The Texans and Titans have always had this thing between them. We all know about the Titans' move from our great city to Nashville, but that kind of thing can dissipate over time. It's been more than that, though, over the years. Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan. Joel Dreessen and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Taylor Lewan and everyone. JJ Watt and a fake selfie camera. There's always been something with these two teams and as a result, the two times a year that these two organizations have strapped it up in meaningful games have been football bloodbaths.
Take last year's two games as an example. The Texans lost in overtime in Nashville 43-37 after the Titans scored with under ten seconds left in the game to tie it. Then, in January, the Titans needed the win to secure the AFC South title. They got it, unfortunately, but needed a bomb and a doinked field goal to beat the Texans 38-35 in another thrilling game. One thing that'll be different in this matchup, though, is that Titans rush king Derrick Henry won't rush for 200+ yards as he had in the last three Texans-Titans matchups. He was injured against the Colts and will miss a significant amount of time. Now, it'll help the Texans with Henry not seeing the field, but without him, the Titans won two gargantuan games - at Los Angeles on Sunday night and back home against the Saints last week. The story in those games, though, was a rock-hard defense that has turned teams over 12 times in the previous six games. Ironically, the Rams and Saints outgained the Titans offense by a combined 262 yards. Those opponents just didn't take care of the ball, something the Texans struggled with in Miami as well.
As such, let's get to know this year's version of the Tennessee Titans in preparation for the first meeting between these two teams in 2021.
2021 Schedule (8-2)
Week 1 - L Arizona Cardinals 38-13
Week 2 - W @ Seattle Seahawks 33-30
Week 3 - W Indianapolis Colts 25-16
Week 4 - L @ New York Jets 27-24
Week 5 - W @ Jacksonville Jaguars 37-19
Week 6 - W Buffalo Bills 34-31
Week 7 - W Kansas City Chiefs 27-3
Week 8 - W @ Indianapolis Colts 34-31 (OT)
Week 9 - W @ Los Angeles Rams 28-16
Week 10 - W New Orleans Saints 23-21
Week 11 - Houston Texans
Week 12 - @ New England Patriots
Week 13 - BYE
Week 14 - Jacksonville Jaguars
Week 15 - @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 16 - San Francisco 49ers
Week 17 - Miami Dolphins
Week 18 - @ Houston Texans
Titans OFFENSE (in 2021 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 131.6 ypg (7th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 215.9 ypg (23rd)
Total offense per game - 347.5 ypg (17th)
Turnovers lost - 12 (4 Fumbles lost, 8 INT)
Expected Titans starting offense for Week 11
QB - Ryan Tannehill
RB - Jeremy McNichols/D'ONTA FOREMAN/ADRIAN PETERSON
WR - A.J. Brown
WR - Chester Rogers
TE - Anthony Firkser
TE - Geoff Swaim
LT - Taylor Lewan
LG - Rodger Saffold
C - Ben Jones
RG - Nate Davis
RT - David Quessenberry
Key Offensive Non-Starters
WR - MARCUS JOHNSON
WR - Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
TE - MyCole Pruitt
OT - KENDALL LAMM
OL - DILLON RADUNZ
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2021
Keys to winning v. the Titans Offense
- And STILLLLLL... - I can't tell you how many times Marc Vandermeer and I have talked about the impact of Titans rush king Derrick Henry. Late in 2018, Henry became the focus of the Titans offense, and the Titans' entire offensive paradigm shifted to being a Henry-led, bruising ground and pound attack. The offensive line acquisitions were made with that philosophy in mind, and the continued focus on hammering teams in the run game hasn't changed since Henry's injury late in October. As such, the Titans STILL want to plough and go, but they've not been as successful lately as teams have challenged them to step away from that philosophy. They won't, but I'd expect them to make some changes in the approach to get more out of the running game without Henry. They'll challenge the Texans to stop them early, and if the Texans can slow that attack as they did in Miami, it'll be interesting to see how the Titans want to attack them later in the game.
- What has Brown done to you? (aka what have you learned about stopping him?) - Over the years, the Titans have drafted a handful of my absolute favorite draft crushes. This past year, Elijah Molden (University of Washington) was a draft crush. The Titans drafted him. Two years ago, I loved a receiver from Ole Miss by the name of A.J. Brown. I had seen him up close in the Texas Kickoff in the fall of 2018 and was struck by his build, competitiveness and dawg mentality. The Titans then selected him in the second round, and he's done nothing but shine ever since when he's been healthy. In 2019, he had 12 catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie in two games against the Texans. Then, in 2020, he had 15 grabs for 209 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-tying TD in Nashville and the game-breaking catch that led to the game-winning field goal in Houston. Teams have had success against him over the past two and a half years, but that success has been few and far between. I'd imagine after a week in which he only had one catch for 16 yards, the Titans will invent ways to get the ball to their best and most explosive weapon and my former draft crush.
- It's one thing to get there... - The Texans defensive front was outstanding, tearing up the Miami Dolphins offensive line, sacking Miami QB Jacoby Brissett four times and pressuring him throughout the game. This week, Titans QB Ryan Tannehill presents similar issues to Brissett, but at a higher degree. Meaning? Well, Tannehill is even more difficult to sack because of his escapability and speed out of the pocket. So, getting into the backfield is one challenge, but the other is first containing, then completing the mission by taking Tannehill to the ground. Then, there's Tannehill's running ability in the low red zone. I can promise you if the Texans overreact to formations inside the ten-yard line, Tannehill will call his own number on the QB draw. As such, Tannehill is, not surprisingly, a major issue against this Texans defense.
