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Texans-Titans Preview: SIX Things To Watch For

Texans. Titans. It’s Texas and Tennessee.

Saturn Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The Texans-Titans rivalry doesn’t exist on the football field. It exists in hearts. It consists of Eros. A long time ago, a bad man did a bad thing. The Houston Oilers suffered a never-ending series of postseason failures. I implore you not to look these up—really, it’s for the betterment of your own being—culminating in a home Wild Card Round loss to 47 year old Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.

After this, the bad man, Bud Adams, cleaned out his little blue glass pipe. Coaches were fired. Players were traded. The team went from blue and braggadocios to atrocious. The City of Houston wouldn’t give the bad man money for a new stadium. So the bad man and the squirrel laying upon his head, like a cocaine-fueled bachelorette party, moved the football team to Nashville, where they would briefly maintain the Oiler name, laying underneath the same bedsheets in a different home, until they transmogrified into the Titans, where they would fall one yard short of the ultimate prize in 1999 with Jeff Fisher at the helm.

Down in the Gulf, Paul Tagliabue impregnated Bob McNair—bawitdab da bang da bang diggy diggy—and out came the Houston Texans. With its first gasp, like breath into clay, came the creation of the AFC South, and it included Houston’s former team. Since 2002, the Texans and Titans have played each other twice a year, and since then, this so-called rivalry has lacked any real memorable moments. When one team is good, the other is bad. When one team is bad, the other is good. Rarely did they ever exist on the same plane of performance.

What’s the best moment in the history of this rivalry? For Texans fans, it’s Andre Johnson throwing fists into Cortland Finnegan. For Titans fans, it’s Vince Young’s overtime run at Reliant Stadium. Both things rest in hatred and sinew, not meaningful football.

The truth is, this rivalry isn’t based upon actual football. Neither team has been great at the same time. The memories, the virulence, the hatred, the spit spewing...all of this comes from a bad man moving a team to a different city. The disgust isn’t because of the teams, or the players, or competition. It resides in hearts because of optics that exist outside the sidelines.

The closest we came to a true rivalry game with real stakes was last year, when the Houston Texans beat the Tennessee Titans in Week 15, setting up another AFC South Championship for Houston the following week against Tampa Bay instead of in Week 17 when Houston was scheduled to play Tennessee again. That was a great game. Zach Cunningham delivered kill shots on Derrick Henry. Houston’s spread offense worked. There was a monumental Tennessee own end zone play action pass attempt to A.J. Brown. DeAndre Hopkins seeped outside of the offense and created clutch plays. Justin Reid forcing an interception into Whitney Mercilus’ tummy was the play of the game—the rare Tennessee red zone mistake. Yet games like this, and plays like this, are few and far between. Great play at the same time has rarely coincided between these two teams.

This past summer, I was enamored with the idea of Jadeveon Clowney joining the Titans. He’d get to play with Mike Vrabel again. Clowney would make the Titans a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Most importantly, it would sharpen the teeth to a rivalry that doesn’t really exist, that should exist, and it would evolve this rivalry into a focal point of the NFL season for the entire league. Clowney versus Bill O’Brien. Clowney versus his former team. Clowney broom riding and stewing, donning a scapular made of flesh ordained with ears, wearing #99...this is what the rivalry needed.

Unfortunately, this ideal didn’t arrive when Clowney eventually signed with Tennessee. I made a mistake. I allowed myself to have expectations and gave into something I learned to ignore years ago. Enjoy things as they arrive. Hope that things happen. But, never, ever expect for these thing to occur. Expectations pisses on fruit and creates self-fabricated disappointment when the fruit rots on the branch.

Failed expectations. This weekend is exactly that. Instead of this game featuring two teams fighting for the AFC South, it’s one team trying to carry on an undefeated season and another, at 1-4, playing football because it’s their job to do so.

The Texans-Titans rivalry isn’t real. It will have to wait for another day, and most likely, another season. Week 17 dreams don’t reside in this reality. Close. Almost. Chaos was there, desperate and billowing, like your hair in the wind; instead, here we are, gagging on the red ball and locked in the cold manacles of reality.

One day this game will really matter. It will be more than two fan bases bickering online, hating each other because of something a dead man did before he died. It will be players making plays that matter in games that actually matter, turning nothing into something. Until then, hopefully next season, our claymores are stored in the armories of our hearts.

HIT IT.

1. IS THIS REAL LIFE, OR IS THIS JACKSONVILLE?

One of the myriad of problems Bill O’Brien had was his insatiable desire to find a platitude that doesn’t exist by trying to ESTABLISH THE RUN. By doing so, he gorged defenses on a whatever rushing attack, smoking their way to 3.whatever yards a carry on first and second down. This limited the wide receivers they had and gelded what an offense should look like with a MVP caliber quarterback like Deshaun Watson.

The Texans started off 0-4 because of this. They were blown out by two really good teams, and then lost close games they won the year before. With the divot in this franchise gone, now sunning his nuts on the back porch, the playcalling duties were exchanged from Billy back to Timmy.

Last weekend there was a monumental difference. Houston didn’t run every run design known to the creator, they instead focused on the outside zone. They ran play typical play action out of two tight end sets—my eyes watered when Watson ran a bootleg. Yet, the biggest difference, was they finally spread the defense out. The Texans ran 57 plays. Watson ran 28 plays out of shotgun sets and 8 plays from empty sets. Out of the shotgun, Watson averaged 4.65 yards an attempt, and Houston averaged 3.5 yards on the ground from this formation. The difference came out of empty formations. By my rudimentary math, as someone with an Economics degree without taking Econometrics, Houston averaged 16.85 yards an attempt, without including Watson’s 14 yard scramble.

