NFL Preview – Tennessee (2-9) at Houston (5-6) (ET)

By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) – As bad a time as the Tennessee Titans’ defense might be
in for this weekend during a visit to Houston, the offense might even enjoy
the road trip a little bit less.

The Titans sit 28th in a 32-team league when it comes to running the football.
Their premier rookie ball-carrier – second-round pick Bishop Sankey – is
averaging less than four yards per carry and hasn’t bettered 61 yards in any
one game, and newbie quarterback Zach Mettenberger has got issues, too.

The sixth-round pick from LSU is winless in four games as a starter, though he
did throw for 345 yards and a pair of scores in a loss last week against
Philadelphia. He’s averaged 271.5 aerial yards per game in the four starts and
has seven touchdowns, and still has support from his coach, Ken Whisenhunt.

“I remember Peyton Manning being 3-13 his first year,” Whisenhunt said. “Not
that I’m saying that it’s OK not to win games. We need to win a game as a
football team, and that would certainly help with Zach, but he’s making
progress in areas that you like to see from a young quarterback.”

The youngster’s first start also came against the Texans and resulted in a
memorable moment when Houston’s J.J. Watt registered a pair of sacks and
mocked Mettenberger with a fake “selfie” after the quarterback had posted
pictures of himself on social media prior to the game.

Mettenberger completed 27-of-41 passes for 299 yards and two TDs in a 30-16
loss.

“It’s just kind of a reminder, this is the National Football League, not high
school,” Watt said. “Welcome to the show.”

The October loss to the Texans was the second in a stretch that’s since
reached five in a row and is the team’s longest since a six-game slide four
years ago. Tennessee, in fact, has dropped nine of 10 games since an
impressive 26-10 defeat of Kansas City in Week 1.

“It’s not a lot of fun,” Whisenhunt said. “I enjoy working with these guys. I
enjoy being here. The fans have been good with me, but it’s not fun. I love
doing this job, but you still feel sick when you don’t do what you’re supposed
to do.”

As for Houston, any playoff run made will be with a QB who was passed over
just two weeks back.

Veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick has been penciled in as the starter for
the rest of the season after the man who replaced him last week – Ryan Mallett
– suffered a torn right pectoral muscle last week against Cincinnati, in his
second start since Texans coach Bill O’Brien had made the switch.

Houston trails Indianapolis by two games in the AFC South with five remaining,
but one of the final quintet is against the Colts and two are against last-
place Jacksonville.

Fitzpatrick was a winner in two starts to begin the season, but then went 2-5
in the next seven while throwing eight interceptions and being sacked 20
times. Mallett defeated Cleveland in his initial outing in Week 11, then was
hurt against the Bengals.

Still, the starter-turned-backup-turned-starter doesn’t anticipate issues with
a return to No. 1 status.

“I don’t think so,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s like riding a bike. That’s what
being a quarterback is. That’s what kind of my whole career has been.”

He was indeed a winner in the aforementioned first meeting with Tennessee,
completing 19-of-35 passes for 227 yards and a touchdown, while not committing
a turnover for the only time in his last seven games. And that game, too, was
a return for Harvard University product, who made nine starts while playing
for the Titans last season.

Fitzpatrick has a pair of high-end receivers in Andre Johnson and DeAndre
Hopkins, but the Texans are languishing in 28th place in the league in passing
yardage, averaging just 207.5 per game. Instead, running backs Arian Foster
and Alfred Blue have been carrying the load, literally, in recent weeks.

Foster is averaging 102.8 yards per game and better than five yards per carry,
but he’s missed the last two games with a groin injury and remains
questionable for Sunday. Blue has run the ball 52 times for 202 yards in the
last two games in Foster’s absence.

Overall, Houston leads the AFC with 137.3 rushing yards per game and is up
against a Tennessee defense that’s allowed better than 150 yards on the ground
in four straight.

“There is a potential that (Foster) could play,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully
that’s something that he’ll be able to help us on game day.”

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Making a Run at Defense

The Titans, to be kind, were not terribly effective in stopping the run when
the teams meet in Nashville in October. Houston crossed the 200-yard barrier
and wound up with 212 in that game – including 151 from Foster – and they’ve
subsequently allowed at least 150 to Baltimore (151), Pittsburgh (206) and
Philadelphia (164). The Eagles game featured 19 missed tackles, which simply
cannot occur again.

Fitz of Unpredictability

Just how much influence the inconsistent Fitzpatrick has on the game will be
determined by how well the Texans can run the ball. But if Foster and/or Blue
are bottled up, it’ll be incumbent on the returning starter to limit the
mistakes that have been the signature element of his career. He was error-free
in that game, but has been picked off in five of nine games this season.
Houston is 3-1 when he’s pick-free.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Fitzpatrick is inconsistent and Foster is dinged-up, but even with those
qualifications this is a game Houston should win.

The Texans are home, they have better players on offense and they have perhaps
the league’s best player on defense in Watt, who could make an impact if he
remains successful in getting to and disrupting Mettenberger. If they want to
be contenders, this a no less than a must-win.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Texans 27, Titans 17