My apologies for this week’s breakdown taking longer to get out than usual. I initially wanted to wait for a decision regarding Marcus Mariota’s status—we didn’t really end up getting one—and then I came down with a bug which sidelined me for a couple days (perhaps the Titans’ health issues are spreading to their fan base). Because of the time crunch, example GIFs are taking the week off but will return for the next edition.
The Texans' games I selected to watch for "Houston week" #1 are as follows:
Week 1 - 2018: Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Week 13 - 2017: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans
Week 5 - 2017: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
Week 4 - 2017: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
Week 3 - 2017: Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Outside of the obvious inclusion of the Texans' 2018 debut, I chose to watch the other games for a few reasons. Last year’s week 13 match-up in Nashville didn’t include Deshaun Watson, but it did feature Marcus Mariota for four quarters against mostly similar defensive personnel. Watson was on the field for weeks 3,4 (ouch), and 5 and put beaucoup points on the board in every contest. The game plans used by the Patriots and Chiefs can offer some clues on how to exploit the Texans just enough on both sides of the ball to earn a victory, however.
When the Titans Run
When at full strength, the Texans front seven has consistently abused zone running schemes. That may have something to do with facing one in practice every off-season or it could be due to creative positioning of their physically imposing personnel. Either way, I wouldn’t be confident in the Titans rushing attack this week even if the starting offensive line was healthy.
We can assume that Matt LaFleur will not feature Mariota—if he plays—on true read-options in order to protect his injured elbow. Mariota did have some success against Houston last season keeping the ball against over-committed OLBs, so not having those calls at the offense’s disposal further limits the ceiling for the ground game.
If the Titans RBs are going to positively impact this match-up, they will have to do so with chunk runs on the rare occasion they’re available. I’d like to see some heavy looks with Luke Stocker or Jonnu Smith either starting out at or motioning into a FB role. Getting Derrick Henry on the edges a handful of times should be the main goal of the run game. Using a lead blocker can provide the Titans an overload advantage against the right looks and serve as a movable chess piece and tool for misdirection.
If the Titans are being realistic with themselves—something Mike Mularkey failed to do in respect to the run game often—they know they are not going to control tempo or exert their will upfront this week, especially without Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin, and, now, Dennis Kelly. If things are truly different with this staff in place, Tennessee will not stubbornly run zone looks into swarm after swarm just because it’s “what they do”.
When the Titans Pass
Personally, I don’t want to hear rationale about protecting Marcus Mariota by keeping him out of this game as long as he can throw with reasonable accuracy. Again, the entire reason the team replaced last year’s staff was their inability to adapt week to week. Adapting in this case means knowing when and how to sacrifice elements of your full playbook and isolate that which you are capable of executing well under a set of given circumstances.
There is plenty Matt LaFleur can do to keep Mariota upright and give him chances to get rid of the ball into low-risk passing windows. Yes, this means the Titans cannot deploy many long-developing downfield routes. It also means they can’t ask Mariota (and should tell him not to try) to squeeze passes in between linebackers and safeties. They’d have a better chance if they could do those things, but they can’t, so they must let them go for now.
In general, successfully attacking the Texans’ coverage concepts and secondary is all about isolation. They don’t have a dominant LB, CB, or S that can consistently win on their own in single coverage (though we haven’t yet seen enough from Tyrann Mathieu or Aaron Colvin in this scheme to definitively group them in with this statement).
The Chiefs found creative ways to accomplish this when featuring unbalanced formations (all except one or two eligible receivers lined up on one side). They switched between varying receivers’ releases out of the bunches and attacking the one-on-one match-ups on the opposite side.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Rob Gronkowski is never truly covered, allowing them to throw in his direction no matter how many defenders he’s flanked by. Still, they also have found success against Houston recently by isolating Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett on quick outs and using multiple simultaneous intermediate crossers designed to exploit single-high safeties.
The Titans themselves have had success against Houston’s secondary with intermediate out routes. If run with the proper personnel, I think they can also successfully deploy WR screens, quick slants, comebacks and curls, and HB swings on top of borrowing from the concepts mentioned above.
