The first three weeks of the NFL season have gone very differently for the Houston Texans and their week four opponent, the Tennessee Titans. The Texans thus far have been the team everybody expected, one that runs the football and plays defense. The Titans on the other hand have struggled to a 1-2 start and in basically the opposite manner from the Texans. Through three weeks, the Texans rank 5th in rushing yards to go along with the league’s second ranked total defense, which is 4th in opponent passing yards and 5th in opponent rushing yards (out of a 32 NFL teams). Adversely, the Titans and former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson are ranked dead last in rushing yards (32nd). Their defense is ranked 31st overall, 30th in opponent passing yards, and 29th in opponent rushing yards. To add further insult, the Titans have allowed the most points of any team in the NFL so far this year.
As the statistics would indicate, the Texans’ strengths as a team are the Titans’ weaknesses. With that said, the Titans have one area in which they marginally excel, and did so during their 44-41 victory last week against the Detroit Lions. The Titans can throw the football, ranked 10th in passing yards through three weeks. A large amount of the credit goes to second-year QB Jake Locker, who is completing close to 65% of his passes and sports a 91.9 passer rating. Locker also has tremendous weapons in the pass game, including wide receivers Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, and rookie Kendall Wright. TE Jared Cook has also become a nice target for Locker.
Since throwing the football is the one area in which the Titans can compete with the Texans, this will be the focus for this week’s key matchup. Come Sunday, fans should expect to see the Texans run the football effectively, score points, and shut down the Titans run game. The only way the Titans will be able to keep it close is by throwing the ball early and often. As the Titans fall behind, they’re likely to abandon the run altogether.
Acknowledging that the Texans hold huge advantages in almost all other critical areas of this game, this matchup isn’t one in which the Texans necessarily have to dominate in order to win. This matchup also isn’t one that requires extensive film study or game planning in the manner it did last week going up against Peyton Manning.
The same defensive philosophy holds true for Locker as it did for Manning, Ryan Tannehill, and Blaine Gabbert. The task at hand for the Texans is to force the Titans into obvious passing situations, as they most likely will against the league’s worst rushing attack. When the D knows the offense is passing, they can let loose the pass rushers to disrupt Locker’s rhythm. Ideally, the Texans’ pass rush will generate enough penetration to force Locker to move within the pocket, hit him several times, and record a few sacks. So long as the Texans’ pass rush makes Locker uncomfortable, they’ll have a successful day.
Unlike the three QBs the Texans have faced already, Locker does have the ability to tuck and run. Believe it or not, he is actually the Titans leading rusher, not Chris Johnson (how does that sound Titans fans?). This week, the Texans will have to be more controlled and disciplined in their pass rush so as to not allow Locker to escape the pocket and pick up yards with his feet. It’s not something the Texans have had to do this season, but the team did have some practice in their preseason opener against Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton, who is also notorious for moving the chains with his legs.
At the end of the day, the Texans really shouldn’t have much trouble with the Titans in any facet of the game, but the Titan passing attack has at least been the one area in which the team has shown up at times this season. The reality is if the Texans play their game offensively, control the clock, and stop the run, this matchup really shouldn’t be much of a contest. Again, when you make an opponent one-dimensional offensively, it makes the defense’s job much easier. Fans should look for the Texans to get to Locker frequently, forcing him into his worst performance of the early 2012 season.
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