The heavy waves of optimism were rolling for both the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans coming into the 2018 season. At the outset of training camp both teams had taken aim at winning the AFC South and positioning themselves for a deep playoff run. But after disappointing showings in their respective season openers (matching 27-20 losses), both squads are coming into a pivotal Week 2 divisional matchup with more questions than answers.
The Texans came out flat on both sides of the ball against New England. What was supposed to be a rousing return of defensive stars JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus, both of whom appeared in only five games last season due to injury, was almost too faint to notice. The former All-Pros combined for five tackles and two quarterback hits in their comeback as Tom Brady picked apart the Houston defense for three passing touchdowns. The reappearance of quarterback Deshaun Watson was almost as lackluster.
Watson, who missed nine games last season with a torn ACL, didn’t show any flashes of the player who turned so many heads in his rookie campaign, completing 17-of-34 passes for 176 yards and two turnovers (1INT, 1 fumble). Of course, it’s wildly unfair to judge Watson based off his first game back from major knee surgery and in only the eighth start of his young NFL career. Watson has the opportunity to bounce back this Sunday against a Titans defense that allowed Ryan Tannehill to complete over 70 percent of his passes at more than eight yards a clip after not taking a regular season snap in 637 days.
Last Sunday’s third quarter in Miami proved to be the quarter from hell for the Titans. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was pulled from the game in favor of Blaine Gabbert after throwing back-to-back picks, a likely symptom from an elbow injury sustained earlier in the quarter. The Titans’ best offensive lineman , left tackle Taylor Lewan, was knocked out cold on a dirty, blindside block during an interception return that immediately sent him into concussion protocol, and he's listed as questionable for this week. And sadly, Mariota’s best target and team captain, tight end Delanie Walker, was lost for the season after being carted off the soggy Miami sod with a gnarly ankle injury.
On top of all the misery the third quarter offered the Titans on Sunday, the game officially took seven hours, eight minutes to play, making it the longest game in NFL history thanks to nearly four hours' worth of lightning delays. I think it’s safe to say that Week One was not exactly the start of the Mike Vrabel era that most Titans fans were expecting.
Houston at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday Sept. 16 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Texans - 2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Texans' O-line woes continue
Last season the Texans had one of the worst, if not the worst offensive line in the NFL, ranking 31st in sacks allowed (54) and allowing their quarterbacks to be hit an unhealthy 117 times. The Texans zeroed in on their blocking woes this offseason by signing three free agent starters in Seantrel Henderson, Senio Kelemete, and Zach Fulton. But the Texans old problems have been made new again after Henderson, the starting right tackle, was lost for the season after suffering a severe ankle injury against the Pats. Starting left tackle Julie'n Davenport moved into Henderson’s spot while rookie Martinas Dankin took over on the left side, promptly giving up a sack on his second snap of the game, one of three allowed (along with 12 QB hits) by the Texan’s O-line last week.
So the offensive line that was so badly beaten last year, and allegedly fixed in the offseason, has already faltered and been shuffled before the horn on Week 1 sounded — not great if you’re Deshaun Watson trying to regain your rhythm.
2. A tale of two quarterbacks, part I
Week One didn’t get off the greatest start for the Titans’ franchise quarterback. Mariota lost his best receiving option in Delanie Walker and his Boss Hogg-impersonating, blind side pass protector in Taylor Lewan. Walker is gone for the season, thrusting the responsibility of getting open to an unproven and unreliable group of wide receivers that only caught seven passes last week — six of which were by wide receiver Corey Davis. Vrabel has yet to commit to Lewan’s playing status as of yet, but the fifth year lineman has not participated in any sort of practice and was actually sent home early by the training staff earlier this week.
On top of all that, Mariota is dealing with health issues of his own after taking a low hit from the Dolphins’ William Hayes after a handoff, a hit that the NFL now says was flag worthy. Mariota complained he had no sensation in his hand and couldn’t grip the ball, which likely lead to interceptions on consecutive third quarter drives. After resting earlier in the week, Mariota was back at practice on Wednesday and said he felt fine after throwing, but how fine he feels come Sunday with a hungry Texans front seven chasing after him remains to be seen.
3. A tale of two quarterbacks, part deux
Without trying to sound too hot-takey (it’s a word, look it up), Deshaun Watson looked like a fraction of his 2017 self last week against a marginal Patriots defense. Here’s where the hot-takitude (another real word) ends: Deshaun Watson should be just fine. Watson took the blame for the Houston offense’s inability to function properly last week, and he should, at least a portion of it. He never looked comfortable in the few clean pockets that he did have, leading to poor decision making, including forcing a throw into the end zone that was intercepted on what he thought was a free play. Last season Watson thrived on third downs and in the red zone, completing over 86 percent of his passes, but against New England he was just 3-of-8 in those situations.
Like Mariota, Watson is dealing with his own health problems and is listed as questionable with concussion like symptoms, but is expected to play on Sunday. Watson is looking to get his 2017 groove back this weekend against a Titans’ secondary that is as deep as any on paper; but as proven against Miami, it's still susceptible to giving up the big play — a Watson specialty.
A lot can and does happen throughout the course of an NFL season, so it might be hyperbole to pontificate about a Week 2 divisional matchup being a must-win game for any team. Coaches and players would say it’s the NFL and every game is a must win. I guarantee that’s what they’re saying in the Titans’ and Texans’ meeting rooms this week — Sunday’s game is a must-win.
With two ailing offensive lines, and two banged up quarterbacks, this game will likely come down to whose defense can make the most plays. It’s time for Houston’s D to come back to life. Give me the Texans by a hair.
Prediction: Texans 20, Titans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.