Texans-Titans: For the Second Straight Game, Houston Faces Must-Win
Hopefully, Houston has spent more of its time off thinking about "what will be" than "what could've been."
Tonight, the Texans will play on Monday Night Football for the second time in franchise history, and there's much more to worry about than impressing people on a national stage.
Houston (5-4) is set to face the suddenly red-hot Tennessee Titans (3-6), with Houston native Vince Young making his first start in his hometown since devastating the Texans with a game-winning, 39-yard scamper in an overtime game during his rookie season in 2007.
However, much has changed since then.
The Texans are right in the thick of the AFC playoff race and must win games like tonight's if they want to remain relevant.
In Houston's first game against Tennessee this season, a 34-31 victory in Nashville, quarterback Matt Schaub had his best game as a pro, throwing for 357 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Cortland Finnegan and company had no answer for Andre Johnson, who racked up 10 catches for 149 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
So, nothing to worry about, right?
The Titans started this season 0-6, and the Texans have already beaten them once.
Since Young was inserted as the starting quarterback, the Titans have won three straight and are looking much more like the team that went 13-3 a season ago.
Titans running back Chris Johnson, who gashed the Texans for 284 total yards and three touchdowns in their week two meeting, has been on fire of late.
Johnson leads the NFL in rushing with 1,091 yards so far, and he's played one fewer game than everyone else atop the rushing leader board to this point.
He's amassed six touchdowns during Tennessee's three-game win streak, with a whopping 635 total yards.
Clearly, Houston must gear a huge percentage of its defensive efforts towards stopping him, as he's really the only big-time offensive playmaker the Titans have.
So, how will they do it?
The Texans' defense has been stellar since struggling earlier in the season and has risen from 32nd against the run all the way up to 13th in the league.
The Titans have been careful in easing Young into the action thus far, and he hasn't really thrown the ball down the field much.
This helps the Texans, because it allows them to keep the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, meaning they'll have two more guys that can hopefully help to contain Johnson before he can really gain momentum.
If Johnson is able to get out into open space, he's virtually impossible to catch, as evidenced by his series of highlight reel plays so far this season.
The Texans' pass rush will also need to get pressure on Young and force him to make improvisational plays.
Do they want Young to be running around? Not necessarily, but they do need to be able to flush him from the pocket and force him to make throws on the move.
The Titans will certainly attempt their fair share of short screens in an attempt to get Johnson out into the open, and it will be important for the Texans' linebackers (namely DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing) to be prepared and get into positions to make plays.
Another important factor in tonight's game will be the effectiveness of Houston's running game.
The struggles of Steve Slaton have been well documented, but fumbling hasn't been his only problem.
The second-year back from West Virginia has carried the ball 116 times for just 359 yards this season, good for an awful 3.1 yards per carry.
The Texans started Ryan Moats over Slaton against Indianapolis, but Moats didn't fare any better and had a fumble near the goal line of his own.
Running on Tennessee is no easy task, as they rank just behind the Texans (14th in the league) against the run.
Houston has shown that it can win by relying heavily on throwing the ball, but lack of a running game makes it much easier on a defense to prepare for the pass.
The Texans will also need pass catchers other than Andre Johnson to step up.
Tight end Owen Daniels, who was in the middle of his best year to date, is gone for the season with a torn ACL.
That leaves Joel Dreessen and James Casey as Houston's two primary receiving tight ends.
Kevin Walter, who enjoyed a breakout season a year ago, hasn't been as involved in the offense in 2009, and with so much attention to be focused on Johnson, he needs to find a way to get himself open.
Fortunately for the Texans, Tennessee has struggled in a major way against the pass, ranking 31st in the league.
This just happens to be Houston's strong suit, and they should be able to exploit the Titans' secondary.
If the Texans' offensive line is able to hold up and give Schaub time to pass, he's dangerous enough to do significant damage.
Divisional games are rarely easy on either team, and tonight will be no exception.
Tennessee has more to play for than just spoiling the Texans' season, as they are still barely alive in the playoff race.
A victory for the Texans puts them in control of their own destiny.
A victory for the Titans has the Texans back to thinking about "what could've been."
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