NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Mike Vrabel counts Romeo Crennel among his mentors, having been coached by the Texans’ interim head coach and also having worked alongside him in Houston.
For his part, Crennel sees Vrabel putting lessons learned as both player and coach into guiding the Tennessee Titans through the NFL’s first COVID-19 outbreak and keeping them among the league’s undefeated teams.
“He knew what needed to get done to help us win,” Crennel said of Vrabel as a player. “I think that he’s applying all of those things that he did as a player to his coaching style and to his team, and as you watch his team you see that they are well-coached, you see great effort, and you see production.”
Vrabel credits Crennel with giving him a very big tip when he arrived at New England, trying to be perfect in everything after never starting a game in four seasons with Pittsburgh.
“He said, ‘You can’t function like that in life or in this game, especially. You can’t just let it eat at you because you made the wrong tackle, you did the wrong assignment,’” Vrabel recalled. “It was great.”
Vrabel’s Titans certainly have shown the ability to move on, going 16 days between games because of the outbreak that affected 24 people in the organization and 13 players since Sept. 24. The Titans improved to 4-0 Tuesday night in the NFL’s second game on that day of the week since 1946 routing Buffalo 42-16.
“We were impressed with what we saw,” Crennel said of the Titans. “We know that it’ll be a tough battle for us, but our guys, they are excited because we finally won a game and know that going on the road is always tough, and when you face an undefeated team we have to be at our best.”
The 73-year-old Crennel became the oldest coach in NFL history to win when the Texans beat Jacksonville 30-14 last week, making him 3-1 as an interim coach. The Texans (1-4) are the two-time defending AFC South champs whose dismal start cost Bill O’Brien his job.
A win Sunday would be huge for Houston trying to climb back in the division race.
“More than anything about them being an undefeated team, this is a divisional opponent,” Texans safety Justin Reid said.
The Titans are resting up after a physical game, 4-0 for only the second time in franchise history.
“We have a huge challenge in front of us,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said.
Sunday will be the first time Tennessee outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has faced the Texans since being traded to Seattle before last season. Houston took Clowney with the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, and he spent his first five seasons with the Texans.
Crennel is more familiar with Clowney than most, having worked as Houston’s offensive coordinator for much of Clowney’s time with the team. And Crennel knows Clowney will be very motivated.
Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson began watching Clowney when he was in college before admiring him as a teammate in his first two NFL seasons. Watson has been sacked 17 times already, and Clowney is looking for his first sack of the season.
“He’s a problem, for sure,” Watson said. “We’ve got to make sure that we know where he is at all times when he’s on the field.”
The Titans got defensive lineman DaQuan Jones and long snapper Beau Brinkley back from the reserve/COVID-19 list against Buffalo. They’ve activated four more players since, including defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons on Thursday. Vrabel said they’re hoping to heal up a bit more by kickoff.
ON THE RUN
Houston finally stopped the run and ran the ball last week against Jacksonville and is looking to build on that success. The Texans entered last week ranked last in the NFL in both categories before running for a season-high 129 yards and allowing just 75 yards rushing, their lowest this season.
The defense will have a much tougher task trying to slow the 2019 NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry. He ran for 211 yards and three touchdowns in the last meeting between these teams in December, and Henry is third in the NFL in rushing this season.
“We’ve got to play our gaps, do our assignments and tackle well,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “It just comes down to playing good defense.”
The Titans lead the NFL with a plus-8 in turnover margin after forcing three turnovers against Buffalo. They’ve only lost the ball once. Houston is tied for 28th in that category at minus-5 still looking for its first interception — the only NFL team without a pick.
I KNOW YOU
Titans right tackle Dennis Kelly hasn’t had a chance to talk to his brother with Tennessee playing two games in six days this week. That might be best left until after Sunday with Tim Kelly busy as the Texans’ offensive coordinator.
“I’m just trying to keep looking back at all the times we’ve played Madden and some of his play calling tendencies,” the Titans tackle said.
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed.
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