NFL Preview - Tennessee (1-2) at Houston (3-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Houston Texans literally left a part of themselves on the field last weekend in recording the first 3-0 start in franchise history.
Quarterback Matt Schaub and the Texans aim to extend their quick beginning to the season this Sunday against a visiting Tennessee Titans team hoping to build off their first victory of 2012.
After entering the NFL as an expansion club for the 2002 season, the Texans are coming off their first playoff appearance after winning the AFC crown, and have showed no signs of slowing down so far this year. Houston has averaged nearly 30 points a game in opening with wins over the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos while yielding just 14 points a game.
Schaub shook off some violent hits to match a career high with four touchdown passes in last weekend's 31-25 victory over the Broncos, finding four different receivers for scores.
Denver was flagged for consecutive illegal hits in the third quarter, with the second by Broncos linebacker Joe Mays leaving Schaub helmetless and bleeding after losing a piece of his left earlobe.
Schaub sat out only one play before returning to the field and Mays, who was apologetic afterwards, was suspended for one game and fined earlier this week.
"I told Matt five times today, �he's the man.' I've been telling people for a long time that he's an elite quarterback and we have to put him up there with the best in the league and he showed it today," offensive lineman Duane Brown said of his QB. "He stood in the pocket, took some brutal shots and never blinked. He put up big numbers against a pretty good secondary."
Schaub's first TD of the game, a 14-yard pass to tight end Owen Daniels, gave the Texans a 31-11 lead, but a late fumble by running back Ben Tate helped spark the Broncos to a late 14-point burst before Houston held on.
"It feels good. I've been through the worst of the worst with the organization. We've climbed that mountain," said wide receiver Andre Johnson. "We are still climbing trying to get over that hump, but we have a great team. We know we have a good team. The thing is just being consistent every weekend, going out and trying to get wins."
The Titans are also aiming to add another victory after a wild 44-41 overtime triumph against the visiting Detroit Lions.
Three straight touchdowns by the Titans in the fourth quarter gave them a 14- point edge with 1:16 left in regulation, but the Lions found the end zone with 18 seconds left and then saw backup quarterback Shaun Hill connect with Titus Young for a 46-yard Hail Mary touchdown to force overtime.
A stunned Tennessee team got a 26-yard field goal from Rob Bironas and then stopped Detroit on 4th-and-inches at its own 7-yard line to end the game.
"I can honestly say, 30 years being around the NFL, I never saw anything close to what we experienced in this game, the highs and the lows, both sides of the ball," said Titans head coach Mike Munchak.
It was a needed win for Tennessee, which had been outscored 72-23 in its first two losses to the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers.
The Titans had little problem moving the ball in big chunks versus the Lions, becoming the first team in NFL history to score five touchdowns of at least 60 yards in a game. And, they came in a multiple of different ways, with Tennessee scoring on a punt return, kickoff return, two pass receptions and a fumble return.
Looking to get back to .500, the Titans will play their first divisional game of the 2012 season and it is no walk in the park.
"Every week we've been playing playoff teams," noted Munchak on Monday. "We know Houston is in our division, so we know them. Obviously, they're 3-0, so they're one of the better teams that's off to a great start, and that's going to be a great football game. We need it to be for us to win."
Tennessee hasn't had trouble picking up wins over the Texans, leading the all- time series 14-6 while winning seven of 10 at Houston.
The rivals split the series in each of the last four seasons.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
While running back Chris Johnson's career remains stuck in the mud, quarterback Jake Locker had an excellent game versus the Lions to record his first victory as a starter. The 2011 first-round pick threw for a career-high 378 yards, finding wide receiver Nate Washington (71 yards) and tight end Jared Cook (61 yards) for long touchdowns.
Cook did suffer a shoulder injury during the game, but is expected to play in this game along with wide receiver Kenny Britt, who sustained a slight ankle injury.
The 44 points marked Tennessee's highest game total since a 47-10 win at Detroit on Nov. 27, 2008 and was also keyed by special teams play.
Darius Reynaud took a kickoff back 105 yards for a score, the longest play in franchise history, and he also contributed to Tommie Campbell's 65-yard punt return for a score in the first.
