The Houston Texans knew what was coming from the Tennessee Titans. After all, coach Lovie Smith had said Derrick Henry was on his way to being an all-time great running back.
The Titans pound the rock at a heavy rate. To beat them, you have to key in on stopping it.
“I’ve had a chance to compete against some of the best backs to play the game,” Smith said last week. “Is Derrick Henry headed in that direction? Absolutely.”
So the Texans gave him that respect. They packed the box. Henry saw eight or more defenders in the box on 56.25% of snaps — the second-highest rate in Week 8, per Next Gen Stats. But he still ran for 219 yards and two touchdowns on more than 6.8 yards per carry in the Titans’ 17-10 win, the fourth-straight time he’s had at least 200 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Houston. It was a soul-sucking performance.
The Texans’ poor run defense was on display once again. Just like it was against the Colts’ Jonathan Taylor. And the Bears’ Khalil Herbert. And the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs.
“We knew who we were playing. One of the best backs in the game,” Smith said postgame Sunday. “That physical brand of football, we weren’t ready to play that (Sunday).”
It’s one reason why using their top pick on a quarterback shouldn’t be a slam dunk for the Texans, who are 1-5-1 entering Thursday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles (7-0) at NRG Stadium. Houston has so many issues on both sides of the ball that it’s tough to see what the biggest one is.
It’s worth mentioning that after a promising rookie season, Davis Mills hasn’t proven he’s the long-term solution at quarterback post-Deshaun Watson. His performance through three quarters against the Raiders in Week 7 — 73.9% of his passes completed (17-of-23) for 217 yards and two touchdowns — is an outlier. He’s otherwise been a below-average starting quarterback.
Here’s where he ranks in a bevy of key metrics entering Week 9:
21st in passing yards (1,502)
23rd in completion percentage (63.1)
21st in passing touchdowns (8)
21st in touchdown % (3.4)
Tied for fifth-worst in interceptions (6)
Tied for 30th in adjusted yards gained per pass attempt (5.9)
26th in passer rating (81.9)
Second-worst among starters in percentage of first downs with third-down passes (29.4)
Third-worst among qualified QBs in EPA/dropback (-0.15)
The Texans have two young stars to build around in the secondary — cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 draft, and safety Jalen Pitre, a second-round rookie. But the overall defense, particularly the front seven, is struggling mightily. One can argue that the front seven is a bigger need than quarterback.
After all, Smith has mentioned in the past that the three-technique defensive tackle spot is the most important spot in his defense. Yet, Houston is giving up 186 rushing yards per game (league-worst) on 5.6 rushing yards per attempt (second-worst). And the AFC South has the strongest group of running backs in the league, with Henry, Taylor (when healthy) and ascending Jaguars runner Travis Etienne. All were in the top 10 of FOX Sports’ running back rankings.
Winning the division — the only guaranteed path to the playoffs — means being able to at least contain those three. The Texans do have the personnel to do that right now.
Then there’s the fact that the Texans don’t have a true No. 1 edge rusher, a premium position. Their leading pass-rusher is 34-year-old Jerry Hughes (5 sacks), who is playing great. But Houston cannot depend on him for the long haul because of his age.
The Texans are pressuring opposing quarterbacks on just 21.8% of dropbacks, ranked 20th in the league. A top pass-rusher can be a game-changer in a division that has arguably the weakest quarterback play, with Trevor Lawrence(Jaguars), Ryan Tannehill (Titans) and Sam Ehlinger (Colts) on the other teams. The closest thing to a franchise quarterback is Lawrence, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick, who has struggled as an NFL sophomore.
Wide receiver is also a major need for the Texans. Mills hasn’t been good, but it’s not like he’s had great weapons on the outside to work with.
Houston doesn’t have a real threat at receiver after Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins. And at the very least, there’s awkwardness with Cooks and the franchise after he wasn’t traded by Tuesday’s deadline. He was liking tweets about Houston potentially moving him, and he posted a cryptic tweet when he wasn’t dealt. His future with the team is unclear (though his $18 million guaranteed base salary in 2023 will make it hard for the team to move on from him). Cooks reportedly won’t play against the Eagles.
Then there’s Collins, the Texans’ No. 2 receiver who has flashed star potential but will miss his second straight game Thursday with a groin issue. The injury’s severity is unclear.
“It’s important to have multiple guys,” Smith said of the receiver position Monday. “If you’re asking do quarterbacks play better when they have better receivers, yeah, I’d say it’s a big part of it.”
It’s worth noting that the coming draft does not appear to have a wide receiver worthy of a top-10 selection, per most analysts.
Even if the Texans want to prioritize one of their non-quarterback needs with their top pick, they’ll still be in position to land a blue-chip signal-caller.
Houston has two first-round selections in the 2023 draft — its original pick and the Browns’ first-rounder, acquired in the blockbuster trade in March that sent Watson to Cleveland. Considering team records, the Texans are currently scheduled to have the No. 2 and 10 overall picks in the upcoming draft.
There are two Heisman-contending quarterbacks, C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young, expected to be selected at or near the top of the draft. Alabama pass-rusher Will Anderson is regarded as an elite edge rusher and will also be in play for teams picking high.
Assuming the Texans and Browns continue to struggle, Houston is positioned to grab two stars at the top of the draft.
For a reeling Texans team that needs help everywhere, that can’t be overstated.