This week's edition of 'Monday Night Football' features two of the stranger and more inconsistent teams in the league.
The 7-3 Texans have a record that does not match their point differential, which is perhaps unsurprising for a team that started 0-3 before reeling off seven-straight wins, with only two of them coming by more than one score. Houston was practically gifted victories by the Colts and Cowboys to get the streak started, then looked somewhat better against the Bills, Jaguars, and Dolphins before barely squeaking past the Broncos and Washington with two-point victories.
The Texans' opponents on Monday, the Titans, have been the most inconsistent team in football, and it is fitting that their record stands at 5-5. Tennessee lost a fairly terrible season-opening game to the Dolphins, then won three-straight games (including a then-very-impressive win over the defending champion Eagles), lost three straight (including one to the Bills), decisively beat both the Cowboys and Patriots, and then lost to the Colts in a fashion that was, frankly, kind of embarrassing. Like I said: inconsistent.
Which version of each of these teams will show up on Monday night (8:15 p.m., ESPN)? The answer to that question could eventually play a major role in deciding who wins the AFC South. Read on to find out what you should be looking out for.
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When the Texans have the ball
After losing Will Fuller for the season to a torn ACL, the Texans made a bold move to bring in former Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas. Thomas hadn't been quite as good this season in Denver as he had been in the past, but Houston badly needed another outside wideout to pair with DeAndre Hopkins, and the cost was not prohibitive, so the move was made.
But after getting Thomas involved early and often in his first game with the team, the Texans have seemingly forgotten he exists. Thomas was the intended target on Deshaun Watson's first two passes of his first game with Houston, catching them both for 49 yards. He caught another pass for 12 yards later in the first quarter ... and he has not been targeted since. Watson threw almost exclusively to Hopkins for the remainder of the game against Denver (12 of his 24 pass attempts were directed at Hopkins) and largely stuck to targeting Hopkins and slot man Keke Coutee (15 of 24 passes) in the next game against Washington.
It's perhaps not surprising that Thomas hasn't yet been fully integrated into the offense, as it typically takes receivers a while to adjust to new surroundings. But considering the outside is where you want to attack this Titans defense, Monday might be a good time to get him more involved. Malcolm Butler, in particular, is who you want to go after, as the high-priced corner has allowed a 131.6 passer rating on throws in his direction this season, which ranks 177th out of 185 defenders who have been targeted in coverage 20-plus times, according to Sports Info Solutions. Second-year man Adoree' Jackson has been a bit tougher to throw on, while slot corner Logan Ryan has done well on the inside as well. The Texans will surely want to get Hopkins the ball whenever he's matched up with Butler, but Watson should not hesitate to try some things with Thomas down the field if he gets that matchup, either.
The key, as always for the Texans, will be keeping Watson well protected. He's been sacked on 9.6 percent of his drop backs this season, one of the highest rates in the league. He's also been under pressure on a ridiculous 40.8 percent of his pass attempts, again one of the NFL's highest marks. His performance on those throws unsurprisingly pales in comparison to those when he's been unharassed in the pocket.
Tennessee ranks toward the bottom portion of the league in sacks, adjusted sack rate, and total pressures, but the Titans did get Watson to the ground four times during the teams' first meeting back in Week 2. And there are individual rushers like Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, and Harold Landry that you definitely have to worry about when facing this team -- especially when your offensive line is as penetrable as that of the Texans. (Morgan has an illness and it's unknown whether or not he will play on Monday.)
A pretty good way to keep the rushers off balance would be to run the ball and use Watson's ability to take off himself to keep the edge defenders at bay, but the Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue-led Texans running game has been fairly muted for much of the season. The Texans rank 26th in yards per rush, 24th in adjusted line yards, 26th in conversion rate on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go, and 21st in the percentage of runs stopped in the backfield. Their running game is just not very good, even though they run a lot. (Third-most attempts in the league.) Their overall rush offense DVOA of 30th is, well, accurate. They did rack up 148 yards on the ground against Tennessee back in Week 2, but the Titans have been far better against the run in recent weeks: their last four opponents totaled just 261 yards on the ground combined.
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When the Titans have the ball
The Titans' offense has likely been the most inconsistent in the entire NFL. Tennessee has been held to fewer than 20 points five times, but has managed to finish 2-3 in those games. They've exceeded 20 points five times, but finished just 3-2 in those contests. They've been shut out by the Ravens and hung 34 points on the Patriots. There is seemingly no correlated between how their offense looks one week and how it looks the next, as they followed up a 26-point outing against the Eagles by scoring 31 combined over the next three games and responded to scoring 62 combined against the Cowboys and Patriots by hanging just 10 on the Colts.
Some of that inconsistency is due to the injuries Marcus Mariota has suffered at inopportune times. He left the Week 1 game with an injury, sat out Week 2, and was knocked out of the loss to the Colts early as well. Blaine Gabbert has been extremely Gabbert-ish when called upon, but it's not as though Mariota has been all that much better when he's been out there. The fourth-year pro has a 67.6 percent completion rate, but he's averaging 7.3 yards per attempt in a league where the average is now 7.6, he's thrown only seven touchdowns and six interceptions in nine appearances, and his 88.2 passer rating is considerably below average as well. Tennessee's QB has been cleared for the game, but he's also been dealing with a stinger throughout the week and it's entirely possible he doesn't totally look like his best self out there on Monday.
Like Watson, Mariota has also been sacked a ton, getting taken to the ground on 11.8 percent of his drop backs. Even excluding the 11-sack game against the Ravens, he's been dropped 8.2 percent of the time he's taken a drop back. That's not great. Considering the Texans employ J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, he may have some trouble remaining upright in the pocket on Monday evening. Watt ranks third in the NFL in pressures behind only Aaron Donald and Dee Ford, per Sports Info Solutions, while Clowney is just outside the top 25 despite missing a game and Mercilus is in the top 60. The Titans have a strong offensive line but it is weakest, pass-protection-wise, on the interior, and the Texans love to move their guys around and get them better matchups. If they can unleash Watt or Clowney between the guards and center, they'll do so, and that could spell trouble for Mariota.
As inconsistent as Houston's running game has been, the Titans' has been perhaps even more so. Derrick Henry was expected to be the lead rusher coming into the season but he has struggled badly with a 3.7 yards per carry average and has shown little ability to even be the kind of short-yardage bruiser his size suggests he easily could be. He's been overtaken in the rotation by Dion Lewis almost entirely, but Lewis is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry himself, and has largely shown himself to be the better back because he's more capable as a receiver and, despite his diminutive stature (Lewis is 5-8, 195 pounds, while Henry is 6-3, 247 pounds), a far more dependable pass-protector.
It is somewhat difficult to see this Tennessee offense getting fully untracked against the Texans, especially with Mariota playing injured, tight end Delanie Walker out for the season, and slot receiver Taywan Taylor still out with a foot injury. Mariota has been subpar even when healthy this season, and he's basically limited to Corey Davis and a bunch of That Guys in the passing game right now. Houston's run defense is even better than its pass unit, and the Titans can't run anyway. This seems like it could be a long night for them.
Prediction: Texans 20, Titans 13