The Titans got a big statement win last week against the Seahawks. Now they turn their attention turns to an AFC South rival, the Houston Texans. This is a big opportunity for the Titans. The Texans are the defending division champs largely because of their win over the Titans in Week 4 last season at NRG Stadium.
That matchup featured a 2-1 Texans team facing off against a 1-2 Titans team. A Will Fuller punt return touchdown late in the 3rd quarter broke a 20-20 tie and proved to be the final score of the game. The Texans went to 3-1 (1-0 in the AFC South) while the Titans dropped to 1-3 (0-1 in the AFC South). Over the next 12 games the Titans found their identity and went 8-4 to close out the season, but they never could make up that early gap.
This year the roles are reversed. The Titans are the team at 2-1 (1-0 in the AFC South) and sitting atop the AFC South standings, while the Texans are 1-2 (0-1 in the AFC South) and needing to jumpstart their season. A Titans win this weekend would be devastating to the Texans hopes of defending their AFC South crown as they would find themselves two games back both overall and in division play with a return date at Nissan Stadium in Week 13 looming. As the Titans found out last year, that can be a tough mountain to climb.
A win would give Tennessee a 3-1 start and, almost as importantly, a 2-0 AFC South record with 3 of the remaining 4 division games set to be played at home. Here are some of the matchups that might decide whether or not that win comes home on Sunday.
Marcus Mariota vs Texans Secondary
Can you feel it? I can feel it. The Marcus Mariota explosion game is coming soon, possibly even this Sunday. He has been playing well these first three weeks, but he hasn’t had the flashy, big numbers to show for it yet. Part of that is due to the secondaries the Titans have faced the last couple weeks. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are among the best pairs of corners in the NFL right now and the Legion of Boom is still the Legion of Boom (I wonder if Jeremy Lane realizes that nobody is including him in their mind when they talk about the LoB).
That changes this week as he faces a banged up Texans secondary that, frankly, wasn’t all that good to begin with. A.J. Bouye was the Texans best corner last season by a pretty wide margin (Texans fans would have told you this too up until the day he signed with the Jaguars and then he magically became "just a product of the system"). With him in Jacksonville, and the perpetually injured Kevin Johnson out with a sprained knee, the Texans are left relying on a couple of older veteran corners in Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson with several complete unknowns playing behind them. Joseph is still playing at a reasonably high level, but Jackson seems to have taken a step back so far this year in a larger role. His 1.9 yards allowed per cover snap is 10th worst in the NFL through three weeks. He has also given up a 107.1 QB Rating when targeted to this point per PFF. The Texans third best healthy corner is probably backup safety Eddie Pleasant which tells you a lot about where their depth is right now. The next most experienced corner, Marcus Burley, is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury of his own. Playing behind those corners are a pair of decent-but-not-spectacular safeties in Andre Hal and Corey Moore.
The Texans pass defense put up pretty good raw numbers in Week 1 and Week 2, but those two matchups were against Blake Bortles and the worst version of Andy Dalton I’ve ever seen. The Jaguars hardly bothered to throw the ball since they had a lead and found decent success running. In Week 3 the Texans finally played a real quarterback and were promptly shredded by Tom Brady for a final line of 25 of 35 for 378 yards, 5 TDs, and no interceptions. That’s a whopping 10.8 yards per attempt. Now obviously, Brady is the GOAT and the Patriots passing game isn’t something I’m ready to compare the Titans air attack to just yet, but I’d say Mariota is a lot closer to Brady than he is to Bortles or Bad Dalton right now.
Further, Houston’s pass defense has struggled the most over the middle of the field and deep over the first few games as evidenced by their 28th ranking among NFL defenses in DVOA vs passes over the middle and their 23rd ranking in DVOA vs deep passes. Those just happen to be the two areas that Marcus Mariota loves to attack the most.
During last year’s Week 4 matchup the Titans started Tajae Sharpe and Andre Johnson at wide receiver. The trio of Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, and Taywan Taylor will be a massive upgrade over that group the Texans saw at NRG in 2016. Not to mention the added element from Jonnu Smith as a second receiving threat at tight end. I think all that adds up to Mariota’s best statistical passing day of the season to this point.
Titans Offensive Line vs Texans Defensive Line
This is the premier matchup of this game. The Titans have the best offensive line in the NFL through three games and have spent the past two weeks silencing two of the best fronts in football. The Texans finally have J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus all healthy and on the field at the same time. The Titans offensive line has allowed the 2nd lowest overall pressure rate in the NFL so far this season while the Texans defensive line has generated the 5th most pressure. This is strength on strength.
The Texans are going to move Watt and Clowney around to try to keep the Titans guessing and attempt to find good matchups along the line, but we should expect to see a lot of Conklin vs Watt and Lewan vs Clowney. Don’t let Watt’s lack of sacks fool you. He’s still playing at a very high level. His 14 total pressures in just 3 weeks are good for 2nd in the NFL among 3-4 defensive ends per PFF.
