NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Titans coach Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray on Thursday stressed the importance of keeping keen eyes on the football.
It may sound like an obvious step, but the coaches said the Texans are skilled at using fakes and deception to get defenders out of position.
Tennessee (8-7) visits Houston (10-5) at noon Sunday in the season finale for both teams. The Titans must track the football against the Texans before tracking their postseason hopes, which require a victory, a loss by Cincinnati (9-6) against Baltimore (11-4) and other factors.
"(Houston's) offense is run, run, play-action pass, boot, misdirection, do those things to get you on your heels, and now you're overwhelmed and chasing ghosts," Gray said. "For a young football team like we are, that's how they get you. They get you thinking about what just happened to you and the next thing happens, so we've got to put those things behind us and play the play ahead, be pre-snap reading instead of post-snap reading."
The Titans have used rookies in 36 starts on defense this season, which leads the NFL. Rookie linebackers Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy are expected to add to that tally Sunday. Ayers has made 15 starts, including the last time that Houston played Tennessee and won 41-7 in October at LP Field. McCarthy has made six starts for the Titans in the latter half of the season but was inactive the first time the teams met.
Munchak said Houston's offense, which ranks second in the NFL in rushing (153.1 yards per game), has gone through running back Arian Foster during run and pass plays this season. He said the Texans try to make it tougher on linebackers and strong safeties to make decisions by using runs and then passing when defenders begin to attack the line of scrimmage.
"They fake very well. The backs do a good job of faking and that makes it harder on the linebackers," Munchak said. "If they get (drawn) up by the fake, then it's easy for the quarterback to drop it over their heads. They have to read their keys and not lose track of who they're responsible for. That's what happens if someone gets over-anxious: you drop your coverage, you take your eyes off who you have, and the next thing you know, you've been exploited. That's what happened to us last time."
The Titans are well aware of the dual threat that Foster poses. The two-time Pro Bowl selection had 115 yards rushing on 25 carries and 119 yards receiving on five catches in becoming the first player to do that against the Titans/Oilers in franchise history.
Munchak said the Texans have players beyond Foster that can execute fakes better than most teams, allowing Houston to sub personnel without sacrificing a big-play threat.
"They do a great job, so it makes it harder for the strong safety and the linebackers when they're trying to make a play," Munchak said.
The Texans will be without first-string quarterback Matt Schaub and second-stringer Matt Leinart because of injuries. Rookie QB T.J. Yates replaced Leinart in Week 12 and helped the Texans win three in a row, but Houston has lost its past two games since clinching its first AFC South division title. Yates is 78-for-130 passing (60 percent) for 902 yards and has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions. The Texans have not scored more than 20 points since losing Schaub on Nov. 13.
Ayers said the Texans may be using more bootlegs since Schaub's injury to ease the pressure on Yates. He and McCarthy said the Titans will place emphasis on first-down plays to create second- and third-down-and-long situations similar to what Tennessee did Saturday against Jacksonville.
"I think they do that a little more with him, being a rookie quarterback," Ayers said. "By doing that, they're able to buy him a little more time, instead of him sitting back in the pocket and trying to go through his reads. That way, you have to respect the run. When they're able to get you into second-and-short, that's when they're able to do the play action."
McCarthy said it will be important to get multiple tacklers to the football to take away the cut-back options that Houston's runners like to do.
"They have a great running back. They have a rookie quarterback, so we know their offense is going to be run through (Foster)," McCarthy said. "Whether it's in the passing game or running game, he's going to get the football. We need to get 11 hats to him and make sure we pressure the quarterback and force him to make bad decisions and just tackle."
Veteran safety Chris Hope compared the Texans offense to that of a chess player who does something to force a reaction and capitalizes a few moves later.
"Houston has a great offensive scheme," Hope said. "That's why they're so productive. They do a lot of misdirection, a lot of boots, a lot of different formations but running the same thing. When you're chasing all the different formations and personnel changes, you're losing what they're trying to do to you. Coach Gray has come up with a great plan and we just have to play one play at a time."