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Six matchups to watch for Titans-Texans

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The Titans home opener is being overshadowed by concern over injuries to key players, but there is still a game to be played at Nissan Stadium on Sunday.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans The Tennessean-USA TODAY Sports

This week has been a roller coaster of emotions for Titans fans this week. Coming off the devastating — on pretty much every level — loss in Miami, there was some initial cause for optimism when quarterback Marcus Mariota was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice and head coach Mike Vrabel seemed generally positive about the prospects of him being ready to go by Sunday’s critical home opener against the Houston Texans.

However, on Thursday Mariota was downgraded to limited participation in practice and by Friday he was still limited and Vrabel was saying things like “we expect both quarterbacks to play against Houston”. Now we head to the weekend wondering if that meant that both quarterbacks would be available to play on Sunday or if he was bluffing a possible Gabbert start to play mind games with the Texans or if he truly has some sort of strange 2-QB plan concocted for this game. We simply don’t know.

On top of that the Titans have confirmed that both Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin will be out for this game, leaving Kevin Pamphile and Dennis Kelly as the starters and the only players with experience playing tackle at the NFL level on the roster. After losing Delanie Walker to a long term injury, they also saw Luke Stocker get added to the injury report late on Friday with a calf that has him listed as questionable. If Stocker can’t go that could leave the Titans with Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, and MyCole Pruitt as their tight ends for the Houston game. That’s not exactly the group they had planned on using this year and would leave them severely deficient when it comes to blocking.

The good news is that Corey Davis was a full participant and it sounds like we will be getting the NFL debuts of Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry on Sunday, making the defense full strength for the first time since the start of camp.

With all that said, there will still be a game on Sunday and it will be an important one for two teams trying to avoid getting left behind in the AFC South race. The data analysis website FiveThirtyEight published the odds of making the playoffs for each record a few years ago. According to their data, teams that start 0-2 make the playoffs just 12% of the time while the odds of a 1-1 team making the playoffs is 41%. That’s a pretty huge difference. When you throw in the fact that this is a division game against another team that is expected to be a contender, this is a pretty massive game for the Titans. With that backdrop, let’s get in to the matchups that I’ll be keeping an eye on this week.

Marcus Mariota or Blaine Gabbert vs Texans secondary

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

As I mentioned above, we really have no clue whether to expect Mariota or Gabbert at this point. It doesn’t sound like it’s a pain tolerance issue, but rather an effectiveness issue. The quarterback complained of numbness in his throwing hand caused by the (illegal) hit from William Hayes in Miami. The lack of ability to grip the ball resulted in back to back interceptions as he tried to play through it.

The other factor in this decision has to be the risk of making the injury worse. This is an important game, but the following 14 are more important. If there is significant risk of a setback, I think you have to start Gabbert and take the long term approach.

Gabbert was 2-3 as a starter for the Cardinals last season, a team that featured little offensive talent outside of the ageless Larry Fitzgerald. His first start in 2017 was a road game in Houston where he went 22 of 34 for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in a 31-21 loss. The 2 picks came late in the game after the Texans had already gone up 31-21 and the Cardinals were trying to mount a comeback, so he has had some recent success against this defense.

Additionally, playing at home will help. He was 2-3 overall last season, but 2-1 at home. Over the course of his career 8 of his 11 wins as a starter have come on his home field, though strangely, he seems to throw more picks and take more sacks at home.

The offense moved pretty well with Gabbert in the game in Miami. Obviously, the Titans would love to have Mariota healthy and behind center, but if Gabbert gets the start I don’t think that equates to an automatic loss. Obviously, the defense will need to play great and the Titans will need to find some success in the run game and screen game, but Gabbert seems to be streaky. He’s capable of putting together a few nice drives and giving the Titans a chance to win.

Part of the reason for that belief is a shaky Texans secondary. Coming in to the season the expected starters at corner were 34-year old Johnathan Joseph and former first round pick Kevin Johnson with free agent addition Aaron Colvin manning the slot. Johnson was added to IR this week after suffering a concussion against New England in Week 1. Backup corner Kayvon Webster has also been ruled out for this weekend’s game with an Achilles injury and another backup, Johnson Bademosi is considered questionable with a hamstring injury.

The team signed veteran journeyman Shareece Wright this week to help get them through in the short term, but this could also mean we see Kareem Jackson shift back to corner after being moved to safety during the offseason. Regardless of how the Texans choose to cover for their injured corners, this will be an extremely shallow group and outside of Tyrann Mathieu there really isn’t much here that scares you.

