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

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During the Bill O'Brien era, it's been admittedly tough to count on anything. The quarterback position has been a circus, Arian Foster (while great when healthy) was always an injury waiting to happen, Jadeveon Clowney took two seasons to finally get right, and now this J.J. Watt thing...Oh, curse you, football gods, the J.J. Watt thing!

But in the two full seasons that O'Brien has been the head coach, you COULD count on two things:

1. Finishing 9-7. 
2. The Tennessee Titans' arriving on the schedule at the exact right time.

Indeed, in 2014 and 2015, after some of the Texans' most monumental and significant valleys, along came the Titans to lie down for the Texans, ultra-reliable, like a "crappy team" booty call. Let's go back and look at the previous four Texans-Titans meetings of the O'Brien era (home team in ALL CAPS):

10/26/14: Titans 30, TEXANS 16
This game was six days after one of the biggest meltdowns of the O'Brien era, the Monday night debacle in Pittsburgh where the Texans gave up 21 points in about two minutes at the end of the half to lose in embarrassing fashion. This was also the famous "selfie" game, in which Watt got surprisingly (and somewhat disturbingly) worked up over then-rookie QB Zach Mettenberger's posting a selfie to Instagram four hours before the game.

11/30/14: TEXANS 45, Titans 21
This was the "Ryan Fitzpatrick six-TD pass" game, which came one week after Ryan Mallett, who at one point represented hope for Texans fans (yikes!), tore his pectoral muscle and went out for the season. (Also, did you know that there are only two quarterbacks post-Joe Namath to throw for six touchdowns in one game and six interceptions in another? Who are they? Peyton Manning and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw six picks last Sunday against the Chiefs, in what looked like a strange, soul-possessed effort to out-implode Brian Hoyer's playoff game against the Chiefs last season.)

11/1/15: TEXANS 20, Titans 6
Following the Texans' worst game of the Bill O'Brien era, the Miami Massacre in Week 7 last season, the Texans had one more game before the bye week, a home game against the Marcus Mariota-less Titans. Many have rewritten history to place the win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football as the game after the Miami game, but it was actually this win over the Titans. Who knew?!

12/27/15: Texans 34, TITANS 6
If you're starting Brandon Weeden on a limited playbook while trying to win a division crown, which team do you most want to see? Well, last season, the answer would have been "Tennessee with Marcus Mariota injured"...ask and ye shall receive! (Now that I think about it, maybe this Watt injury is penance for all that good fortune to close out last season, including the season-ending injury to Andrew Luck.)

So now here we are, in the wake of the unthinkable — life without J.J. Watt running out of the tunnel on Sunday. So who comes a-knockin? Well, the Craptastic Booty Call themselves... YOUR TENNESSEE TITANS!

Let's take a look at a few things to watch for this Sunday.

4. Life without Watt
From a psychological standpoint, more so than a tactical standpoint, it begins right here. The Texans managed to go 2-1 with a very, very mortal version of J.J. Watt in the first three weeks of the season. There's enough talent there to most certainly beat the Titans at home, and quite honestly, to still win the division. However, I would imagine it's just different when the Watt The Actual Person is not on the field. Scheme-wise, I'd expect the Texans to revert more to the looks they were using in the preseason, with Clowney back outside at some form of a linebacker/end hybrid and the traditional 3-4 defensive end spots to be manned by lineman-occupiers like Christian Covington, Devon Still, newly signed Antonio Smith and maybe even D.J. Reader. This won't be fun, but it will be morbidly fascinating watching the Texans try to move forward without Watt.

3. Running back workload
Through three games, Lamar Miller has 84 touches (74 carries, 10 receptions), on pace for 448 touches. This is unsustainable, and if it continues is borderline assassination by the Texans coaching staff of Lamar MIller's career, especially when you consider that stylistically Miller is not the type of back whose physical stature nor pedigree equip him for this type of workload. Honestly, part of Miller has to be wondering privately what the hell he signed up for in coming here. Also, one of the big themes of the preseason was the "unprecedented" depth at the running back position, but honestly it just looks like the same old depth chart from the last two years — Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes getting sporadic touches behind a featured back — with Lamar Miller replacing Arian Foster in a role more equipped for Arian Foster. Something has to give here soon. (Paging Akeem Hunt. Akeem Hunt, can you hear us?)

2. Hello, what's your name?... oh, Marcus? Nice to meet you.  
Oh, one thing I made only slightly clear in the above list of get-well games the Texans have played against the Titans — all four of those games involved Zach Mettenberger as the starting quarterback. In 2014, he was the starter because they had no better options, and last season, he was the starter because rookie Marcus Mariota was injured. Now the Texans get their first look at Marcus Mariota, and while the Texans have always struggled against mobile quarterbacks, the smash-mouth style that Titans head coach Mike Mullarkey is trying to deploy with running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry inherently limits Mariota's improvisation. The problem for the Texans is that they've been gashed in the run game the last two games and will need to shore things up, especially if they find themselves behind in this game. The Titans are built to have leads and milk them. They just haven't had many this season. 

1. DeAndre Hopkins
With Watt out, the title of Texans Best Player now falls to Hopkins, whose personal career has mirrored the Texans's success against the Titans. In 2013, Hopkins had his first big breakout game as a rookie in Week 2, catching 7 passes for 117 yards and the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Hopkins had the most prolific game of his career in the "Fitzy Six TD" game (9 catches, 234 yards, 2 TD's) in 2014, and then last season he replicated the stats of his first career Titans game (7 catches, 117 yards, 1 TD) with Brandon Weeden as his starting quarterback. The "win with defense" mantra is not out the window, but this team can no longer count on that. Pressure now falls on the offense, and that means Hopkins has to earn the deal he wants this coming offseason. 

Prediction: Texans 23, Titans 14
Spread: Texans -6.5
Season Record (SU, ATS): 2-1, 2-1

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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