The Titans have really gotten things done on the defensive side of the ball over the last month of play, holding their last four opponents to only 9.75 points per game. These weren’t games against world-beater teams, but they held a Dolphins team in contention for the postseason to just three points, the likely playoff-bound 49ers to 17 points, and the fighting-for-their-lives Steelers to 19 points (not to mention the shutout against the Jags). In a game against another struggling offense (30th-ranked 15.9 points per game this year), we should expect the same macro game plan here. Said game plan involves a slow pace of play (27th overall), elevated rush rates (second-highest overall rush rate this season), a defense designed to get after the quarterback (41 sacks) through organic pressure (fourth-lowest blitz rate), hold opponents to primarily-short passing (7.7 aDOT against), and clamp down against the run (fewest fantasy points per game allowed to opposing backfields). That defensive game plan feels tailored precisely to their opponent this week, one that prefers to run the football and plays at a slow pace.
Derrick Henry saw his 21-day practice window opened on Wednesday this week, giving him at least a shot at returning for the season finale. The team has until 4 pm Eastern on Saturday to make that decision, but I would tentatively expect he is held out to be allowed the extra two weeks to get fully healthy for the playoffs. As in, his 21-day practice window spans all the way until the Wednesday before what would be their Divisional Round game, and they clearly can activate him earlier should they lose this week. Should Henry be held out, the primary rushing duties would fall to D’Onta Foreman, who has seen 20 or more running back opportunities in three of Tennessee’s last five games. He also saw his highest snap rate of the season last week at 65%, which came in a game with both Dontrell Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols active. The matchup on the ground yields an above average 4.42 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Houston defense allowing a robust 28.0 fantasy points per game to opposing backfields. The increase in snap rate for Foreman came at the direct expense of McNichols last week, and I’d expect the same this week in a game that plays to an increase to the already-high rush rates of the Titans.
The Titans pass-catcher are getting healthy at the right time, as Julio Jones’ stint on the COVID list allowed him time for his hamstring woes to heal up. The only regular pass-catcher out this week appears to be MyCole Pruitt, and even then he was only serving a modest role at tight end. Expect Tommy Hudson to see some run as the third tight end this week. It remains to be seen exactly how the snap rates will shake out for the Tennessee pass-catchers, but I would tentatively expect them to take it rather easy on AJ Brown and Julio Jones here, as each has recently returned from multi-week absences due to injury. Their Week 16 game is likeliest the best comparison, a game that saw AJ Brown, Julio Jones, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and Chester Rodgers all play between 50% and 74% of the offensive snaps in a loose rotation. As in, lead tight end Geoff Swaim could see the highest snap rate of all Tennessee pass-catchers here. Expect him to be joined by Anthony Firkser and the aforementioned Tommy Hudson. Houston has allowed the fourth-highest average yards per completion at 11.3 and have allowed the 12th-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks.
Houston wants to be another slow-paced, high rush rate team, checking in with a 24th-ranked situation-neutral pace of play and an above average 46% rush rate on first and second down with the score within seven points. They are also a team that will open things up in the second half of games they are trailing, bringing the fifth-fastest second-half pace of play and 12th-ranked second-half pass rate into Week 18. This is another example of a team whose motivation for winning is put in question, as a win could cost them a draft slot or two. Houston averages just 59.6 plays per game (second-lowest in the league, ahead of only Seattle), which should primarily be attributed to a combination of slow pace of play, poor offensive efficiency, and poor standing in defensive efficiency.
Rex Burkhead has played his way into a contract extension over the previous seven weeks of play, emerging as the unquestioned lead back of this backfield. He has seen 18 or more running back opportunities in four of those last seven games, but should be thought of as a “borderline yardage and touchdown back,” as the Texans simply don’t target their backfield at a high rate (as in, it’s not that Burkhead isn’t effective through the air, it’s just that this offense doesn’t send the backs on routes, meaning the majority of his targets come from broken plays). Expect Royce Freeman to serve as the primary change of pace back while David Johnson is welcomed back to serve as the primary third-down option. The matchup on the ground could not be worse, yielding a laughable 3.705 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Titans defense allowing the fewest fantasy points per game to opposing backfields.
Brandin Cooks has commanded a massive 26.7% team target market share and 40.4% of the team’s available air yards, and that’s with a missed game this season. All of that to say, this pass offense has been “Brandin Cooks or bust,” and when Cooks is removed from the game, the entire Texans pass game has often failed. That said, Cooks has been viable all season in games we can project the Texans to pass more and against opponents they are likelier to achieve success against. Cooks has both working in his favor this week. Behind Cooks, Chris Conley and Niko Collins have operated as the WR2 and WR3 this season. Conley is currently listed as questionable after failing to practice at all this week, possibly opening up snaps for Danny Amendola and Chris Moore (if active, he’s also questionable). The tight end situation has remained a three-way timeshare, just now the snaps are split amongst Brevin Jordan, Pharaoh Brown, and Antony Auclair, with Jordan Akins largely being phased out. The expected range of pass attempts for quarterback Davis Mills should land in the 28-32 range, with a slight chance at more should the Texans fall behind big early.
The Titans are likely to assert themselves sooner rather than later here, with a defense built to handle exactly how the Texans would like to attack and an offense well-suited to take advantage of Houston’s shortcomings. The slow combined pace of play in the first half is likely to lead to a low-scoring half, particularly from the Texans. Similarly, the increase in expected pace of play in the second half from the Texans should lead to an additional possession or two for the Titans, a slight boost to whichever players we can project to still remain in the game should they have the game in hand. Since the Titans are highly unlikely to adjust their offensive game plan unless down by multiple scores into the second half, and since the Texans are highly unlikely to find themselves in that scenario, we should expect this likeliest scenario to carry a higher degree of certainty than other spots on the slate, particularly considering how the various game flows influence the decision-making processes of teams.