The Mike Vrabel Era is off to a rough start in Tennessee.
The Mike Vrabel Era is off to a rough start in Tennessee.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

NFL Football, Week 2: Texans-Titans — Four Things To Watch For

So the Texans are one of 15 teams sitting at 0-1 right now, which means two things — we've heard Bill O'Brien's response to a Week 1 loss for the third time in his tenure as Texans head coach ("Hey, there are 15 other head coaches who are mad about being 0-1", or something like that), and second, there was a TIE in Week 1, so there are only 14 other head coaches who are mad about being 0-1, although my guess is Mike Tomlin is none too happy with a 21-21 stand off against Hue Jackson. Just guessing there.

So onward to Week 2 and to the remaining 15 games of the 2018 season. As bad as things felt on Sunday, there are a few reasons to still be very optimistic about the campaign. For one, the Texans gave themselves a chance in that game despite only getting "above expectations" performances from the running game, special teams, and J.J. Watt in the first half. Kareem Jackson was also pretty good. Other than that, there is a lot of reasonable improvement to expect.

Secondly, their hardest game is out of the way. Yeah, I know they play the Eagles in December, but New England is the real house of horrors for Bill O'Brien. The Texans should be favored in their next five games — at TEN, vs NYG, at IND, vs DAL, vs BUF. Also, in ESPN's Power Rankings this week, the Texans are ranked 15th. Only four of their remaining games (at JAC, at WAS, at PHI, vs JAC) are against teams ranked ahead of them. The other 11 games are against lesser teams, at least lesser according to these rankings, and ten of those games are against teams ranked 20th or lower, essentially the bottom third of the league.

So the recovery from Week 1 starts Sunday in another perceived "teacher versus pupil" battle, only this time O'Brien is on the master end, and Mike Vrabel is the padawan (dorky Star Wars reference alert!). Here are the things I'll be watching on Sunday at noon (a game you can hear on SportsRadio 610, and hear me on the pregame and postgame shows with Mike Meltser and Paul Gallant, respectively):

4. Clowney, Mercilus off the milk carton, please!
We've been waiting for what feels like a decade for the three headed monster of J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney to be unleashed and wreck shop on a consistent basis. Injuries, for the most part, and a weird anti-synergy in the few games they've been out there together have prevented that. In Week 1, Watt finally looked like Watt in the second half, but Mercilus and Clowney accounted for just five tackles and zero QB hits in the loss to New England. That must change this weekend against a wounded Marcus Mariota at quarterback, and a team that should be missing both of its tackles. It's on the players themselves mostly, but Romeo Crennel needs to figure some things out, too, on how exactly to deploy these three at the same time.

3. Return of Will Fuller
In his press conference Wednesday, J.J. Watt said "death, taxes, and holding not getting called." Well, with all due respect, J.J., I beg to differ. It's more like "death, taxes, and Will Fuller dealing with some sort of injury." That's what it feels like. The offense had issues everywhere on Sunday, and most of them should be cured with Deshaun Watson just settling down and getting rid of the football. However, it should be easier for guys to get open with the expected return of Fuller and his downfield speed. Last season, Fuller had seven touchdowns in four games with Watson as his QB, and the 57-14 win over the Titans was the first glimpse of the combo. This is a big year for Fuller, who is in Year 3 of his rookie deal (fifth year option decision coming after this season).

2. Dion Lewis
There is no doubt that, based purely on the individual talent of each component, this is the most talented defense of the Bill O'Brien Era, when fully healthy. However, smart teams can still find a couple kill spots. We saw last week that Bill Belichick essentially had a mandate for Tom Brady to find whomever Kevin Johnson was covering OR whomever Zach Cunningham or Bernardrick McKinney was covering. Lewis was a problem for the Texans when he was with the Pats, and the Titans are deploying him similarly (110 total yards in Week 1). The Texans linebackers better be on their toes spying on Lewis out of the backfield. This could be a sneaky "Dylan Cole game," where they make checking Lewis Cole's assignment. In the brief shots we've seen of Cole, he's been a playmaker in coverage, including a pick six against the Titans last season to close out the win at NRG Stadium.

1. O'Brien versus Vrabel
Leading up to the game against the Patriots, there was no scenario under which the Texans lost in which O'Brien wouldn't be the story. A blowout loss, and the coach would be summarily killed for a lack of preparation, and a close loss, O'Brien gets killed for in-game decisions. As it turned out, the way the loss played out, a 27-20 loss that wasn't REALLY that close, O'Brien got killed on BOTH fronts. It was a close loss that felt like a blowout. Incredible accomplishment! Now comes Mike Vrabel, perhaps the most overhyped first year head coach in years, and his team is 0-1 and just as desperate as the Texans. With the Titans upcoming schedule — they play at JAC and vs PHI the next two weeks after Sunday — you could argue they SHOULD BE the more desperate team. If O'Brien falls to 0-2 with the losses to Belichick and Vrabel, though, Monday is going to be an inferno on Houston radio airwaves. And God forbid Ryan Griffin questionably catches a ball down the seam in the last two minutes of the first half for which Vrabel uses a timeout to allow the replay officials time to overturn it. That would be DEFCON 1 for O'Brien.

SPREAD: Texans -1
PREDICTION: Texans 24, Titans 17
RECORD: 1-0 season, 1-0 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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