One of my favorite commercials on television currently is the one where the husband takes part of his fence to make the D-Fense cheer. Yeah, I'm a simple man, but I thought about that advertisement a few different times during Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans. This Texans team needed a win in the worst way and the defense provided the spark, the juice and the performance to get that 20-6 victory. Here are my observations from the last game of the first half of the season.
- Let's start with tackling. I was very, VERY critical of the tackling last week and everything about the tackling was 1,000% improved week over week. Now, it wasn't perfect, but man, it was so much better. Defenders took proper angles. Safeties made contact and finished tackles. Up and down the defensive lineup, it was night and day different from last week.
- Whitney Mercilus had the best game of his career as he embarrassed Titans tackle Taylor Lewan. The Titan tackle said after the game that it was the worst game he ever played. I haven't seen all of his games, but I'd have to concur after Mercilus took it to him all game. After Mercilus' first sack, I saw Lewan point at Mercilus as if to say that wasn't going to happen again. Yeah, he was wrong. Lewan didn't yield all of Mercilus' three and a half sacks, but he did give up enough for him to probably keep his mouth zipped for a little bit at least.
- Lewan got all up in Jadeveon Clowney's face after the Texan linebacker, who was injured, was unable to provide much pass rush on his last play of the game. Now, those two have some history, to say the least (see Outback Bowl, circa 2013). I remember thinking "I hope someone gets after that guy today." Mercilus did and made him look silly.
- Think of Mercilus performance like this...he had 3.5 sacks, which resulted in 23.5 yards worth of losses on those sacks. That made Mercilus the team's second leading "rusher" on the day. Alfred Blue registered 39 yards on 14 carries and Chris Polk ran for 18 on eight carries. So, Blue for 39 yards, Mercilus for 23.5 yards and Polk for 18 yards. Then, J.J. Watt for 13.5 yards in sack yardage.
- J.J. Watt may have completely ruined a young rookie for the rest of the year. To be fair, Titans lineman Jeremiah Poutasi is a guard playing tackle, but a few weeks after Dolphins DE Cameron Wake lit him up for a handful of sacks, Poutasi struggled even getting his hands on Watt off the edge. Then, Jamon Meredith replaced Poutasi and it didn't get much better. I like Poutasi - I met him at the Combine and had a good discussion with him about playing guard, tackle, etc...but today wasn't his day. And, it wasn't for Meredith either.
- But, Watt's "wow" moment of the day, in my opinion, was his sack on Titans QB Zach Mettenberger on the last play of the third quarter. Watt got a clean release off the ball as RT Jamon Meredith seemed lost off the snap. Titans RB Antonio Andrews then went low on Watt and seemed to take Watt out of the play. But, Watt extended as he was going down and grabbed Mettenberger's right leg and brought him to the ground.
- The Texans had the opportunity to keep the Titans off the board to start the game. Mettenberger targeted Kendall Wright on a throw across the middle, one that Brian Cushing tipped into the hands of DE Jared Crick. It looked like Crick would get that elusive first interception but he juggled it right out of his own hands...into the waiting hands of Titans WR Dorial Green-Beckham for another Titans first down.
- If you're a wrestling fan, then you know what an RKO is. Now, I'm not one, but I know what an RKO is. I bring it up because John Simon gave an inadvertent, pseudo RKO to one of the Titans RB early in the game.
- Johnathan Joseph was as quick to the football as I can remember seeing him. The pass break-up he had on fourth down late in the game was one of the best breaks I remember seeing from him at any point in his Texans career. He had a bone-jarring hit on Dexter McCluster on a swing route in the third quarter. In my view, it was his best performance of the year, even above his game against Tampa Bay.
- His opposite number Kevin Johnson is going to be extremely difficult to keep off the field going forward. He had the first pick of his career in the second half and it showed off his full array of assets - transitional quickness, football intelligence and courage. But, the one play that I'll remember more than any other was a tackle he made without even touching the running back. WR Justin Hunter approached Johnson to block him on a run play, but Johnson took Hunter and drove him right back into RB Antonio Andrews for a tackle for a loss. Hunter actually knocked Andrews down after Johnson rocked him right into the backfield. Typically during the game, I tell Marc Vandermeer who made the tackle and confused him when I told him Justin Hunter made the tackle on that play. I didn't really have time to explain. But, now you know and so does Marc.
- Earlier in the season, DB Eddie Pleasant struggled with some key holding penalties in games versus Atlanta and Indianapolis. But, he's found a niche on this team on special teams and sub-package responsibilities. He made a key open field tackle on Dexter McCluster on the second punt of the game. He recovered the fumble on the kickoff. He made another key tackle on special teams.
- The defensive performance seemingly turned on one play, though. On third and two on the Titans second drive, the Texans defensive front, led by Jared Crick, stuffed Antonio Andrews for no gain. J.J. Watt knifed through from the backside. Vince Wilfork forced Andrews to cut back. Total team defensive effort. That stop woke up the crowd and got the building fired up. The defense seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd for the remainder of the day.
