Texans look to save season on the road against undefeated Titans
After a wild 16 days that saw more than 20 players and team personnel test positive for COVID-19, a complete facility shut down, games against the Steelers and Bills rescheduled, and an NFL investigation, the Titans were finally able to host Buffalo on Tuesday night. Tennessee didn't miss a beat and absolutely dominated the previously undefeated Bills, 42-16. With all the team had been through over the course of the last two-plus weeks, including a limited roster and practice time, the Titans' win is likely the most surprising victory of the NFL season. Tennessee is now the clear favorite to win the AFC South and looks to increase their stranglehold on the division with Houston coming to town.
After starting the season 0-4 and firing general manager/head coach Bill O'Brien, the insertion of Romeo Crennel seems to have given the Texans the jolt they needed, at least for one week. Last week, Houston put together its best performance of the season with a 30-14 win against division foe Jacksonville. Deshaun Watson and the offense finally looked in sync. Despite two interceptions, Watson threw for more than 300 yards for the first time in almost a calendar year, and running back David Johnson had his best game, by far, of his Texans tenure. If the Texans have any chance of pulling themselves out of the basement this year, Sunday's game in Nashville is pretty much a must-win.
Houston at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 18 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -3
Three Things to Watch
1. King Henry's dynamic impact
Defenses have been hyper-focused this season on stopping the NFL's reigning rushing king, Derrick Henry. After averaging 5.1 yards a carry on just 20.2 attempts per game last season, Henry is now averaging 25 carries per game but is gaining 3.7 yards per rushing attempt. On Tuesday, the Bills held Henry to his lowest output in his last 17 games -- 57 yards on 19 carries or three yards per.
But even on a so-called off night, Henry still had a major impact on the game. In the first half, he punched it into the end zone from one yard out and later brought the Titans' sideline and all of Twitter ablaze with his unmerciful stiff arm of Bills' cornerback Josh Norman.
I honestly can't help but giggle just thinking about Norman's six-foot, 200-pound frame tumbling through the Nashville night like a weightless astronaut. Henry then shut down any hopes for a Buffalo comeback with a nine-yard scoring run on a make-or-break third-and-2 with four minutes left in the game.
With opposing defensive coordinators selling out to stop Henry, the rest of the Titans' offense has opened up, especially the play-action passing game, where Ryan Tannehill has thrived with a 120.1 rating and is converting first downs on 50 percent of his throws.
Sunday, Henry faces a Texans defense that has been the worst in the league at stopping the run. Houston is last in both total rushing yards (802) and last in rushing first downs allowed (47).
In Week 17 last season, Henry gashed the Texans for 211 yards and three touchdowns en route to the 2019 rushing title and a Titans playoff berth. So even if Henry doesn't reach his average of 25 carries on Sunday, he still should be able to wreak havoc against Houston in more ways than one.
2. Can David Johnson be effective?
Fact: the Arizona Cardinals absolutely fleeced the Texans when they swapped Johnson for DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins leads the NFL in catches and receiving yards, while Johnson is averaging just 13 carries and 58 rushing yards per game for a team with one win.
Of course, it's not entirely Johnson's fault that the Texans hardly ever have a lead. In a 60-minute game, Houston either trails or is tied for an average of 41 minutes, and is losing for approximately 28 of those minutes. Because the Texans are usually behind, Johnson isn't getting enough carries to be effective or use any game clock. The Texans are dead last in time of possession, and only 20 of Johnson's 68 carries have come when Houston has the lead. Ten of those carries came last Sunday against the Jaguars.
It's no coincidence that Houston's best offensive performance came alongside Johnson's best outing as a Texan, rushing for a season-high 96 yards on 17 carries. It was his best ground game since Nov. 18, 2018 when he had 137 yards against the then-Oakland Raiders. The Texans are still a pass-first team. Deshaun Watson's arm and the Houston air attack is what beat the Jags, but it was Johnson's 10 second-half carries that helped seal the win.
Sunday, Johnson might have the opportunity to do a little more damage in an even more important scenario. The Titans are one of the worst teams in the league at stopping the run, allowing a league-high 5.5 yards per rushing attempt. They're also the worst defensive unit on third downs, surrendering a league-high 60 percent conversion rate. On Tuesday night, the Titans allowed the Bills to convert an absurdly high 76 percent of their third downs (13 of 17). Although Johnson has only six third-down carries this season, he's converted on all six tries. If Johnson can pick up even a few third downs for Houston on Sunday, perhaps that will keep the Titans' offense off the field just long enough to scratch out a Texans win.
3. The return of "Big Play" Brown
On Tuesday night, Titans' receiver A.J. Brown showed just how valuable he is to the Tennessee offense. In his first game back from a knee injury suffered in Week 1, the second-year man from Ole Miss led his team in catches (7) and yards (82) and scored on a 16-yard touchdown reception, his first this season.
Brown was Tannehill's favorite target a season ago. As a rookie, he led the Titans in targets (84), catches (52), receiving yards (1,081), and touchdowns (8). Tannehill has managed to spread the ball around evenly without Brown in the lineup, finding tight end Jonnu Smith (18 rec., 5 TDs), and receivers Corey Davis (15 rec, 13.7 ypr, TD) and Adam Humphries (15, 9.1, TD) in the short and middle passing game. The results have obviously been fine, being undefeated and all, but the Titans' passing attack has room to grow with Brown on the field. They currently rank 25th in passing yards (983), 24th in passing first downs (56), and are middle of the road in terms of yards per catch (11.0, 19th) and yards per attempt (7.6, 15th).
While the other Tennessee targets are more than serviceable, they aren't the big-play threat that Brown is. Last season, Brown was second in the NFL with 20.2 yards per catch. Of his eight touchdown catches in 2019, six were from more than 10 yards out, and four of them went for 50-plus yards. Tannehill has thrown nine touchdown passes this season, and just one to Brown. Of those other eight scoring throws, only two of them were from more than 10 yards out. None of them have been from longer than 18.
With a healthy Brown, the Titans now have a receiver than can take the top off of opposing secondaries with regularity and perhaps make the Tennessee passing attack even more dangerous by opening up the middle of the field.
After an emotional win on Tuesday night, and after a short week of practice, Sunday feels like the prototypical trap game for Tennessee. But after dismantling one of the best teams in the AFC, it's hard to see the Titans offense slipping up against such a bad Texans defense. If Deshaun Watson can protect the ball and the Houston offense can do a better job of controlling the clock, they've got a shot – but it's a long one.
Prediction: Titans 31, Texans 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.