NFL Preview - Tennessee (3-6) at Houston (5-4)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Clearly, there is little time for the Houston Texans to dip their collective toe back in the water following the team's Week 10 bye. At 5-4, the Texans' margin for error is slim if they wish to keep their playoff hopes intact, and the resurgent Tennessee Titans don't figure to make things easy on Houston at Reliant Stadium Monday night.
The Texans already own a win over the Titans this season - a 34-31 thriller in Nashville back in Week 2 - but this Tennessee team has a new quarterback, and seemingly a new energy. Tennessee is 3-0 since quarterback Vince Young entered the starting lineup, making the Texans' prospects at their first home-and-home sweep of the Titans since 2004 seem daunting indeed.
Houston had an extra week to lick its wounds after a disappointing Week 9 that saw them drop a 20-17 decision to the first-place Indianapolis Colts.
The Texans, who were less than 15 minutes from making a statement win after Steve Slaton's 1-yard touchdown run put them ahead, 17-13, couldn't finish in their eventual loss, allowing Peyton Manning to engineer an 8-play, 61-yard touchdown drive culminating in a two-yard touchdown run by Houston native Joseph Addai with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter.
A Matt Schaub interception in Colts territory with 2:20 to play provided a glancing blow to the team's comeback prospects, but Houston fought its way off the ropes and got in position for a makeable 42-yard field goal for Kris Brown with one second to play that would have sent the game to overtime.
But Brown's kick went wide left, essentially taking Houston out of the equation for its first-ever AFC South title, and damaging their wild card prospects as well.
That said, the Titans would love to be where the Texans are at this moment, even though their recent work would suggest that the team is nearly back after its 0-6 start.
In last Sunday's 41-17 rout of the Bills, Tennessee running back Chris Johnson continued his recent exhilarating display, carrying 26 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns, and also catching nine balls for 100 yards out of the backfield to become the first player in franchise history to hit triple-digits via both the ground and air since Billy Cannon on Dec. 10, 1961.
Johnson has inserted himself into the NFL Offensive Player of the Year discussion during a three-game stretch that has seen the second-year-pro pile up 495 rushing yards and six touchdowns. The second-year back out of East Carolina leads the NFL in rushing yards (1091), and the Titans are No. 1 in the league in yards per carry (5.3) and rushes of 20 yards or longer (17).
Alongside the running back during his explosive run has been quarterback Vince Young, who maintained his efficiency by completing 17-of-25 passes for a season-high 210 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and 29 rushing yards in a winning effort last week.
The Titans' defense has also been a credit to the cause after some major problems during the first six weeks, and last week saw safety Vincent Fuller and cornerback Rod Hood help put the game away with pick-six touchdowns against the Bills.
Tennessee leads the all-time series with Houston, 11-4, but as mentioned, was a 34-31 home loser when the teams met in Week 2. The clubs embarked on a conventional home-and-home split last year, with the Titans coming up 31-12 home winners when the teams met in Week 3, and the Texans returning the favor with a 13-12 home triumph over the eventual AFC South champs in Week 15. Tennessee last won in the organization's former home of Houston in 2007. With a win Sunday, the Texans will polish off just their second home-and-home sweep of the Titans all-time, and first since 2004.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher is 11-4 against the Texans, while Houston's Gary Kubiak is 2-5 against both Fisher and Tennessee as a head coach.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Obviously, the Titans will be looking to play to their strengths on Monday night, and strength number one is Chris Johnson (1091 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 9 TD) and the Tennessee run game. Johnson is averaging a blistering 6.4 yards per rush heading into Week 11, and was well above that number when he gutted the Texans for 197 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries back in Week 2. The dynamic back's exploits have undoubtedly made things easier for Young (507 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 78 rushing yards, 1 TD), who has thrown the ball with confidence and a new-found accuracy in his three starts. The former first-rounder is completing 65.7 percent of his passes, more than 10 points better than predecessor Kerry Collins, and has a solid passer rating of 85.9. In addition to Johnson, Young's top targets last week included wideouts Kenny Britt (22 receptions) and Nate Washington (25 receptions, 5 TD), who combined for 88 yards in a winning effort. Washington logged his team-leading fifth touchdown catch on a 14-yard first-quarter throw from Young. Wideout Justin Gage (back) is not expected to play against the Texans, increasing the likelihood that tight end Bo Scaife (20 receptions) will be actively involved in the proceedings. The Titans have allowed an NFL-low seven sacks on the year.