- The next defensive drive was a three and out from inside the five-yard line after a wonderful sky punt by Shane Lechler and hustle by Charles James. The three and out got the ball back to the offense and that unit finally got on track. But, the defense got it turned around and the offense responded.
- The first play after the downed punt...I wish I could I post a still shot of the tackle. TEN Texans around the ball. THAT'S the way run defense is played. Everyone to the ball. Gang tackle. I mentioned that on Twitter this week about hustle, pursuit and everyone at the ball. The defense did that and then some.
- The next play, Mercilus drove tight end Anthony Fasano three yards into the backfield as he set the edge as well as I've ever seen him do it. Then, he shed Fasano and tackle Andrews for a three yard loss. As impressive as the sacks were, to me, this was the play that got my attention more than any other.
- DeAndre Hopkins has a receiving touchdown in each of his three games versus Tennessee in NRG Stadium. One in 2013. Two last year. One on Sunday - a 50/50 high point reception in the far corner of the South end zone.
- What most people didn't see on Hopkins TD catch, I happened to spy while watching live. For some reason, I thought Brian Hoyer might pitch one out to running back Chris Polk out of the backfield. Given the coverage and location on the field, I thought Polk could shoot out to the left flat and be open. So, when the ball was snapped, he took a path as if he were about to run that flat route. Then, WHAM. He chipped on OLB Brian Orakpo and rocked his world. He literally spun Orakpo around 360 degrees. LT Duane Brown didn't have to do much the rest of the play as Polk's chip pretty much shut Orakpo down.
- I talked to Polk in the locker room about it and he had no idea that he spun him completely around. I told him when he saw it on film, even he'd be impressed. He told me he LOVES chipping on defensive linemen/edge players and that showed for sure.
- The turning point in the second half was the best drive of the day for the offense. With the score 10-6, Hoyer dialed up Hopkins four of five plays, which put the ball at the Titans 42 yard line. Hoyer then took a deep shot to WR Nate Washington who beat his former teammate Coty Sensabaugh for the score.
- Washington had a few words with the Titans sideline prior to that touchdown, but after he made the catch, he landed hard on his hip. He was down for a while trying to gather himself but once he did and made his way off the field, Sensabaugh walked over to give him a fist bump as Washington walked off the field. A definite sign of respect for the man the Texans wide receivers call "The O.G."
- On Washington's 42-yard TD catch, after Hoyer completed his initial play fake, DE/OLB Derrick Morgan seemed to have a clear path to the Texans QB. Guard Brandon Brooks peeled back and got just enough of Morgan to give Hoyer an extra half second to throw the ball. Hoyer got drilled by pressure from the other side, but he stood strong long enough to drop one on Washington in the end zone. Tremendous throw. Outstanding catch. Backbreaker.
- I was a huge fan of former Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond in college, so I was pumped to see him called up to the 53-man roster this week. He made his presence known early with a tackle on defense on a swing route to Antonio Andrews. Then, on the kickoff after Hopkins' touchdown, he forced a fumble that was recovered by Eddie Pleasant. Unfortunately, he took a Bishop Sankey knee to the head in the process that gave him a concussion. He did get up and walked off the field, but it was clear that he wasn't going back in the game. Hopefully, he can get back to full health soon.
- Titans runner Antonio Andrews had 28 of his 64 yards on one run. On his 15 other runs, he averaged just over two yards per carry. The run defense was outstanding throughout the day, minus that long run.
- Jared Crick played extremely well, although Mercilus/Watt's outstanding days overshadowed Crick. He had a sack, a fumble recovery, a tackle for a loss, a QB hit and four tackles. He stuffed the stat sheet on Sunday, but he just seemed to be all over the place.
- Brian Cushing and Max Bullough combined for 20 tackles and generally played well in the middle of the defense. Bullough got the start next to Cushing and seemed to fit in that spot. It's been a revolving door sort of thing at that "other" ILB position; perhaps, Bullough played well enough to warrant more time as the season progresses.
- Speaking of Bullough...Michigan State is well represented on this squad and that was even more evident on Sunday. Bullough, Drummond, Hoyer and Keith Mumphery all got playing time during the game. The Texans have to be the favorite Sunday team of Spartans everywhere.
- Hopkins should've had a second touchdown two plays after Kevin Johnson's interception to start the fourth quarter. He beat Coty Sensabaugh by three yards, but Brian Hoyer didn't put enough sauce on his throw down the field. After the play, Hopkins wasn't visibly frustrated, but I saw him point downfield, saying to Hoyer that Hop had Sensabaugh beat.
- The run game is a concern and if there's something that MUST get fixed over the last eight games of the year, it's this running game. Continuity in the OL will help going forward but generating more running game won't be easy against the likes of Cincinnati, New York Jets and Buffalo on the horizon.
Well, that's about all and it was a good day.
Finally. Unlike last year, the Texans picked up a win heading into the bye week and it couldn't have come at a better time, to be honest. A 3-5 first half isn't what any of us envisioned at the outset of the season, but the AFC South is still within reach.
See ya' in Cincinnati on Monday night, everyone!
Check out the best photos from Sunday's game against the Titans.