Where the Titans have a little more advantage in the trenches could be in the running game. As we’ve written about many times here, a great way to slow down a great pass rush is to run at it. The Texans are a dominant run defense when teams try to run to the right. Per Cynthia Frelund of NFL.com teams are averaging negative 1.1 yards per carry on runs to the right against the Texans. That happens to be where J.J. Watt camps out most of the time and he’s still one of the toughest run blocks in the league, even for a mauler like Jack Conklin.
The good news is that the Titans are at their best when they run left. Per Sharp Football Stats the Titans are averaging a ridiculous 12.5 yards per carry when rushing outside the tackle to the left side of the field. Even if you remove DeMarco Murray’s long touchdown run to that side from last week, they are still over 6 yards per carry wide left.
That makes perfect sense when you consider the personnel. Taylor Lewan is still the Titans best offensive lineman and running behind him usually means good things. The guards also work better running left. That generally allows Spain — who is more of a phone booth mauler type — to play to his strengths while Josh Kline often gets the opportunity to pull around and lead block — which just so happens to also be what he does best. Lastly, Derrick Henry is better running left than he is right. This is a quirk that I picked up on when I did my summer review of his rookie year and it has continued in to this season.
Derrick Henry has a wicked stiff arm, especially when running to his left.
Henry’s right handed stiff arm — when he’s running left — is one of the best tackle breaking moves in the NFL, however he doesn’t seem as apt to use his left arm to stiff arm when running right. I’m not saying it never happens, it does, but he uses the right handed stiff arm far more frequently and effectively.
The running game should be able to find some traction against this Texans defense running left. The Titans use of misdirection and deception will help them open up some holes and wear down the defense both physically and mentally as well. If the Titans can hold up in pass protection against a strong front for a third straight week I think this will be a big day for the offense.
Deshaun Watson vs Titans Pass Defense
Watson has played one and a half bad games and one pretty good game so far and I’m not sure what to make of him yet. The physical talents are obvious. He’s incredibly elusive and dangerous when on the run outside the pocket. The arm strength is there. The two things I can’t figure out yet are the accuracy and the ability to read a defense.
Those were the two knocks on him coming out of the draft and they remain questionable for me at this point. Watson’s adjusted completion percentage (a metric that takes drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes, and errant passes that were the result of a QB hit out of the equation) ranks him dead last among 26 qualified passers through the first 3 weeks of 2016 at 64.1%. During the Cincinnati game in Week 2 — which the Texans had no business winning — Watson regularly was making just one read — almost always DeAndre Hopkins — and then pulling the ball down and taking off running. That may have been by design, but it looked a lot like a guy who had no idea where to go with the ball if option #1 was unavailable. That appeared to get a bit better against New England in Week 3 as you would expect from a developing rookie quarterback, but the Patriots also chose not to bring pressure throughout most of the game for some reason.
The Titans will certainly bring the heat on Watson. Tennessee currently ranks 9th in the NFL in percentage of blitzes sent and they are 11th in the league in creating pressure. The Texans offensive line allows the 5th highest pressure rate leaguewide and are replacing their injured backup right guard with their somehow-even-worse starter, Jeff Allen. Allen’s PFF grade of 29.6 is the third worst grade among all graded offensive linemen in 2017 and he’s coming off an injury himself. Their right tackle, Breno Giacomini, is the worst pass blocking tackle in the league per PFF as well. This game up front sets up to be almost an exact replica of the Seahawks game last week. Horrendous offensive line with a mobile, elusive quarterback behind it. Only this time the quarterback is a rookie making his third NFL start and not a former Super Bowl winner.
The big improvement we need to see from the Titans pass rush is to actually get Watson on the ground when they get to him. Through three weeks Tennessee’s pass rushers are converting just 9% of all pressures in to sacks which is the third lowest conversion rate in the NFL. The good news is that sack conversion rate has been statistically proven to be more luck than skill. The NFL average conversion rate tends to settle out somewhere around 16-18% so the Titans should have some positive regression to the mean headed their way. I believe we will see Jayon Brown used as a QB spy again this week. He was used that way against Wilson and did a good job for the most part. Wilson scrambled a lot, but rarely was able to pick up big gains with his legs.
On the back end, Titans defense appears to have been built to create turnovers. Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson, and Kevin Byard all have track records of taking the ball away from the offense and I don’t think that is an accident. However, we have yet to see the first interception in a Titans uniform for any of those guys this year. Tennessee has been shutout in the takeaway category in 2 of their 3 games this year and that will need to improve if the team is going to end up where we hope they will. Watson has thrown 3 interceptions and fumbled 3 times (only 1 of which was lost) in two and a half games this year. He also threw at least 3 interceptions right in to the hands of Bengals defenders only to have them dropped. The Titans are likely going to get some opportunities to get some turnovers in this game and they need to take advantage of them when they do.