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Texans-Titans Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

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Texans. Titans. This time it’s kind of sort of for the AFC South.

The only memory I have of the Houston Oilers is attending a training camp practice with my Dad at Trinity University in like 1994. Mickey Mouse shirt. Velcro shoes. Right off 281 heading south. The practice field sat in the center arrangement of an assortment of buildings that are pinkish orange, or orangish pink, it depends on how you see the world. We sat at the top of metal bleachers watching special teams drills even though no one was there. I don’t know why, maybe he just loved special teams, and you can only really see kickoff formations from the crow’s nest. A storm came in. They ran inside. We hopped in the Oldsmobile.

When the Titans came around, I didn’t know who they were or where they came from. The only things that changed were logos in the video games and the miniature helmets inside the claw machine at the horse race track.

When I became an online Texans fan, there was an entire dictionary to read, a new language to learn. Methopatamia. BESFs. Pancakes. Beezelbub. Jim Irsay ticket giveaways. Pepsicola Marijuana Lawyer. Most of these I still barely know. Like obfuscate, it sounds great, I vaguely know what it means, and really that’s enough.

I was newborn, bloody and squabbling, without any feelings towards the Oilers and the things that came before the Texans. George Blanda played quarterback there. I was told someone from Buffalo stepped out of bounds and then came back inbouds to catch a touchdown against them. Bum Phillips died and I talked to BFD about him, and Curley Culp, and Robert Brazile. I watched Youtube Videos. I loved the neckrolls and mustaches. A history lesson. None of it really means anything to me.

What I do know is there’s a turn-based strategy computer game that originated in the 1990s called Heroes of Might and Magic. The game is composed of different civilizations that range from bearded warlocks with dragons, to sandy barbarians, to green haired sorcerers with a nosering attached to an earring.

Each civilization had a castle(s) to protect, and castle(s) to conquer. Heroes on horses with a limited travel distance would wander around the map, collecting resources to construct fantastical landmarks at their castle. Creatures specific to the landmark would spend the week reproducing, and on Sunday, the same resources would be used to purchase their progeny. These creatures: steel can crunchy paladins, pig man archers, stone throwing trolls, sickle hook peasants, neutral nomads, phoenixes resurrecting from piles of cremains, hordes of butterfly winged sprites, would then be used to attack other heroes’ armies with. Once all their castles are conquered the game is over. Onto the next scenario.

The best faction was the Warlock. Castles and dungeons. A labyrinth springing minotaurs. A high nest bubbling with squawking griffins. The pit moves with the hydras’ tangled heads. Dragons that evolve from green to red to black that fly across the map and are impossible to kill.

My favorite were the Necromancers. A castle with a central skull tower. Purple sky. Dark and dusty and brimstone, I can still smell the sulfur, I can barely breath. A haunted boarded house filled with vampires. A carousel of bone dragons. A zomebie graveyard. A mausoleum of liches. This was my home. These were my people. I’m the one who rides the menacing black and red horse.

This group didn’t include my favorite monster. This monster came from the Wizard’s castle: tin man golems that made me think of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man emitted from 99.5 KISS where it’s always 1996, halflings that slung stones, quick scurrying boars, ancient rocs, dope smoking range shooting mages, and giants who lived in a cloud fortress sitting above their castle, and with enough ore, and gold, and mercury, could turn into Titans.

These things would throw lighting bolts across the map, and would cause the same damage in close combat even with monsters up in their guts. Black armored. 300 hit points. The only thing that could kind of sort of take on those over powered black dragons.

When I saw the Titans logo and heard this team name this is what I thought of. I liked the T and the stars and the shield. I would draw it along with other football logos. Drawing and coloring the teal and red flames were the best part. And still, to this day, when I hear those cursed words TITAN UP, when I see the two toned blue jean jerseys, the Lynchian little person ball boy, the hillbilly raccoon mascot, the Logan’s Roadhouse inside of the stadium, I think of those black armored lighting bolt tossers living in the castle in the clouds, who used to live in an Apple computer, and the browned keyboard from indoor cigarette smoke that gave me whooping cough.

