Dissecting Houston's upset win in Nashville

September, 20, 2009
9/20/09
8:04
PM ET
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Houston’s Dunta Robinson and the rest of the Texans quieted their critics, for now, in a win over Tennessee.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Texans hooted and hollered for Hall of Fame Oilers-Titans lineman Bruce Matthews, now a Texans assistant, when he got a game ball and an official welcome to the other side.

Beyond that, Houston’s locker room was nearly as somber as Tennessee’s after an intense and entertaining 34-31 win for the Texans at LP Field. The two reporters who cover the Texans most closely tried everything in their arsenal to get Gary Kubiak to smile and say something uplifting when he spoke at the podium after the game. But he found it exceedingly difficult.

Nice win? Sure. Too many lingering issues to list? Yup.

“I don’t think this game answers anything,” said Kubiak, who was dead serious, not working to spin. “I’m concerned about our inconsistency as a football team. Very concerned.”

Even so, the Texans did many of the things they spent their offseason saying needed to be necessary to make a jump to playoff contention. They won turnovers, 2-0. They grabbed 17 of a possible 21 points in the red zone. They won on the road. They won in the division.

We’ll try to limit ourselves to five compartments to examine in the wake of the somewhat surprising result.

1. The Texans showed some toughness: After they got pushed around in their opener by the Jets, I didn’t think they were pushovers. After standing toe-to-toe with the Titans, I don’t think they are Ali or Frazier. But Houston showed it can be tough as a situation warrants it.

The league will surely look at the film and may find more culprits than Jason Jones, who threw a punch and got ejected, and David Anderson, who got a personal foul for the Texans, from the fourth-quarter play that spilled into the Texans bench and featured a lot of shoving.
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But it gave the Texans their best chance to illustrate a balance of toughness and poise at a time when it seemed like the Titans were about to boil over.

“When you get in those scraps, it’s such a tricky spot, it’s such a tricky thing,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “You don’t want to hurt the team, you don’t want to do anything bad. But at the same time, you don’t want to get pushed around.

“You get pushed around in this league and you’re going to be marked, and it’s so hard to get a stigma like that off. We’re going to go out there and fight you for 60 minutes and figure it out. That’s what we’ve got to be and that’s who we are I think, we finally proved that.”

There was a good degree of resolve too. This team won’t do well if it doesn’t throw well. Last year here, Andre Johnson had drops, failed to make plays and was upset with himself after a two-catch game for opportunities missed.

This time he started less than great again, but rebounded and wound up with 10 catches for 149 yards and two scores. More on him in our next category.

2. Johnson and Johnson ran wild: Memo to both defensive coordinators -- hard as it is to believe, your messages about the danger factors of Chris Johnson and Andre Johnson did not get through.

The Titans' running back had 16 carries for 197 yards, two scores and a team-high nine catches for 87 more, including a 69-yard uncovered touchdown. That’s 11.36 yards a touch.

Word was strong safety Dominique Barber was supposed to line up wide right on Johnson on the busted TD pass. We didn’t see him much if at all after that, with Jon Busing in his place.

Johnson said he is Kerry Collins’ first read on the play. The back’s only decision was whether to run the fly pattern like he would have if a defender came with him as he went from the back field to the left sideline, or to jog off the ball to get the pass first, then do the running. He chose B with great effect.

“Of course, I was surprised,” Johnson said. “Kerry said he was trying to get the snap off quick enough and he eventually got it off and they still didn’t roll down to where I was.”

The Texans' run defense remains a big concern. Johnson converted a third-and-19 with a 57-yard touchdown draw, then topped it later with a 91-yard scoring run that tied the nearly 35-year old franchise record.

“He’s a great player. If we don’t line up right, if we leave him uncovered, what do we expect?” middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans asked.

On the other side, Andre Johnson broke free for a huge play of his own where he was under no pressure when the ball arrived.

In the second quarter, cornerback Nick Harper let him go and free safety Michael Griffin was next in line. But replays indicated he bit hard on a run fake. Even if Schaub had handed off, Griffin had plenty of help in front of him, none at all behind him, where Johnson turned the opportunity into a 72-yard score, his second.

(Did Griffin also bite on play-action when Jacoby Jones got free for a 44-yard catch at the start of the Texans’ go-ahead touchdown drive?)

