Tale of the Tape: Texans, Titans fight for South

With the monotony of Indianapolis’ annual contention for the AFC South stifled by Peyton Manning’s injury, Houston and Tennessee will battle for the division lead Sunday as we approach the season’s midpoint. This is an intriguing matchup with many elements to define —  the teams are glaringly similar yet play different styles.  

Statistically, these teams are very similar. The Titans have a slight edge defensively, ranking No. 9 in overall defense, one slot ahead of the Texans.  The Titans are No. 12 in pass defense, also edging Wade Phillips’ defensive unit by one spot.  The Titans rank No. 10 in run defense while the Texans are No. 13.

The scale balances a bit more on the offensive side of the ball.  The Texans holds the edge in two of the three main offensive categories, ranking No. 8 in total offense (the Titans are 19th) and No. 7 in rushing offense (Titans are No. 32). Interestingly enough, the Titans have the better passing offense, ranked No. 9, two spots ahead of the Texans.

Texans’ offense vs. Titans’ defense

Houston is a big-play offense on the ground and through the air. They design downfield throws off of their run game and are a rare offense that can pass efficiently with run personnel on the field. Tennessee’s defense is tough up front with sound linebackers that fill and spill adequately.  Their front seven is disciplined and plays well together. The edge players of the Titans will dictate the game against the Texans’ zone-stretch scheme.

Running game

Houston isn’t ranked in the top 10 in rushing for no reason. Titans LB Akeem Ayers (whooften walks down to the line of scrimmage) and the defensive ends must control their points.  Ayers seems to struggle more often off the line and in space, which could be costly against the Texans’ athletic linemen.  Houston’s front will be challenged during early downs by DTs Shaun Smith and Jurrell Casey. Smith does not allow much offensive push and is always conscious to grab releasing linemen to protecting the linebackers. Casey, a rookie third-round pick, has provided stout run defense at the 3-technique position.

The Texans have one of the best offensive line units that a running back could wish for.  They are athletic and they block well in space.  Having TEs James Casey, Owen Daniels and Joel Dressen — all great route runners and receivers who provide sufficient one-on-one blockers on the edge —  also helps. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are two big backs trained to come downhill and not waste steps through the line of scrimmage.  If the Titans can force Foster and Tate to stop and start in the backfield through penetration and the discipline they’ve shown on tape, it could force the Texans to abandon their greatest strength early.

Passing game

The Titans are a responsible defensive unit that works well together.  They know and trust that everyone is where they are supposed to be.  While Texans QB Matt Schaub is the most blitzed quarterback in the league, the Titans do not blitz much.  Look for CB Cortland Finnegan, who has been a force in the run defense and defending routes from the slot and tight end position, to play in the box.

The Titans face an obscure challenge against the Texans’ passing attack and will have to play the personnel battle correctly. Without WR Andre Johnson, the Texans will throw out of their two-back, two-tight end packages. This could leave the defense with slower personnel if the Texans decide to pass on earlier downs.  They are well aware defenses gear up to stop the run and use run action through personnel mismatches to take shots down the field.

Titans’ offense vs. Texans’ defense

Matt Hasselback is the best thing to happen to the Titans this season.  The Titans have not had a decisive quarterback who gets the ball out on time consistently and the aspect of game management has been upgraded astronomically. His ability to protect the football (4INTs and 7 sacks allowed) keeps the Titans in every game. Hasselbeck leads in the league in passer rating in the red zone with at an astounding 123.9 (7 TDs, 0 INTs).

Houston’s pass rush has taken a major hit without injured  LB Mario Williams and is now asking a collection of younger players to generate pressure.  Behind this pressure is a group of players with below average man to man coverage skills and a lot of soft zone concepts.  Hasselback‘s presnap intellect and ability to get the ball to the correct receiver should take advantage of this secondary.

Running game

This is an intriguing battle, as both teams’ biggest weaknesses are in this department.  Though the Titans rank last in the NFL with 66 yards rushing per game, this is the week to prove that ranking wrong. The Texans are active and physical up front but they do not tip the scale.  They are built to rush the passer. Their linebackers take on blocks but stay latched, and the secondary doesn’t tackle well given their deep pre-snap alignments. Titans RB Chris Johnsonwill have chances to get to the second level this week.

Passing game

The Texans blitz more than all but one other team, but Hasselbeck is often successful because of his ability to recognize defensive alignments before the snap. He is oblivious to pressure and beats it often by getting the ball out quickly and taking smart shots down the field. He beats defenses mentally by correctly identifying their calls and being ready to throw at the top of his drop. He takes what the defense gives him.

The Titans have completed eight passing plays of 25 or more yards on first down, four of which were 50-plus yard gains.  It is safe to say they will take a few designed shots on early downs.

Something that we noticed on film this season is how the Texans like to play Cover-3 against closed formations, where the widest eligible receiver is on the line of scrimmage next to the tackle.  The Titans will design downfield throws off of this set, knowing they will get this look.

Outlook

This matchup will also give a clear picture on what to expect out of the rematch in Week 17, when the AFC South could be riding on the outcome.  Let it be known, the Titans’ defense has not given up a rushing touchdown since the opening drive of the season.  The Texans have only three rushing touchdowns. The Texans will have to lean on their ground attack to set the tone for the offense.  This matchup looks like a case where an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object.  Something is going to have to give.

We believe the Titans have enough defense to keep their offense out of bad situations.  History has proven that Hasselback’s teams always has a chance as long as his defense gives him one.  Tennessee wins a close game on paper, but we’ll see how it plays out.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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