(EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this article had TE Jordan Akins as one of the five things to watch. Akins was ruled out on Saturday, and didn't travel to Nashville to the game. The turnover differential was substituted in as the second thing to watch.)
The Texans (1-4) head to Nashville for a Week 6 clash with AFC South rival Tennessee (4-0). Houston was triumphant on the road against the Titans last season, taking the Week 15 matchup 24-21 and wrapping up the division title a week later in Tampa Bay. Here are five things to watch when the two squads kickoff at Noon CT in Nissan Stadium. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Build on offensive success – The Texans racked up 486 yards of offense and scored 30 points in last Sunday's win over the Jaguars. Quarterback Deshaun Watson spread the ball around well, tossing touchdown passes of 44 yards to Darren Fells, 19 yards to Will Fuller, V and 28 yards to Brandin Cooks. He was able to strike deep on occasion, and proved to be lethal in the intermediate passing game as well. Keeping that up, while being able to run when necessary is a nice recipe for success.
While having the "run/pass balance" is nice, it's not a necessity in the eyes of offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.
"Ideally, we want to be balanced just for not being predictable and things along those lines, but we're going to do whatever we can to gain yards and sustain drives and to score points," Kelly said. "Our guys did a great job in the passing game early on in the game and then they finished really strong in the running game on Sunday. We're looking to kind of continue to build on that and hopefully we can put together a full game of being productive in both areas."
The Texans were able to carry the ball 22 times for 129 times, as a pair of David Johnson runs near the end put the game on ice for Houston. Watson's fireworks through the air, helped pace the Texans offense, and whether he's going deep or checking down, he said he'll take whatever the defense gives him.
"Just trying to stay ahead of the chains, just making sure we're getting positive yards each and every time," Watson said. "We don't want to force a throw downfield, especially when you have a drive going and a rhythm going, and try to get the ball into those tight ends, running backs or those checkdowns' hands as much as possible. Whatever the defense is seeking. You've got to let those guys make plays in space."
2) Belt way traffic - The Texans still haven't won the turnover battle in a single game this season. They came up with a pair of takeaways in the win over the Jaguars, but also turned the ball over twice. In the other four games this season, they turned the ball over more than they took it away. In five of their final seven regular season games of 2019, that was the case as well. On the season, Houston is near the bottom of the NFL in turnover differential, at minus-5. The Titans, meanwhile, lead the League in that statistic at plus-8.
To help try and spark some some success in getting the ball back, defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver reached into his 'bag of tricks'. He ordered a 'Turnover Belt', which resembles a belt a wrestling or boxing champion gets.
"Obviously, turnovers with us was a stat that we were lacking in," Weaver said. "So, I just wanted to make sure that I drew purpose and intention to what we were doing in practice. So, what we do is we chart strip attempts. We chart PBUs, tipped balls, all those things, just to try to get the guys focused on trying get the ball and hunt the ball. So, I ordered the belt."
Weaver described what it looks like.
"It's Houston Texans colors," Weaver said. "It says turnover champ on it. It says – I hope my mom's not watching this, but it says, 'bad mother f'er'. There are stars in there, so we don't actually use the words, and then it says 'HOU' on the front. Our guys like it. Again, I know it's kind of high-schoolish and gimmicky but it does its job. It serves its purpose."
Incidentally, safety Jonathan Owens currently has the belt, because of what he's done during practice to get turnovers. He was pulled up from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Saturday.
3) Clowney comin' – For the first time in his career, Jadeveon Clowney will face his former teammates. The first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney was a key part of the Texans' defense before his trade prior to the 2019 season. He's a dangerous and disruptive force, and Houston is well-aware of what they must do to limit the damage he can inflict. Weaver coached Clowney for four seasons, and is wary of Clowney.
"I know he'd love to go out there and put on a show," Weaver said. "I expect our offense to accept the challenge and go out there and put their best foot forward and try to shut him down."
How much Clowney moves around in the defensive front will be fascinating, because Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil was played brilliantly in 2020. If he and Clowney square off, it'll be an excellent individual battle, according to interim head coach Romeo Crennel.
"When you have two very talented athletes going against each other, it should be a good matchup," Crennel said. "I hope that we win more of that matchup than we lose. Two good players going, sometimes one is going to win, sometimes the other is going to win. Hopefully we win more of those one-on-ones."
Watson described how the offense will alter its' plans with Clowney lining up across the line of scrimmage.
"You've got to get the ball out quick," Watson said. "You've got to be able to do things that the ball is out of my hands and getting into space. He can definitely disrupt the game. I've seen with my own eyes for two years. He's a problem for sure. We've got to make sure that we know where he is at all times when he's on the field."
4) Adjusting on defense – Inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney's season is finished. The team captain missed the win over Jacksonville, and went on injured reserve earlier this week. Linebacker Zach Cunningham will wear the communications headset in his helmet moving forward.
Weaver and the Texans "expect a lot" from Cunningham, but insisted that the rest of the defense must also pick up the slack in McKinney's absence.
"I don't think the responsibility lies solely on Zach Cunningham," Weaver said. "When you lose a guy like Benardrick McKinney, you need all 11 guys on that field to step up and make up for his loss. Just leadership, football IQ, knowledge out there, and I think our guys will do that."
Tyrell Adams started in place of McKinney last Sunday, and led the Texans with 13 tackles. He also tallied a tackle for loss.
"It's always a next man up mentality and I feel like T.A. has been able to show that he was able to step up into that role," Cunningham said of Adams. "I'm looking forward to going into this next week."
Michael Thomas and Lonnie Johnson, Junior both saw their defensive snaps go up substantially last Sunday.
Johnson was in on 83 percent of the snaps, while Thomas logged in for 41 percent.
5) Stopping Henry early – Titans running back Derrick Henry has bulled his way into the end zone four times in the last two contests. He carried the ball 31 times in Week 1, 25 more in Week 2, 26 in Week 3, and ran it 19 times on Tuesday night. Tennessee has won, even though Henry's averaging just 3.7 yards per attempt this season. Despite that low average, the Texans know what the former Heisman Trophy winner is capable of doing.
"If he can get started and particularly get to the second level, he's gaining a lot of yards because DBs have a hard time tackling the guy," Crennel said. "Sometimes linemen have a hard time tackling him. He's a weapon that they have and they use him effectively."
Crennel pointed to the threat of Henry as a reason the Titans utilize the play-action pass effectively.
Defensive end J.J. Watt emphasized the Texans needing to "do our job" against Henry, and said the focus is very simple and precise.
"We've got to play our gaps, do our assignments and tackle well," Watt said. "It just comes down to playing good defense. Obviously, he's a very good player. He's had a lot of success in this league and we just have to do our job."
After getting gouged in the run game the first four weeks of 2020, the Texans defense limited the Jaguars to just 75 rushing yards in Sunday's win.