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Review: What Went Wrong for Titans’ Defense in Houston?

Besides, well, everything...

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texan Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Sunday’s Week 4 match-up between the Tennessee Titans and division rival Houston Texans was a complete and utter dismantling by the home team. Across the board, in every facet of the game, the Titans were outcoached and outplayed.

Deshaun Watson, in the first home start of his career, tied an NFL rookie record by scoring five total touchdowns. The Texans set a franchise record with 57 points. Houston racked up 445 total yards and dominated the time of possession 39:41 to 20:19.

The Houston Texans offensive schemes were incredibly similar to what they ran against the New England Patriots. However, the Titans defense looked ill-prepared to face many of the offensive concepts they faced. Let’s take a look at what specifically went wrong...

Missed Assignments

The Titans had far too many assignment breakdowns on the defense, which led to a large number of huge chunk plays for the Texans.

We’ll start by examining the Texans first two plays from scrimmage.

This is how the Texans lined up on their first play from scrimmage. They are in 11 personnel with three receivers. The Titans, expecting a run, are in their base defense. This results in Da’Norris Searcy lining up over Bruce Ellington in the slot.

The Texans handed it off on that play and quickly hurried to the line for the next before the Titans could make a personnel change.

They quickly snapped the ball and did this:

NFL Gamepass.

The Texans run a play-action fake, which the Titans defense actually does a good job of not biting on. Unfortunately, that is where the good ends.

On first watch, it appears that DeAndre Hopkins is the first read on the play, based on Watson’s movement.

However, after watching the majority of Watson’s snaps and considering what the Texans did against New England, I believe this play is designed to go to Bruce Ellington running up the seam out of the slot from the very beginning.

The Texans called this play based on the matchup they saw on the previous snap with Da’Norris Searcy effectively lined up as the slot cornerback. After seeing this on the first play, they lined up quickly looking to exploit this match-up.

The Titans are in a zone with Logan Ryan, Kevin Byard, and Adoree Jackson each responsible for a deep third of the field. Searcy has the curl/flat zone.

The play is designed for Watson to look off the safety, and Kevin Byard falls into this trap, taking off immediately for Hopkins’ side of the field.

NFL Gamepass.

Searcy and Logan Ryan appear to be slow to switch, as Ryan initially starts to run with Will Fuller on the out route. However, Ryan’s zone is the deep third. Searcy stays on Ellington too long before breaking off for his zone, the curl/flat. This miscommunication leads to Ryan rotating late. Ryan also thought he had safety help in the middle, but Kevin Byard was out of position.

When Ryan is late getting to his deep third assignment, and Byard is late getting over because he fell for the look-off, it leaves Ellington with enough separation to make the catch despite the pass being underthrown (though credit to Watson for stepping up in the pocket to evade the rush).

The thing is, this play should’ve come as no surprise to the Titans’ defense. They should have been ready for it, because the Texans did the exact same thing against the Patriots in Week 3.

NFL Gamepass.

The formation is flipped, and Braxton Miller (instead of Will Fuller) has an inverted assignment (he starts outside and runs in versus Fuller starting inside and running out), but that’s just window dressing, a distraction from the actual play design.

Watson makes the exact same play-fake, followed by the exact same quick glance at Hopkins to fool the safety (a good one in Devin McCourty), and then he throws the exact same pass to Bruce Ellington running the exact same route deep down the seam.

If I noticed this in my film study, how did the professional coaches not prepare for this?? How did the players not recognize this play unfolding as soon as the ball was snapped?? Inexcusable on all levels.

The next example we’ll look at is the Texans’ first touchdown.

The play is a speed option to the weak side out of the pistol formation. If the Titans had stayed disciplined on this play, they could have stopped it. However, Avery Williamson over-committed when Watson started running and abandoned his assignment: the running back.

NFL Gamepass.

The gap assignments for the Titans defense are evident. Orakpo commits to Watson. Avery Williamson is flowing to his right with the play, but his hesitation costs the team a touchdown. Instead of trusting his teammates to contain the quarterback (which Orakpo clearly has covered), he stays briefly in that gap. Williamson needs to be the man accounting for the running back. He should’ve continued running to the outside at full speed to cut off the lane that Lamar Miller ultimately used to score.

This poor discipline was a problem all game.

