3TFO: Texans @ Titans, Week 17
It may be a distant memory now from way back in Week 2, but the last time the Texans and Titans met, they gave us one of the best games of the NFL season. A wild fourth quarter featured a safety, a pick-six, a second-straight late-game rally by Houston, and a game-saving blocked field goal. DeAndre Hopkins’ spectacular touchdown in overtime gave the Texans a 2-0 record, but little did Houston know that they’d still be looking for their third win in Week 17.
Houston head coach Gary Kubiak has since been fired, Matt Schaub no longer seems capable of finishing a start without an interception, and many Texans fans may be rooting for a loss Sunday to clinch the top pick in next year’s draft. On the Tennessee side, Mike Munchak may be coaching his last game while the Titans face an offseason with possible turnover at quarterback and running back. We could dwell on the negatives, but we recently released our PFF Pro Bowl Team and the Titans and Texans both earned mention among our selections. Let’s highlight some of these bright spots as these two teams enter their season finale.
Defensive Player of the Year
I’ve seen many analysts call this year’s Defensive Player of the Year race wide open, nominating sack leaders like Robert Quinn and Robert Mathis or active players on great defenses like Luke Kuechly and Earl Thomas. But if you ask us, there’s no debating who the award should go to. For the second straight season, no one can match the disruptive force that is J.J. Watt.
Watt’s 2012 season was jaw-dropping, as he became the first player since we began grading in 2008 to break the +100.0 barrier. With a mark that was twice that of any other 3-4 defensive end, we even named him the best overall player in the league. After one of the greatest individual defensive seasons in NFL history, Watt could have had a significant drop-off this year and still been worthy of Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Instead, in many ways his 2013 campaign has been even better.
Though he won’t match his gaudy sack or batted pass totals from last season, Watt already has, or is on pace for, more run stops and quarterback pressures than he had in 2012. His 49 Run Stops are the third-highest total in the league, trailing only active linebackers Lavonte David and Paul Posluszny. His 79 quarterback pressures are also third-most in the league behind edge rushers Robert Quinn and Brian Robison. He won’t match his 15 batted passes from last season, but his six are still tied for second-most in the NFL. And though his 10 sacks aren’t threatening any records, his 34 quarterback hits are by far the most we’ve ever recorded for a defender in a single-season. Between run stops, quarterback pressures, and batted passes, Watt has disrupted the opposing offense on an absurd 14.3% of his snaps.
Most impressively, Watt has already broken last year’s PFF record with a +102.0 overall grade this season. For perspective, Calais Campbell, who is having a phenomenal year in his own right, boasts a +37.7 mark. Watt’s “low” point was a +0.2 grade against the Rams, in a game where St. Louis designed their whole offensive gameplan to ensure that he didn’t beat them. Watt abused Chance Warmack and David Stewart for seven quarterback pressures and five defensive stops in Week 2, and has one last chance to display his dominance this Sunday. We’d expect no less from the best defender in the league.
Myers & Casey
When the Texans have the ball, the two players to keep an eye on in the trenches are Texans’ center Chris Myers and Titans’ defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. Now that Nick Mangold is having a down season for the Jets, Myers is the new gold standard for run-blocking centers. He has the highest run block grade at his position for the second time in the last three seasons. He was excellent against the Titans in Week 2, as he regularly handled defensive tackle Antonio Johnson at the line and abused linebacker Moise Fokou on the second level. Go back to the 4:02 mark of the first quarter, where Myers quickly pulled into space and engulfed linebacker Zach Brown to open the edge for Ben Tate. Brown did eventually make the tackle, just 60 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. On one of the few times he matched up against Casey, Myers sealed him off to allow Arian Foster’s game-tying two-point conversion in the final minutes.
Though Myers dominates in the ground game, the advantage will switch Casey’s way when the Texans go to the air. The Titans’ tackle was a huge run-stopper in his previous two NFL seasons, with the second-highest run defense grade at his position in 2012. But with 25 career QB pressures coming into this season, he was a non-factor against the pass. Amazingly, he has completely flipped his game in 2013. He’s been pedestrian versus the run, but his 54 quarterback pressures are the third-most of any defensive tackle. As a three-technique pass rusher, he did most of his best work in Week 2 against Texans’ right guard Brandon Brooks. Brooks has been a revelation in the running game this season, but still has his struggles in pass protection. He’ll need his best on Sunday against a Pro Bowl-caliber player like Casey.
Johnson vs. Verner & McCourty
Hopkins was the hero of that Week 2 victory, but his rookie season has gone up and down with Houston’s quarterback struggles. One player who hasn’t been nearly as affected by the QB carousel is perennial standout Andre Johnson. With 2.35 Yards Per Route Run to go along with his 103 catches, he’s been as efficient as he is prolific. He found a groove with Case Keenum in the middle of the season, gashing defenses for deep completions during scramble drills. Johnson has slowed a bit in recent weeks as Keenum has struggled with injuries and Schaub has come back into the mix, but his precise route-running and ability to position his big frame for spectacular catches still make him the standard at wide receiver.
It was only a few weeks ago where we had both Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty among our Pro Bowl cornerbacks. Each put himself on our radar quickly thanks to strong early-season performances, with Verner’s game against Houston especially notable. The Texans targeted him 11 times in Week 2 and he allowed just five completions while earning two passes defensed and a crucial fourth quarter pick-six. But for the second straight season, Verner played himself out of our accolades with a bad late-season stretch. From Weeks 12-14, he allowed 199 yards, a touchdown, and a 107.1 QB rating with just one pass defensed. McCourty kept himself in the conversation a little bit longer, but has allowed 187 yards and a touchdown in the last three weeks while still searching for his first interception of the season. McCourty has already gotten a big contract from the Titans, but a strong finish from Verner against one of the league’s best receivers could pay huge dividends as he heads into free agency.
Follow Pete on Twitter: @PFF_Pete