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Deep Steel Blueprint: Of Texans, Titans & Running Backs

Best running back in the NFL this season.
Best running back in the NFL this season.

As we head towards Sunday's week 12 match-up between the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans, I am a bit confused on what to actually do with this piece.

Usually, I take a statistical look at the opponent. However, the Titans that will show up on Sunday are not the same 5-2 Titans coming off beatdowns of Jacksonville and Philadelphia. These are the Titans who have lost three straight games, including to quarterback-less Miami and defense-less Washington.

Offensively, some guy named Rusty Smith is starting for the first time ever, and Randy Moss has only caught one pass in two games with Tennessee. Defensively, the pass rush has withered up (eight sacks in their last five games compared to 22 in their first five), which has left their young secondary vulnerable to some of the better passing attacks they've seen of late.

I haven't even brought up last week's implosion both on the field (three penalties in overtime to set Washington up for the game-winning field goal) or off the field (Vince Young's taunting the Tennessee crowd when they booed, his injury, removal as starter, running out on his team, and the split between Team Vince and Team Jeff supporters).

All that said, what should I do with the Deep Steel Blueprint? Well, how about I put the spotlight on probable Pro Bowl running backs Chris Johnson and Arian Foster? Yes, the Blueprint hits the ground running with a comparison of rush offenses and defenses.


Let's start with a comparison of the headliners for this week's match-up

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2010 - Arian Foster
10 194 1004 100.4 5.2 74 12 39 378 37.8 9.7 50 1

Rushing Receiving
G Rush Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Y/G Avg Lng TD
2010 - Chris Johnson 10 216 968 96.8 4.5 76 9 25 103 10.3 4.1 17 0

The first thing I notice is how unnoticed Foster's receiving skills are. You really don't get a sense of how well he's doing in the passing game until you compare him to other top-level running backs. The touchdowns are a big part of Houston's red zone success, and his 5.2 rushing average is only behind one starting running back, Jamaal Charles. Over the next few weeks, Domanick Williams will see his name erased from the record books behind a fantastic season for Mr. Foster.

As for CJ2K, he's falling well short of his bold 2,500-yard prediction. His receiving stats are down as well. He's not having a terrible year by any means, so his 2K regression is more Barry Sanders-like - that's pretty good company. Just by watching, it really seems like Johnson, in his good games, has one or two big runs with a lot of average runs. He leads AFC running backs in Pro Bowl voting, but the stats are showing it's name-based rather than performance-based, because Foster's clearly in another class this season.

Next up, a look at the rush offenses and defenses in per game and DVOA statistics. I'll also throw in Football Outsiders' Stuffed Percentage, which shows how often teams are tackled in the backfield on running plays - big sign of offensive and defensive line play.

Team/Stats Rushing Yards Gained/Allowed Per Game Yards Gained/Allowed Per Carry Rushing 1st Downs Gained/Allowed Rushing TDs Scored/Allowed Rush Off/Def DVOA Stuffed Rank For/Against
Houston Rush Offense 127.0 (t-8th) 4.9 (2nd) 76 (t-3rd) 15 (1st) 27.9% (2nd) 15% (6th)
Tennessee Rush Defense 103.5 (11th) 3.9 (t-8th) 59 (t-18th) 4 (t-3rd) -19.0% (3rd) 22% (5th)
Houston Rush Defense 107.8 (16th) 4.0 (t-11th) 70 (t-26th) 8 (t-18th) -0.5% (24th) 21% (10th)
Tennessee Rush Offense 127.0 (t-8th) 4.5 (t-5th) 54 (21st) 10 (t-4th) 0.2% (16th) 25% (31st)

What should you take away from this? Any way you look at it, Houston's running game is great. Yes, a lot of praise should go to Arian Foster, but the offensive line has done a great job of moving the pile, as evidenced by their low stuffed percentage. We'll break down the line play a bit lower, but they deserve some praise for helping set Arian up. After the success against San Diego and New York, I'm not as worried about a good Tennessee rush defense. I really think there would be a lot of success for the Texans if Houston just pushed around Tennessee.

On the flip side, it's home-run hitting Tennessee versus average Houston. Tennessee's surprisingly high stuffed percentage, contrasted with their rushing per game averages, shows that it's either big run or nothing for Tennessee. Unlike Houston, it's more running back talent than anything for their ground success. Houston's rush defense is average in a lot of stats, but they are blowing up plays in the backfield. For Houston to have success, they'll need to continue that but, more importantly, Houston is going to need to A) wrap up and B) maintain back-side discipline against cutter-supreme Chris Johnson.

Now, let's look at line play. Where do teams like to run and how successful are the opposing defenses in terms of those gaps? I'll put it in terms of adjusted line yards (rank), % run at hole//adjusted d-line yards (rank)

Match-Up/Holes Left End Left Tackle Interior Line Right Tackle Right End
Houston Run O/Tennessee Run D 4.22 (18th), 12%// 5.74 (30th) 5.09 (2nd), 13%// 2.91 (1st) 5.14 (1st), 38%// 3.36 (3rd) 4.03 (13th), 20%// 3.20 (8th) 4.69 (8th), 17%// 2.70 (4th)
Tennessee Run O/Houston Run D 5.28 (3rd), 13%//4.27 (18th) 3.21 (27th), 16%//4.49 (19th) 3.03 (31st), 44%//4.50 (28th) 4.06 (11th), 16%//3.09 (6th) 3.79 (20th), 12%//4.06 (19th)

The Titans are pretty stout across the board - except defending sweeps and pitches to the left side. This is the obvious weak spot for Houston to attack. Everywhere else, it'll be strength-on-strength, which will make for a physical battle across the board. Lastly, yes...the Texans' interior line is the best part of the offensive line. What a difference a healthy Chris Myers and benched Kasey Studdard make, right?

Defensively, I have #nosetacklelust (Nick Fairley, Sione Fua, anyone?). The Texans are putrid defending the middle, but the Titans are terrible at power that's great. I bet the Titans miss Kevin Mawae. The match-ups are pretty even elsewhere on the line, so it's a matter of who wants it more. Predictably, the Titans like to bounce outside to their left, so it'll be on Mario Williams, Kevin Bentley, and, hopefully, Darryl Sharpton to control that side of the field. The Texans have to maintain backside discipline because Johnson, as he did last season, can cut back and make them pay. Over-pursuit is not your friend, Houston.

Overall, the Titans run more than they pass (285 rushes to 272 pass attempts), and you should see even more of Johnson and back-up Javon Ringer with first-time starter Rusty Smith under center. As I've said repeatedly, the Texans need to maintain back-side discipline and wrap up. The front seven can win this defensive battle for Houston if they do those simple things and continue their success on stuffs. Offensively, Arian Foster and Derrick Ward need to find the left edge behind Duane Brown, Vonta Leach, and whichever guard pulls. If both Houston lines show up, this could be a decisive Houston win.

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