I’m not a parent. I don’t know if I ever will be. Millennials, right? Regardless, I never understood how you could love one child more than the other. Yeah, one maybe prettier, smarter, or stronger and ends up with a better life than the other. Yeah, one you may just get and understand more than the other. But to love more one than the other is a very nasty thing.
This Sunday both of my favorite teams, the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, will be pitted against each other, and I will love each equally. The Titans, in their garish jerseys in two different shades of blue that look like the color of light and dark blue jeans. Houston and their team name that is actually really cool. The inside devouring of Jurrell Casey and J.J. Watt, the magic of Marcus Mariota and Deshaun Watson, the potential of Corey Davis and Will Fuller V, and the similar running back situations.
Even though my heart will be split in two, I won’t give one side any more of it than the other.
1.) Never Stop Blocking
My favorite thing about the Tennessee Titans is their downfield blocking. Everyone blocks on this team. The offensive line, the running backs, the tight ends, the full backs, wide receivers, and even Marcus Mariota does in a way with pitches and hand offs that allow Tennessee to ignore certain defenders. Most teams can’t even get capable blocking out of their tight ends. The Titans get it from every offensive player.
This play that closed the door on Seattle is a perfect example. Tennessee puts three players in motion before the snap, including moving a sixth offensive lineman over, something I haven’t seen before. They run an outside zone play to the left. The fullback and extra offensive lineman create the hole. Demarco Murray cuts back inside and starts to take off. Ahead of him are two of his receivers and that same fullback blocking to keep his path free of debris. It’s a 75 yard touchdown run against one of the NFL’s best defenses.
This downfield blocking is one of the reasons why Tennessee has 23 plays that have picked up 15 yards or more, tied for seventh most in the NFL. Despite the exotic smash mouth label, it’s not a hand in the dirt, teeth breaking, grind out wins sort of offense. It’s a diverse and explosive one.
In this game, it’s more than just a specific part of football to enjoy. It can have ramifications against the Texans. Aside from Kareem Jackson, there are tackling issues in the secondary. Johnathan Joseph isn’t super fast. Andre Hal can hit some, but he can’t really tackle. Corey Moore doesn’t make enough plays for a strong safety. And as a team, Houston has a missed tackle rate of 11%, which is 12th in the NFL. If Tennessee can make their combo blocks and get Demarco Murray or Derrick Henry even with linebackers, there can be some enormous Titans runs.
2.) Quarterbacks Are Fun. I Appreciate Them.
Until Mitch Trubisky starts, the AFC South is the only division in the NFL that has four first round picks starting at quarterback. Andrew Luck (#1 overall), Marcus Mariota (#2) Blake Bortles (#3), and now Deshaun Watson (#12). Luck and Mariota are already great. Bortles has to play a specific way to lead Jacksonville to wins as long as he isn’t in London. Watson just got his chance to start.
It’s so refreshing to watch an AFC South game and see a quarterback on each side of the field who can consistently lead successful drives. Mariota has incredible precision and a quick release. He’s one of the best red zone quarterbacks in the league. He’s spectacular out of the shotgun. His speed is utilized in options and zone reads that allow Tennessee to skip out on blocking players in the box. Tennessee’s offense has been a revolution since Mariota started hitting passes downfield midway through last season.
Watson was so much more than not being Tom Savage last weekend. Because of his speed and pocket maneuvering, he was able to turn sacks into positive five yard runs and take broken plays and turn them into long D’Onta Foreman completions. He actually pushed the ball downfield. Safeties were yanked across the field with the gleam in his eyes. Watson put the ball in perfect spots on two touchdown passes. He made Houston’s offense fun again.
Mariota is already one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. Watson has had one great play and one great game. The only concern I have for Watson is that he just played against one of the worst front sevens in the NFL. The Patriots are a group that can’t rush the passer or make impact plays. Now Watson will have to go up against a real defense this week and then again next week against Kansas City. Reservations aside, Watson still looks to be the real deal.
I’m just so happy we don’t have to watch Brandon Weeden tangle with Zach Mettenberger or Tom Savage face off against Matt Cassell.
3.) Please Go Away And Never Come Back.
The Texans finally got away from Jeff Allen. He’s a lazy waste of space. Allen is a soup-stained player who has slow feet, brings nothing to his punch, can’t pull, doesn’t understand who to block or how to work with his teammates, and gets mangled in pass protection. The only thing he does well is have an enormous belly. His ankle ‘hurt,’ so he sat. Greg Mancz got the call to start at right guard against the Patriots.
Immediately the Texans’ offensive line was better. They actually ran the ball some last week. They could run the outside zone to both sides. Mancz and Breno Giacomini worked together pretty nicely. Mancz can reach and down block defensive ends. The Texans looked like the Tennessee Titans against New England compared to their performance against the Jaguars in Week One. But nothing that sparkles continues forever. Mancz is out this week. Back in the starting lineup goes Jeff Allen.
