Now THAT was one heck of a win. On the road. In a building where the Texans hadn't won since 2015. Against a HOT Titans squad. After a rough loss at home to the Broncos last week. All of that was working against the Texans, yet they walked out of a fairly raucous Nissan Stadium with a 24-21 win, their ninth of the season. With two games to play, the Texans are now one game up on the Titans and two and a half ahead of the Colts (Indianapolis plays at New Orleans on Monday night). Here are my Harris Hits from a wild, yet productive win in Nashville.
I don't think I've ever talked about the special teams first in my Harris Hits, but the Texans won that game on Sunday due in large part to the play of special teams. Coaches Brad Seely and Tracy Smith had this group locked in all day long, in every special teams phase. Let's digest.
On the blocked field goal, the ball was on the left hash, so Titans kicker Ryan Succop had to kick the ball a bit back to his right to put it down the middle. So, as Succop lined up his kick, the Texans shifted their line just prior to the snap. I thought that might get the Titans to maybe false start, but actually it turned out better. That six-man side caved in the Titans right side and Angelo Blackson, a former Titan, got one of his huge hands on the ball and blocked the kick. That's three points saved by the special teams - we'll tally it up at the end.
Then, right before the half, the Titans attempted a fake punt. They seemed to be in no man's land - too far for a field goal and too close to punt it. So, they decided to fake it. On the play, they motioned a player out to the right side where Lonnie Johnson Jr. was locked in on the gunner Dane Cruikshank. If that name sounds familiar, it's because, last year, Cruikshank was the gunner who caught a pass from safety Kevin Byard for a 66-yard touchdown pass in a Week 2 Titans win. When the motion came his way, Johnson signaled the other Texans defender to take that guy so he could stay in 1-on-1 coverage on Cruikshank. So, punter Brett Kern took the snap and it was indeed a fake. Kern threw it deep toward the two players, hoping for one of two things to happen - complete it or get an interference call, which would have the same result. But, he got neither. Johnson played the ball in the air perfectly, knocking it down to the turf for an incompletion. It wasn't going to be a touchdown, but had Johnson not been as acutely aware, it would've been points - let's say at least three points saved again.
The kick coverage units were flat out stellar. Rookie Cullen Gillaspia had a huge hit to put the returner down inside the 20-yard line on one return. Johnson also had a big hit on a return as well. The punt coverage units held the Titans without much, if any, yardage on the return. It didn't save points, but it was crucial in changing field position all day. Average drive start for the Texans was at their 36-yard line, but for the Titans, it was the Tennessee 18-yard line. That's an 18-yard discrepancy that wasn't 100 percent completely about the coverage teams, but they were certainly instrumental in assisting that statistical discrepancy.
With the score 21-14 and the Texans deep in the red zone in the fourth quarter, they lined up for a field goal attempt to give them a 10-point, two-score lead. Now, the Titans had been tremendous blocking kicks this year. As such, one of the keys that I mentioned on our Friday night radio show Texans All-Access was to change the rhythm and cadence of the snap to slow the rush or draw them offsides, in particular Josh Kalu, who blocked a Chiefs potential game-tying attempt on the final play a few weeks back. The Texans actually got him to jump offsides as Ka'imi Fairbairn buried the kick with no real rush from Kalu on the outside. That was a huge three points right there.
So, all in all, the special teams units saved at least six points, booted home three points on Fairbairn's key field goal and set up the defense/offense in advantageous field position situations throughout the day. Bravo, gentlemen.
How good is DeAndre Hopkins? Better yet, how good is Hopkins with Will Fuller V? Well, wait, how good is the trio of Hopkins, Fuller V and Kenny Stills? All three came up with huge catches in big situations throughout the day. Hopkins did Hopkins things against Tennessee. He came into the game averaging six catches for 100 yards and on Sunday he had six for 119 yards and dominated the fourth quarter. What do they say... big time players make, well, you know.
Fuller V came up with five catches for 61 yards, including a 31-yard gem down the Titans sideline in the third quarter (which should've led to a score). All five of Fuller's catches went for first downs. Stills had three catches for 35 yards and his first two were the only touchdowns in the first half for either team. On the first touchdown, the Titans cover man even held Stills on his route into the end zone and that didn't even stop him. Those three receivers were on a different level, as per their norm, on Sunday.
The Texans run game, though, was all kinds of stout. Last year, over the past four weeks of the regular season and playoffs, the Texans ran for 100 yards just once and that was in Week 17 against the Jaguars. And, in that game, quarterback Deshaun Watson ran for 66 of the Texans' 134 yards in that win. Sunday, though, it was a man's game and the Texans offensive line led the way for running back Carlos Hyde to pound the rock incessantly. Hyde finished with 26 carries for 104 yards and picked up chunks of yards throughout the day. One of the things he did a great job of in the second half, in particular, was getting into the teeth of the interior, showing patience, drawing in the defense and then bursting through that hole for yards or sprinting to space outside. His touchdown run didn't look as if it was designed to head to the outside, but he read the blocking and cut it wide after the defense reacted on the interior to his initial path. He then sprinted into the end zone untouched for the go-ahead touchdown.
Also, congratulations to Carlos Hyde for reaching the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his seven-year career. Just an amazing season for El Guapo.
Another milestone was reached in this game and it was one for Watson. With his two touchdown passes, he now is the first player in the history of the NFL to record CONSECUTIVE seasons of 25 passing TDs and five rushing touchdowns. Watson tied Steve Young for the most such seasons in NFL history (thanks to Texans PR for that nugget). Amazing stuff from the team's leader.
One more... Hopkins has now recorded at least 40 receiving yards in 17 consecutive games, the second-longest active streak in the NFL. Yeah, he's THAT dude and took over the fourth quarter of this game.
