How the Titans Can Prove They're an AFC South Contender vs. Houston Texans

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How the Titans Can Prove They're an AFC South Contender vs. Houston Texans
Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images

The Tennessee Titans got some attention after beating the favored Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. Now, they have a prime opportunity to prove their a contender in the AFC South when they travel to Houston to take on J.J. Watt and the Texans

Gary Kubiak's squadron rolled in both games against the Titans a year ago, but another Tennessee surprise is far from impossible. 

Here's what Mike Munchak's group must to do to get its second upset victory of the 2013 season.

  

Defensive Front Domination

In Week 1's win over the Steelers, the Titans sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and allowed only 32 rushing yards on 15 carries.

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who deserves more notoriety, tallied two quarterback takedowns. His defensive linemate Mike Martin had a tackle for loss. Super-athletic outside linebacker Zach Brown had two sacks of his own as a part of an eight-tackle afternoon. Next to him, Moise Fokou had six tackles and a tackle for loss.

To put it succinctly, Tennessee's front seven was dominant. 

Here's how Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated the performances of the Titans defensive front seven against the Steelers: 

Titans Defensive Performance vs. Steelers in Week 1
Position Overall PFF Grade Pass-Rushing Grade Run-Stopping Grade
Derrick Morgan DE -0.2 -0.8 +0.4
Sammie Hill DT +1.0 +0.1 +0.8
Jurrell Casey DT +4.9 +3.9 +0.8
Ropati Pitoitua DE +1.3 +0.2 +1.0
Akeem Ayers SLB -0.6 0 +0.1
Moise Fokou MLB +0.1 -0.7 +1.7
Zach Brown WLB +1.2 +0.7 -1.3

ProFootballFocus

No, Pittsburgh's offensive line isn't as sound from tackle to tackle as Houston's is, and Steelers All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL in the first quarter, making front-seven penetration much easier. 

Regardless of the discrepancy in talent level up front, the Titans must get another strong performance from their defensive front seven, a group that's become the strength of defensive coordinator Jerry Gray's unit. 

The Texans win by controlling the line of scrimmage with Chris Myers, Duane Brown and Co. For the 2012 season, Pro Football Focus rated Houston as the No. 11 pass-blocking offensive line and No. 13 run-blocking offensive line. Brown was a first-team All-Pro. 

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The rather immobile Matt Schaub was sacked on 4.73 percent of his passing attempts last year, the ninth-lowest in football. 

Tennessee held Houston to only 3.31 yards per carry in their two meetings—both losses—but Schaub went 41-for-63 for 409 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. He wasn't sacked either.

Casey, Martin, Sammie Hill, Ropati Pitoitua, Derrick Morgan and the trio of linebackers must win the battle at and near the line of scrimmage. It won't be easy but is certainly feasible.

 

Pass The Football Efficiently

As is the case in for the Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Titans need their young quarterback to take the next step in his maturation process. 

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Jake Locker was drafted early in the 2011 draft to be a franchise foundation, and thus far, he's been nothing more than an erratic, low-level gunslinger. 

His career completion percentage is 55.5. Last season, he threw 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in 11 games. 

Locker went 11-for-20 with 125 yards against the Steelers, an unspectacular yet familiar stat line for the former first-round selection. 

Tennessee's front office bolstered the team's offensive line this offseason by adding Andy Levitre in free agency and drafting Chance Warmack. Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Delanie Walker are a formidable pass-catching contingent. 

Locker struggled in a 24-10 December loss to Houston last year, going 21-for-45 for 309 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was also sacked six times.

In Week 1, the San Diego Chargers proved the Texans secondary can be vulnerable. At one point in the fourth quarter, Philip Rivers was 13-for-24 for 187 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. 

 

Get a Few Long Runs from Chris Johnson

Locker has to improve himself, but he'll be greatly aided by a big game from Chris Johnson. The electric runner was held to only 70 yards on 25 carries against a stout Pittsburgh Steelers defense in Week 1.

However, the Titans dedication to running Johnson was encouraging. 

Why? 

Because he's a home-run hitter, a true game-breaker, and it only takes one carry. Sure, he was dynamic in every game during his 2,000-yard season of 2009, but CJ2K's true value is in the "boom" he's capable of regardless of how much "bust" we see on a weekly basis. 

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In 2012, Johnson had runs of 94, 83, 80 and 31 yards, which together accounted for more than 23 percent of his seasonal yard total. 

Tennessee built its team—especially up front—to stop J.J. Watt and to clear space for Johnson to balance the offensive attack and take pressure off of Locker. Johnson did go for 141 yards against the Texans in Week 4 last year and had a 26-yard run in the second meeting with Houston. 

The Titans' springy runner doesn't have to have a sensational game against Gary Kubiak's club. But a few big-gainers would go a long way toward Tennessee's upset bid.

 

 

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