Key matchups vs. the Texans in Week 13 for the Tennessee Titans.
At its core, football is a game of matchups. Whichever team is able to find the most favorable matchups throughout the course of the game, and exploit these matchups, will likely win. However, some matchups are more important than others and some games can hinge on these few matchups.
It’s difficult not to think of what could have been heading into this Week 13 game. Earlier in the season, the Houston Texans looked like a playoff contender behind the electric DeShaun Watson, but after Watson, all-universe defensive end JJ Watt, and defensive leader Whitney Mercilus were all injured, the Texans look like a rudderless ship incapable of getting out of their own way. They have lost three of their last four games and have not been competitive in any of their three losses. The defense has not been able to carry a subpar quarterback as in years past.
Had the Houston Texans continued on their course from the first half of the season, this game would have had major playoff implications and been must watch television as Mariota and the Titans sought revenge for their earlier, embarrassing defeat in Week 4. Instead, the Titans will be heavy favorites against Houston and should be able to torch a struggling defense and lock down an offense that has not produced of late and will now be without Will Fuller, who has given the Titans fits in the past.
The Titans must continue to win and keep ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC South. The Texans, on the other hand might be all but out of the playoff picture, but they would love to play spoiler to the Titans or Jaguars over the next few weeks. Let’s examine three key matchups that will determine the outcome of today’s game.
Matchup 1: Titans Offensive Line vs. DL Jadeveon Clowney
Against a normal defensive lineman, one can pinpoint exactly who will be dealing with him all game long, but Texans defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney is no normal defensive lineman. After spending a few seasons hampered by injuries, some feared that Clowney would never develop into the franchise talent that many expected him to be after being selected with the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Clowney has been a nightmare for opposing offenses this season, using his freaky speed, athleticism, and strength combined with improved technique and skill from his first four seasons in the league to wreak havoc in opposing backfields by making tackles for loss, generating pressure, racking up 9 sacks, and even dropping back into coverage on occasion.
Clowney’s exceptional talent allows him to line up anywhere in the front seven for Houston, which means that the entire Titans offensive line will need to prepare for Clowney this week since he has proven capable of destroying opposing offenses repeatedly if he can get the better of a team’s offensive line. The Titans still lack a true blowout statement win and if they allow Clowney to render their offense useless at the beginning of the game, the Titans will experience yet another slow start and Houston will hang with them for far longer than they should.
Matchup 2: WR DeAndre Hopkins vs. CB Logan Ryan
Last time the Titans faced Houston, I described what I thought would be an important matchup between DeAndre Hopkins and Logan Ryan, but Dick LeBeau decided to allow the likes of Brice McCain and LeShaun Sims to repeatedly cover Hopkins during the game and the result was a 107 yard game with a touchdown to boot as he repeatedly moved the chains against these lesser defensive backs. The Titans secondary has grown leaps and bounds since that Week 4 game, but I don’t anticipate LeBeau making the same mistake twice, and Ryan should be given the opportunity to limit Hopkins. Outside of Lamar Miller, DeAndre Hopkins is the only real threat on the Texans offense with Will Fuller and DeShaun Watson both watching from the sideline, so limiting him will stifle any and all offensive efforts from the Houston Texans.
Matchup 3: MLB Benardrick McKinney vs. RB Derrick Henry
Throughout the 2017 regular season, something has clearly been wrong with the Tennessee running game and they have not been as effective on the ground this year as in 2016. As a result, without a solid running game, Marcus Mariota clearly is trying to do to much and he is forcing throws that result in costly interceptions. The Titans are at their best when they can control the tempo of the game using their “exotic smashmouth” philosophy, read-option plays, decoys with Adoree’ Jackson, and play action passes.
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One issue with the running game has been that running back DeMarco Murray has not looked himself. After spending much of the offseason dealing with injuries, Murray continues to be beat up during the season as well and he has not been hitting his holes with the same burst and decisiveness that made him so lethal last season. Never was this more evident than when Murray soaked up all but three of the carries against Indianapolis for only 9 yards on 12 carries before Derrick Henry took over in the fourth quarter and gained 70 more yards on just one more carry. DeMarco Murray can still be an effective runner despite what some Titans fans have been saying, but the Titans need to allow him to fully recover and regain his 2016 form for the playoffs. Luckily, the team faces three very winnable games and have a very capable backup running back on the roster, which should allow them to limit Murray’s snaps and keep him fresh for the team’s postseason run and ride the hot hand at running back by playing Derrick Henry.
Texans middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney will need to fill gaps against the Titans and get to Henry in the backfield before he gets a head full of steam. McKinney is a physical, run-stuffing middle linebacker, which is a helpful skillset against an offense looking to wear the opposition down in a war of attrition after gaining an early lead. McKinney and Clowney must slow the Titans running game or they will suffer a defeat that is just as embarrassing as the defeat suffered by the Titans in Week 4.