This is terrible news, especially for Houston’s passing game. Now the Texans will have two leaky guards protecting the interior of the pocket. To make matters worse, both guards are going up against one of the league’s premiere interior rushers in Jurrell Casey. Casey shouldn’t be able to move like he does at his size. He has great hands, and he has the strength to make two blocks look like one. As long as he’s rushing from the ‘3’ and attacks the outside shoulder, he shouldn’t have to deal with Nick Martin at all. When Houston’s offense is on the field, this is the match-up I’ll be watching whenever I try to be cool, hip, and very smart instead of watching the ball the entire game like the rest of the peasants.
Now, Deshaun Watson is a slippery snake like Russell Wilson. He can get out of the pocket and leave four defenders on the ground groaning, moaning, and not having any idea how he got away. The issue is that interior pressure is really hard to get away from. The quarterback can’t step up. It closes shorter throws to the middle. It forces the QB to roll outside and into exterior rushers who can easily escape unless tackles decide to risk a holding penalty.
Additionally, the Texans did a lot of things last week to help stave off the pass rush. They used two running backs in the backfield to pass block. They even used Stephen Anderson and Ryan Griffin back there at times. Some plays had two outside receivers lined up close to the formation to chip and help the tackles out. A lot of the Texans’ pass plays had eight players blocking and only two routes being run. Houston had to do this to stop one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. This week, they are playing one that has only five sacks, but is 18th in pressure rate. Houston will have to use similar dynamics to stop Casey, Derrick Morgan, and Brian Orakpo.
4.) The Premier Match-Up
As much fun as everything else will be to watch, Houston’s front seven against Tennessee’s offensive line is one of the great battles of the entire 2017 NFL season. Houston has one of the best front sevens in the NFL. You know the names. Now it includes a version of J.J. Watt that is bubbling. He had six tackles, two for a loss, and three quarterback hits against New England. In the run game, Watt looks to be back to his similar self, using that same swim move to get over linemen and into running backs. The passing game is where Watt has struggled. Houston has left him on the outside, where he still hasn’t been able to turn the edge against even slow offensive tackles. Hopefully Mike Vrabel has his Watt rush from the interior. Hopefully we get one of those classic Watt games pretty soon.
On the outside, tomorrow should be just as fun. It’s Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus against Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Clowney and Lewan have had similar career paths. Both are great athletes who needed some time to refine the technique to have success at the NFL level. For Clowney to get pressure, he won’t be able to just run past or through Lewan, who matches up with him athletically. Clowney will have to string together some pass rush moves. Mercilus has one of the best rips in the NFL, and his goal is going to be to keep hands off of him as he tries to bend around the edge. In addition to all this are the multiple formations and backfields that Tennessee is going use to chip and confuse Houston’s front seven.
When looking at the bigger picture, it’s an even bigger match-up. Houston elected not to bring back A.J. Bouye when they could have. He was their best defensive player last year. The strength of the Texans in 2016 was their secondary. I’m guessing the idea was that Kevin Johnson could easily replace Bouye, which was never a sure thing before K-Jo’s latest injury. I’m also guessing that the Texans thought with Watt back, the front seven would diminish the need for a great secondary.
The Texans’ defense relies on its front seven to be great. They rely on their defense to win games. Houston is going up against an offense that is second in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 156, has a rushing DVOA of 34.9% (2nd), a passing DVOA of 47.3% (6th), and is second overall in offensive DVOA. This game will say a lot about the type of defense that Houston will actually have this season, which in turn will say a lot about the type of season Houston will have in 2017.
5.) This Game Is Very Important.
The season is still in its infancy. It’s squabbling and bloody like a morning desert sun ripping out from under the Earth, so the numbers are weird. Playoff odds are even less clear, even when they take into account preseason expectations. Regardless, the numbers still provide some sort of context of what’s happened so far and what’s most probable as of right now.
Right now Houston and Indianapolis are 1-2, with Indy playing Seattle on Sunday night. Tennessee and Jacksonville are 2-1, with Jacksonville playing the New York Jets. If Houston loses tomorrow, they will be 1-3, two games back of Tennessee and possibly Jacksonville through four games. The following week, the Texans will be playing the best team in the NFL right now, the Kansas City Chiefs, at home on Sunday Night Football.
According to Football Outsiders, the Texans currently have a 7.2% chance to win the division and a 13.4% chance to make the playoffs. Tennessee has the fourth highest total playoff odds at 69.8%. Jacksonville’s are 53.6%. If Houston loses this weekend, their playoff hopes are going to be drowning. Kansas City has been incredible; their speed and defense is a bad matchup for Houston. The Texans also have the toughest non-division schedule in the division, forced to play New England and Kansas City as already mentioned, while Tennessee gets to play Miami and Oakland (the latter of whom they already lost to). Jacksonville, who already beat the Ravens, gets to play the Jets this week.
Adding to the tougher schedule is the fact that Houston has feasted on the AFC South the past few years. Under Bill O’Brien, the Texans are 14-4 against the division. Against the rest of the NFL, Houston is 14-18. Now that Jacksonville has a top five defense and the Titans have a top five offense, Houston can no longer pencil those wins in.
If Houston loses this week, they will start off 0-2 in the division, 1-3 overall, and will be two games behind Tennessee and perhaps two games behind the Jags. They will be in a hole and no longer have easy wins against their division available.
This is as must-win as it can get this early in the season.