In a play reminiscent of the "Music City Miracle," Reynaud fielded the ball towards the left sideline and tossed it over to the right side for Campbell, who ran untouched for the score.
"You'd love to be able to have that every week," said Locker of the five long touchdowns. "Obviously that's not going to happen but you talk about trying to create explosive plays and that's a culmination of everybody working hard to make that happen. That's not just the guy that's got the ball in his hands. It's everybody included and that's what makes them so special."
Special could also describe the Texans defense, which ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed (255.7) per game.
Defensive end J.J. Watt has been a force over the first three weeks as he leads the AFC with 5.5 sacks while also logging seven tackles for a loss and five passes defensed. He had a career-high 2 1/2 sacks against the Broncos and will try to beat a Titans line that has not allowed a sack in back-to-back games for the first time since 2009.
"He's been exceptional. I don't know that I've seen a player play as well as he's played three weeks in a row. He's off to a tremendous start," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said of Watt.
Though the Texans did not log an interception last weekend, they did defend 12 passes, led by three from cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Free safety Glover Quin and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell got their hands on two passes each.
Kubiak's secondary will have safety Quintin Demps despite him having thumb surgery on Monday. Demps is expected to play with a cast on the hand.
Linebacker Brian Cushing, second on the team to Watts with 14 tackles, will lead a unit that will try to prevent Johnson from breaking out.
The Titans running back has been held to just 45 yards on 33 carries this season, good for an average of 1.4 yards a carry.
Locker, meanwhile, knows that last week's big victory won't be enough to get them ready for the Titans.
"It's real easy to get caught up in (the win) and try and ride that wave and you should somewhat, momentum wise, but you've also got to understand that, yeah, you're facing a different opponent the next week and your preparation that you had last week is going to change," the quarterback said.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Few teams can offer the 1-2-3 punch of Schaub, Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster, a combination that surely leaves defensive coordinators sleepless.
Foster scored three times on the ground in the first two weeks and ran for over 100 yards against the Broncos while also catching one of Schaub's four touchdown passes.
Kubiak is looking to keep Foster fresh throughout the season, so Tate is likely to get some carries despite his fumble versus Denver.
Johnson, who leads the Titans with 212 receiving yards and two touchdowns, gets most of the secondary's attention, leaving open space and 1-on-1 matchups for wideout Kevin Walter and Daniels. The three receivers all scored last weekend and Walter led the way with 73 yards on three catches.
And then there is Schaub, who is in elite form after missing the final six games of 2011 due to a Lisfranc injury. He has thrown for 751 yards with five touchdown passes to just one interception and earned praise after praise for his quick return last Sunday despite the hard hits.
"It's the ultimate when your teammates feel that way about you. It's just me being the quarterback -- you know, I have to be out there every play. You're going to get hit in this league and you just have to take it and go," he said.
Schaub has been sacked three times this year and Kubiak mentioned after Sunday's game that he would like to see his quarterback take fewer hits going forward.
It will be up the defensive ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley to make sure that doesn't happen as they are two of six Tennessee players to have logged sacks this season. Outside linebackers Akeem Ayers and Will Witherspoon has also gotten to the QB this season and they'll look to keep Schaub uncomfortable in the pocket in this game. Ayers had 16 tackles versus the Lions.
The Titans do have plenty to clean up for this game after allowing Detroit to log 583 yards of offense, 450 of that through the air.
"Yes, there are things on defense, obviously, we have to get better. You can't give up 14 points with whatever was left, a couple of minutes with their backup quarterback in there. You know, we can go and drill ourselves for that. We can work on that," Munchak said following Sunday's win.
Cornerback Alterraun Verner has snatched the Titans' lone interception of this season and it was Ayers' failed attempt at knocking down Detroit's Hail Mary pass that led to overtime.
Yes, the Titans are coming off one of the more entertaining games to take place this season and have an excellent track record against the Texans, especially in Houston.
However, these are not the same Texans, who are in the midst of elevating themselves to one of the best teams in football. Schaub and company should have little problem shredding Tennessee's secondary and the Titans' offense won't be a major threat every week until the run game gets going.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 31, Titans 13
09/27 15:02:46 ET