Because of these memories--which I think more of now since my nose has grown longer, since my hair has spoiled darker and grayer, and since the softness has hardened--and the things I think and the things I see when I see and hear these things, I like the Titans team name.

I don’t hate that floppy hat wearing, bachelorette destination, hot chicken eating franchise. I don’t hear the horrors of incest and baby eating. I don’t see Bud Adams flinging double birds. My team wasn’t taken away. My dollars didn’t go to that empty stadium. These aren’t my malodorous and pestilent sutures unraveling open. All I think of is that computer, pixelated marching armies, mummies upgraded from white to gold, the bone dragon’s red eyes, and chain lighting spells.

This is my confession.

HIT IT.

1. PLAY ACTION PASSING

I know what you did last summer. But, do you know what I did last summer? This is what I did.

The question for the Titans this season is if they can go from mediocre to good, and maybe, just maybe, if enough things break right, a good team can turn 9-7 into an overachieving 11-5. For this to happen they’ll need a component or two of their team to blossom into something that can be described as dominant. The most likely candidate to climb the stairs to the third floor of this cowboy bar is—you’ve heard this a hundred times before—their rushing attack.

The Titans’ run and pass offenses have improved from mediocre to fringe top ten units, and their run defense is fifth by DVOA. This is all very good, but it isn’t dominant. No. Where the Titans have tossed lightning bolts across the league, brutalizing the landscape and terminating all biology, has been with their play action passing game. For the entire season, including six Marcus Mariota starts, the Titans are running play action 29% of the time (7th), are averaging 10.6 yards per play action pass (1st), and gain 4 more yards per play when utilizing a play fake.

Tannehill has been filthy on these throws, and because of it, the Titans are 7-1 and are averaging 31.7 points a game. They averaged 10.6 points a game and were 2-4 with Mariota at quarterback. Their one loss was against Carolina. The Panthers have an atrocious run defense. Derrick Henry had three carries in the first half. He had seven carries on their opening second half drive and they rolled into the endzone for the first time. Other than that, Tennessee has been perfect.

The strength of Tennessee’s passing game has been the 10-20 yard section of the field. Tannehill has completed 36 of his 41 attempts (87.8%) for 670 yards and has thrown 5 touchdowns to 1 interceptions to this part of the field. Play action has a lot to do with this. The fake gets the negative polarity second level cascading to Derrick Henry’s positive polarity. From there, Tannehill places the ball over this batch of defenders.

Tannehill has been absurd as a short passer. So much has been made this week of his “catchable ball rate” on downfield passes, but this ignores the success he’s had on shorter throws. Tannehill is completing almost 80% of his short passes and is averaging 8.7 yards an attempt. A.J. Brown has been especially great running slants, busting through tackles, and turning lakes into an ocean. He’s averaging 15.6 yards per short reception with Tannehill at quarterback.

The short pass defense Houston trots out is disgusting. They are 31st in DVOA with a rate of 14.5%. Every cornerback that flew onto the field screwed up last week, from Johnathan Joseph missing a pass breakup on the first play that turned into a 48 yard gain, to Lonnie Johnson Jr. Jr. holding penalties. Romeo Crennel tried everything it didn’t work. Drew Lock completed 20 short passes out of 22 attempts for 245 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Those deep downfield sublime pinnacles of football throwing are the occasional. Tannehill is 8/24 for 330 yards (33.3%) but has thrown 3 touchdowns to 0 interceptions on throws over 20 yard through the air. These are rare, but when they happen, they are spectacular, and are an incredible end result after all the midfield success and Derrick Henry smashing. Tennessee takes savory deep shots off play action early in the downs.

Houston has been good against play action over the course of the season. They are allowing 7.2 yards per play against play action, which is 8th. Teams are only utilizing it against them 20% of the time though. This is probably a small sample size sort of thing. Drew Lock Denver scorched them with it last week.