The Titans left Nick Harper with Johnson too often while also allowing him to create things for other players like Jones and tight end Owen Daniels. Johnson scaled Harper for a lovely 19-yard score where he stopped the ball with one hand, then caught up to it and danced the sideline. Later he got Harper crossed up in the same exact area for a crucial pass-interference penalty.

While the Texans sort out their poor play against the run, the Titans will be examining pass defense.

Through two games, a team with three 2008 Pro Bowlers in the starting secondary has struggled at some key moments in coverage. Some of it is connected to the rush, some of it to communication issues, some of it to mistake-making.

“If the ball is in the air, we put it on ourselves,” nickelback Vincent Fuller said. “Everybody knows that the best pass coverage is of course the pass rush. But if the ball is in the air, us as a secondary we’re responsible for making those plays.

“Regardless of three-step, five-step, screen, if the ball goes from quarterback to running back, it’s the running game, if it goes in the air, we need to make plays.”

Johnson said he and Schaub are as good as ever at being in sync and that they saw nothing surprising from the familiar Titans.

“We pretty much know what they are going to give us,” Johnson said. “When they come out and do things, we try to adjust to it. We went out and made those adjustments and the plays worked for us.”

3. Could the two quarterbacks be heading in opposite directions? A lot of Titans critics doubted Collins’ potential to piece together a second strong season in a row based on the fact he’s never gone to the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Titans QB Kerry Collins was outplayed his counterpart, Matt Schaub.

He played well enough to win, just as he did in Pittsburgh. But the game’s most crucial play came with the ball in his hands, and could portend bad things. In position to move the Titans to a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win at the end, he stepped up in the pocket with 1:42 left in the game.

Amobi Okoye was bearing down, Collins took off and just dropped the ball. Then 39-year old Texans defensive lineman Jeff Zgonina beat the 36-year old quarterback to it, effectively ending the game.

Collins’ counterpart played about as well as could be asked, especially considering how skittish he appeared just seven days earlier. Schaub made a wide variety of throws, aiming for Johnson twice as often as anyone else but still effectively spreading it around on an afternoon where the run game got him 2.2 yards a carry.

Schaub finished with 357 yards, four TDs and no turnovers.

“We just kind of went back to some of our base stuff and things that our players were comfortable with because we were making too many mistakes,” Kubiak said of offensive changes from last weeks’ ugly loss to the Jets. “I think tempo and just how we play, speed of how we practiced made us play a little better.”

Schaub had solid protection after things settled down. The Titans had seven hits, no sacks and didn’t harass him into mistakes the way they have at times in the past.

“If we get good pressure, guys don’t catch balls, if we get sacks, they don’t make big plays,” defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. “When you come out of a game when they are throwing the ball with the success they had and you have no sacks, you’ve got to do more in our department.”

4. Houston was willing to rely on a role player in a huge situation: With 4:12 left in the third quarter, I didn’t feel like the Texans had to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Titans’ 37. They could have pinned the Titans deep and taken their chances, still down seven.

But after a timeout, they came out and went with an empty backfield with three receivers and two tight ends on the field. Schaub dropped back and fired to the least likely guy of the five eligible targets -- tight end Joel Dreessen.

He caught the 4-yard pass in front of Keith Bulluck with Fuller bearing down.

I was struck that a team with a lot of big names went to the one most NFL followers can’t spell as such a time.

“You’re saying it’s unexpected?” Dreessen said with a laugh. “Empty backfield, I saw the leverage I had so I knew I had to break it off quick and Matt saw the same thing and put it on me.”

Five plays later Daniels caught a 1-yard touchdown pass and it was 31-31.

“Coach Kubiak hit on it [Saturday] night,” Dreessen said. “We have to become a team, we have to have each others’ backs, especially playing an awesome, physical team like Tennessee that tries to intimidate you. It’s going to take everybody, that’s the message he sent to us, and I think we came through with that.”

5. A transformational result: I’m not going there. Anyone who follows the Texans has seen a wins they felt sure denoted some shift in the franchise’s DNA.

Players were reluctant to make such seismic statements, either.

“We went out and got it done,” Ryans said. “I’m not going to say it’s transformational or anything. We just got a win. We fought for four quarters. There have been times in the past where we would let up and kind of let guys off the hook.”

Said Winston: “It could be, if we make it that way. Last year we beat Tennessee and then went and laid an egg in Oakland. It can be everything we want it to be if we’re willing to go work for it. It’s about us.”

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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