The Tennessee Titans play the first of two consecutive road games this Sunday, October 2nd, at NRG Stadium versus the Houston Texans.
The Texans currently lead the AFC South with a 2-1 record. The Titans and Indianapolis Colts are tied for second at 1-2 while the Jacksonville Jaguars are last at 0-3.
In other words, a win at NRG Stadium would guarantee the Titans a first place tie atop the Division. A loss, on the other hand, would place Tennessee two games behind Houston.
Kickoff is at 12:00 PM CST.
Let’s consider four matchups in the game.
Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin versus Javedeon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus
Left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Jack Conklin have been excellent this season, with the exception of a few hiccups.
In Week 2 versus the Detroit Lions, Conklin misread a tackle, which resulted in a safety. Then in Week 3 versus the Oakland Raiders, Taylor Lewan was penalized for unnecessary roughness, which proved costly to the Titans’ final drive.
Otherwise, both players are graded among the best tackles in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Lewan tops the list with an overall grade of 89.0, and Conklin ranks fourth at 84.0.
On Sunday both players have formidable matchups. Lewan plays opposite right-side linebacker Javedeon Clowney while Conklin plays opposite left-side linebacker Whitney Mercilus.
Through three weeks of the season, Clowney and Mercilus have seven quarterback hits, two sacks and a recovered fumble. The onus of pass protection therefore falls heavily on Lewan and Conklin.
If they can contain Houston’s blitz, Mariota looks to play well. Versus Oakland, the second-year quarterback had an 81.3 QBR when not blitzed versus a 4.9 QBR when blitzed: 2-for-2, 15 yards and one interception.
Delanie Walker, DeMarco Murray versus Houston’s Pass Defense
Through three weeks of the season, the Texans have the best pass defense in the NFL. They allow 151.3 passing yards per game. That’s less than 40 yards every quarter.
We can therefore expect coach Mike Mularkey to run the ball heavily against the Texans on Sunday. Rushing has been the core of Tennessee’s offensive success this season. Their 128.0 yards per game on the ground currently ranks eighth in the league.
However, when Mariota does throw the ball — particularly against a stout defense like that of Houston — he finds more success throwing to tight ends and running backs than to wide receivers.
Last week versus the Raiders, when throwing to wide receivers, Mariota was 8-for-22 for 100 yards and two interceptions. When throwing to tight ends and running backs, he was 9-for-11 for 114 yards.
Thus as the Titans hope to throw the ball against Houston’s secondary, the onus of pass-catching will likely fall on tight end Delanie Walker and running back DeMarco Murray. They currently account for three of Tennessee’s four receiving touchdowns.
On a positive note, wide receiver Kendall Wright, who missed the first three games of the season with a hamstring injury, is expected to debut against the Texans. If available, Wright provides Mariota a reliable target in the slot.
Perrish Cox versus Will Fuller
Two weeks ago Perrish Cox sealed the Titans’ 16-15 win over the Detroit Lions, when he intercepted Matthew Stafford’s intended pass to tight end Eric Ebron.
Versus Oakland the following week Cox’s heroics were overshadowed by poor pass coverage. The cornerback was consistently targeted by Derek Carr, and he sacrificed a number of first downs to wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper.
As a result, according to Pro Football Focus, Cox currently grades 105th in the league for pass coverage. On the opposite side of the field, cornerback Jason McCourty grades 27th for pass coverage.
With these stats in consideration, we can expect that Brock Osweiler will be throwing towards Cox more often than towards McCourty.
And since McCourty generally covers the opposing team’s best receiver — DeAndre Hopkins in Houston’s case — it seems that Cox will square off against rookie speedster Will Fuller.
This matchup between Cox and Fuller will be pivotal as Dick LaBeau’s defense looks to continue their early-season success. Fuller is graded as one of the best rookie receiver, and his five receptions of 20 or more yards tie for 3rd in the league.
Marcus Mariota versus Turnovers
Mariota has had an alright start to the 2016 season.
He has completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 723 yards and four touchdowns. However, the second year quarterback also has six turnovers — four interceptions and two fumbles.
Knowing that an NFL team’s give/take differential is a major predictor of their success, Mariota will be pressured on Sunday to secure the football.
The good news: Houston has one interception on the season, and preferred targets Delanie Walker and Kendall Wright are expected to return to the Titans’ starting lineup on Sunday. The bad news: Houston averages a forced fumble each game.