The atmosphere in NRG Stadium on Monday night will certainly be unique. With the passing of Texans' founder and owner Bob McNair on Friday, it should be a combination of sadness mixed with celebration, celebration of a life well lived that affected the lives of so many millions of others. Certainly, the irony of the Tennessee Titans, the former Houston Oilers, as the opponent is not lost on anybody sporting Texans gear.
With this emotional backdrop, there is still a football game to be played, with the Texans going for a franchise record eighth straight win, and a chance to land what should be a crushing blow to the Titans' playoff hopes. So let's look at a few football elements of what Texan fans hope is the team's eighth straight win.
4. Protecting Deshaun
This seven game winning streak can really be divided into two distinct eras — B.B.R (Before Bus Ride) and A.B.R. (after Bus Ride). Of course, the bus ride of which I speak is the luxury cruiser that Deshaun Watson was forced to take to Jacksonville to play in Week 7 with a bruised lung. The Jacksonville game signaled a shift in a couple things. First, there was a drastic shift in play calling, in which Bill O'Brien now seems hellbent on Deshaun Watson's only dropping back about 25 times a game, tops.
Second, there was a less drastic, but noticeable, shift in the quality of the offensive line play from the Texans. They've been protecting better, and they've run the football well in spots. The end result has been a huge swing in maybe the most important stat with respect to the short-term and long-term future of this team. Here are your QB hit numbers B.B.R.:
And now, here they are, coming into this week, in the A.B.R. period:
Week to week, keeping Deshaun Watson healthy is a goal that transcends even the result of whatever game in which the Texans are playing. They're doing a much better job of keeping him healthy.
3. Destroying Mariota
On the other side of the ball, the Texans have been one of the better teams in the league at pressuring the quarterback. Coming into this weekend's games, they ranked eighth in the league in QB hits:
This obviously includes the first three weeks of the season in which the Texans' pass rush was almost non-existent, in large part because the Patriots, Titans, and Giants all opted to use a quick-hit, short passing game that was designed to eliminate sacks taken. This will be the first time that Mariota has seen the Texans this season, as Blaine Gabbert was the starter in the Titans' Week 2 upset win. Anytime Mariota is under center, I feel there are two keys — keep him in the pocket, and put the Titans in down and distance situations that force Mariota to throw the football down the field. The Texans must to both tonight.
2. Clean game
The first time these two teams played, the signature play of the game was the Kevin Byard 66-yard touchdown pass out of a punt formation to something called a "Dane Cruikshanks." It was the first touchdown of the game, so there was plenty of time for the Texans to come back, but that play set the tone for the entire afternoon (much the same way Deshaun Watson's fumble on the Texans' first offensive play against New England did in Week 1). This game needs to look a lot more like Week 4 last season, when the Texans squashed the Titans' collective will to live in the first half, and part of that means playing a clean game, with no turnovers and no special teams gaffes. If the Texans protect the football, and win the turnover battle, they should win each of their games the rest of the way, including tonight's game.
1. Red zone
In the first matchup between these two teams, the Texans actually only made one trip into the red zone. They moved the football pretty well throughout the afternoon, but the part of the field that was an issue for the Texans was on the cusp of field goal range. They had four possessions in the game that ended between the Tennessee 40 and 35 yard lines with no points, and they ended as follows:
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* Missed FG TEN 36
* INT TEN 37
* Punt TEN 38
* Punt TEN 37
That's a lot of enemy territory penetration to come away with nothing. The Texans would go on to struggle in the red zone over the next few weeks, even when they began winning games. This Titans' defense is not particularly great in between the 20 yard lines (20th overall in defensive DVOA), but they're the second best team in the league in red zone defense. They're good at making sevens into threes, basically. The Texans, who've been mediocre in the red zone this season (29th in the league in Red Zone conversion percentage), must buck this trend.
SPREAD: Texans -3.5
PREDICTION: Texans 23,Titans 20
RECORD: 6-4 SU, 4-6 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.