*Editor's Note: a version of this article published Friday morning mentioned the Texans preparing for two quarterbacks. On Saturday, Tennessee ruled Ryan Tannehill out because of an ankle injury, so the second 'thing to watch' has been amended.
The Texans (1-4-1) return to NRG Stadium this Sunday for a Week 8 matchup with the Titans (4-2). The AFC South rivals split the series in 2021, with the road team winning each time. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at 3:05 p.m. CT.
1) Keep progressing
The Texans offense moved the ball better in the first three quarters last week at Las Vegas. Despite the loss, Head Coach Lovie Smith said he saw some bright spots from what quarterback Davis Mills and company were able to do. Building on that in the second game after the bye, is a big deal. Mills explained how he's simplified things.
"I'm not trying to do too much," Mills said. "I try to go out there and improve every week. If I'm not making progress, then something's wrong. I've got to try and get better each day one percent and keep that moving the rest of the season."
Smith, meanwhile, continues to see progress from his signal-caller on a game-by-game basis.
"Davis Mills is getting better and better each week," Smith said. "I mean maybe we haven't thrown for 500 yards each week, but we've seen growth from him. That continues throughout. We have some issues we need to clean up, but the quarterback position is not it."
Tennessee Head Coach Mike Vrabel has seen quite a bit of progress from Mills.
"I think he looks more in control," Vrabel said. "I think he's trying to get the ball out of his hands quicker, especially on some of those possession downs. He's mobile. He's throwing the ball to pretty much all parts of the field."
2) Speaking of quarterbacks
On Wednesday in Nashville, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill did not practice because of an ankle injury. He was limited on Thursday. On Saturday, the team officially ruled him out, so rookie Malik Willis will get his first regular season start under center.
Willis hasn't thrown a regular season pass but has carried four times for 16 yards this year in backup duty.
The Texans spent the week preparing for both Tannehill and the rookie, and defensive back Jonathan Owens described the challenge of getting ready for two quarterbacks.
"They do different things," Owens said. "One guys is more of a physical runner. He doesn't really slide. The other one is a veteran. We get both looks (in practice), so we prepare for both of them."
3) 3rd Down
Despite Sunday's loss at Las Vegas, the Texans offense was excellent on third down. They moved the chains and picked up the first down 9-of-15 times against the Raiders, and Mills explained how.
"The biggest thing is we did well as an offense this past Sunday was about converting those third downs, which allowed us to keep drives alive and move down the field," Mills said. "I think going into that, found check downs early on first and second down which allowed us to stay in third-and-manageable for the first part of the game. Guys were making plays on the edges and allowed us to convert pretty easily."
Another big help in that third down success rate was RB Dameon Pierce. He picked up 92 yards on the ground, and caught for balls for 25 more yards. The explosive rookie is a weapon, according to Vrabel.
"He sets his blocks up extremely well," Vrabel said. "If there's space in there, he usually finds it. Runs hard through the second level, whether that's behind his pads, or spins. Great challenge. They're throwing him the football. They've gotten it to him in some screens in the passing game. He's playing well."
4) Fourth quarter woes
Neither of these teams has been very successful this season in the fourth quarter. The Titans mustered a pair of Randy Bullock field goals last week against the Colts, and those were the first fourth quarter points they've scored in 2022.
Houston hasn't been much better. In all but one game this year, they've entered the final period with a lead or tied. Getting better at the end is a big key for both squads.
The lone win of Houston's year came at Jacksonville, when the Texans were able to close out the Jaguars. Smith pointed to that outcome as a reason for hope moving into the final 11 contests of the year.
"If you've done it one time, you should be able to do it again," Smith said. "We'll keep working towards that. I hate making excuses but this past week we weren't the same team at the end of the game too. Maybe that had a little bit to do with it. But, can't go on that. We're excited about the opportunity to finish this week. It'll definitely take that for us."
5) Oh, Henry
Titans running back Derrick Henry is on a roll: lately, and also against the Texans. Over the last three games, he's cracked the century mark in yards in each contest. And the last three games versus Houston have seen Henry explode for 200 yards and two touchdowns apiece.
"He's as big as our defensive ends," Head Coach Lovie Smith said. "Has as good of speed as some of our skill guys. Plays hard, pads low to the ground. These are the kind of guys though that as I talk about having an opportunity to play against some of the all-time greats, we look forward to competing against him also."
Henry played in just eight games last season, and didn't face the Texans. He did his damage against the Houston defense twice in 2020, and in the final game of the 2019 campaign. Before that, he'd been held to just one 100-yard game in seven contests. Owens, who leads Houston with 56 tackles in 2022, said he's taken his preparation "to another level" in getting ready for Henry. But ultimately, that prepwork is pretty simple when it comes to limiting the damage he can do.
"We've just got to tackle him," Owens said. "Hit him. Get as much of your body on him as possible. I've looked at a lot of guys who've made good tackles on him, and I just wanted to see what they did well, and what angles did they take."