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Titans should attack Texans through the air

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Ryan Tannehill and the Titans hold a strong on-paper advantage against Houston...

NFL: NOV 26 Titans at Texans Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Titans have their biggest game thus far of the 2019 season on Sunday afternoon when the division rival Houston Texans come to town.

The winner of this game clenches nothing in terms of playoff seeding, but said winner will be firmly in control of the playoff race with just two games remaining.

The Titans could even win the division ahead of Week 17’s showdown if they (1) win on Sunday, (2) beat the Saints the following week, and (3) the Texans lose to Tampa Bay in Week 16.

The various NFL playoff simulations on ESPN and New York Times are fun to mess around with— there’s still a viable scenario where the Bills end up with the 2 seed and the Texans miss the playoffs completely.

But right now, the only game that matters is the next one on the schedule. NFL games are not played on paper, obviously, but looking at the numbers, the Titans have one clear and obvious advantage the should be able to exploit, and a couple others stand out as well...

Pass the Ball

Derrick Henry is the engine that drives the Titans offense. 1,052 of his 1,243 rushing yards have come after contact. Unfortunately, Henry did not practice all week. He insists he’ll be “ready to go” on Sunday, but he likely won’t be at 100%. Luckily for the Titans, this particular matchup may call for a little less Henry than usual, allowing the big back to regain his strength as the Titans prepare for for a possible playoff push.

As far as gross statistics go, the Texans have given up the 6th-most passing yards and the 5th-most passing touchdowns in the NFL. They have the 4th-fewest interceptions this season with just 7, and they allow the 4th-best passer rating to opposing quarterbacks with an average rating of 101.7.

According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Texans have the 27th best defense. They rank 14th in DVOA against the run but 27th against the pass. They are very beatable through the air.

The Texans’ best cornerback is Bradley Roby, a former first-round pick of the Broncos signed in the offseason by Houston. Johnathan Joseph is their veteran in the room, though he looks to have lost a step at this point in his career, and the team spent a second round pick on Lonnie Johnson Jr last April.

All three corners have missed time with injury this year, and after their Week 7 loss to Indy, the Texans traded a 2020 third-round pick for Gareon Conley and claimed Vernon Hargreaves III off waivers when he was cut by Tampa Bay after Week 10.

Week 14’s matchup with Denver was their first game this season with a fully healthy secondary. They chose to rotate all five of these players in and out of the lineup, with Roby the only guy to play more than 75% of snaps.

Of all corners in the NFL, Hargreaves and Conley have allowed the 20th and 21st most yards-per-route-covered, respectively. A.J. Brown has the 9th-highest average yards-per-route-run in the league. This could be another big game for the Titans rookie receiver, because while the Texans struggle to defend the pass, the Titans have the best passing offense in the NFL (since Week 7).

Drew Lock last week, in his second career start, completed 22 of 27 attempts for 309 yards, 3 touchdowns, and one interception. He was 12/14 for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws 0-10 yards downfield, and 4/6 for for 118 yards targeting 10-20 yards downfield.

The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen published a Ryan Tannehill film review on Friday (that I strongly recommend you read, the Athletic is well worth a subscription). Here’s what he said about Tannehill’s intermediate passing game:

On intermediate concepts, Tannehill has been elite. This is where he shines. He’s aggressive, makes good decisions, and throws with great anticipation and unreal accuracy. He was particularly exceptional at intermediate concepts with play-action because of his ability to both throw on the run and get the ball over underneath defenders. He can hit out-breaking routes with excellent timing and accuracy but he really stood out throwing to the middle of the field.

Football Outsider’s Derrick Klassen recently wrote a piece on Tannehill, where he said:

What has allowed Tannehill to ascend to a level far beyond Mariota’s despite some of their similarities is his ability to work the most valuable part of the field: the intermediate area. While deep passing holds the highest chance for a big play and short passing generates a stable baseline for an offense, intermediate success is where quarterbacks -- or passing offenses, rather -- separate themselves from one another. Tannehill has proven himself capable of reading and accurately throwing a number of different intermediate concepts in his handful of starts.

The Titans’ success throwing with play action is one of the big reasons for their passing prowess. The Texans are not good at defending play action. This could be a huge strength-on-weakness advantage for the Titans. Tannehill leads the league in yards-per-attempt on play action with 14.1.

Here’s an ESPN article from Friday that discusses how well Ryan Tannehill has been playing, and here’s one from ProFootballFocus that makes the case for the Titans’ scheme play-action usage being the main factors in Tannehill’s success.

Red Zone Efficiency

Another area where the Titans have a statistical, on-paper advantage is in the red area.

The Titans are the NFL’s top team in terms of converting red zone trips to touchdowns at 72.97% for the season. Since Week 7, they are converting touchdowns at an 86.4% clip, missing on only 3 trips to the red zone (one field goal, one fumble, one interception) in that span.

Meanwhile, the Texans are 31st in red zone scoring defense, allowing teams to convert red zone touchdowns at a 67.5% rate. Over their last three games, they’re even worse, allowing touchdowns on 72.73% of opponent red zone possessions.

Getting the ball into the red zone may be a bit more difficult than scoring once they get there; Houston is allowing only 3.1 red zone trips per game to their opponents, 12th-fewest in the league.

The caveat to this statistical matchup is that the Titans defense is only one spot better than the Texans in terms of opponent red zone conversion rate. The “bend but don’t break” defense we see from the Titans each week is actually a lot more “break” than I thought, according to the numbers: Tennessee is 30th in the league at red zone defense, allowing scores at a 64.86% rate, while the Texans score touchdowns at the 5th-highest rate of 66.67%.

Red zone performance could play a huge factor in this game. Both teams excel at scoring in the red zone and struggle to stop opponents.

Points Scored by Quarter

The Titans have been a slow-starting team this season, being outscored 118-142 in first halves but outscoring opponents 200-113 in second halves, with the Titans putting teams away late and outscoring opponents 110-55 in 4th Quarters.

But if the Titans are slow starters, the Texans are glacial.

Houston currently ranks 31st in the league in 1st Quarter points and 24th in the league in 1st Half points. However, Houston is 4th in the NFL in 2nd Half points and tied for 3rd in 4th Quarter Points.

The Titans need to start fast, gain an early lead and take advantage of Houston’s slow starting nature. The Titans are only averaging 9.1 points per first half (27th in the league), but the Texans are allowing an average of 12 points per first half.

In the second half, the Titans are allowing an average of 8.7 points scored (tied for 5th-fewest in the league), but the Texans are scoring an average of 14.8 points per second half (4th-most in the league). Strength on strength match-up. The Titans are actually scoring the 2nd-most second half points with 15.4 points.

If the Titans can force the Texans into obvious passing situations early in this game, they have a good chance of building and holding onto a lead. In 4 of Houston’s 5 losses this season, they trailed at halftime, but the Texans are 3-1 in games in which they held a halftime lead (and 1-0 when tied at the half).

Both the Titans and the Texans are second-half teams, so a low-scoring first half with an explosive, exciting final 30 minutes seems very possible.

The Titans have some clear on-paper advantages in this game when it comes to throwing the ball against the Texans’ weak pass defense. Arthur Smith has the opportunity to preserve Henry as he works through his hamstring injury and put the game in Ryan Tannehill’s hands. Even without as strong of a running threat this week, Tannehill should be able to find success through the air.

Will that be enough for the Titans to claim their fifth consecutive victory?

James and I previewed this #CodeBlue divisional game on our latest podcast, which you can listen to below: