By: Justin Hawkins
“There are no moral victories in life. There are no moral victories in professional football. We strive for much more than that.” – Titans head coach Mike Vrabel
It was not a Merry Christmas for the Tennessee Titans for the second straight year as they lost at home to the Seattle Seahawks 20-17 on Christmas Eve. In fact, most players were visibly and/or audibly frustrated after the game Sunday. Some players (Derrick Henry) were short with the media when asked questions, and DeAndre Hopkins was seen sitting at his locker in silence with his head down. Frustration just about sums up how the 2023 season for the Titans has gone. But, regardless of their frustration, the Titans still have two games remaining on the schedule to try and finish out strong. Sunday, the Titans travel to Houston for their final road trip of the season. It’s a rematch against the Texans as 2023 comes to a close.
Last Time Out
The Tennessee Titans gave up a late 4th quarter touchdown to Seattle Seahawks tight end Colby Parkinson with just 57 seconds to play to secure the Seahawks 20-17 win.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill got the start for the Titans in place of injured rookie Will Levis (high-ankle sprain) and could not get much going offensively as he went 18-of-26 for 152 yards passing and added two rushes for 37 yards. Much of the offense went through running back Derrick Henry who had a nice bounce back game after rushing for just 9 yards the week prior. Henry had 88 yards rushing and a touchdown on 19 carries and added his fourth career passing touchdown Sunday as he sent a 12-yard toss to tight end Chig Okonkwo in the second quarter to open the scoring.
It was another frustrating week receiving for the likes of DeAndre Hopkins who had just two receptions for twenty yards on four targets. Tight end Chig Okonkwo led the team in receptions and receiving yards as he caught all six of his targets for 63 yards and a touchdown. After having issues earlier in the season with catching the ball, Okonkwo has started to become more reliable as the season nears its end.
The offensive line for the Titans played much better Sunday as opposed to the week prior, but still gave up six sacks on the day. Ryan Tannehill was the reason, however, on a couple sacks as he held on to the ball a little long instead of getting rid of the football. The Titans tried something new on the line Sunday in bringing in a sixth offensive linemen to help block in John Ojukwu, an undrafted rookie out of Boise State.
The rush defense had a big bounce back game for the Titans, who allowed Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III to just 54 yards and the Seahawks as a whole to 58 yards rushing. This comes a week after allowing the Texans to 148 yards rushing as a whole and Devin Singletary to 121 yards rushing.
The pass defense was the sore spot on the day, however. The Titans allowed quarterback Geno Smith to go 25-of-36 for 227 yards passing and two touchdowns. While the Titans defensive line was able to sack Smith three times, the secondary, who was without Kristian Fulton (injured reserve) and Sean Murphy-Bunting (hip injury), struggled to stop the Seahawks receiving trio of Tyler Lockett (8 rec. 81 yards), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (6 rec. 61 yards), and D.K. Metcalf (4 rec. 56 yards and a touchdown). Cornerback Tre Avery was the prime suspect of a few big plays, including a late, questionable, pass interference call on D.K. Metcalf in the fourth quarter that set up the Seahawks game winning touchdown.
The Houston Texans, who were without starting rookie quarterback CJ Stroud for the second consecutive week, struggled from the start in a 36-22 home loss to the Joe Flacco led Cleveland Browns. Since Joe Flacco took over for the Browns four weeks ago, Cleveland has looked like an entirely different team going 3-1. The Texans found that out as Flacco and Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper torched their secondary. Flacco, 27-of-42 for 368 yards passing and three touchdowns as well as two interceptions, has developed some good chemistry with Cooper and put that on display as they connected eleven times for 265 yards and two touchdowns.
Texans quarterback Case Keenum, after going just 11-of-17 for 62 yards and two interceptions, was benched in favor of Davis Mills to start the fourth quarter. Mills had much more success, but it came in garbage time down 36-7 midway through the fourth quarter. Mills went 15-of-32 for 149 yards passing and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Nico Collins, who returned from injury, had a touchdown and fullback Andrew Beck had the other touchdown.
The Texans looked to be competitive early after a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown by Dameon Pierce had the Texans down by seven. But, the Browns displayed a high level of defense that forced the Texans to six straight stops via three punts, two interceptions, and a turnover on downs. Outside of the two interceptions, Cleveland’s defense garnered up three sacks and six quarterback hits.
On the flip side, the Texans defense struggled in every facet including the secondary. Houston was only able to muster up one sack, but hit the quarterback eight times.
Cleveland out-gained Houston by 168 yards, 418 to 250. The Texans rushing attack was only able to gain 72 yards on the day and were led by Devin Singletary, 44 yards on 9 carries.
The games are separated just one game apart, and the rematch of the Titans and Texans is on at NRG stadium in Houston, Texas on New Year’s Eve. The Titans look to close out 2023 and head into the new year right with a win against a divisional opponent and play spoiler. The Texans playoff hopes are on the line this weekend as they sit in a three-way tie for the division lead with Jacksonville and Indianapolis. The Titans are on the road for the final time this season and will look to avoid a series sweep by the Texans. After the first game saw the Titans lose at home week 15 by a score of 19-16 in their Houston Oilers throwbacks, the teams meet again for their week 17 matchup.