The key for Houston is they have to create pressure, and they have to blitz to do so. Aggression is vital for a team that can’t win one v. one blocks unless Jacob Martin is out there for 1 of his 13 snaps. Crennel needs to manufacture pressure. Martin needs to play more. The only downsides of play action is these are longer developing plays, and it leads to secondary blockers (running backs, tight ends, wide receivers) blocking front seven defenders.

Sour and stinky. Taking sacks are the one problem Tannehill has had. Tennessee is 9th in pass rush win rate, but Tannehill has been sacked 24 times and is sacked on 10.6% of his dropbacks. He’s playstation one clunky in the pocket. He likes to hold onto the ball to push it downfield, and struggles to take the checkdown.

The Texans pass defense is horrendous and putrid. They’re 27th in pass defense DVOA. Bad pass rush + bad cornerbacks = bad pass defense. They’ve been fortunate to survive as long as they have. Those cracks are starting to break open. Blitzes are necessary to create big plays, but there’s one demon they’ll be facing when they do.

2. BABY WE WERE BORN TO THROW TO RUN

Tennessee has finally learned what Houston has been unable to realize. You throw to run. You don’t run to throw. Peel back the curtain. Everything you’ve been told is a lie. ESTABLISHING THE RUN is a myth for conservative dumbass losing football. For years Tennessee has tried to let their run game dictate their passing offense and it hasn’t worked. That’s changed since they brought Tannehill out of the bullpen for Marcus Mariota.

Since Tannehill’s play action has brought death and destruction, Henry is averaging 6.04 yards a carry and has 9 touchdowns. With Mariota leading their troops to its demise Henry averaged 3.68 yards a carry and had 4 touchdowns. Their cumulative run offense DVOA has changed from -109.8% to 73.5%.

Henry is getting more chances to run against light boxes, and this last month he’s failed to post a negative DVOA. The Titans rush offense DVOA have posted days of 55.9% against Kansas City, 45.4% against Jacksonville, 9.8% against Indianapolis, and 28.9% against Oakland.

When Mariota was quarterback you’d go entire weeks and forget they had pass catchers like Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, Adam Humphries, Anthony Fisker, and Dion Lewis. A wonderful slant route would fall from the sky like a bolt of plasma, and then think, oh yeah, they did sign Humphries this past offseason. Tennessee can go shotgun spread and throw to a variety of receivers. They can also do this and feed Henry for eight yards.

Their run game stumbled to start the season not just because of Mariota, but because Taylor Lewan was sobbing in his bus after failing a performance enhancing drug test. He’s underrated as a run blocker. With him back in the lineup they’ve found their run offense. Tennessee is a great outside zone blocking team. They love to run these plays to the left with him and Rodger Saffold executing perfect ‘deuce’ blocks together that seal the first level away and get up to the second level.

They especially love to run this to the weakside of the formation. By doing this they can turn big boxes into weak boxes to get Henry out in space. It’s worked tremendously. Henry is averaging 9.0 yards carry on 18 carries behind the left tackle during their win steak—this of course is inflated by a 74 yard touchdown run.

Sweeps and quick tosses are the other plays they love to run. Henry is a barbarian mowing down halflings with stiff arms. He’s a rhinoceros rampaging through the jungle snapping branches and limbs as he runs through arm tackles. Henry is averaging 6.57 yards a carry on runs to the left edge and 8.58 yards a carry on runs to the right edge since Tannehill has taken over. Despite weighing 240 pounds, he easily breaks the 20mph barrier.

The only thing the Titans love more than eating at Logan’s Roadhouse is using motion before the snap, and audibles, to get Henry in advantageous run situations. Shotgun formations become I-formations, which then become rushing attempts away from the strength of the defense.

Not every run is against light boxes though. The Titans can have success against 8+ boxes. Their outside zone run blocking has really turned a corner since Lewan has returned and Nate Davis has taken over the right guard spot. They turn the first level, and Henry has sharp vision. Runs like this are the problem with blitzing. By overloading one side, Henry can cutback, turn the safety into a pile of goop, then run forever.

