Any win on Monday Night Football is a special one but that win over the Tennessee Titans will be one that resonates for a long while. Let us count the ways.
The 34-17 win over the Titans was the Texans eighth in a row, which is an NFL record. No team in NFL history lost its first three and then won eight in a row...until last night. It was, as I said, a win on Monday night, which is special in its own right. The last time the Texans won a Monday night game was in 2015 and the last time they did it at home was on December 1, 2008.
It was a win against a divisional opponent. It was a win over the team that formerly called Houston home. Most importantly, though, it was a fitting tribute to the man that founded this organization - Robert C. McNair. The Amazing Grace tribute in the pregame was stirring and I had a hard time keeping the tears from streaming down my face. The way with which this team played on Monday night would've made the Big Man proud. Very proud. Here are my observations from the 34-17 win.
1. There are so many places to start but I'll go here, the more physical team won, pure and simple. The Texans exerted their physical dominance in this game after Jonnu Smith went 61 yards for a touchdown to give the Titans a 10-0 lead. That touchdown ignited a switch and the Texans went to work. Physically, there was no question which team imposed its will on the other in this win and that was the team wearing Battle Red, Liberty White and Deep Steel Blue.
2. One moment that most everyone will forget about was the kickoff just after Smith's touchdown. DeAndre Carter produced a terrific return but Titans linebacker Will Compton stripped the ball out. Luckily, A.J. Moore found the rock at the bottom of the pile. Talk about a HUGE sigh of relief. Think how this one is different (or not) if the Titans get on that ball with the momentum they had already produced. What I loved, though, was that Carter found a way to "get it back" with a great punt return later in the game.
3. As a result of the Texans physical statement, running back Lamar Miller went bezerk. He was shot out of a cannon all night. All year, really. That 97-yard run? Just brilliant work by the offensive line and what a block by Julien Davenport on linebacker Rashaan Evans. Once Miller saw that seam, Miller flashed the quickness to burst to and through the hole and then the jets to take it to the house. He's been terrific all season long. I heard the guys on NFL Radio on Sirius XM on the way home saying that he moved past like five running backs into the top eight of the league after his 162-yard performance.
4. We knew all week that Demaryius Thomas was going to get involved in the offense. First, Bill O'Brien said as such during the week. Secondly, teams have to take away DeAndre Hopkins, or suffer the consequences. So, the Titans chose to single cover Thomas, two times that I know of for sure, and he and Deshaun Watson made them pay. It was clear as day where Watson wanted to throw the ball on his second touchdown. Titans cornerback LeShaun Sims replaced Malcolm Butler (concussion) and was in man coverage on Thomas. He had some room to work on the outside and I just started calling "DT! DT! Go to DT!" Deshaun didn't need to hear me; it was pretty evident how open Thomas was going to be if he beat Sims in man coverage. He did.
5. I talked to him after the game and the smile on his face never ceased. He was glowing the entire time and the way he talked about this team/the locker room spoke volumes about what he sees here in Houston.
6. Heading into the game, my number one key was that the Texans had to stop Titans running back Dion Lewis. HAD TO. He's become the Titans number one option at running back and he's been a nightmare for the Texans, whether as a Patriot or a Titan. The Texans defense held him to eight yards rushing and 33 in the passing game. He did have seven catches but for only a 4.7 yards per catch average. Lewis generated only 40 yards of total offense, a key reason why the Texans came away with win number eight. Furthermore, Lewis, Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota accounted for just 66 yards rushing on 22 carries, while the Texans ran for 281 yards on the ground.
7. When the Titans scored to make it 10-0, Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan walked over to the Texans side of the field. He immediately found some Texans fans and started taunting them. That didn't work out too well for the former Michigan man. He, and his Titans, are now 0-5 in NRG Stadium so he shouldn't have tempted fate, really.
8. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was 22 of 23 for 303 yards but he suffered six sacks on the night as a result of rush/coverage working together extremely well. Mariota had the two touchdowns of 61 (Smith) and 48 (Davis) and he piled up 64 yards of garbage yards on the final drive. That's 173 of his 303 total in those three situations. So, in the end, the numbers don't tell the full story, really, of what the Texans defense did on the night and how impactful, or not, Mariota was on the whole.
9. After a long Corey Davis run and a few Mariota completions, the Titans had the ball third and eight at the Houston 10. I couldn't help but think about Justin Reid's 101-yard pick six the week prior and wondered whether it could happen again. Statistically, no; it's a near impossibility. But, the Texans got the stop on fourth and one and then Miller went 97 on the next play. That's the closest you can get to a pick six - a stop-run six? How often does THAT happen?
10. On the third down play prior to the fourth down stop, Christian Covington made one heck of a play that won't get talked about much. It was third and eight and Mariota scrambled and found Dion Lewis short of the first down. But, he pinballed off a couple of tacklers and it appeared he would squirm his way into a first down. Covington turned and sprinted to the ball and caught Lewis about a foot from the marker and drove him back to create that fourth and one.