This is a big game for Corey Davis in my opinion. He needs to be put in positions to attack without a safety over the top as well as run after the catch. All involved parties need to take what is there and not spontaneously force going after big plays.
Getting the ball out of Mariota’s hands quickly and occasionally using roll-outs should keep him clean. If Blaine Gabbert gets the starting nod, all the Titans can do is hope they get “good Blaine". If they do, he can still execute this type of game plan.
When the Texans Run
Last week, the Texans began by solely running starter Lamar Miller. As the game wore on though, Alfred Blue seemed to earn more of a rep share. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of a committee approach going forward or simply circumstantial.
The Texans mainly run shotgun inside zone. Deshaun Watson often carries out read-option fakes into these calls, but rarely keeps the ball himself. It seemed last week he was even more unlikely to do so, perhaps due to returning from last year’s knee injury. Still, the main purpose of the fake is to hold the edge defender and Watson remains a threat worth honoring.
Tennessee mustn’t start out freely offering wide interior rushing lanes as they did in Miami. Hopefully Dean Pees figured something permanent out in the second half last week. In recent years, a mostly identical Titans front has held the Texans ground game in check so we know any potential failures won't be based on talent.
Tennessee has a much better chance to win this game if Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown can be on the field more than Will Compton. To allow that, they both must show discipline on running downs and get off blocks. I’m very excited for the rookie’s debut and hope he shows enough understanding of the playbook to be out there a bunch—he’s the Titans’ best shot at preventing Deshaun Watson from wrecking the game.
When the Texans Pass
Deshaun Watson is a serious threat to any defense because he puts you in a situation where you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. Play man coverage and he’ll scramble and keep plays alive with defender’s backs turned the other way. Play zone and he’ll find weak points often enough to keep drives moving. Throw a heavy pass rush at him and he’ll dance around and take advantage of less defenders in coverage. Only rush four and pray you can get pressure, because if you can’t he’ll sit back there forever until somebody comes free.
Based on what we’ve seen of Watson in the NFL to date, there isn’t a reliable way to force him to play poorly. In large part, defenses can only hope that his accuracy is off on the day they face him. When he’s “on” the opposition’s offense must be ready and equipped for a shootout. For what it’s worth, last week against New England he was definitely off—the 20-27 score makes the game seem closer than it really was.
I don’t have enough to go on to try and predict how Dean Pees will scheme to contain Watson and the Texans’ passing attack, but here’s what I think he should try based on the Titans personnel:
-When in man, attach Malcolm Butler to DeAndre Hopkins every play. Butler’s game is built to combat physical receivers who don’t have the speed to embarrass him and that’s Hopkins to a T.
-Regardless of man or zone, ensure the deep safety prioritizes Will Fuller no matter what. I’d much rather test Watson’s at-times-erratic accuracy on an intermediate throw than give him a downfield shot on which accuracy is less of a concern and pass interference is more of a possibility. Luckily, the Titans now have two safeties who can manage deep responsibility.
-Upfront, stick with only four rushers until if and when they display the ability to get consistent pressure. To take down Watson, multiple defenders need to converge on him simultaneously--he almost universally avoids single free rushers and blitzers. Unless the Titans down four can reliably get into the backfield, there is no point taking additional defenders out of coverage.
-As long as Rashaan Evans is up to speed, use him on third downs often. He can handle man or zone coverage, spying Watson, and if the Titans are able to get pressure with four, occassionally blitzing. The Titans don’t have anyone else who can do all those things to the level that Evans can, though Jayon Brown isn’t a poor substitute. A future in which both can be on the field simultaneously on third down gives me hope.
Tennessee’s defense must pray they don’t see the Watson they saw in Houston in 2017. While every position group showed a lack of discipline at one point or another that day, he was playing at a level that required them to be perfect in order to stop him—an impossible task. All in all, the defense needs to be better and Watson needs to be worse this go-round for the Titans to have a chance at victory, especially with a banged up offensive roster likely incapable of hanging 30+ points on the board.
Four to Watch
Offense: Corey Davis
Defense: Rashaan Evans/Jayon Brown (whoever is on the field opposite Woodyard on third down)
Offense: Will Fuller V
Defense: J. J. Watt