clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Texans-Titans Preview: Five Things To Watch For

Matt Weston gives you five things to watch for in a J.J. Wattless world.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The hardest part of life is that there are people you love very much who leave your life and you can’t do anything to pull them back into it. For people who are entrenched with the Houston Texans, this is the feeling currently oozing out of hearts. J.J. Watt is out for the year after having his second back surgery in three months. But life must go on, and although life can’t currently be lived how it’s desired, hopefully something will come a new and fill that sorrowed heart. The best way to do this and focus one’s thoughts on things they can control is by playing the Tennessee Titans—a team the Texans have beaten the last four times they’ve played.


1.) The Tennessee Titans Can Run the Ball

I wrote a lot of words about the Titans’ offense earlier this week. Read that if you haven’t. If you did, then this section is going to be a shorter, more condensed version of the same thing.

The Titans have an average rushing attack by DVOA. The reason why is that Marcus Mariota has a rushing DVOA of -64% that drags down the team’s numbers. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry have been great this year, galloping over every part of the line of scrimmage.

“Exotic Smashmouth” is kind of working after all those years of trying to run the football. After all those wasted resources on Bishop Sankey, Andy Levitre, Jeremiah Poutasi, Michael Oher, Dexter McCluster, and Shonn Greene, the Titans can actually run the ball. The scheme has them running a variety of different plays from a variety of different formations. The biggest difference is the execution. Taylor Lewan has made the leap as a run blocker, Ben Jones is an enormous improvement over Andy Gallik and is playing the best football of his career. They may be better off with Chance Warmack on IR, and Jack Conklin has survived.

If the Texans can’t stop the rushing attack, it doesn’t mean they won’t win. It just means it will be a closer game. Mainly because Tennessee can’t throw the ball and they can’t score more than 17 points.

2.) Marcus Mariota is Better Than This.

Marcus Mariota was a very good rookie quarterback last year. Ball placement, quickly flipping through his progressions, pocket presence, and a rapid release were on display in 2015. This year, he’s been bad in a run-heavy attack. The biggest problem is his receivers. Tajae Sharpe is his best wide receiver. DeMarco Murray has been his most efficient receiver. Andre Johnson is his deep threat. It’s 2016 and Harry Douglas is getting targets. Delanie Walker is the only player Mariota throws to who would start for another team.

Mariota’s scheme isn’t helping him. Tennessee uses isolation routes and quick passes. None of his receivers except for Walker can beat man coverage. Often Mariota drops back, and no one is open, so he will either hang out and dump it off to Murray. Or he’ll try to force something into a covered receiver.

Mariota still has is own problems, though. The ball placement he showed last year isn’t here this year. He’s overthrowing and throwing behind receivers, leading to tipped passes and possible interceptions. He’s locking onto one side of the field or a predetermined read and quickly getting the ball out to covered receivers. Even when that group of bad pass catchers finds a seam and gets open, Mariota is often focused on his first read and one side of the field or gets too antsy in the pocket and misses the throw.

If you want to hate Tennessee’s scheme, this is the reason why. It’s hurt the progression of a talented young football thrower in a league devoid of great quarterbacks that has seen so many wonder children pass out like abandoned cars on the side of the highway. Don’t hate it because it has completely failed. It hasn’t. Hate it because it’s turned Mariota from a pop to a fizzle. Hopefully next year, the Titans sign a receiver and draft one high in the draft to make up for this heaping pile of entrails that’s worse at getting open than an actual pile of entrails.

As a result, the law firm I would hypothetically call if I hypothetically missed child support payments and was hypothetically arrested would be Joseph-Jackson-Johnson. These three Texans cornerbacks are great in man coverage. Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson have great ball skills and the ability to break on the ball. This is a game where they will have every opportunity to pluck passes. My pick is Johnson. I think he gets at least one, maybe two, interceptions tomorrow. Watch that guy.

3.) Please Be Good, Brock Osweiler

The BIG news coming out this week is that Bill O’Brien is calling the plays on offense again. Great. I don’t care. The only thing I care about is that they stop running draws on third down and actually put to use those ball handlers they spent all that money on (and that quarterback they gave $18 million a year to). That’s the only thing. Anything other than that doesn’t matter.

That being said, Osweiler needs to have a great game this week. His deep ball was great against Chicago and the first half against Kansas City. He was horrendous against New England. They played two high safeties and he dumped the ball off to Ryan Griffin nauseatingly, even without a threat of pressure coming after him. With DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller being pseudo-doubled, Osweiler had no idea what to do with the ball.