The Texans seem to be getting back rookie quarterback CJ Stroud back in the lineup, who missed the last two games, is expected to come out of the leagues concussion protocol. In the first matchup against Tennessee, Stroud did not play and the Texans brought in veteran Case Keenum to start. He led them with 229 yards passing and a touchdown. Stroud, however, offers a much different style of play by way of big arm talent and can be effective in the run game if he needs to be. Stroud has taken the league by storm in his first year and has his favorite receiver, Nico Collins, in the lineup back as well who also missed the first matchup. In 13 games played this season, Collins has 1,022 yards receiving on 64 receptions.
The biggest challenge the Titans, on defense, will face is figuring out how to balance stopping the run without allowing the secondary to get beat. Texans running back Devin Singletary frustrated the Titans run defense by rushing for 121 yards the first time around. With the play making ability that Stroud possesses, the Titans secondary will have to find a way to be better than they were last week against Seattle. Getting Sean Murphy-Bunting back would help matters, but his status is uncertain. However, he did return to practice Wednesday, so a return is possible. I’m sure a big focus point this week on defense for the Titans is to not let Singletary and the Texans run game copy and paste what they did in the first outing, 148 total yards rushing.
Here’s how the Titans defense compares to the Texans offense this week.
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Now, on offense the Titans know where the struggles started and stopped in the last outing which was running the football as they were held to a season-low 66 yards. Derrick Henry had a career low nine yards rushing on sixteen carries, and rookie running back Tyjae Spears was held to thirty yards rushing on nine carries. The offensive line struggled all day and even was a result of getting rookie quarterback Will Levis injured with a high-ankle sprain and forced him to miss last weeks game against Seattle.
Speaking of Will Levis, he is expected to start practicing this week and his status for Sunday will depend on his participation in practice. We could see a rookie showcase this Sunday of Stroud vs. Levis in what could show the future of the AFC South, but if Levis is unable to go, then Ryan Tannehill would get the start again. Levis has made a great connection with former Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and should be the prime target this week regardless of who is throwing the football. Hopkins needs just 61 receiving yards to reach his 7th career 1,000 yard receiving season.
Here’s how the Titans offense compares to the Texans defense this week.
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The passing game is the Texans strength on offense and the Titans weakness on defense. If the Titans are shorthanded in the secondary again this week, it could be tough sledding. The best thing Tennessee can do is to be strong up front and get pressure on Stroud. Defensive lineman Denico Autry is having a career year this year, and with Jeffery Simmons on injured reserve, it is Autry’s time to shine and be the guy to fluster Stroud. That is along with Harold Landry, Arden Key, and Marlon Davidson as supplemental pieces.
On offense, the Titans have to be better at running the football and mixing up Derrick Henry and Tyjae Spears without force-feeding the run.
Tennessee Titans @ Houston Texans
Time: December 31st @ 12:00 PM CDT
Location: NRG Stadium (Houston, TX)
TV Broadcast: FOX (News Channel 17 locally)
TV Broadcast Crew: Chris Myers, Robert Smith, Jen Hale
Radio: Titans Radio (104-5 The Zone)
Radio Crew: Mike Keith, Dave McGinnis, Ramon Foster, Rhett Bryan
Referee: Scott Novak
Line: HOU -4.5
Things To Watch
Rookie AFC South Showcase (Stroud vs. Levis)
It’s the number two pick versus the number 33 pick. It’s rookie quarterback’s CJ Stroud versus Will Levis. It’s AFC South’s Houston Texans versus Tennessee Titans. The two rookie quarterback’s meet for the first time in their career’s and could offer some future perspective into what the AFC South can look forward to in years to come. Both quarterback’s seem to be expected to play this week after missing time due to injury, concussion for Stroud and high-ankle sprain for Levis. The two quarterback’s display good arm talent that can throw it deep with ease and are both playing better than expected. Sunday could be a fun one to watch in terms of the future outlook.
Both Titans running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins are on 1,000 yard watch Sunday. Henry needs just 28 yards rushing to reach his 5th career 1,000 yard rushing season and Hopkins needs 61 yards to reach his 7th career 1,000 yard receiving season. Both should be attainable this Sunday.
This season has not been the season Derrick Henry, the Titans, or Titans fans probably expected or wanted out of the eight year veteran. In the last outing against Houston, Henry managed just nine yards rushing. However, rookie running back Tyjae Spears has been a bright spot at times in the offense showing off his quick speed, elusiveness, and big play ability in both the run game and passing game. Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly needs to help out Henry by making Spears get more play time and be more complimentary in this offense. Spears currently ranks 4th amongst all rookies in the NFL in all-purpose yards with 1,013.
Denico Autry and Company
Titans defensive lineman Denico Autry is having a career year this season with 11.5 sacks. He has been one of the best free agency additions this franchise has had and is proving that this season. The Titans have been struggling in the secondary this season, but one way to help take some pressure off is to create pressure on quarterback CJ Stroud and take the deep ball out of the picture. Autry, Harold Landry, Arden Key, and Marlon Davidson have played well recently and the Titans need more if they want a shot at limiting the Texans offense.
Titans Secondary vs. Texans Offense
The Titans have found the injury bug on defense as the season is winding down and the secondary has taken a major hit with Kristian Fulton on injured reserve and Sean Murphy-Bunting missing last week’s game with a hip injury. Murphy-Bunting’s status for this week is not determined yet, but he did return to practice on Wednesday, so a return is possible. Cornerback Tre Avery has struggled in his place. Even if Murphy-Bunting returns, Avery will probably still see playing time. The Texans offense ranks 7th in the league in passing with 248.4 yards per game and the Titans defense need all the play makers they can get Sunday as they trot out the 18th ranked defense against the pass who are giving up 225.7 yards per game.