See, Watson is an incredible quarterback. The key to this offense shouldn’t be to discover something arcane that doesn’t exist, but to get Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills, Randall Cobb, David Johnson, Duke Johnson, and Darren Fells into wide passing sets where Watson can pick and choose their match ups.

Houston v. Tennessee is interesting because Watson will be going up against a quarters heavy pass defense, a pass defense that plays cornerbacks by their side and disguises their assignments well. Additionally, it’s an above average pass defense rather than the worst pass defense in the league, going up against an offense that may have exorcised its previous self created offensive limitations.

Shotgun. Empty sets. That’s the key to Houston’s offense turning sweltering ideals into actuality. This weekend Houston can show that last weekend was a new beginning, rather than taking advantage of a weakling opponent.

2. NOBODY INVITED YOU!!!!

The Titans run the outside zone, and they run the outside zone, and they run the outside zone, and they run the outside zone, and they run the outside zone. Sometimes they’ll run it weak side. Other times they’ll run it with a fullback pulling up on the second level. Other times a tight end will motion and peel back to seal the edge. It’s the Titans. They’re going to run the outside zone.

On these runs, the left side of Tennessee’s line is spectacular. The Taylor Lewan-Rodger Saffold combination is the best outside zone blocking combination in the league. They can kick out defenders on their own, work together, and get to the second level.

Tight end Jonnu Smith (#81) also aids on these runs. He’s been a league best outside zone blocker, I dare you to pull up his ProFartBallFocus graades, at sealing the edge and giving Henry the ability to bounce runs wide.

Houston has struggled stopping the outside zone this season against both Kansas City and Minnesota, and now they are without Benardrick McKinney. Replacing him is Tyrell Adams, who made one tackle on a clean break against a counter run, but was bad aside from that. Last season, in this match up, McKinney opened up easy tackles for Cunningham, who brought his loppers to shear Henry from the back side of the play. This weekend he won’t have that same seasoning. Cunningham is going to have to play the game of his life to limit Tennessee’s run attack.

Another key to stopping Henry is the secondary has to tackle well. Houston hasn’t had this so far. Vernon Hargreaves III, Eric Murray, Lonnie Johnson Jr., and even Justin Reid at times, have all had trouble tackling. For an offensive line that creates this many second level chances, and a running back that breaks into the open field as often as he does, the secondary is going to get plenty of chances to try and bring Henry down.

Unlike previous seasons, when the Texans had a great run defense, it’s hideous this year. It’s something they can no longer count on. Henry could run for 150+ yards. It’s going to be up to Cunningham chasing and tacking, the secondary making their tackles, and the edges squeezing things back in to limit Tennessee’s outside zone game.

3. RYAN TANNEHILL SHOTS

Arthur Smith has figured out something very important in Tennessee. Play action is good. Use it. And the Titans use it in a wide variety of ways.

Like on a Khalif Raymond corner-post route.

Or double dig routes that cross against cover three.

Or to A.J. Brown on a dig route against man coverage.

Or setting up a screen to Jonnu Smith.

It’s an easy way to create easy offense, and Smith has stemmed passing plays from his outside zone game in a wide variety of ways.

Houston has been great at designing their coverages. Cover three shells become cover four. Safeties rotate and replace blitzing linebackers. It’s hard to get a feel for what they do. Play action has been vital for Tennessee’s offense. How well Houston passes routes and keeps their eyes out of the backfield will dictate the Titans offensive output.

Houston has also been great against the deep pass, but bad against the shorter stuff, especially to the short middle. If they play man, Bradley Roby v. Brown is a match up Tennessee has the advantage on, as well as on a few of their secondary options. If Houston sticks to quarters, Smith has been especially great attacking the intermediate middle.

Still, at the end of the 3 o’clock, most of the Titans chunk plays come off play action, and these plays can birth a scoring drive in an instant. This is no different than last season. It’s a continuation. And in this role, Ryan Tannehill has continued to play like a MVP caliber quarterback.

4. CLOWNEY WASN’T READY

I love Clowney. I never have anything bad to say about him. That being said, this season he’s been out of shape, tired, and exhausted, and has yet to make a substantial impact on the game. Jawaan Taylor locked him down in week two.

He got close a few times in week four.

The same can be said last week.

Yet, he still hasn’t provided substantial production. This week he’ll mainly rush against Tytus Howard, and will get his shots along the interior against Senio Kelemete, Nick Martin, and Zach Fulton. We’re past this quarter mark. If Clowney is going to get it going now is the perfect time.

The funny thing is, in this REVENGE game, dripping with blood, hollering with broken limbs, is that Clowney isn’t the front seven defender to fear. Jeffery Simmons (#98) is.

He’s back off the COVID list. He’s been the Titans best front seven defender, and is better than every member of Houston’s interior. My eyes, and everyone’s eyes will be on Clowney as he tries to enact his revenge, but Simmons has been the better player this season.

5. THE SECRET

After a strange game against Denver, where Stephen Gostowski left ten points on the board, the Titans are back to scoring touchdowns in the redzone. Tennessee’s offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has realized something other coaches have failed to realize. Football is easy if you create and score off turnovers, the Titans lead the league with a +8 turnover differential, and score touchdowns in the redzone, and now Tennessee has a redzone touchdown rate of 82.33%, which is only behind Settle.

Like everlasting life, Smith discovered something everyone has been searching for, but has been unable to find. Tennessee doesn’t have the most redzone chances. Their offense gets clunky when operating out of spread formations. It takes time for Henry to get going. They’ll still miss Corey Davis even though A.J. Brown is back. Yet, as long as they continue to make the most out of their chances they’re nearly impossible to beat. Something, something, TITAN UP.

6. THE TREES

Because if it were just to hell; if that were all of it. Finished. If things just finished themselves. Nobody else there but her and me. If we could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us. I have committed incest I said Father it was I.