obviously, you can’t run Scottie Phillips because he’s on IR, but the commitment to literally aspire to nothing beyond pure naked culture ball in a lost season is depressing. If a healthy Scottie Phillips runs 100 yards off against the Titans, you have something to talk about for the future. If you get Nico Collins involved in the offense beyond short balls, you’ve got something to talk about for the future. If you literally raid a young running back from a practice squad and start him, you have something to talk about for the future. I think this win will become a cultural example of how what they’re doing is working, and with all due credit to a defense that created four of the five turnovers with good reads, I don’t think it really means all that much. It’s an extremely fun win against a rival team who I hate, so it is beautiful in that way. I don’t think the tide is turning.

1) The swingy nature of the modern NFL

The Titans tend to go for it on fourth down pretty often. They wanted to do it on their first drive, but a false start by Rodger Saffold on fourth-and-2 led to a punt. After Kamu Grugier-Hill’s Extremely Reminiscent Of Whitney Mercilus red zone pick of Ryan Tannehill staked the Texans to a 6-0 lead, and that became a 12-0 lead after a balanced drive ended with Houston’s first road touchdown since Week 2.

At 12-0, things get a little more precarious for a team that needs to run as part of its identity, but that’s still ultimately a two-score deficit. So the Titans go down the field on another long drive where D’Onta Foreman is heavily featured. Then they get to a fourth-and-1 go, and they get stuffed by the Texans:

I can understand why the modern NFL wants you to go for this. Not only is it a long field goal attempt with a rough kicker, but a field goal cuts a two-score lead into … a two-score lead. But when you are as run-focused as the Titans are, staying within two scores is the key to the playbook being open. Anything more than that, and all of the sudden things become very predictable. The Titans had one more drive before 19-0, one that ended on a Tannehill intentional grounding that prevented them from getting a field-goal attempt up. Then this happened:

The Titans simply weren’t equipped to come back from 19-0 with how their team is built right now, not with A.J. Brown hurt. Their leading receiver wound up being Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and almost all of that came from one catch. When your four receiver sets end up having Anthony Firkser, Chester Rogers, NWI, and Dez Fitzpatrick — a rookie who Tannehill literally double-checked with on an audible to make sure he got it — having to abandon the running game is a death sentence. The Titans tried to sprinkle it in, but weren’t getting any real yardage off of it.

I’m not saying the Titans were dumb to not attempt a field goal on that fourth-and-1. I think it’s the smarter of the two decisions. But as the modern NFL leans into more decisions like this, I feel like things get swingier and it gets easier for a run of good play to meaningfully force a team out of a comfort zone. The punt recovery is obviously a fluke, and the interception being returned inside the Tennessee red zone is kind of fluky, but the Texans managed to compile enough points along the way to meaningfully alter Tennessee’s strategy despite only a few drives where they actually moved the ball well. And once it’s 19-0, and you can pin your ears back, your life is a lot easier as a defensive coordinator.

2) Let’s praise some big defensive moments

OK, so let’s talk about some enormous plays that the Texans had in shutting down the comeback. My first set of props goes to Eric Murray on the fourth-and-6 go at the Houston 24 — another fourth-down go where a field goal would have kept the Titans two scores away.

The Texans rush four, Tannehill isn’t meaningfully hurried but scrambles out of the pocket to buy some more time as his middle of the field crossers are enveloped by three underneath zone defenders. Murray is one of the deep safeties on this play, and he comes up from depth on what looks like a pretty sure completion on the run to break the ball up. If you look at the replay, you can see his feet heading deeper before he spots the tight end breaking open and charges on it. That’s a play that, say, Lonnie Johnson would not have made at safety. And if that drive continues, it becomes more and more dangerous.

The second huge play comes after Westbrook-Ikhine’s long catch sets the Titans up in Houston territory again. Desmond King simply put on a master class of positioning against rookie wideout Dez Fitzpatrick, to the point that it looked like he was running the route for him, and wound up intercepting the ball.

Notice that King did not fall for the Fitzpatrick head deke on this route — that was the only subtle thing Fitzpatrick really offered — then he got in great position on a ball that probably shouldn’t have been thrown, and he had to catch it almost like it was a punt because Fitzpatrick’s arm is also in there trying to play defensive back as it drifts lower. DeMarcus Walker gets a share of the credit too for getting into Tannehill’s passing lane.

There were, of course, other big defensive plays in this game. But those were the two moments I felt that the Texans could have really folded if their defenders hadn’t stepped up. They also did a much better job of play-action defense than they have in some time, though I think that ties in pretty well to the game score.

3) Brevin Jordan and Nico Collins get lightly involved again

The Texans tied Brevin Jordan to one of their staple concepts in this game, one where he wound up right on the right sideline. It gave Jordan almost no room to actually do anything and forced a tight contested catch. He did so against Kevin Byard, one of the NFL’s best:

The ball was not quite as clean against Elijah Molden later in the drive and that led to an incompletion:

A third pass at Jordan was broken up on the exact same sideline. I want to be excited about him, can we see him run a play that isn’t

Collins only got two targets, and the one everyone was left buzzing about was his red-zone non-touchdown that David Culley challenged:

Matt Harmon, who watches wideouts as closely as anybody, came out and wrote that he thinks Collins is even being undervalued this year. It’s kind of a shame that Collins ends the game with just two targets. What we’ve seen from Collins is that he can play bully ball on a tight catch and that he can take a play-action slant a long way. What I still want to see before I decide my interpretation of his ceiling is some deeper routes. The Texans seem almost pathologically opposed to their offense doing this — and I get it — but it makes it harder to evaluate what they have here and the season is a lost cause.

4) The Tyrod Taylor red zone offense: get the hell out of my way because this isn’t working

One thing that Davis Mills would never be able to offer to an offense is what Taylor did on each of his two touchdown runs. Let’s look at the dots on them:

Taylor said after the game that Burkhead was running an option route on this play, which was his primary read. But by the time that option was chosen, Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons had already pushed Taylor out of the pocket to his left. At that point the only receiver drifiting on his side, Pharaoh Brown, was double-covered. Thus began his journey to dunk on Amani Hooker:

On his second touchdown run, Charlie Heck actually falls right on his ass, which I think is beautifully shown by the stagnant dot:

The Titans bracket Brandin Cooks, who looks to be the first read. David Johnson blocks nobody, and so six-on-four becomes four-on-four, with Autry winning enough on the edge to push Taylor outside. While there was probably a flip to Cooks or Jordan available on the run, Taylor didn’t take it and just out-ran Simmons to the pylon.

In a game where the Texans had goal-to-go on eight snaps, these were the only two plays that gained more than three yards. They are out of structure and unreliable, but unreliable is a better play call for this team than their standard red zone plans.

It’s great to see Tyrod fly again. I cringe just a little bit every time I see it happen because that’s how the first hamstring injury happened, and I don’t want to see another injury. What I’d really like is if there was a way for this to be easier for everyone involved. But it doesn’t seem like that will happen any time soon.

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