NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans will host a special guest in the 2018 home opener at Nissan Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS). Mike Vrabel is looking to get his first win as a head coach at the expense of Houston, the place where he began his NFL coaching career.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien hired Vrabel to coach linebackers in 2014. O'Brien was familiar with Vrabel from their days with the New England Patriots, when O'Brien was an assistant and Vrabel a linebacker.
"He played 14 years and was a great player, a very smart player, a good leader," O'Brien said. "Any time guys in this league have a guy like that teaching them, it's a good thing. He's been there. Mike did a great job for us. He's an excellent coach, a good teacher. He can inspire his players. Everybody here had great respect for Mike, and we appreciate everything he did for us."
Vrabel, who had 12.5 sacks and was a first-team All-Pro in 2007 with the Patriots, was hired to coach the Titans after a frustrating season as Houston's defensive coordinator in 2017. The Texans defense allowed 346.6 yards per game under Vrabel after allowing a league-low 301.3 total yards per game with Romeo Crennel as the defensive coordinator in 2016.
It is fitting that Vrabel is going against the Texans after a disappointing 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins in the season opener. A Week 2 win against Houston would serve as redemption for Vrabel in multiple ways.
The biggest task for Vrabel is to contain quarterback Deshaun Watson, who exploded for five touchdowns in a 57-10 win against Tennessee in Week 4 last season. Watson can attack defenses in a similar way to Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. Both are equally dangerous running the ball and passing it.
Vrabel said he saw some good things from the pass rush in Week 1.
"I think that there was times you saw some good games, some guys get into the pocket, get the quarterback off the spot where it looked pretty good," he said.
Although Watson is dangerous as a pocket passer, one of the keys for the Titans will be keeping Watson from breaking outside and buying time for his receivers to get open. Fortunately for the Titans, Vrabel's specialty is working with outside pass-rushers.
Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus posted a career-high 12.5 sacks with Vrabel as his position coach in 2015. Another great Texans pass-rusher, Jadeveon Clowney, had a career-high 9.5 sacks with Vrabel as the defensive coordinator last season.
Now Vrabel has to get the same production out of veterans Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo in Tennessee. The group of outside linebackers got a boost when the Titans acquired Kamalei Correa via trade before the final preseason game. Correa posted a sack in the season opener.
They could get another shot in the arm if rookie edge rusher Harold Landry returns this week after nursing an ankle injury that kept him from playing against Miami.
Vrabel has worked with each of the outside linebackers individually during practice over the past couple of weeks. The one-on-one work allows him to share some of the techniques he used as a player.
The defense will have to keep the pressure coming on Watson this week. Texans receivers Will Fuller, who missed the opener with a hamstring injury, and DeAndre Hopkins can gash defenses with Watson dealing them the football. Fuller caught two of Watson's five touchdown passes last October against the Titans and Hopkins had 10 receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown.
The Titans need to show much improvement in an area that Vrabel knows best -- rushing the quarterback. If they do that successfully, they can get a valuable win against a division rival.