Quite incredibly after handing the Indianapolis Colts their first victory of the 2011 season just two weeks ago the Tennessee Titans are still alive in the playoff hunt. With a victory over the Houston Texans, who are locked into the third seed in the AFC, along with wins for Baltimore and the New York Jets, the Titans will steal an improbable sixth seed in the AFC and re-match in Houston next weekend. So we are left with the interesting situation, which we’ve had a couple of times in recent seasons, where a “better” team has nothing to play for against an inferior opponent with a playoff berth and potential momentum all to play for.
If Tennessee’s recent history is anything to go by watch for this game to be one of the closest of the weekend and one that could see the AFC sixth seed going down to the final minutes. Tennessee has only had one of their last six games decided by more than six points, their two touchdown defeat to the Colts, with four of those six games settled by a score of 23-17. All Houston has to play for in this game is momentum and some semblance of control over their wildcard opponent. Here are three focus points for one of three key games in deciding the sixth seed in the AFC.
Getting heat on TJ Yates
One of the bigger surprises about the Tennessee Titans season, and that it has not contributed more, is the pass rush provided by their defensive line. A part of the team that has been such a strong suit for most of the past decade, in one way or another, has been a letdown this season with only one defensive lineman racking up more than five sacks; that same player Karl Klug (+6.5) is the only player with a positive pass rushing grade on the season. Jason Jones has been a disappointment in the first season of his switch to defensive end. The Texans feature the strongest offensive line in the NFL this season and with players like Duane Brown (+12.4) and Eric Winston (+10.4) blocking the edge the Titans will need to buck the trend this week. Texans’ quarterback T.J. Yates sees his passer rating drop to 63.8 when he sees pressure but when blitzed his passer rating is higher, 89.6 compared to 75.8. The Titans must get pressure from their base pass rush this week if they are to light a fire underneath the Cincinnati Bengals in their late kickoff against the Baltimore Ravens.
Keeping Barwin and Reed at bay
Just as the Titans face a tough task in getting pressure on T.J. Yates they also face a challenge in keeping their own quarterback upright against a Houston Texans pass rush that has risen to the challenge of the loss of their talismanic leader, Mario Williams. Brooks Reed (-2.3 pass rush) has made a solid contribution in his rookie season but the star of the show opposite him as been Connor Barwin (+7.1 pass rush) and with the Texans flipping their defense both of the Titans’ tackles, Michael Roos (+3.6 pass block) and David Stewart (+15.3 pass block) must be at their best to give the offense a chance to score. The Texans like to bring six men on blitzes more than most defenses, so these tackles will be isolated one-on-one on the edges in one of their sterner tests of the season. If the Titans get time to operate on more than their staple quick-passing offense the Titans will be well set to do all they can to secure a playoff spot.
Scott & Watt – Setting the table
The marquee matchup on the football field in this game, on 2011 form, comes with the Titans on offense between their right guard Jake Scott (+13.1) and Texan LE and rookie sensation J.J. Watt (+25.7). Watt has played 80% of the Texans’ defensive snaps all season so it will be a matchup you get to watch all day on Sunday and both players play both run and pass well so it’s not just something to keep an eye on in certain situations. Watt’s non-stop motor sees him make plays in coverage as well and no game better showcased that than his performance last Thursday in the Texans’ loss to the Colts. In the first encounter, in Week 7, Watt registered a sack and two pressures and he has raised his game in the last month. The Texans will need another big game from him to secure a franchise record eleventh victory.
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