Derrick Henry

A mix of illness and an ankle injury kept Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the sidelines Sunday at NRG Stadium, and in his place rookie QB Malik Willis did just enough to lead the Titans to a 17-10 win over the Houston Texans.

Willis threw for just 55 yards with an interception, but it was more than enough as Derrick Henry pounded the Texans for a season-high 219 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Tennessee improved to 23-1 when Henry has 25 or more touches.

The Titans defense also stepped up, limiting the Texans to just 161 yards of total offense — 90 of which came on their final drive in the fourth quarter. Davis Mills was sacked three times and picked off once, while Dameon Pierce, who entered the game ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing, was held to just 35 yards on 15 carries.

Below are the things that stood out — good and bad — from the Titans’ Week 8 win over the Texans:

Good: Derrick Henry

Let’s start with the obvious. I know Janice McNair is technically the principal owner of the Texans, but after Sunday, I’d argue that title belongs to Derrick Henry.

Not only did the 28-year-old tailback pass Eddie George for the most touchdowns in franchise history (75), but it was Henry’s fourth straight 200-yard rushing game against the Texans and the sixth of his career, tying him with O.J. Simpson and Adrian Peterson for the most 200-yard rushing games in NFL history.

“If they can’t stop the run, why would we not run it?” Willis told reporters after the win. “We’re not out here to throw for 300 every game or try to run for 300 every game. We’re out here trying to find ways to win. That’s all.”

Bad: Malik Willis’ inability to run the Titans offense

Willis completed 6 of 10 passes for 55 yards with a bad interception on the third drive of the game. He ran five times for just 12 yards and was sacked three times. Yes, it was his first career start, but he looked downright uncomfortable under center at times, and had Henry not gone off for 200-plus yards, who knows how the game would have played out.

The Titans also failed to put Willis in a position to succeed. With the run game working as well as it was, play action could have been used more to get the ball to Austin Hooper, Chig Okonkwo and Dontrell Hilliard. And given Henry’s success catching the ball out of the backfield, he should have been targeted more than once. 

“I thought (Willis’ performance) got better,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “(Against Houston), there were some good things and some things that — if he’s the quarterback for us next week — that we’ll have to be better at.”

Good: The pass rush

When healthy, Bud Dupree is a legitimate game changer for the Titans. Dupree, Jeffery Simmons and Demarcus Walker combined for three sacks against Houston, giving the Titans four straight games with three or more sacks — the team’s longest such streak since the 2017 season. Tennessee’s pass rush was supposed to be nonexistent without Harold Landry, but Simmons (5.5), Denico Autry (five), Rashad Weaver (four), and Dupree (three) have strongly picked up the slack. In fact, the Titans entered Sunday a respectable 12th in QB knockdowns, 13th in QB pressures, 14th in QB hurries and 15th in sacks.

Bad: Todd Downing’s conservative play calling

Willis was never going to attempt 30 passes against Houston, but 10? And just two that traveled beyond 10 yards?

I understand wanting to play it safe, especially with a rookie quarterback behind a shaky offensive line. But if the reins aren’t loosened a little, how is Willis expected to grow as a passer? Sure, he gets plenty of practice reps and individual coaching during the week. But what better opportunity for a young QB to test himself than against a live opposing defense? The Titans missed opportunities to exploit Hilliard coming out of the backfield more than just once, and Hooper and Okonkwo should have been targeted more than just three times. Against one of the worst defenses in the league, Downing missed the chance to build Willis’ confidence.

Good: Jeffery Simmons’ breakout season continues

Simmons was reportedly playing on a bad ankle on Sunday, but you’d never know it from the performance he put forth.

The fourth-year defensive tackle had his way with Houston’s interior offensive line, finishing with two tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hit on 35 defensive snaps. Simmons has registered a sack in three straight games, and he has multiple tackles for loss in back-to-back games. He’s on-pace for 13.5 sacks, 22 QB hits, 16 tackles for loss and 39 QB pressures.

“Certainly, Jeff’s performance, his attitude, his leadership…he’s a large part of our team, and I appreciate who he is as a person, as a father and as a teammate,” Vrabel said. 

Bad: It was only a seven-point win

The Titans almost Titan’d again. Holding a 14-3 halftime lead and limiting Houston’s offense to just 25 yards in the first half, it’s disappointing Tennessee won only 17-10.

Except for a 90-yard touchdown drive in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter, the Texans couldn’t muster any offense and the Titans appeared to be well on their way to the franchise’s best single-game defensive performance. But Davis Mills completions of 26 and 44 yards kept the drive — and Houston’s hope of a win — alive. The Titans had to recover an onside kick with 17 seconds left to lock up the victory.

With Henry running roughshod for 200-plus, even with Willis attempting just 10 passes, this one should have easily been a double-digit win and a confidence booster for Tennessee.

Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_