Typically, Houston’s run defense is excellent. It has dropped off a surprising amount since J.J. Watt tore his pectoral swimming. The difference between him and Charles Omenihu getting turned around on power run plays is astronomical. Aside from D.J. Reader, their defensive line is porous. It’s going to be up to Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney to be better than their defensive line to chase and tackle.

3. DEAN PEES BLITZING

Tennessee’s biggest weakness is their pass defense. They’re 23rd in pass defense DVOA. It’s a conundrum. It’s a fart in the face of ProFartBall Focus’s idea that coverage is more important than a pass rush. The Titans are 31st in pressure rate, and 15th in adjusted sack rate. They’ve picked up 35 sacks this season. This is in spite of the competent coverage they’ve played. Tramaine Brock Sr., Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Adoree Jackson all rank in the top of 50 of Football Outsiders’s success rate, Jackson is the worst at 48%, and all rank in the top of 50 in pass yards allowed per play, Ryan is the worst in their group with 8.1 yards allowed per target.

Tennessee consistently struggles to get much of a rush. Harold Landry is the best they got. He has 9 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 27 pressures. A lot of his sacks are empty. They’re the result of hustle and grit bringing down a confused quarterback. This isn’t to say he can’t do anything. He has a nice burst and rip. It’s just to say the 9 sacks don’t mean that much. He’s a better screen defender than pass rusher, and he’s not the type of player who will give Laremy Tunsil fits. It will be interesting if they give him reps against Houston’s right tackles instead.

Tennessee signed 37 year old Cameron Wake to rush the passer on the opposite side. He’s on Injured Reserve. He was great when healthy, but it was dumb now, and dumb at the time, to rely so much on him. Kamalei Correa is just a guy. They needed another edge rusher, but they don’t have one.

Jurrell Casey is their second best pass rusher. Plumber’s crack. Can rush from the interior or from the defensive end position. He has 3 sacks, 7 hits, and 16 pressures. Their interior rush has picked up since Jeffery Simmons has made it on the field. Both players could give Max Scharping and Zach Fulton bullrush problems.

All of this being said, the best way they get pressure is by blitzing. It isn’t from winning individual pass rushes. Dean Pees, the former Raven, is exotic and tropical. A fruity drink with an umbrella in it. He’s turned Logan Ryan into a hammer. Ryan has 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 7 pressures from the cornerback position.

Pees is great at creating free rushers through the ‘B’ gap. He’ll crowd the line of scrimmage with down linemen and then bring the box safety through. He’ll twist the interior with blitzes. The Titans are a trojan horse.

Houston has blocked one v. one matchups well. It’s the blitzes they struggle to pickup. Houston shouldn’t be too concerned with Chris Clark or Roderick Johnson against Correa, but they should be concerned with Ryan screaming from the slot.

When teams pick up the blitz against Tennessee, they have years to throw the ball, and it opens up paths for the quarterback to run. If Houston can block every free rusher Watson will have chances to pick up easy scampering first downs.

The Titans cornerbacks are dependable, and cover well, but they don’t have a lockdown cornerback. They are 26th in DVOA at covering a team’s #1 wide receiver and allow 83.5 yards a game to these players. They can’t cover forever. If Houston is going to match the Titans and turn this into a pew-pew-pew laser blasting shootout, they’ll have to pick up the blitz well.

4. NOT MUCH THINKING

Earlier this week Mike Vrabel had the following to say.

“Neither of think that much anyways, so, ugh, that would be almost impossible..umm...“

Neither of us think that much. This is the new AFC South motto.

The Texans have to think more. The biggest matchup advantage in this game is the Titans’ passing offense against the Texans’ pass defense. Houston can’t expect for 27 points to be enough. They have to aim higher. Bill O’Brien needs to be thinking 34, 37, 41, not 27.

There’s a variety of things they need to do to make this happen. They have to stop ESTABLISHING THE RUN. It doesn’t work. Carlos Hyde on first down usually doesn’t work. It typically leads to 2nd and 7 or 2nd and 9, which opens up the blitz for Mr. Pees. The Texans have a first down rush offense DVOA of -6.7%, and this abysmal rate ranks 13th! Running the ball on first down consistently just puts your offense in a hole unless you are Baltimore or Carolina.