This week he’s going against a really horrendous secondary that is missing its best cornerback, Da’Norris Searcy. Perrish Cox and Brice McCain are there. For the love of karmic justice, can we please see McCain actually get targeted and gouged? Last time Houston went up against him in 2014 when he was on Pittsburgh, they completely ignored going his way. Hey, Bill O’Brien, can you please have Osweiler throw McCain’s way? He’s really bad. You won’t regret it.

The deep pass is going to be open again tomorrow. DeAndre Hopkins loves playing the Titans. He’s going to be open every play. Will Fuller will outrun the entire field. If Brock can hit these throws, everything else on offense shouldn’t be a worry.

Lastly, Braxton Miller is out again this week, so we can please actually play Jaelen Strong instead of leaving him in some metaphorical dog house? Tall slot wide receivers are awesome. Back when linebackers played the slot and teams stuck in their base defense longer, quick, sharp cutting receivers were all the rage. This is what made Wes Welker a revolution. Now teams mostly play nickel and have a cornerback in the slot against 1x1x3 personnel. To counteract this, put a big tall guy there. Let him run over and box out smaller corners. Arizona does this with Larry Fitzgerald. Carolina does this sometimes with Kelvin Benjamin. The Jets do this with my new favorite player, Quincy Enunwa. The Texans should do this with Jaelen Strong.

4.) Get Well Soon, J.J.

Watt is out for the year. The Texans don’t know how to run a defense without him and don’t know how much worse their defense is going to be. Don’t spew that nonsense that they played three weeks without him. Yeah, he wasn’t at full health, but teams still adjusted their blocking schemes for him. The last three weeks weren’t any indication of how things are going to be like without him. This week is a brand new ordeal.

Replacing him is going to be a combination of Christian Covington and Devon Still, two players the Texans’ coaching staff gave a whopping 40 combined snaps to over the first three weeks of the season. Two players who they had so much faith in to start at defensive end that they moved Jadeveon Clowney back to end and started John Simon at outside linebacker so they could put their best seven players on the field. It’s going to be the biggest difference in the NFL from one player to another, going from Watt to one of these two.

Schematically, this is a problem for Houston’s run defense. The Texans love to crash the edges and force runs back to the inside. This feeds plays back towards Watt. Now with Covington and Still playing the other “B” gap, this situation is no big deal for opposing offenses. More runs are going to go into the second level. Brian Cushing is coming off a knee injury. John Simon can’t tackle. More runs may go into the open field where Andre Hal and Quintin Demps can’t tackle. This earthquake at the first level will have aftershocks throughout the entire defense.

The pass rush is going to suffer in Watt’s absene as well, but the Texans have more horses here than in the run game. Whitney Mercilus became more than a trash monster last season and developed into a real football player. John Simon has become the new version of this, which is perfectly fine. Romeo Crennel has done a great job using twists and stunts and blitzes on the inside to generate pressure. Benardrick McKinney has been a great blitzer. The Texans won’t lead the league in sack rate anymore, but this still should be a good pass rush.

The key here is Jadeveon Clowney. The number one overall pick was selected to pair with Watt to create an abominable defense that crushed opponents into dust. Instead, Clowney is going to have to be the one to carry this defense and make up for the injured Watt. So far this year, Clowney has been great. He’s been disruptive and has blown up plays and has pressured the quarterback. The problem is the production hasn’t been there. That needs to change. Clowney needs to go from “football good” to “box score good” and bring tangible results to the void left behind by Watt. How well the Texans recuperate from Watt’s injury depends on Clowney, not the men replacing Watt.

5.) I Don’t Know What To Do.

For the last four years of my life when I watched the Texans play defense, whether it was on a tube television in a duplex, condensed versions in the desert, among ravenous Redskins’ fans at the Afterlife 360, or back home in San Antone, I’ve watched J.J. Watt. I found that elbow braced thespian and kept my eyes on him the entire game. With him out, I don’t know what to do with my eyes. I don’t know how to watch a Texans-Titans game without Watt pillaging Chance Warmack and making it rain blood on the Titans’ offense.

The whole field will be open for me to gaze upon now that I can’t lock onto the league’s best player. For the first time in a long time, I can do anything, and I don’t know what to do.

My plan at the moment is to focus on the secondary to get an idea of the coverage they are running. Take a glimpse of them once the ball is snapped and see if they are playing man or zone. Once they fall into a pattern, I’ll focus on something else. And once they take off and run off the screen, I’ll try to find either Jadeveon Clowney or Benardrick McKinney to watch. I don’t know who I’ll stick with. The world is so open and so alive right now. More than likely, it will be Jadeveon. I’ll probably watch that scapular made of ears wearing maelstrom zoom into backfields and miss tackles and leave the box score empty. Oh well, it’s better than solely watching Christian Covington or following the ball.

Titans vs Texans coverage