The offensive line wasn't perfect, as Watson did have to scramble a few times out of peril, but overall, it was a good day up front. Case in point, check this number - the Titans had one sack, one quarterback hit. Want to put that in perspective? Glad you asked. Last year in Week 2, Watson was hit 10 times and sacked four in this matchup in Nashville. And, this Tennessee front seven is better than last year's group. So, the Texans piled up 140 yards on the ground. Just one quarterback hit. It was a tremendous statement for this offensive line that continues to improve (Oh, and there was just one false start penalty and that was on Fuller).
The numbers are a bit skewed against the Texans defense (due to two huge plays) but that group played with a ton of grit, toughness and capitalized on one key turnover that changed the game. Let's start with that turnover - Whitney Mercilus' 86-yard interception return off his own goal line. The Titans ran the same play that the Seattle Seahawks ran in Super Bowl XLIX when Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a game-sealing interception to Malcolm Butler, ironically now a Tennessee Titan. It was dressed up a little bit differently, but the basics of the play were the same. Tight end Anthony Firkser was lined up outside and a Titan was lined up inside. That inside receiver ran straight up the field to create a pick on Reid, but Reid and fellow cover man Zach Cunningham were on different levels, so they didn't get screened and Reid was able to take a direct line to Firkser. As soon as the ball got there, Reid threw a shoulder into the Titans tight end and the ball flew into the hands of Mercilus who took off the other way. He didn't get all the way to the end zone as he said after the game his hammys just gave out on him after 86 yards. Regardless, that pick-six lite led to Stills' first touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Just a brilliant read/break/hit from Reid. For Mercilus, when the ball was thrown he could've just stood and watched, but he turned to chase and because he did, he ended up with an early holiday gift.
Reid saved two touchdowns on the day - that one and chasing Jonnu Smith down from behind on his 57-yard run. He's had a few in his career but those two were massively important, especially that one that led to the Mercilus interception.
As I think about it, the Texans lost the turnover battle and still won the game. That hasn't happened much this year, or ever, and typically doesn't happen in wins in the NFL. However, the Texans made the most out of that one turnover.
As far as the numbers go, the Titans had two plays go for a combined 117 yards (A.J. Brown catch to start the game, a 57-yard Smith toss play) and the Titans tacked on a late 75-yard drive as well. So, it's a bit skewed. But, let's look a little more in-depth. Ryan Tannehill had not registered a passer rating below 131.2 the past four weeks. The Texans forced him into a 92.2 rating. Titans star running back Derrick Henry had run for 100 yards in each of his last four games. The Texans held him to 86 yards and minus a 23-yard jaunt in the third quarter, he had just 63 yards on 20 attempts. Coming into the game, those were the two major keys - harass Tannehill as much as possible, slow the Henry train down. The Texans seemed to accomplish both of those.
From the 12 minute mark of the third quarter of the Broncos game through the 5:45 mark of the third quarter, the Texans defense didn't give up a point.
I'd venture a guess that Henry will be a bit more sore after yesterday's game than in any other game. I'm telling you, he took some shots in this game. He was never able to find those seams in the defense.
I was going to continue with that point, but I wanted to focus a Harris Hit point on the Texans two inside linebackers Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney. The two were stellar again, combining for 23 tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits. But, to me, it was the force with which they delivered blows on Sunday. Henry falls forward for two or three yards nearly every time he runs the ball and he didn't do that when either of those two stallions nailed him. Cunningham delivered the legal hit of the day (Brennan Scarlett was unfortunately tagged with a hit that had no business being flagged, but THAT was the hit of the day) when he nailed one of his Vanderbilt brethren Khari Blasingame down on the one-yard line on what was ALMOST the goal-line stand of the year. Tannehill saw Blasingame out in the flat and Cunningham was initially fooled, for a just a split second. When he realized that Blasingame was out in the flat, he FLEW out to make a stop for no gain. Now, Blasingame is about 240 pounds, with momentum, and Cunningham put Blasingame on his wallet with authority. I said it last year, I repeated it again this year and now he's proving me right - Cunningham isn't just one of this team's top defenders, he's one of the top five players period. There are some good linebacker tandems throughout the league, but these two are as good as any of them.
The defensive front won't get a ton of publicity for yesterday's work, but they did lunch pail things all day long. The ipso facto (a Dodgeball reference, of course) President of LPC D.J. Reader was a menace again. He dominated all day long from guard to guard and was at the bottom of a lot of piles, especially down on the goal line when the Texans came oh-so-close to a goal-line stand. Blackson and Brandon Dunn ate up blockers for Zach and B-Mac to make those 23 tackles. Carlos Watkins was a problem on the inside as he continues to make an impact up front.
I'm sure those defenders felt about like I did - proud of holding up on the first three downs, not yielding one inch, but disappointed that they couldn't keep Tannehill from escaping out to the left for the Titans first touchdown of the day. I mean, first-and-goal from the two with 6-3, 245 lb. Henry in the backfield and he got stuffed twice, in addition to Cunningham's stop on Blasingame. Credit to Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith for a great call on fourth-and-1 to get Tannehill free to the edge for the touchdown.
This was a strong team win. I can think of plays made by nearly everyone on the roster. Vernon Hargreaves III made a tremendous open field tackle on a third down to create a three-and-out after the Texans first touchdown. Johnson made key plays on special teams. A.J. Moore drew a holding penalty on the Texans first sack of the day. Charles Omenihu ended the game with a sack. Up and down the roster, players made plays all day long.
I'll finish it here and get ready for a trip to Tampa. See ya next SATURDAY. Don't forget, SATURDAY, for a matchup against the Buccaneers.
Houston Texans take on the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium for the fourteenth game of the 2019 NFL season.