Game Preview: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans

Dec 18, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Jeff Driskel (6) in action during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans

The Matchup:

Houston Texans (1-12-1) at Tennessee Titans (7-7)

Game time: Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022, noon CT

TV/Radio: KHOU-11 (CBS)/SiriusXM 225, KILT-AM 610, KILT-FM 100.3, KLOL 101.1FM (Spanish)

What’s at stake: For the Texans, it’s really about maintaining a stranglehold on the top spot in the draft. For the Titans, it’s about holding on to their tenuous lead in the AFC South.

Houston is the only team in the NFL with fewer than three wins. While the Texans’ play has improved of late, especially defensively, it would be foolish to think that anything they do here is changing the organization’s mind on the path the franchise takes going forward. Texans players, at this point, are playing for jobs with the team next season or making tape for their next employer. Many, if not all, of the coaches are doing the same.

The Titans have lost four straight, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill is out this week. Tannehill has been dealing with an ankle injury that severely limited him last week. Rookie quarterback Malik Willis will make his third start of the year and his second against the Texans. Tennessee looked to be in complete control of the division a month ago at 7-3 but now finds itself just a half game ahead of the 7-8 Jacksonville Jaguars.

When the Texans have the ball: The two-quarterback system is here to stay for the remainder of the season. Davis Mills will handle the majority of the snaps, with Jeff Driskel subbing in for special packages and certain situations.

Practice squad call-up Royce Freeman led the Texans in rushing last week with 11 carries for 51 yards against Kansas City and should be expected to both get a game-day elevation to the active roster and be the team’s primary ball carrier. Dare Ogunbowale had an unimpressive eight carries for 14 yards. Rex Burkhead did not register a carry but had two receptions on four targets for 17 yards. Ogunbowale may get even fewer carries than last week, with Freeman logging the majority of the backfield work and Burkhead as the primary receiving back.

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks has been a full participant in practice the past two days and is listed as questionable for Saturday. His return would boost a Texans passing game that has been relying on WR Chris Moore (questionable with a foot injury that has left him as a limited participant in practice all week) and Amari Rodgers.

Offensive tackle Tytus Howard could find himself at left guard this week once again as starting left guard Kenyon Green is out with an ankle injury. Last week with Green out, Howard kicked inside, and Charlie Heck played right tackle. Justin McCray, the normal third guard, was out two weeks ago and active last week but did not play a snap. He is listed as questionable. Wide receiver Nico Collins is out this week.

When the Titans have the ball: Derrick Henry ran for a season-high 219 yards and two touchdowns in these teams’ first meeting this season. They will look to lean on him as Tennessee is ravaged by injuries.

Guard Nate Davis, center Ben Jones, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and offensive lineman Dylan Radunz (now on IR) are all out for Saturday. Guard Aaron Brewer is questionable with a rib injury, tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere is also questionable with an ankle injury.

Malik Willis makes his third start of the season and second against the Texans. Expect a lot of groundwork for the Titans’ offense again this week.

Key Texans to watch:

QB Jeff Driskel: The two-quarterback system is going to stick for the rest of the year, but the Texans need more from Driskel this week than they got last week. The offense with Driskel that had performed so well against Dallas was completely stagnant against Kansas City. Of course, Dameon Pierce was the back with Driskel in Dallas, and Freeman/Ogunbowale were the backs with him in Houston against the Chiefs. That makes a significant difference. Freeman was the far more effective back of the two and should likely get the bulk of the carries. Driskel needs to make fast, sharp reads and be productive when keeping the ball himself. Otherwise, his packages may as well be eliminated.

RB Royce Freeman: Freeman essentially established himself as the primary running back last week after being elevated from the practice squad. While he isn’t as punishing of a runner as Pierce, he is tougher between the tackles than Ogunbowale and Burkhead. Freeman averaged 4.8 yards per carry against the Chiefs, but gets a much tougher test against the Titans. Tennessee ranks second in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game at 80.8. The Texans’ passing game isn’t strong enough to succeed if they can’t run the ball. Freeman will need to be the guy who gets it done on the ground, or Houston’s offense could bog down quickly.

LB Christian Harris: Texans head coach Lovie Smith praised Harris again this week for his work ethic, dedication on and off the field, and improved play. Harris will have his hands full against the Titans’ run game and running back Derrick Henry. Henry scorched the Texans for 219 yards earlier in the season and averaged 6.8 yards per carry. As the most athletic linebacker on the team, Houston will need Harris to play a major role in slowing Henry down and forcing Malik Willis to beat them with his arm. While it may not necessarily have been the case in the first matchup, right now, Davis Mills is playing better than Willis would be expected to play. So far, in Willis’ two starts, he is a combined 17-for-38 for only 177 yards (a brutal 4.7 yards per attempt), no touchdowns, and one interception. He has also been sacked six times despite his athleticism and mobility. Being able to contain Henry is paramount, and Harris will be an important part of that.

WR Chris Moore: Moore has been the Texans’ top wideout the past two weeks, including a huge 10-catch, 124-yard performance against Dallas two weeks ago. The Titans allow a league-high 284.2 yards per game in the air. While the Texans haven’t shown the ability for the passing game to carry the team this season, this game is the most likely game for it to happen. The Titans are terrific at stopping the run, but anyone can pass on them. A resurgent Davis Mills could have a big game, provided he continues to make good decisions with the football and finds his top weapon outside. Maybe Brandin Cooks will play, maybe he won’t. We don’t know if he is truly recovered or just recovered enough to play. That alone makes Moore the team’s best wide receiver, and if he can get loose behind the defense, Houston can get some of the easy scores it needs to steal a game versus Tennessee.

The Bottom Line: The Texans should have been smashed by both the Cowboys and the Chiefs, but surprised both weeks with their play. The bend-but-don’t-break defense has been opportunistic; the offense has been just good enough to keep the Texans in the game, and the special teams have been very good.

Tennessee is beat up with injuries, especially to their starting quarterback and offensive line. This is a winnable game for Houston if the Texans can continue their reinvigorated play this week. The Titans are reeling, having lost four straight, and there is a lot of pressure on that team to stop the bleeding Saturday with a home win against Houston. Tennessee expects to beat Houston and may not be ready for the team that has challenged the Cowboys and Chiefs the past two weeks, putting a pair of Super Bowl contenders on the ropes.

A decent rushing effort, a solid passing game against the worst pass defense in the league, preventing Henry from running wild, and winning the turnover battle could lead to a surprising but not shocking upset win for the Texans against the banged-up Tennessee Titans.

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1 Comment

  • Cannot help it. Beat the x oilers to smithereens. win this game and still get 1st pik

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