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