Dion Lewis vs Texans Linebackers

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Dion Lewis was excellent in his Titans debut, rushing for 75 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries while also chipping in 5 catches for 35 yards. He was as dynamic as advertised in space and took advantage of relatively slow-footed Dolphins linebackers. The Texans linebackers are certainly more talented and athletic, but Benardrick McKinney has been a liability in coverage up to this point in his career and Zach Cunningham is still a growing player just one game in to his second season. Both guys are also taller linebackers at 6’-4” and 6’-3” which makes getting down to the 5’-8” Dion Lewis’ center of gravity just that much tougher.

Derrick Henry said this week that he was “pissed off” about his performance in Miami. The last time he said something like that he followed it up with the best game of his career, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown in Kansas City, but I still think this has the feel of another Dion Lewis game. With Delanie Walker out and down two starting tackles, the Titans will need to rely heavily on the screen game. Henry isn’t bad on screens, but Lewis is built for it.

Titans Pass Rush vs Texans Offensive Line

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There is a pretty good chance that we see what a fully loaded Titans pass rush looks like for the first time in 2018 this weekend. Starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are both another week away from the injuries that cost them the majority of preseason work and it’s sounding like there is a good chance that we get the debut of second round pick Harold Landry. With Kamalei Correa having a very active debut and Sharif Finch making a couple plays in limited action, this could give the Titans a strong and deep pass rushing rotation for the first time in a long time.

Tennessee will also be getting their first glimpse of first round pick Rashaan Evans. With no preseason action to go off of it’s virtually impossible to predict what kind of role the team has planned for their new dynamic linebacker, but he has the ability to contribute right away as a pass rusher even if they don’t push him in to the starting lineup at inside linebacker right away.

The Texans offensive line is the weakness of their roster. In Week 1 they tied for 29th in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency according to PFF, allowing 3 sacks, 3 QB hits, and 12 hurries on 42 pass attempts. That’s pressure on almost 29% of Deshaun Watson’s dropbacks. This isn’t just a Week 1 anomaly either. The Texans finished dead last in the NFL by the same metric in 2017.

Making matters worse for Houston, they put starting right tackle Seantrel Henderson on IR this week with a broken ankle. They are planning on sliding starting left tackle Julie’n Davenport to the right side and elevating rookie Martinas Rankin to left tackle for his first NFL start this week. Rankin is undersized as a tackle and was a guy that many thought would convert to a guard or center at the NFL level prior to the draft. Henderson is an enormous man at 6’-7” and 325 pounds, but as a second year pro out of Bucknell, this will only be his sixth start. The Titans edge rushers should have a huge advantage working against the young tackles.

Moving inside, things don’t get much better for Houston. Free agent additions Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete flank third year center Nick Martin. Kelemete and Fulton are similar guys. Both have been backups/spot starters for their entire careers until Houston came calling offering starting jobs this spring. Martin is coming off a poor sophomore campaign after a promising rookie season. None of these guys are special players and all of them will have their hands full when Jurrell Casey lines up across from them.

The Titans pass rush should be good enough to feast on this group, but once they get past the five up front, the job gets harder. Deshaun Watson is one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the NFL and the best bet for getting him on the ground is to make it a group effort. Getting multiple rushers in the backfield and minding rush lanes will be critical on Sunday. However, the pass rush can still be successful even if they don’t always pick up sacks. Getting pressure on Watson has been the key to stopping him so far in his NFL career.

The gap between Watson with time and Watson without time is pretty massive. I would expect the Texans to get the quick passing game going early and try to emphasize the screen game to slow down the Titans pass rush, but when they do look to take deep shots, Tennessee’s pass rush must get home.

Titans Backup Tackles vs J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The game plan will be similar when the Titans are on offense. Without their star tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, the team will turn to veterans Kevin Pamphile and Dennis Kelly to handle the fearsome Texans pass rush. After being without J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for most of 2017, the Texans finally have those two and Jadeveon Clowney on the field at the same time.

In Week 1 that combination didn’t yield big results. The Texans got to Tom Brady for 2 sacks — both by nose tackle D.J. Reader — but only added 2 QB hits and 2 hurries for a total of just 6 pressures on 41 New England pass attempts. However, these Houston pass rushers are too talented to stay down for long. The Titans offensive line will have their hands full with these guys all day.

Speaking of the Titans offensive line, they performed admirably in Miami. Quinton Spain led what was a very solid effort both pass blocking and run blocking. Tennessee’s offensive line allowed no sacks, no QB hits, and just 2 hurries despite playing more than half the game with Pamphile and Kelly as the starting tackles. That’s pressure on just over 5% of Titans pass attempts which ranked first in the NFL for Week 1.

The Titans offensive line will need to keep that work up against Houston to give either Mariota or Gabbert a chance to take advantage of that banged up Texans secondary, but I wouldn’t expect it to be near as easy as the numbers above might suggest.

Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan vs DeAndre Hopkins

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Hopkins is in the argument to be considered the best active receiver in the NFL and that’s even more true when he lines up against the Titans. Over 10 career games against Tennessee he has racked up 1,010 yards receiving, easily the most yards receiving he has against any NFL team. For reference the Colts and Jaguars —2nd and 3rd on that list — have allowed 648 and 645 yards, respectively, to Hopkins. Additionally, 5 of his 18 career 100-yard games have come against the Titans. Hopkins got his first 100-yard game playing against the Titans in just his second start as a pro. He also recorded his all-time high for receiving yards in a game with 238 during a forgettable November blowout of the 2014 Titans. Hopkins averages 9.81 yards per target in games against Tennessee.

To put it simply, DeAndre Hopkins regularly DESTROYS the Titans. Last season Tennessee put up slightly more resistance than usual, “only” giving up 187 yards combined over two games, but they still didn’t have an answer for their dreadlocked bully.

A foot injury landed Hopkins on the injury report this week, but seems very unlikely to hold him out of game action. Assuming he goes, how the Titans choose to cover him will be one of the more interesting decisions of the day.

Last year, Mike Mularkey and Dick LeBeau appeared to go in to the first Houston game without a plan for Hopkins, allowing the Texans to get their star wide out in matchups they liked — one on one against Brice McCain for example — and go to work. In the second matchup they adjusted and gave Logan Ryan — and later on LeShaun Sims — the assignment of sticking with Hopkins. They weren’t able to shut him down, but Ryan’s physicality and smarts helped Tennessee hold him to just 4 catches on 13 targets.

Ryan could get the call to follow him again this season, but free agent addition Malcolm Butler also has a track record of success playing against Hopkins and the Titans in general have far fewer holes in their secondary this season.

My guess is that the Titans will have a plan for him and given the intimate knowledge of the Texans on the coaching staff, I’d expect it to be a pretty good one. However, having a good plan and executing it against one of the best receivers in the game are two completely different things.

Mike Vrabel vs Bill O’Brien

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Bill O’Brien has had the Titans number ever since he took over as Houston’s head coach in 2014. He’s 6-2 against Tennessee with the two losses being a meaningless Week 17 game in Nashville in 2016 and last year’s loss — also in Nashville — in a game quarterbacked by Tom Savage. The Texans average margin of victory in those 6 wins is 21.7 points and even if you toss out the disastrous 43 point loss in 2017, the average only drops to 17.4. Like his star wide receiver, O’Brien has thoroughly dominated the Titans.

However, he’s also had the pleasure of staring down the likes of Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey on the opposite sideline during this time frame. We have no idea what Mike Vrabel is or isn’t as a head coach right now, but obviously the team felt like he was a better option than sticking with what they had in Mularkey.

Vrabel, of course, came to Tennessee after spending the previous four years as a part of Bill O’Brien’s coaching staff in Houston. Vrabel also brought along quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara and outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen who joined him in the move from Houston to Nashville. All three of those coaches will have first hand knowledge of Texans players strength and weaknesses, schemes, and how they view certain Titans players. That info could be valuable in planning for this week’s game.

I went back over the past five years and looked at the record of head coaches coaching against their former team in the first year with their new teams. Here are the results:

2017

Sean McDermott (Bills) loses to his former team (Panthers) 9-3

Vance Joseph (Broncos) loses to his former team (Dolphins) 35-9

Anthony Lynn (Chargers) wins over his former team (Bills) 54-24

Sean McVay (Rams) loses to his former team (Redskins) 27-20

2016

Hue Jackson (Browns) loses to his former team (Bengals) twice 31-17 and 23-10

2015

John Fox (Bears) loses to his former team (Broncos) 17-15

Rex Ryan (Bills) wins over his former team (Jets) twice 22-17 and 22-17 (weird)

Jack Del Rio (Raiders) splits with his former team (Broncos) losing 16-10 and then winning 15-12

2014

Mike Pettine (Browns) loses to his former team (Bills) 26-10

2013

Andy Reid (Chiefs) wins over his former team (Eagles) 26-16

Gus Bradley (Jaguars) loses to his former team (Seahawks) 45-17

Mike McCoy (Chargers) splits with his former team (Broncos) losing 28-20 and then winning 27-20

Bruce Arians (Cardinals) wins over his former team (Colts) 40-11

That’s a 7-10 combined record for first year coaches facing their former team. When you factor in the fact that new coaches are typically taking over bad teams, that record isn’t terrible, but it’s worth noting that 4 of those 7 wins came from coaches who had been a head coach at previous stops.

Just one game in to his first season, Mike Vrabel faces a home opener against his former team which also happens to be a hated division rival with injuries to several of his key players. To say this is a big game for him is really underselling the magnitude.