The Tennessee Titans will host the Houston Texans on Sunday after losing a handful of key players to injury during their Week 1 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Head Coach Mike Vrabel will have his hands full in his home debut, but if these five players were to step-up, then Tennessee has a good chance at defeating their formidable division rival.
The injury bug smacked the Tennessee Titans offense hard during Week 1’s 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Marcus Mariota‘s favorite target, tight end Delanie Walker, will miss the rest of the season after breaking his ankle. Two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan will miss Week 2’s game due to a concussion. Former Pro Bowl right tackle Jack Conklin will also sit out of Week 2’s game due to a recovering ACL injury. And the Titans third best tackle Dennis Kelly is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. According to reports, an illness kept Kelly out of practice on Thursday and Friday.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is also not 100 percent for Sunday’s crucial AFC South matchup. Mariota was stricken on a play and appeared to be favoring his throwing arm. Here’s video footage:
— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) September 9, 2018
Vrabel expects his QB to play on Sunday. However, 12up reports that the symptoms Mariota expressed he was feeling are being compared to what ended Denard Robinson‘s NFL career. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said on Friday that Vrabel expects both Mariota and backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert to appear in Week 2’s game.
Banged up offensive line holds the heaviest responsibility
The Houston Texans’ 3-4 defense is built on a deceptive pass-rush. Superstar defensive end JJ Watt, hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, and strong outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus may have a feast on Sunday if the Titans offensive line is not prepared. It will be critical for the Titans replacement offensive tackles and tight end to step up in the pass protection.
Here are the first three key players to watch against the Texans:
Left Tackle, Kevin Pamphile
I’m relatively certain Kevin Pamphile will start at left tackle on Sunday. Pamphile played against the Dolphins last week and performed well, but things can get ugly in Week 2. He will likely be lined up with Watt and Clowney throughout the entire game. Most analysts would agree that the blindside tackle is one of the most critical positions in the NFL. If Pamphile gets beat too often, the Titans have no shot at beating Houston.
Right Tackle, Unknown
I’m not sure who will start at right tackle, but I do know they have an essential responsibility. Fansided‘s Matias Wodner speculated Tennessee could have to call up Tyler Marz from their practice squad. The rest of the healthy offensive lineman on the roster are interior lineman. It wouldn’t be odd for the Titans to start a guard at the strongside tackle because Pamphile’s primary position is the guard. I doubt Marz will start on Sunday, but if he does, transitioning from the practice squad would be unfair. Blocking Mercilus’ Pro Bowl caliber pass rush and maybe Watt is sure to be a challenge.
Tight End, Jonnu Smith
Replacing Delanie Walker at tight end will be Jonnu Smith. I’m not sure if Smith will get the same amount of targets from Mariota as Walker did. But I do know Mariota loved using Walker as his safety blanket. Walker had made 233 receptions and scored 16 touchdowns since Mariota’s 2015 rookie season. I expect Mariota to look for Smith early on to establish a connection between the two. However, pass blocking will be just as important in this particular matchup. The other starting tight end is Luke Stocker, who could see a fair amount of reps at tight end too. His performance will also be critical in this game.
Let’s address the running game
The offensive line needs to worry about the running game also to provide some relief for the Titans quarterbacks. Running back Derrick Henry said he was “pissed” with his Week 1 performance. According to his interview with the Titans official website, Henry said the following:
“I definitely need to get it going personally. I need to play better this week, be effective in the running game, make plays, and help open everything else up. They have a great defense. I have to run hard, finish runs, and be ready.”
His performance on Sunday will be critical, that’s why he is the fourth player to watch.
Running back, Derrick Henry
After Henry’s slow start, running back Dion Lewis received an increased workload. Some analysts believed Henry was supposed to be the power back, while Lewis was supposed to be the receiving back with more speed. If Henry has a good game as a bruising back, it leads to more play action possibilities, and less pressure on the passing game to move the ball downfield. I expect Lewis to have just as many shares as Henry, but Henry is a significant part of this offense because of his brute force.
Tennessee’s Pro Bowl cornerback will be put to the test
The Tennessee Titans signed former Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler this past offseason to a five-year $61 million deal. They expect Butler to be able to check Houston Texans Pro Bowl wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. His performance on Sunday will be a major key, which makes him the final of five players to watch against the Texans.
Cornerback, Malcolm Butler
Last week, Malcolm Butler made an interception in the end zone to prevent a Dolphins touchdown. He also got burned by Kenny Stills on a 75-yard touchdown. Butler will need to lock down one of the league’s most dominating receivers in Hopkins, who did not score a touchdown in Week 1. Expect Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Hopkins to link up for a ton of scores this season, but can Butler prevent the two from scoring on Sunday? I think it’s possible if he plays to his potential. Regardless, his performance will be crucial for the Titans.