The Titans have a great run defense too. They rank fifth in run defense DVOA and allow only 4 yards a carry. Their first level is difficult to move from Casey to DaQuan Jones. And most importantly, their inside linebackers are screamers. Jayon Brown has 44 total run tackles. Rashaan Evans (#54) is a bullet. Supremely underrated, has 55 run tackles, plays from the interior to the sideline, and is incredible at reading an offensive lineman’s feet and reacting.

I understand it must be frustrating for Houston. They want to run the ball so badly, have invested $6.5 million a season in Zach Fulton, extended Nick Martin, and contributed three first round picks, and three second round picks into the offensive line, and still aren’t even particularly good at it. Every first down rush against eight men boxes is a spectacular waste of time. You should never ESTABLISH THE RUN, especially against the Titans.

The Texans play action passing game is sick. It’s used to either setup a four yard pass to Darren Fells, or the same max protect deep cross Yankee concept long heave. These plays don’t really work anymore. Teams have seen them too often.

Despite having Deshaun Watson, mobile and beautiful, the Texans have run play action only 22% of the time. This is the 21st highest rate. They average only 7.8 yards a play, which puts them at 18th. Play action plays typically gain more yards than non-play actions plays. Houston is only gaining 0.3 more yards per play when running play action.

Their play action game shouldn’t just be short or deep. They have tight ends who can attack the seam, receivers who can hit the post and deep digs that sit against zone coverage, and speed on the outside that can torch zone turning cornerbacks. There’s an entire section of the field waiting for them that they don’t exploit.

My least favorite thing nowadays about Bill O’Brien’s offense is what they’ve turned DeAndre Hopkins into. He’s a worse version of Michael Thomas. He’s gone from a premier sideline isolation route runner, to a slot receiver who catches first downs for seven yards. Great. This is less efficient. It hurts their ability to break past 24 points. Hopkins’s receiving DVOA has dropped from 22.6% to 2.8%. He ranks 25th this season. The Titans don’t have a corner who can cover him on the outside. Get him the ball out there there.

Additionally, Houston’s offense should be based around the deep passing game. Watson is spectacular at throwing the rainbow into the pot. They have three receivers who can win like this. The problem is that when Fuller is out they don’t do it. Without Fuller on the field (including week seven when he left in the first quarter) Houston has attempted only 26 deep passes in seven games. With Fuller Houston has attempted 68. Watson has nearly the same completion percentage regardless. Yet, on deep throws, he’s thrown for 922 yards and 7 touchdowns to 2 interceptions with Fuller, and 216 yards and 1 touchdown to 2 interceptions without him.

Without Fuller the Texans average 15.2 points a game. With him they have average 35 points a game. The difference is clear. If the Texans push the ball downfield they score points. Yes, Fuller has a dramatic difference on the Texans’ passing attack, but Stills isn’t a slouch. He’s caught 8 of his 10 deep pass attempts for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s absurd and ridiculous they ignore this part of their offense when Fuller isn’t available, and as of publication, we don’t know if he is or isn’t.

Houston will need to put their thinking cap on. Get those gears turning. They’ll need to do things they typically don’t do to make up for their awful pass defense.

5. DESHAUN WATSON MVP

I’m still not used to it. I’ll probably never get used to it. My brain has been molded and sculpted this decade by watching the Texans play football with insidious quarterbacks. My brain is now gray and rigid. The color of Power Ranger puddy men. The consistency of gum chewed for hours. I have to keep telling myself this. The Texans aren’t out of any game with Watson as their quarterback. Houston is at a disadvantage in this one. The Titans have been incredible since Tannehill came into the picture, and they’ve played better than Houston has this season. But with Watson, all things are possible. Great players can only exceed past bad coaching to a certain extent. It’s going to be up to the game plan to let him do it, and if they do, Watson has the talent to pull off this upset.

6. GET ME OUT OF THE CONFINES OF THIS BODY

What deity in the realms of dementia, what rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keeping place for souls so poor as is this flesh. This mawky worm-bent tabernacle.