What to watch for in Titans-Texans on 'MNF'

Talk about a tough act to follow.

Seven days after the greatest Monday Night Football tilt of all time, the Titans and Texans are being asked to hop on stage and top what we received from the Rams and Chiefs.

Good luck with that.

Still, this evening’s clash has plenty going for it as a heavy-stakes AFC South tussle imbued with playoff implications.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for as the Texans (7-3) host the up-and-down Titans (5-5) on Monday night:

1. Tumbling out to an 0-3 start, Houston has rolled ever since with a shot to ice a franchise-record eighth-consecutive win against their rivals from Tennessee. The turnaround channels to a saucy defense allowing a super-tight 18.7 points per game since Week 4.

Familiar faces round out the group as a healthy and raucous J.J. Watt has reemerged to pound quarterbacks with 10 sacks (tied for fourth in the NFL), 17 signal-caller hits (tied for seventh) and four forced fumbles (tied for third). The Texans as a group have piled up a franchise-record 28 sacks through 10 games, with Jadeveon Clowney (6.5), Whitney Mercilus (2.0) and D.J. Reader (2.0) adding to the chaos on a weekly basis.

Clowney has been a hammer-dropper against the run, but the Texans have also fielded a staunch pass defense led by veteran corners Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph and safety Tyrann Mathieu. Last week’s win over the Redskins also featured star turns by rookie cover man Justin Reid — who played 72 of 75 snaps and broke Washington’s spirit with a 101-yard pick six of Alex Smith — and young linebacker Brennan Scarlett, who logged a pass breakup and an interception of his own against the spiraling ‘Skins. The Texans also welcome back talented cornerback Aaron Colvin after he missed six games with a banged-up ankle.

2. Tasked with toppling the Texans: Hot-and-cold Titans arm Marcus Mariota, back in the lineup after exiting last week’s implosion against the Colts with a neck stinger. While offering juicy mobility, Mariota has morphed into something of an enigma, casting off the ultra-promise of younger campaigns to throw for the fewest passing yards per game (175.9) and second-fewest passing touchdowns (7) among all 32 qualified quarterbacks. A laundry list of coaching changes and ever-switching schemes don’t help, but Mariota glides into Monday night as an average performer. He excelled in recent wins over the Cowboys and Patriots, though, giving Mariota something to build on under first-year coordinator Matt LaFleur.

It’s worth noting Mariota is 3-1 in games where he rushes seven-plus times, perhaps one avenue to counteract the troublesome duo of Watt and Clowney, who rank first and third, respectively, in terms of average time to sack the quarterback, per Next Gen Stats. (For non-nerds, this means the Houston twosome reach doomed pro passers in lightning-quick fashion.)

3. Tennessee’s backfield combination of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis hardly strike fear into the heart, but the versatile Lewis has seen his two of his highest-volume games since Week 9. Henry hasn’t topped 12 carries since Week 3, but remains in place as an early down hammer averaging a modest 40.4 yards per game on the ground.

Corey Davis is Tennessee’s top pass-catcher, but look for tight end Jonnu Smith to see his share of targets inside an offense that lacks explosiveness. While legions of players league-wide have already posted 60-plus catches and 900-plus yards, Davis leads the Titans with 45 grabs for 606 yards and two scores. Nobody else on the team boasts more than 300 yards through the air, speaking to an inconsistent "air assault" faced with a tough draw on Monday night.

4. What to make of Deshaun Watson’s season? It can seem a tad underwhelming beside last year’s rookie fireworks, but the young signal-caller has shown tangible upside in recent wins over the Dolphins and Broncos, which triggered a combined seven touchdowns and zero picks. While a tantalizing scrambler, Watson has thrown for fewer than 250 yards in six games after just two such outings as a rookie. The loss of wideout Will Fuller was no help, but few words can describe the wonders of DeAndre Hopkins. A raging talent no matter who plays quarterback, Hopkins has the power to take over any game and topple any challenger as one of the strongest, fastest and wiliest wideouts known to man. The Texans will need young receiver Keke Coutee to help out against one of the NFL’s top defenses, as he seems to be the preference to a slowed-down Demaryius Thomas.

5. Allowing the second fewest points per game in the NFL, the Titans are a playoff threat — maybe not the best choice of words — because of their defense. Tennessee’s chances to cause trouble only improve if Texans interior linemen Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete are ruled out, further diminishing a front five that has limited Watson’s ceiling all year. That same line blocked well for Lamar Miller in last week’s win over the Redskins, but the veteran runner has his hands full with Tennessee’s All-Pro-level run stuffer in Jurrell Casey.

6. It will be a night of emotion in Houston as the Texans bid farewell to their longtime owner Bob McNair, who died Friday at age 81 after battling multiple types of cancer in recent years. Known as the man who helped keep the NFL in Houston after paying $700 million in 1999 for an expansion team to replace the Oilers, McNair has been woven into the life and culture of the Texans since the beginning. They will remember him fondly tonight in Houston.

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