The Titans will travel to NRG stadium to take on the Texans for their first divisional contest. Houston will be without JJ Watt, but they bring a lot of firepower to the table that the Titans will need to counter. The Texans also enter the contest having won seven of the last eight contests. Can the Titans reverse the trend? How does this match-up look on paper?
This is the natural place to start, since it's been the biggest area of concern for the Titans thus far in 2016. Mariota struggled last week, and appeared to be pressing. It was clear he was trying to do too much, which led to another three turnovers. This offense has shown that it cannot withstand losing the turnover battle, and the team has found itself on the wrong side of it so far this year. The biggest factor affecting the Titans passing attack will be the success of the running game, ironically. The coaching staff have shown a penchant for getting away from the gameplan after falling behind or making a high profile mistake.
The coaching staff will have to adjust their strategy with the passing game; it hasn't worked so far in 2016. The lack of a deep threat to stretch the field and open zones in the secondary hasn't helped, but it's far from the only issue. The Texans will look to capitalize on Tennessee turnovers which they know will come if they can bottle up Murray and Henry early. Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe will need to come up big; create separation against the Houston corners and give Mariota open targets downfield. Kevin Johnson and Jonathan Joseph are both good instinctualdefenders the Titans will need to be aware of. Delanie Walker is the most talented offensive player on the roster, and is a game time decision. His inclusion, or lack thereof, will likely have a huge impact for the second straight week. Kendall Wright is returning to the lineup this week, so that should ease some of the Titans struggles, but he won't likely be 100% effective as he will be playing active football for the first time in a month. As others have speculated, timing is huge in this Titans offense, and Wrights impact may not be felt in a big way, not yet anyway.
The Texans defense will lose some of it's potency in terms of pass rush with Watt sidelined. That said, Whitney Mercilus, who's played well vs the Titans in the past, and Jadaveon Clowney, are guys the team will need to focus on slowing down. Rookie RT Jack Conklin and LT Taylor Lewan (save for a bonehead penalty last week) have both played pretty well. It will be up to them to keep Mariota's jersey clean.
One thing is clear; Marcus Mariota is better than he has appeared this season so far.
Derrick Henry will continue to get his shots, but Murray has really shined this year so far, despite the offensive stagnancy. He went over 100 yards last week, the first Titan to do so since Chris Johnson 300 years ago. The Titans have employed him on the ground and through the air with success, but they need to be careful not to lean on him in the latter format. Texans defender will try to flood the underneath zones and take away the gimme pass plays that Mariota consistently looks for. The running backs will need to loosen up the defense, and force them to commit more players to defense the run, rather than looking for the short and intermediate passes.
The Texans haven't been convincing against the run and The Titans have shown they can run the ball this season. I expect that to continue in Houston.
It's all about DeAndre Hopkins. The young wideout may be the best all around receiver in the NFL not named Antonio Brown. Add rookie sensation Will Fuller to the mix, and the Texans have a potent pass attack. It would be scary to see what they could do with a solid QB. That said, Osweiler will test Jason McCourty, and more importantly, Perrish Cox this week. Cox has been abused for the last two weeks, giving up passes all over the field. The Texans coordinators will have noticed this. The Titans corners also seem to have developed a tendency to play the receiver only, rarely looking to turn and find the football in flight; it can make for some frustrating viewing.
Despite showing an admirable bend-don't-break style early this season, the Titans need to clean up the mistakes. Opponents won't continue to drop important passes, and the lack of consistent pass rush will catch up to Tennessee. This defense has put up good numbers so far, but they are only a few critical plays away from revealing their inherent weaknesses, and being a middle of the road to poor group overall. I expect them to tell us who they are in the next two weeks, and this Texans passing attack will be an important determinant in that process.
The Titans have done a great job of quietly defensing the run. Lamar Miller is a dangerous runner for the Texans, but no more dangerous than Adrian Peterson was, or Latavious Murray. The Texans will mirror the Titans in their attempts to establish the run and win in the trenches. This could be the most important factor in determining who takes home the win on Sunday. Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo will be relied upon to put pressure on Osweiler, but it will be on Jurrell Casey and Da'Quan Jones to plug the running lanes inside and force the Texans into longer passing situations.
The Titans and the Texans are a mixed bag on special teams, but I actually think the Titans have the better unit. I doubt either makes an impact on this game, except maybe Ryan Succop, since the Titans have had trouble finishing drives (well, ones that start at their 8 yard line anyway!).
This game will be fairly close, like most of the Titans games this year. But it won't feel close. The Titans don't match up well in the secondary with Houston's offensive weapons, and a few big pass plays could break it open. I'm not confident Tennessee can catch up when they get put in a hole early on. If the play calling is sound and Mariota is both careful AND decisive, they will have a chance. But for now, it's hard to say all this turns out well.
Titans 13 - Texans 21.