Our next example is a result of a rookie mistake by the Titans first-round pick, Adoree’ Jackson, when Lamar Miller was left unaccounted for and Watson found him for a 32-yard catch-and-run effort:

NFL Gamepass.

I still can’t tell if the Titans are in man-to-man or zone. That’s how big of a screw up this is by Adoree. It looks like man coverage with safety help the way the Titans run to match-up with receivers and tight ends, but if it is a man-to-man, how does no one account for the running back?

That’s what leads me to believe that either Adoree abandoned his zone, the curl/flat on his side of the field, or it was man coverage, and Adoree was supposed to switch with Searcy when Hopkins started running around and take over the running back, passing Hopkins to Searcy.

Of course, without knowing the assignment, I can’t be sure who is at fault. It might be Searcy who was supposed to be manned up on Miller the entire time...

Regardless, there was a breakdown somewhere, obviously.

The Texans fake an end-around to Hopkins, which Jackson fully commits to, abandoning his zone to pursue Hopkins. Lamar Miller leaked out into that zone and Watson found him.

NFL Gamepass.

Searcy has the opposite side of the field, where Adoree runs to, covered, and Watson doesn’t give it to Hopkins. This leaves Jackson and Searcy together on one side of the field covering a player who is no longer involved in the play, and leaves nobody on the opposite side of the field where Lamar Miller is standing all alone.

By the time the Titans realize their breakdown, Lamar Miller has the ball running free down the sideline.

Again, I’m surprised at the success the Texans found with this. They ran the same double-play-action / fake reverse set-up FOUR (!!) times against the Patriots. Yet the Titans were still unprepared to defend it.

NFL Gamepass.

The Texans did this a couple of plays later:

NFL Gamepass.

Two linebackers and Byard fell for the play-action fake. Byard left the passing lane and Brice McCain got beat one-on-one by DeAndre Hopkins.

NFL Gamepass.

This raised a very good question...

Kevin Byard made a very good play later in the half to intercept Watson in the red zone, but on this particular 2nd-down play, Byard leaving the passing lane left a poor cornerback with no help against the other team’s best receiver. You can’t do that. Again, poor discipline by multiple players on the Titans defense. And thus the Texans took an early two-score lead.

The next play we’ll look at didn’t go for a big gain necessarily, but it is one I’m showing because again I’m disappointed that the Titans weren’t ready for it...

NFL Gamepass.

I don’t know if Woodyard is to blame for over-pursuing, or if he was simply following the defensive playcall, but someone should’ve been left in the middle of the field to keep Watson from running where he did. Byard immediately starts dropping into a zone, so I can’t imagine it’s his responsibility to account for Watson.

Does this mean no one was assigned the responsibility of preventing Watson from running up the middle? I’m not sure whether to blame poor preparation, bad playcalling, or a lack of execution by the players. It’s likely a combination of all three.

The Texans ran a similar play the week before. They spread the receivers wide, though the previous week’s version was run out of the shotgun:

NFL Gamepass.

The Patriots defended the play much better by staying disciplined in their rush lanes and not giving Watson the middle of the field. They forced a stop on 3rd and 6.

The Titans were not disciplined for much of this game. And they appeared extremely unprepared. It’s mind-boggling to me how the defense wasn’t ready for these plays after the Texans ran them the previous week.

Shall we continue? Okay. Here’s another play the Texans showed versions of the previous week against New England that the Titans were not prepared to stop.

NFL Gamepass.

Texans tight end, #89 Stephen Anderson, is lined up next to the left tackle. Watson fakes the hand-off, and most of the Titans defense commits to stopping the run. Anderson leaks out, uncovered, and Watson finds him for a huge gain.

How was Anderson this unaccounted for? The play-action fake sucks in all the linebackers, but the Titans appear to be in a man-to-man (look at Sims plastered to Hopkins). Whoever is supposed to be manned up on Anderson completely forgot their assignment in favor of stopping the run.

The Texans ran a similar play versus the Patriots. The difference is that against the Titans, Anderson came across the formation, moving at first like a lead blocker would, before escaping to the flat.

But the play was run out of the exact same formation that the Texans used many times against the Patriots, with seven men on the line of scrimmage including Anderson next to the left tackle.

