When the 2021 schedule was released back in May 2021, I looked at this week 18 matchup between the Titans and the Texans and thought there was a significant chance that this game wouldn't really matter. Perhaps the AFC South division championship would be locked up. Perhaps neither team would have playoff opportunities. Perhaps playoff seeding would be all set at this point.
Well, yes, it is… No, not ultimately true… And certainly not.
What I should've realized after the past two seasons, knowing that the Titans were scheduled to come to Houston for another regular season finale, is that this game ALWAYS matters and there's ALWAYS something on the line. In 2019, the Texans did have the AFC South championship locked up, but the Titans needed the win to make the playoffs and got the W. In 2020, the Titans needed a win to lock up the AFC South championship and got it after a DOINK'd field goal on the final play of the game. In 2021, there's even more on the line for the Titans, unfortunately. They are the AFC South division champs for the second straight season and are sitting currently in the number one seat in the AFC. As such, a Titans win over the Texans locks up the number one seed, a bye week, more time to rest Derrick Henry (if needed) and a home game in the divisional round. So, not only does this game matter, it potentially matters more than any Titans-Texans matchup in quite some time.
For that reason, it's time to send them back to Nashville unhappy for the first time since 2018. As such, let's get to know this version of the Tennessee Titans, again, in preparation for the last meeting between these two teams in 2021 in the last game of the 2021 regular season.
2021 Schedule (11-5)
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 - L Houston Texans 22-13
Week 12 - L @ New England Patriots 36-13
Week 13 - BYE
Week 14 - W Jacksonville Jaguars 20-0
Week 15 - L @ Pittsburgh Steelers 19-13
Week 16 - W San Francisco 49ers 20-17
Week 17 - W Miami Dolphins 34-3Week 18 - @ Houston Texans
Titans OFFENSE (in 2021 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 142.5 ypg (3rd in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 196.1 ypg (27th)
Total offense per game - 338.6 ypg (17th)
Turnovers lost - 25 (14 INT, 11 Fumbles lost)
Expected Titans starting offense for Week 18
QB - Ryan Tannehill
RB - D'ONTA FOREMAN
WR - A.J. Brown
WR - JULIO JONES
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
RB - Jeremy McNichols
RB - DONTRELL HILLIARD
WR - DEZ FITZPATRICK
WR - Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
TE - MyCole Pruitt (COVID reserve list currently)
OT - KENDALL LAMM
OL - DILLON RADUNZ
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2021
Keys to winning v. the Titans Offense
- Ain't Changing - Excuse the grammar but the Titans offense ain't changing in the slightest. Go from OC Matt LaFleur to OC Arthur Smith to OC Todd Downing. Change the quarterback. They aren't going to change their offensive identity for ANY REASON, including whether The Rush King aka Derrick Henry plays, or doesn't, on Sunday in Houston. This offense is going to pound outside zone with D'Onta Foreman or slash with Dontrell Hilliard and rely on its OL - Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and David Quessenberry - to take over the game physically. The Texans did an excellent job getting out to a lead in round one in Nashville, which limited the impact the Titans' run game/OL could have in that matchup. It's imperative to get to that point again and not let the Titans quintet just physically pound on the Texans linemen play after play after play. It takes a toll, physically and mentally. Just ask the Dolphins.
- Just ask the Niners - The Titans dominated the Dolphins on the ground in week 17, but in week 16, the Titans couldn't do much of anything offensively against the stout 49ers defense. Then, in the second half, QB Ryan Tannehill went to work, isolating star WR A.J. Brown in coverage against the 49ers secondary. In the second half alone, Brown had six catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. The Texans can certainly relate as Brown had his way with the Texans in the first four matchups in his career. When Desmond King II knocked Brown out of the game in Nashville, though, it was the first time that Brown didn't have 100+ yards or two touchdowns in a game against the Texans. I don't want to see anyone injured ever, but the Texans must frustrate Brown by keeping his touches in check. That will slow this Titans offense without question.
