Stopping Marcus Mariota will be a focal point for Mike Vrabel's defense.
Stopping Marcus Mariota will be a focal point for Mike Vrabel's defense.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

NFL Football, Week 4: Titans-Texans — Four Things to Watch For

It's amazing how much things can change in a couple of weeks. After the Week 1 loss to the Jags, the main topic of conversation on my radio show was how little confidence we all had in the Texans reaching our preseason predictions, which is saying something considering I predicted them to be a mediocre 7-9.

Now, two weeks later, while still 1-2 with a ton of issues on both sides of the ball, a shootout loss to the Patriots on the road in which Deshaun Watson stood toe to toe with Tom Brady had the main topic as "Taking into account health and contracts, would you trade QB situations with any other team in the AFC South right now?" I'll answer that below, but the mere change in topics is indicative of, at the very least, a swing in optimism for the hometown team.

Now comes the most important game of the year (until the next "most important game of the year"). Lose this one to Tennessee on Sunday and the Texans are 1-3 with an 0-2 division record in two home games. Yikes. What are some the things to watch? Well, let's take a look...

4. Offensive line improvement
It's unclear how much of the offensive line improvement in Week 3 has to do with Watson's escapability (part of the reason, no doubt), how much has to do with the Patriots' front seven being mediocre (yes, it is) and how much is just general improvement (although it couldn't get much worse than Week 1). Whatever the case, the offensive line was not an issue on Sunday. So you hope that with some home stadium adrenaline they can keep it up against a Titans defensive unit whose best asset is the guy pushing the buttons, 176-year-old Dick LeBeau. One thing we do know is that Duane Brown is not walking through that door, so offensive line coach Mike Devlin will continue to make do with what he has.

3. Punt coverage unit vs. Adoree Jackson
One of the glaring weaknesses on this Texans team right now continues to be its coverage units. At this point, until I see capable coverage units, I'm just going to assume that Bob McNair pissed off some strange god who takes out his wrath by ensuring that McNair's franchise can't cover kicks or punts. Right now, the Texans could trot ten gigantic Transformer robots out there to cover Shane Lechler's punts, and they'd still give up 30 yards a clip. This is a huge issue this weekend as Titans rookie Adoree Jackson is potentially one of the most electric young players in the game. (He had a 63-yard return for a touchdown called back in last week's game against the Seahawks.)

2. Watt/Clowney vs. Lewan/Conklin
For you old school rasslin' fans out there, this tag team match has the potential to be the Midnight Express versus the Rock and Roll Express for the next generation of AFC South football. Four blue chippers, all selected in the top dozen or so picks in their respective drafts, all in or entering their primes, clashing for 50 or 60 snaps a game. This should be a fantastic battle to watch, not just this week, but in seasons to come. (By the way, because I know you wrestling dorks are wondering — and to be clear, I am also a wrestling dork — Taylor Lewan is Bobby Eaton, Jake Conklin is Dennis Condrey, Jadeveon Clowney is Robert Gibson and J.J. Watt is Ricky Morton.)

1. Deshaun Watson, the Dick LeBeau Chapter
Another week and another test for the rapidly evolving Deshaun Watson. He's now faced Marvin Lewis and Bill Belichick, and here comes Dick LeBeau, the patriarch of the zone blitz. Perhaps Bill O'Brien will fulfill his promise of adding more and more Deshaun-friendly elements to the playbook each week. Now, back to the question at the top of the page — would you, Texans fan, trade your team's QB situation for any other AFC South team's QB situation? And in a case of what could very well look like a gigantic overreaction in a week or two, I will say "NO, NO I WOULDN'T!" Going team by team, Jacksonville is the easy one. Watson for Bortles? Um, no. In Indianapolis, they have Andrew Luck's balky shoulder, turnover issues and $25 million-per-year contract to deal with. I'll take Watson on his rookie deal for five seasons, and count on him getting to "healthy Luck" level sooner rather than later. Then there's Tennessee. I think a TON of teams would trade with the Titans, with Mariota in his third season. Considering Mariota's injury issues his first two years, I don't think the Texans are one of them.

The good news? We'll get a look at the two of them, Mariota and Watson, up close this Sunday.

SPREAD: Titans -1.5
PREDICTION: Texans 23, Titans 20
RECORD: 1-2 SU, 1-2 ATS

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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