The Tennessee Titans travel to Houston to try to take down the team that has won four of the last six AFC South division titles.
The road to the playoffs looks promising for the Tennessee Titans. With a 2-1 record and a relatively easy schedule for the rest of the season, the Titans are sitting pretty. But, as it is for most teams, the key to their overall success is division play. And despite a strong 9-7 showing in 2016, the Titans were 2-4 against the AFC South, which includes a garbage time win against the Houston Texans where the results didn’t “matter” for either team.
If the Titans want to have success in 2017, they need to win in the AFC South. They took care of the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2, but this weekend’s matchup against the reigning AFC South champs may present more of a challenge.
This is an offense still trying to find its way with rookie QB Deshaun Watson. Despite head coach Bill O’Brien being adamant that Tom Savage was his starter, it only took half a game for him to renege on that claim. Watson has made some huge plays that have won/almost won his team the game, but he is still inconsistent. Expect Dick LeBeau to give Watson a variety of looks to confuse him. It would also be wise to double team DeAndre Hopkins, as he has proven to be Watson’s security blanket any time he panics. Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller make for underwhelming receiving compliments, so the Titans should force those players to beat them.
The Texans offense is 23rd in yards per game and 20th in points per game. One positive stat is that they are seventh in rush yards per game. Running backs Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman haven’t been particularly effective, averaging 3.7 and 3.3 YPC, respectively. The key has been Watson, who has averaged 54 rushing yards over the past two games. He broke the game open against the Cincinnati Bengals with a 49-yard TD run, and had some success on the ground against the Patriots, too. If the Titans can contain him and shut down Hopkins, this offense suddenly becomes toothless.
The 2016 Texans were first in the league in yards allowed per game, and most assumed their dominance would continue when they got J.J. Watt back from injury. However, the Texans defense has regressed this season, dropping to 14th in yards per game and 24th in points per game. Much of their struggles can be pinned on the secondary, as losing defensive backs A.J. Bouye and Quintin Demps in free agency has certainly hurt. 37% of their passes defended last year came from those two players. In addition to these losses, the Texans also lost starting CB Kevin Johnson to a knee injury against the Bengals in Week 2. I know the Titans love to run the ball, but it might be wise to attack this secondary.
Despite the struggles in the secondary, this is still a tough Texans defense. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus will provide the Titans’ offensive line with another difficult test. And rookie Zach Cunningham has filled in admirably since Brian Cushing was suspended for PEDs. Despite being sack-less at this point in the season, Watt has still been a force, and recorded PFF scores of 78.1, 88.8, and 89.5 through the first three games of the season. He is still working to get back to his old self, and has been a beast against the Titans in past matches. Granted, that was against much worse competition at tackle than Jack Conklin, but if Watt goes without a sack this weekend, it will be the first five-game streak without a sack in his career. With that streak and the AFC South crown on the line, Watt should be a force to be reckoned with this weekend.
Jayon Brown vs RBs/TEs and Watson
I mentioned above that the Titans should focus on shutting down Hopkins, as he is the first place Watson usually looks at. Hopkins receives 40% of the targets, but another 38% goes to the TEs and RBs. If the defense is focusing on Hopkins, that probably means Titans linebackers will be one-on-one with a TE or RB. Seeing as that is probably where Watson looks if Hopkins is covered, tight coverage on these players is crucial. In the Titans’ scheme, the coverage of these positions often falls on the shoulders of Jayon Brown. Brown has been solid against TEs and RBs this season, and will probably be called on often this weekend to do what he does best.
Alternatively, if he is not covering a RB or TE, he most likely is going to be a spy against Watson. Brown has the speed to contain QBs, and did a solid job in the spy role against Russell Wilson last week. Whichever task is asked of Brown will be an important one, and how he performs may have a major impact on the Titans’ defensive performance.