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There aren't many areas where Tennessee can boast an advantage on Houston, but special teams is one of those areas.
As Diehard Chris said during the latest Battle Red Radio, peppered in-between some fine Xs and Os analysis from Brett and witty hosting from Mr. McCown (seriously, check it out.), there has to be a corner turned by Houston Texans fans. It is time to stop worrying and fretting about every single game and start expecting wins. This team is too talented not to be a favorite.
I agree with him. This is a game where the Texans should outclass their opponents, the Tennessee Titans. Due to acknowledging this, I find it difficult to write this post about a blueprint to take advantage of a weakness. I mean, let’s look at the statistics.
Football Outsiders has Houston with the sixth-best offense and best overall defense while Tennessee checks in at 23rd and 31st, respectfully. Not into the whole VOA, DAVE, and ADAM scene? Raw stats are nearly identical, in terms of ranks.
The Texans are seventh in overall offense, second in overall defense, and have an average game score of 29.3 to 14. The Titans are 24th in overall offense, 31st in overall defense, and have an average game score of 22.3 to 37.7. Keep in mind, 65.7% of their total points come from their overtime win against the _etroit Lions.
Everyone wants to point to the Minnesota Vikings beating the San Francisco 49ers as an example of a good team being upended, but the dirty little secret is that Minnesota and San Francisco are in the same ballparks on Football Outsiders and raw statistics. Heck, Minnesota’s even ahead of San Francisco defensively. Meanwhile, Tennessee is in the back of the class with Jacksonville and Cleveland. Houston is on a whole different level offensively and defensively. I wish I could say overall, but there is one pesky little area where the shoes on the other foot – special teams.
"TDC, you fine fellow," says the BRB reader. "Who cares about punters and kickers? We got this!"
"I care," I say. "Because I remember the 2010 San Diego Chargers - the team which had a top offense and defense only to see its special teams drag them down to an 8-8 season. While I do not believe the Texans will go 8-8, I am on record as saying Joe Marciano’s group could blow a game or two."
How wide is the gap between special teams units?
The Titans are Football Outsiders’ top unit while the Texans bring up the rear. Tennessee made a large jump on the back of a punt and kick return touchdown against _etroit, but there is a lot of strength in that unit beyond two big plays.
Darius Reynaud currently is sixth with a 29-yard per kick return average, including a 105-yard return for a touchdown. Reynaud was also part of the recreation of the Music City Miracle that led to a punt return touchdown. Punter Brett Kern is fifth in the league with a 50.9 punt average and a seventh-best average of 7.0 yards per return against. While he is only 6-of-8 on field goal attempts, Houston fans know well the powerfully accurate leg of Rob Bironas, on both kickoffs and field goals.
Meanwhile, Houston has allowed 15.2 yards per punt return against, sixth-worst in the league, which is why Donnie Jones is tied for eight-worst in punts inside the 20 (3) and tied for sixth-worst in punts fair caught (1) despite a ninth-best 49.3 yard per punt average.
Wee Trindon Holliday is also 27th in average per kick return (21.0 yards) and has fair caught six punts, third-worst in the NFL. Holliday’s punt return average is 0.3 yards worse than 16th place Jacoby Jones. ‘Nuff said.
I will take this moment to rag on the special teams scouting ability of long loathed special teams coordinator Joe Marciano by saying kicker Randy Bullock is on injured reserve while Minnesota’s Blair Walsh, drafted after the fifth-round rookie, is 7-for-7 on field goal attempts, including 3-for-3 on 50-plus yard attempts. Walsh’s powerful leg would also be a welcome improvement over Shayne Graham’s feeble attempts to boot it into the end zone.
Stats aside, the special teams units, which have all that wonderful Houston depth playing for them, just do not appear to be well-coached. Coverage teams do not maintain lane discipline when running down the field, gunners do not appear to be awfully fast or adept at shedding blockers, returners make awful decisions in fielding kicks and making reads, and kickers have below-average leg strength.
For a team with so many specialists (Graham, Jones, Holliday, and long-snapper Jonathan Weeks) and near-specialists (Alan Ball, Shiloh Keo, and Bryan Braman), this unit is performing far too poorly and could be the crack Tennessee needs to keep itself in a manageable game. Can this weakness be corrected in a week? No, but the Texans' special teams needs to play with a lot more patience and discipline to make their blocks, stay in their lanes, angle punts and kicks to counteract Tennessee’s returners, and limit their mistakes. The only real, tangible group that could screw Sunday up is a special teams unit that does not take care of business.
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