- It's nearly Thanksgiving, so give thanks by taking away - Typically, around the holidays, it's all about giving back, right? Well, the Texans defense can be the best holiday steward for its offense by giving it the ball repeatedly as it did in Miami a couple of Sundays ago. How proficient was the Texans D at taking away the ball? With one from special teams added in, the defense generated 55.6% of its full-year 2020 takeaway performance in one game (five takeaways in Miami, nine all season in 2020). Without Derrick Henry, the Titans have only turned the ball over once in 120 minutes against the Rams and Saints. The Texans have to double that number, at a minimum, to give adequate thanks to its offense.
Titans DEFENSE (in 2021 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 98.6 ypg (7th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 267.9 ypg (27th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 366.5 ypg (21st)
Turnovers generated - 14 (9 INT, 5 Fumble recoveries - Titans are +2 in TO margin)
Expected Titans starting defense for Week 11
DE - DENICO AUTRY
NT - Teair Tart
DT - Jeffery Simmons
OLB - BUD DUPREE
ILB - Jayon Brown
ILB - David Long/Rashaan Evans/MONTY RICE
OLB - Harold Landry
CB - JANORIS JENKINS
S - Kevin Byard
S - Amani Hooker
CB - Kristian Fulton
Key Defensive Non-Starters
OLB - OLA ADENIYICB - Greg Mabin
CB - Chris Jackson
LB - DYLAN COLE
NT - NAQUAN JONES
DT - KYLE PEKO
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2021
Keys to winning v. the Titans Defense
- The most super underrated player - The word underrated is overrated in most cases if I'm being honest. People in my business throw it out nearly every time they think about someone that hasn't been talked about enough recently. Typically, it's someone they just haven't recognized recently. "OH, THAT QB FROM KANSAS CITY, MAHOMES, THAT DUDE IS JUST UNDERRATED IN TODAY'S NFL!!" The true meaning of underrated is Titans DE Denico Autry. After toiling in relative obscurity in Oakland with the Raiders, the Colts signed him for next to nothing, and he was a thorn in the Texans side for the next three years. In 2018, he had four sacks in the two regular-season games. The last time the Texans saw him in December for the Colts, he had 1.5 sacks against Houston. He continues to create havoc, too, as a member of the Titans. Same division, same impact, different franchise. With his power, strength and size, Autry can rush from different spots as much as he can line up in different spots. He's a problem, and there must be something about those upfront dudes from Mississippi State. Speaking of...
- He was #4 - Back in 2019, I started putting together my annual Harris 100. I have months of information to digest, but the first place I start is coming up with the top five/top ten players in the draft class. So, in mid-December, I had a few names in mind at the top. Alabama's Quinnen Williams and Ohio State's Nick Bosa were candidates for sure. Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray was one of my favorite prospects, and there was a STUD interior player at Mississippi State named Jeffery Simmons. Every time I watched Simmons, oooh man, he was on a different level. I watched him against Iowa in the Outback Bowl probably three different times. Then, he tore his ACL in January in draft prep, and I wondered how it would impact his status. Well, it certainly kept him from being drafted in the top five, but the Titans decided they could wait for Simmons to get fully healthy, knowing that the decision to draft him was a long-term answer, not a short-term solution. That might have been the best decision the Titans made, outside of drafting Derrick Henry in the second round in 2016. Simmons' power, twitch and relentless nature have made him one of the top three interior disruptors in the league, and the Texans have to account for him and his improvement in 2021.
- The Kitchen Counter - Last week, it was the kitchen sink, now it's time to counter aggression. Against the Miami Dolphins, I called their continued use of blitz zero concepts "kitchen sink" blitzes because Brian Flores and company threw everybody and the kitchen sink at the Texans offense in south Florida (and the Ravens the Thursday after that). This week, there may not be as many kitchen sink blitzes, but the aggression, especially in the front seven/six in the run game, is alive and well. The defensive front mentioned above, combined with speedy yet undersized linebackers, FLY to the football with abandon, and one of the best ways to combat that speed and aggression is with some perfectly placed counters. Whether it's an actual counter-play or bootleg or fake one way/make a play going the other, the Texans have to master counter punching this week to open things up offensively against one of the more athletic groups in the NFL.
- Finish...in the end zone - It's time, honestly. The Texans haven't scored a touchdown on the road since September 19th, when QB Davis Mills found WR Brandin Cooks on a screen in the second half of Week 2 at Cleveland. In fact, the Texans defense has more safeties (one) than the offense has touchdowns in the four road games since (zero). Now, sometimes all it takes is just one to break the seal. So, no matter how it happens, the Texans MUST put one in the end zone early to gather momentum, confidence and create even the slightest bit of doubt on the Titans sideline.
The next time you can see the Texans at NRG Stadium will be on November 28 as they host the New York Jets in Week 12. Kickoff is set for noon CT. Click here for tickets.
Check out the best photos from the Houston Texans practice on Wednesday.