Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Christian Smith/AP/Shutterstock (13582011z) Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) scores his second touchdown of the game against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, in Houston Titans Texans Football, Houston, United States - 30 Oct 2022

John McClain: 5 plot lines for Texans-Titans

Saturday’s game features AFC South teams trying to break losing streaks. The Texans (1-12-1) are the NFL’s worst team, and they’ve lost nine consecutive games. The Titans (7-7) have lost four games in a row, and they’re trying to repeat as division champions. The Texans have the inside track to the first overall pick in the draft. Here are five plot lines that could determine the outcome.


Based on how pathetic the Texans’ defense has been in its last four games against Tennessee running back Derrick Henry, what would be considered a successful performance against the seven-year veteran? An upset victory, of course. If the Texans can stun the Titans and extend their losing streak to five games, they wouldn’t give a hoot if Henry pulverizes them for a fifth consecutive 200-yard performance.

What if the Texans limit Henry to 167 yards – their league-worst average per game? That would be 52 fewer yards than he compiled in Tennessee’s 17-10 victory at NRG Stadium this season. What about limiting Henry to 86 yards, which the Texans accomplished in the first game of this AFC South series in 2019? That’s the last time Henry didn’t reach the 200-yard barrier.

Based on how they’ve played in 27-23 and 30-24 losses to Dallas and Kansas City in their last two games, the Texans believe they have a chance to defeat the Titans in Nashville for a second consecutive season. If they’re going to pull off the upset, they better put about eight or nine players in the box, gang-tackle Henry and force rookie quarterback Malik Willis to throw.


Speaking of quarterback Malik Willis, this is the second time he’s been forced into the lineup against the Texans because of an injury to starter Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill is finished for the season because of an ankle injury he aggravated in Sunday’s loss to the Chargers. The first time around, Willis wasn’t ready to play. Maybe now he will be.

In the Titans’ 17-10 victory, Willis was called on to throw only 10 passes. He completed six for 55 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, was intercepted once and was sacked three times. Interestingly, the Titans didn’t try to capitalize on Willis’ running ability. He carried five times for 12 yards. There wasn’t much of a need for Willis to run considering Henry gained 219 yards on 32 carries and scored two touchdowns.

Because coach Mike Vrabel likes to run the ball, expect Willis to incorporate his running ability into the Titans’ game plan Saturday more than they did in the first game. When Tannehill has been successful, he’s utilized a strong play-action game built on fakes to Henry that freezes the linemen and linebackers. Rather than have Willis use play-fakes to set up the pass, the quarterback should take off outside and try to get around the corner while the linemen and linebackers are bunched in the middle buying the fakes to Henry. It won’t be surprising if Willis runs at least 10 times to help take some of the load off Henry.


In the Texans’ last four games, they’ve gone against quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins), Deshaun Watson (Browns), Dak Prescott (Cowboys) and Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs). The defense has allowed only four touchdown passes during that four-game stretch. Mahomes threw two on Sunday, the most by any of those four quarterbacks. Through 14 games, the Texans have given up 13 touchdown passes, one behind Denver for the fewest in the league. They rank 19thagainst the pass (221.4).

Even before Tannehill was injured, the Titans struggled to throw the ball, which should be a problem Saturday with rookie Willis starting. Tennessee is 29th in offense (296.0), including 29th passing (174.4). Willis has completed 17-of-38 (44.7%) for 177 yards and no touchdowns. He has one interception, averages 4.66 yards per attempt and has a 47.8 rating. He’s been sacked six times.

The Texans’ pass rush is nothing special. End Jerry Hughes leads the team with eight sacks. He’s gone five consecutive games without a sack. No other player has as many as four. With end Jonathan Greenard returning to the lineup against the Chiefs after missing nine games, perhaps he’ll bolster the pass rush. The lineman who’s been playing the best lately is tackle Maliek Collins. He has only 2½ sacks, but he’s been disruptive in the passing game and against the run. He could have another dominant performance going against Willis.


While the Titans have a healthy Derrick Henry, the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 1,303 yards, the Texans are hurting at running back. With rookie Dameon Pierce being placed on injured reserve last week – ending his season – offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has three options to try to run the ball.

The Texans are 29th in rushing, averaging 90.2 yards a game. Hamilton can call on quarterback Davis Mills to hand the ball to Royce Freeman, Rex Burkhead or Dare Ogunbowale. In his debut this season in the overtime loss to Kansas City, Freeman was the Texans’ most effective runner. After spending the first 13 games on the practice squad, Freeman was elevated to come off the bench behind Ogunbowale.

Freeman responded in impressive fashion with 11 carries for 51 yards (4.6 average). His longest run was 11 yards. Ogunbowale had eight carries for 14 yards, with a long run of 3. Burkhead didn’t get a carry but caught two passes for 17 yards. One reason the Texans ran for 94 yards was Mills and Jeff Driskel combined for 29 on nine carries.

In the first game against the Titans, they shut down the Texans’ running game with a healthy Pierce, who contributed only 35 yards on 15 carries, including a 16-yard run. The Texans finished with 161 yards, including 43 rushing and a 2.4 average per carry. Because the Titans have a smothering defense, ranking second against the run (80.2 yards), expect them to shut down the Texans’ run and force Mills to throw.


Using Jeff Driskel with Mills caught the Cowboys off guard, but it didn’t affect the Chiefs. It’s time for Pep Hamilton to go with Mills and maybe give Driskel a carry or two in short-yardage situations. Mills gives the Texans their best chance to move the ball and pull an upset over the injury-plagued Titans.

In the overtime loss to Kansas City, Mills threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third. Then he spoiled his terrific game by losing a fumble while running in overtime, and the Chiefs won the game on the next play. Mills doesn’t run much, but when he does, he must protect the ball better than he did against the Chiefs. Driskel finished with 8 yards on four carries because Kansas City’s defense was ready for him running the ball.

To offset the Titans’ rush, Mills is going to have to take a short drop and get rid of the ball fast. Hamilton should use short passes like the run and accept 4- and 5-yard gains to try to keep Tennessee off balance. Get the ball to running back Freeman on screens or try to isolate him on a linebacker. Freeman looked good against the Chiefs, so incorporate him into the passing game early to give the Titans a new look to worry about.

(John McClain writes four times a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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