- Tempo - The Titans will mix up the tempo and watching them in Nashville, and plenty of other games the past few seasons, they work well with a faster, NASCAR-like tempo. The obvious key is first downs because that's when teams typically engage with a change in tempo. The other one is that the Texans don't make a ton of wholesale substitutions defensively. Some teams get in trouble against faster tempos due to having a vulnerable player or two on the field that helps solely against the run OR the pass. As such, the biggest keys against the Titans' faster tempo are then just being cognizant of field positioning, formation awareness and overall, just paying rapt attention.
Titans DEFENSE (in 2021 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 85.9 ypg (2nd in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 242.4 ypg (23rd)
Total offense Allowed per game - 328.4 ypg (12th)
Turnovers generated - 22 (16 INT, 6 Fumble recoveries - Titans are -3 in TO margin)
Expected Titans starting defense for Week 18
DE - DENICO AUTRY
NT - NAQUAN JONES
DT - Jeffery Simmons
OLB - BUD DUPREE
ILB - Rashaan Evans
ILB - ZACH CUNNINGHAM
OLB - Harold Landry
CB - JACKRABBIT JENKINS
S - Kevin Byard
S - Amani Hooker
CB - Kristian Fulton
**Nickel - ELIJAH MOLDEN
Key Defensive Non-Starters
OLB - OLA ADENIYI
CB - Greg Mabin
CB - BUSTER SKRINE
S - Dane Cruikshank
LB - DYLAN COLE
DT - KYLE PEKO
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2021
Keys to winning v. the Titans Defense
- The Best in the League - If you would've been able to convince me in the offseason that the Titans defense would feature the best defensive front in the league in 2021, I'd have told you that the Titans would be a Super Bowl contender. Honestly, I didn't think they had that in them in 2021. I did think DL Jeffery Simmons was and is an absolute DUDE and I've always thought Denico Autry was the most underrated player in the AFC South. But, the emergence of OLB Bud Dupree and Harold Landry, in addition to Simmons, Autry and the 325lb. grinders on the interior, has made the Titans front as formidable as any the Texans have faced in 2021. In the first matchup, the Texans weren't truly forced to have a ton of success against that front because they used takeaways to jump out to an early two score lead. That was good news because the 38 carries they had in that win averaged just 2.2 yards per carry. This is a darn good front that can eliminate the ground game in a hurry.
- 31's down there, be careful - Bengals star QB Joe Burrow spoke about his star receiver Ja'Marr Chase last week and made a comment that I think applies, in the opposite direction, this week for the Texans. When asked about hauling off and launching a deep ball, he replied "sometimes I just think (bleep) it, Ja'Marr's down there." Well, for the Texans this week, someone is down there but it's not always going to be the guy they want. Titans S Kevin Byard is one of the best ballhawks in the NFL and he's usually the "guy down there" on deep routes, playing the middle of the formation as well as any safety in the league. Now, Texans WR Brandin Cooks will get down the field his fair share, but Byard can make life miserable for rookie QB Davis Mills if Mills is not cognizant of Byard's presence in the Titans' secondary. Speaking of Davis…
- Get him comfortable this last time - Every single game that Texans rookie QB Davis Mills has started, I've put this as a key and I will one final time in this matchup with the Titans. Mills has seen some of the best defenses in the league this year - some in his first starting stint and against the 49ers, in particular, last week. On Wednesday, he said the game was slowing down and his offensive line further that along by getting him comfortable early and maintaining that pass pocket throughout the full 60 minutes. Mills's best games have come when he's found a little bit of a groove early in the game and the confidence that followed as a result was a key in the second half of games (LA Chargers, anyone?). Find ways to get him into a comfortable groove and watch the rookie make a successful maiden voyage against a stout Tennessee Titans defense in the finale.
Watch the Houston Texans take on the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on January 9. Click here for tickets.
Check out the best photos from the Texans last Thursday practice of the 2021 Season.