Out of this formation, the Texans ran the ball, but they also ran many play-action passes where Anderson ran routes as a pass-catching option. Rarely did Anderson line up in this position against the Texans and then stay in to block, so the Titans should’ve immediately accounted for him as a receiver. Instead...

NFL Gamepass.

Avery Williamson (I can only guess that it is his fault, though I should acknowledge that he might be covering for a teammates’ mistake) is extremely late to recognize Anderson leaking out. When he finally sees it, it’s much too late...

I’m not sure if the Titans are in a man-to-man or a hybrid man/zone, as the play of LeShaun Sims leads me to think it’s a man, but the fact that not a single player accounts for Anderson means it could be a zone that someone abandoned to stop the run. Watching Searcy on this play makes me think it is a zone.

The Titans might not have even known if they were supposed to be in a man or a zone...

The Texans ran numerous play-action fakes the previous week against the Patriots with Watson rolling out the opposite direction.

NFL Gamepass.

It’s not the same play the Texans used against the Titans, but it’s a similar concept out of the same formation to plays they ran the week before.

NFL Gamepass.

In total, against the Patriots, the Texans passed off a play-action fake sixteen times. SIXTEEN! And even so, the Titans defense continued to bite on the play-action fakes time and time again.

The Titans’ defenders were simply not prepared to face the offensive concepts they saw. How did they not stay disciplined on the play-action fakes knowing how much the Texans used those fakes to set up the pass last week? How did they not account for Anderson as a potential receiver when he runs routes out of this exact formation more often than not?

I could go on and on with the lack of preparation and missed assignments leading to big plays and touchdowns, but I’ll spare you the rest...

Were the Titans ill-prepared, poorly coached, or did the players simply fail to execute the gameplan?

I would say all of the above, but it starts with the coordination. The Titans players were not put in positions to succeed, and then they hurt themselves further by not staying disciplined.


In addition to the numerous missed assignments and mental breakdowns by the defense, the Titans committed a number of awful penalties that significantly hindered their ability to get off the field.

Adoree Jackson had a bad game overall. He is a rookie. We said it numerous times when he was drafted: he is raw and he will have growing pains.

We can only hope he learns from his mistakes...

NFL Gamepass.

There’s simply no reason to commit this penalty. The ball is not thrown well, which gives Jackson, using his incredible speed, time to recover and get back on Fuller. Instead of getting in position to make a play on the ball, however, Jackson panics and jumps all over Fuller well before the ball arrives.

I can’t imagine this pass being completed even without the penalty, so it was really a bad play by Adoree.

Third Down Defense

At the start of the 2nd half, the Titans had a chance to get a stop and swing the momentum back around in their favor. They proceeded to let the Texans march down the field, 75 yards on 14 plays, eating up 8:09 off the clock - precious time the Titans would’ve needed to mount a comeback, including a pass interference committed by Sims.

On that 2nd half opening drive, which essentially put the game away for the Texans, the Titans allowed three 3rd-down conversions and a 4th-down conversion.

The Titans only converted two 3rd downs on offense in the entire game.

For the game, the Texans were 7 for 13 converting 3rd and 4th downs. They didn’t fail to convert a 3rd down until the score was 21-7, and that failed 3rd down led to a field goal by the Texans. It was their only failed 3rd down of the first half.

Unprepared and Unmotivated

The Titans offense started slow again today and did not play well overall. There’s no denying that. The slow starts are a huge problem and signal a failure to understand what gets the offense clicking. The 15-play script needs to be seriously reconsidered heading into next week’s match-up with the Miami Dolphins.

But as bad as the offense was, the defense was worse. Much worse.

We knew the Titans slow starts would catch up to them eventually when the defense stopped bailing them out, but how could we have ever expected the defense to play this poorly??

A total failing by the coaching staff and players on all levels. They didn’t show up to play. They had no fire and no “want to” against a team that played with as much confidence and swagger against what they knew to be an inferior opponent as I’ve ever seen.

As a fan of the team, I truly thought these embarrassing beat-downs were a thing of the past. That is the most concerning part of Sunday’s game... not the fact that the Titans lost on the road to the defending division champs.

It’s the way they lost.


Wow. Just... wow. I hope the embarrassment that is now surely felt by the players and coaches is enough to spark them, but after yesterday’s performance I have no hope that this team can perform consistently.

I just don’t think the team is ready yet to take that next step.

If they are, they need to show it.