"Behind Enemy (Side)Lines" is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean gives insight on the Texans upcoming opponent, the Tennessee Titans.
How has Zach Mettenberger progressed since his first start against Houston in Week 8 and what has been the feedback on him up in Tennessee?
"I think he's kind of getting better and you can see week-to-week, he's getting more comfortable in the pocket. His footwork's better, he's sliding around in the pocket a little bit more and not being quite as stationary as when he first stepped in. I think he needs to do that, otherwise he's going to get injured. The Titans have not done a very good job of protecting him. I know J.J. Watt got to him twice in that first meeting between these two teams. Then he had another game where he was sacked five times in Baltimore. He was sacked five times this past week against the Eagles and took about nine or ten shots total.
"He's got a great arm and that's one thing that everybody knew about him when he stepped in. Some players have kind of let him down around him. The receiving corps hasn't been quite as good as everybody thought it would. The offensive line certainly hasn't been as good as everybody though it would. He is going to have to guide this team down the stretch with some guys being hurt as well, but they've been banged up on the offensive line which hasn't made it any easier for him."
The sacks on Mettenberger – have they been a result of a banged-up offensive line or that he's been holding onto the ball too long or a combination of both?
"Yeah, I think it's a combination of those things. I think early on, the Baltimore game especially, he was holding onto the ball too long. He did a great job the following week on Monday Night Football against the Steelers – he wasn't sacked at all in that game. He got the ball out quickly. There have been some other games where protection has just been bad. The Eagles really did a number on the offensive line, ran some stunts and the Titans did not react to it very well at all. Yes, there were times in that game where he was guilty of holding onto the ball too long, but that game this past Sunday against Philly was definitely on the offensive line than on Mettenberger. He's getting a little better and getting rid of the football. He's going to have to be even better with that moving forward because I wonder how protection is going to be with some new guys in the lineup as well."
What's the latest on left tackle Taylor Lewan and who are some of the other noteable injuries of concern heading into Sunday's game?*
"Lewan stepped in during the season when (T) Michael Roos went down and has really played well. He didn't have his best game against the Eagles but he's been pretty solid at left tackle. He's been able to bring a little bit of an attitude to the offensive line, even as a rookie. He plays a tough brand of football where he doesn't back down. He's got a little nastiness to him that this team kind of lacks, to be honest with you. It's not a break, but it sounds to me like he has a high ankle sprain. I'd be surprised if he's able to come back this week – don't know how long before he's back. He was in a walking boot the last time I saw him.
If he's not able to go, I'd expect (T) Byron Stingily to step in and play in place of him. He's probably a little bit more natural right tackle but out of necessity and because it's their second left tackle to go down, Stingily will have to play left tackle. They lost center Brian Schwenke for the season this past week against Philadelphia with a knee injury. They'll have a new guy step in for him, veteran Chris Spencer who played with the Bears and has been with the Titans last season as well. He's a for sure guy in the middle at center. Just across the board, even with guys that are healthy, whether it's (LG) Andy Levitre or (RG) Chance Warmack at guard or (RT) Michael Oher on the right side, those guys have had issues themselves, even as healthy bodies. Across the board, they're going to have to play a lot better, whether it's a starter or a replacement."
The Titans have made a few moves at the linebacker position. Is it because of player performance or is it just to give new guys a chance to play?
"It seems like each guy has a different story. (LB) Akeem Ayers – they traded him last month and he signed with the Patriots and he has three sacks in four games. He's played well. I think that he was caught in a numbers game at the time and wasn't playing. They just gave him a chance to play somewhere else. To be honest with you, I don't think they thought he had in him what he's been able to do in New England so they let him go.
On Tuesday this week, they released (OLB) Shaun Phillips who just, to be honest, doesn't have it anymore. Here's a guy who had 79.5 sacks coming in, had a really good 10-year career. Titans signed him to a very modest deal this offseason and hoped they could get one more year out of him. After a ten-sack season, he just hasn't produced. He's got two sacks on the year – a lot of games, you don't even notice him. So they released him and brought up from the practice squad in recent weeks, Justin Staples, Donte Moch. Those guys are going to get a chance to play and some other guys who have not had as many snaps are going to get more as a result of this. I think some of it is to jumpstart a team to see what these young guys have down the stretch. Another part of it is, the guys who are not getting it done, their time is up and why wait?
Can you pinpoint the Titans struggles this season to one thing or has it been a multitude of issues for them?
"Some of their problems have been consistent from beginning to end. Other ones have just been a different problem each week. I think the biggest problem, if you look around the league and the Texans have had to deal with it as well, is just instability at the quarterback position and having injuries there and guys going in and out.
"Early on, this team had Jake Locker at quarterback and then he got hurt. Then it was Charlie Whitehurst and then they go back to Locker who gets hurt and they have to go back to Whitehurst and then turns over to Mettenberger. It's just tough to make that transition and get everybody on the same page. They finally get a guy in Mettenberger who's making his fifth start and they hope he settles in.
"Now that we're so late in the season, they've had a lot of injuries as well. Michael Roos, (S) Bernard Pollard, (TE) Craig Stevens. They lost their outside linebacker in Zach Brown. They've had a lot of injuries that have affected them and now they have too many young guys in the lineup. Defensively, they've been sloppy tackling. They've gotten a lot of sacks but not a lot of pressure from the linebackers. They have had to get pressure by sending extra guys on blitzes, which put a little strain on the corners. I think the receivers have just not elevated their game for one reason or another. Some of it is on them, some of it is on the quarterback, some of it's just on the fact that they've got a bad offense. A lot of problems have gone wrong and I haven't even mentioned the running game – it's been pretty much a non-factor since early in the season and you're not going to win many games as a quarterback if you can't run the ball and take some pressure off of him. So many issues, it's hard to pin it on just one thing and that's why this team is 2-9 headed to Houston."
The (5-6) Texans host the Titans at NRG Stadium for their Deep Steel Blue game this Sunday with kickoff at 12 p.m. CT on CBS KHOU-11 and SportsRadio 610.