11. I've seen Zach Cunningham make fourth and one plays throughout his career. When he was drafted, I did a Football 101 on his stop of current New England Patriot and former Georgia Bulldog running back Sony Michel on 4th and one to end a 2016 game. He had the third and one stop on Zeke Elliott in overtime in that 19-16 win over the Cowboys. Then, he drilled tight end/fullback for one play Luke Stocker with some help from his partner Benardrick McKinney. Having him back for this one was huge for many reasons, but, man, that was just a rock hard perfect fit and form tackle.
12. During training camp, Christian Covington gave the offensive line fits on a daily basis. He had torn his pectoral muscle in Seattle last year and missed the rest of the season as a result. He rehabbed (like seemingly every Texan last year) and came back stronger and better than he had ever been. Then, in the first game of the year, he took a hit on his leg and that slowed him significantly. But, over the past few weeks, he started to find his stride. Last night, though, was his best performance. He had three sacks, but will be credited with only 2.5. He was quick, defeated double teams, powered through tackles and guards, made hustle plays and impacted the game as he showed he could back in training camp. Cov finished with four tackles, 2.5 sacks, two tackles for a loss and three quarterback hits.
13. Back in 2014 when I did my observations, I always had one paragraph devoted solely to J.J. Watt's stat line. So, here we go: nine tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle for a loss, two quarterback hits and one forced fumble. That's a football playing dude having a dude night.
14. No one works like Whitney Mercilus and he was due to have a night. Thankfully, he did. He was relentless with his rush, dropping in coverage and making plays all over the field. In particular, though, his pass rush was on point. He finished with 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits. He did it looping inside. He powered through tackles with the bull rush. It was vintage Whit against a team that he's terrorized over the years.
15. There were some nasty collisions, most of which came from the Texans defense and offensive line. Tyrann Mathieu had one that I heard through my headphones. Dion Lewis caught a little flip from Mariota and turned up the field. About eight yards downfield, Mathieu just drilled Lewis. To Lewis' credit, he stayed on his feet long enough to take another shot from Kareem Jackson to finish the tackle. Mathieu just popped right up and was looking to do it again. I asked him later whether he felt anything and he just laughed and said "nah, I was straight."
16. One hit I nearly forgot about was Peter Kalambayi's hit on a punt return that got a huge "OOOOOHHHH" from the crowd. Oh man, that was a STICK! Dre Hal had a hit on a kickoff return in the third quarter, as well.
17. The Texans situational work led to a significant three points at the end of the first half. After a Trevor Daniel punt ended up in the end zone, the Titans had 1:48 left in the half and the ball at the 20-yard line. The Titans picked up 13 on a screen pass to start the drive and it appeared as if the Texans would just need to keep the Titans off the scoreboard. Then, face mask penalty on Taylor Lewan on Whitney Mercilus, a Mariota short scramble out of bounds, sack by Covington/Watt and then a Watt tackle for a loss. Bill O'Brien used his three time outs masterfully to get the Texans the ball back with 0:45 in the half. That was just enough time to steal three points on a Kaimi Fairbairn field goal on the final play of the half.
18. On that final drive of the half, DeAndre Hopkins made just another ridiculous catch on the sideline. I'm sure in his opinion it's not even in his top ten overall catches in his career but it was sublime, to say the least.
19. I loved the call on Deshaun Watson's rushing touchdown in the second quarter. I've seen a ton of college teams run that same play or a version of that play and the Texans ran it to perfection. Tight ends Jordan Thomas and Ryan Griffin had great blocks on that play to open up a huge lane for Watson to find the end zone.
20. After Marcus Mariota had a couple of scrambles in the first half, Romeo Crennel used Jadeveon Clowney to spy on Mariota. Think about that for a second. Mariota is a legit 4.4 speed guy and Crennel used his 6-5, 275 lb. uber-beast to track him step for step. Unreal. Clowney finished with three tackles, a half a sack and one quarterback hit.
21. On third down to start the second half, Watson found Ryan Griffin for a first down. During the week, watching the Colts win over the Titans, I noticed that Andrew Luck had a couple of key throws to his tight end Jack Doyle. On those catches, Doyle slammed/released or chipped/flared to the flat. The Titans linebackers lost sight of Doyle nearly every time he did that. Then, wouldn't you know, it happened again on that route to Griffin. He chipped hard on the outside rusher and then leaked to the flat. Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard lost sight of him and Griffin picked up a 22-yard gain and first down pickup.
22. The Texans ran for 281 yards on the night. *Mic Drop*
So, that'll do it, folks. It was an emotional night that ended the right way for the good guys. It's on to Cleveland. Buckle up, the Browns are hot and ready to make a statement next Sunday. See ya then, everyone.
The Houston Texans fans came out big today, bringing the Texans an incredible homefield advantage resulting in a win over the Titans.