Titans 20, Texans 17: It's The Trenches, Stupid
It would be easy to blame Kris Brown.
It would be easy to chalk it up to an inspired homecoming performance by Vince Young. It would be easy to criticize several iffy playcalls by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and coach Gary Kubiak, including a decision to effectively kneel down before the final kick instead of gain additional yardage.
But it wouldn't be accurate. Instead, like most of the other numerous heartbreaks in Texans history, it came down to the trenches in Monday's 20-17 loss. Like they have before, the Texans overwhelmingly lost there -- to the tune of 228 rushing yards and four sacks by Tennessee compared with 57 rushing yards and no sacks by the Texans.
Quite simply, it's hard to win a game when you lose the line of scrimmage.
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"I think there were plenty of times, throughout that game, where we could've avoided being in that type of situation," a deflated Matt Schaub said in the locker room. "We had the ball inside the five there on the one series in the third quarter and settled for a field goal. We couldn't punch it in. We had plenty of opportunities to avoid a last second field goal."
Indeed they did. The player of the game wasn't Schaub or Young, despite pundits' talk of a QB duel. Like most Titans' games, it all came down to Chris Johnson. The Titans' phenomenal second-year back -- on a pace for nearly 2,000 yards this season -- rushed 29 times for 151 yards. His 36-yard dash in the second quarter, after bouncing off a poor attempt at a tackle from Brian Cushing, took a drive in which the Titans were thinking field goal before the half and turned it into an eventual touchdown to tie the game.
Tennessee never trailed again.
And when he didn't get the ball, the attention he drew from Texans' linebackers gave gaping holes to Young, who galloped for 73 yards on 11 carries.
Johnson's 4.24 40-yard dash speed combined with lightning quickness and shifty hips makes him the most elusive runner in the NFL since Barry Sanders. Yet just three months ago, Steve Slaton was considered on that same level.
A season ago, Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards on 4.8 yards per carry with nine touchdowns, compared with Johnson's 1,228 yards on 4.9 yards per carry with nine touchdowns.
But in their second seasons, Johnson took the leap to superstardom. He's already surpassed his rushing total from a year ago on a whopping 6.2 yards per rush, while Slaton has regressed to the role of Reggie Bush third-down back, carrying for a meager 3.1 yards per attempt.
And that doesn't even mention Slaton's league-leading seven fumbles, a total so bad the Texans have lost complete faith and looked to journeymen Chris Brown and Ryan Moats to handle the load. On Monday, Slaton rushed just five times for 21 yards, and dropped a crucial pass on third-and-10 late that probably would have resulted in a first down. Instead, that gave the ball back to Tennessee and set up Rob Bironas' winning kick.
"It was devastating. We dropped a lot of balls on offense that we usually don't drop," said cornerback Dunta Robinson, who dropped one of his own, a should-have-been-easy INT on a drive that led to a Titans' field goal. "We just didn't play as well as we're capable of playing and against a hot team you got to bring your 'A' game and we knew that coming into this game."
In the end, Tennessee had a superstar at running back that kept Schaub on the sidelines for long stretches, while the Texans were completely reliant on the passing game and pass protection, which broke down too often.
"Third down [was the difference]," Young said. "Just moving the ball and keeping long drives. Keep Schaub off the field because they're an impressive offense."
The Texans' defense didn't help the cause, either. While Young's scrambling certainly complicated matters, the Texans' defensive line -- including Mario Williams, forever linked with Young -- put forth virtually no pressure all game long.
That compares with a Titans' defensive line that, as usual, played relatively well, sacking Schaub four times and giving the Texans fits on third-and-long.
That's not the sexy story, and it wasn't the focus of postgame analysis. It's easier for journalists to focus on Brown missing a pair of long kicks, and Young's homecomings are always full of intrigue.
But unfortunately for the Texans, the on-field reality is that this game was decided in the trenches -- where Tennessee's line play (on both sides) and running backs were superior.
Eight years later, they're still on square one.