Titans rookie coach faces off against Texans, his old boss
By TERESA M. WALKER
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Mike Vrabel knows Houston coach Bill O'Brien pretty well after spending the past four seasons working as a Texans assistant, including 2017 as defensive coordinator. Now Vrabel has his own team in Tennessee, and the rookie is about to square off with his former boss looking for his first victory as an NFL head coach.
Vrabel hopes his familiarity with Houston helps Sunday in the Titans' home opener if only by explaining some Texans skills and tendencies.
He cautions what he knows will help only so much.
"They've added some new stuff, and they're doing new things, and they've got some new personnel," Vrabel said. "Hopefully we can get prepared enough to go out and win a game on Sunday."
When Vrabel worked for O'Brien, the Houston coach says they didn't talk about whether the former NFL linebacker wanted to be a head coach. O'Brien says Vrabel was too busy coaching linebackers or coordinating the defense.
"Smart guy, leader, very, hard worker, played in the league for a long time, knows the game," O'Brien said. "He's got all the qualities of a head coach."
Vrabel went winless in the preseason as he and the Titans focused on trying to get to the regular season healthy. After a 27-20 loss in Miami , the Titans put tight end Delanie Walker on injured reserve and two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan is recovering from a concussion. Quarterback Marcus Mariota also hurt the elbow on his throwing arm .
Houston has dominated this AFC South rivalry lately, but the teams split the season series last year, each winning on its home field. Houston visited Nashville last December with quarterback Deshaun Watson healing up from a torn ACL, while Mariota left the Titans' loss in Texas with an injured hamstring.
Watson was back for the Texans' opener, but Houston lost 27-20 at New England. The Texans are back on the road for a second straight week, and neither team can afford falling to 0-2, raising the stakes even higher.
"We want to win very badly," Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan said. "It's a divisional game. You don't want to start out 0-1 in the division. You want to get some momentum and go from there."
Some things to know about Texans and Titans:
The Titans faced Watson only once last season before he tore his right ACL , and once was enough . Watson led Houston to franchise records with most points (57), touchdowns (seven) and largest margin of victory (43). The Texans also put up 445 yards in total offense and scored on five of their first six possessions in Watson's fourth NFL game.
"We just went out there and had fun," Watson said.
The Titans have bolstered their secondary by signing Logan Ryan and drafting Adoree Jackson in 2017, then they signed cornerback Malcolm Butler as a free agent this March. The group has been trying to live by the phrase "My Man Catches No Balls" this season, a mantra that will be tested strongly by the Texans' potent wide receivers. All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins led the NFL with 13 touchdown receptions last season, and now Will Fuller V is expected to be available after dealing with a hamstring injury.
The three-time Pro Bowler came into this season with the most catches by a tight end in the NFL since the start of the 2013 season, and he has been Mariota's favorite target the past three years. Now the Titans will have to see if second-year tight end Jonnu Smith, veteran Luke Stocker and likely Anthony Firkser, who played at Harvard, can help catch the balls Mariota would have thrown to Walker.
STRONG AT SAFETY
Tyrann Mathieu made his Houston debut last week by becoming the first Texan with an interception and fumble recovery in the same game since Week 13 of the 2012 season. He also had five tackles after signing with the Texans this offseason. The Titans counter with All-Pro Kevin Byard, who led the NFL with 10 total takeaways last season and tied for the league lead with eight interceptions.
OFFENSIVE LINE SHUFFLE
The Texans placed right tackle Seantrel Henderson on injured reserve , and rookie Martinas Rankin is expected to start at either left or right tackle. The Titans are waiting to see if Lewan clears the concussion protocol, with Kevin Pamphile his likely replacement, and Dennis Kelly at right tackle until Jack Conklin returns from the left ACL torn in January.
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed to this report.
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Updated September 13, 2018