Given the way they failed to defend him last time around, a Texans run defense that ranks tied for 14th in the league against the run (108.7 yards per game) will devote a great deal of energy to trying to slow Johnson on Monday. The effort will begin up front, where Amobi Okoye (22 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and veteran Jeff Zgonina (19 tackles, 2 sacks) have been generally sturdy this season, with linebackers DeMeco Ryans (68 tackles), Brian Cushing (78 tackles, 2 INT, 1.5 sacks), and Zac Diles (29 tackles) all figuring to be dialed in on Young as well. Cushing, a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, had a team-high-tying 12 tackles against the Colts last time out. Houston's concentration on stopping the run, coupled with the presence of a disappointing pass rush that has generated just 13 sacks on the year, will often put the Texans secondary on a coverage island. Cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (33 tackles) and Jacques Reeves (16 tackles, 1 INT) will bear much of the responsibility for handling Washington and Britt, with safeties Bernard Pollard (42 tackles, 2 INT) and Eugene Wilson (24 tackles, 2 INT) lending support over the top. Pollard, the former Chief, had a huge game with 12 tackles and two interceptions of Peyton Manning back in Week 9. End Mario Williams (25 tackles, 4 sacks), who has had an inconsistent fourth season as a pro, will look to tee off on Young.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The Texans are a healthy sixth in NFL total offense (374.9 yards per game) as Week 11 begins, though paradoxically, the Houston attack is in a state of transition. There remains a question mark at the running back position, where Ryan Moats (220 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 4 TD) earned his first start of the season over the fumble-prone Slaton (359 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 6 TD) in the team's Week 9 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, but managed just 38 yards on 16 carries and could again yield to the more dynamic Slaton. Slaton, who was benched after fumbling six times in seven games, had just nine touches for 29 yards in Indy but did score a touchdown in the defeat. Elsewhere, a passing game still led by Schaub (2653 passing yards, 17 TD, 9 INT) and top wideout Andre Johnson (54 receptions, 4 TD) is trying to cope with the loss of tight end Owen Daniels to a season-ending knee injury in Week 8. Tight ends Joel Dreessen (7 receptions) and Anthony Hill (1 reception) combined for just three catches against the Colts, and the passing attack will be further weakened if Jacoby Jones (13 receptions, 3 TD) is unable to return from a calf injury that has him listed as questionable. Jones posted four catches for 67 yards against the Colts. Johnson, who comes off a 10-catch, 103-yard effort in Indianapolis, had a season-high 149 receiving yards and two touchdowns in Tennessee back in Week 2. Schaub has been sacked just 15 times this season.
Much as Houston is concerned with Chris Johnson, the Tennessee Titans will have to come into Monday night's affair with a plan for how to stop the connection from Schaub to Andre Johnson. The Titans have proven susceptible to the big aerial play all season, surrendering an NFL-high 23 touchdown passes on the year, but have been getting healthier in the secondary during their win streak. Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (33 tackles, 3 INT), Rod Hood (12 tackles, 3 INT), and safety Vincent Fuller (14 tackles, 2 INT) all have interception returns for touchdowns in the past two weeks, and the possible return of CB Nick Harper (38 tackles) from a broken forearm on Monday night would only help matters. The Titans pass rush has not made a lot of noise this season, but end William Hayes (30 tackles) notched his team-high-tying fourth sack of the year last week and also forced a fumble. The group trying to slow the Houston running backs is led up front by tackles Tony Brown (18 tackles, 2 sacks) and Jason Jones (15 tackles, 4 sacks), with linebackers Keith Bulluck (79 tackles, 1 INT) and Stephen Tulloch (70 tackles, 2 sacks) among those playing behind them. Bulluck had a team-high 12 tackles against the Bills last week, while Tulloch notched one of the club's two sacks. The Titans rank a middle-of-the- pack 16th in the league against the run (109.3 yards per game).
It's safe to say that if you own Chris Johnson, the Titans' running back star is giving you a great chance to win every week. If you're relying on any other Tennessee players, it's safe to say you're in trouble. No other Tennessee player, perhaps with the exception of kicker Rob Bironas, is worth considering. The Titans defense had a nice day last week with two pick-six touchdowns, but remember that Houston has a much better offense than Buffalo and put up 34 points the last time these two met.
On the Texans side, Schaub and Andre Johnson are must-plays, but the somewhat nebulous running back situation is problematic for fantasy owners. It stands to reason that the team is going to try to get Slaton more involved due to his superior versatility to Moats, but it would seem that neither back is going to approach 25 touches. Likewise, it's hard to trust any of the team's secondary receiving targets. Houston kicker Kris Brown has missed four field goals in his last five games and deserves a place on the bench or waiver wire.
The Titans are essentially facing a playoff game every week in their unlikely quest to get back into the postseason race, but this is a game in which their opponent has its back up against the wall as well. The Texans know they can't afford to squander home games if they are going to realize their playoff dreams for the first time, and coming off a well-timed bye, Kubiak's club should be fresh and focused on getting back in the win column. Young and Johnson will present a challenge for Houston's young and sometimes spotty defense, but the Texans have seen both players before and will limit them enough to put Schaub and the offense in good position. This result will probably be in doubt into the fourth quarter, but look for Houston to have the final word in a game it must have.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 23, Titans 16
11/19 15:52:34 ET