(SportsNetwork.com) - Quarterback Zach Mettenberger is expected to make his first career start for the Tennessee Titans on Sunday as his club takes on the Houston Texans at LP Field.
Jake Locker has missed the Titans' past two games due to a right thumb injury, with Charlie Whitehurst having started in his place under center. Whitehurst helped lead Tennessee to a 16-14 win over Jacksonville on Oct. 12, but did not throw a touchdown pass, and then was held to 160 yards passing in last weekend's 19-17 loss to the Washington Redskins.
Whitehurst was intercepted once and threw two touchdown passes, his 38-yard strike to Derek Hagan putting the Titans up with 7:41 to play. But Tennessee couldn't eat up enough clock down the stretch and Washington won it on Kai Forbath's 22-yard field goal as time expired.
"We didn't make enough plays at the end, unfortunately. We shouldn't have come to that position. Offensively, we had the ball back and we had run more time off the clock. We made a mistake and we made enough mistakes all day," said Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt. "It's hard to pin it on that last drive or on anything. We didn't do the job today and that's disappointing."
Each of the Titans' past three games have been decided by two points or fewer, with the winning score coming with no more than 1:07 left in regulation each time.
In a bit of a surprise move, Whisenhunt announced on Thursday that Mettenberger will start versus the Texans, with Locker expected to serve as the backup.
After trading up, the Titans took Mettenberger in the sixth round of the 2014 draft and the Louisiana State product threw for 659 yards and two touchdowns with a pair of interceptions in the preseason, posting a 97.6 passer rating.
The 23-year-old saw some brief regular-season action in Week 4 at Indianapolis, completing two of his five pass attempts for 40 yards with an interception.
"We feel like it's an opportunity to see what Zach can do just like a number of our younger players that have already started to contribute, and we're looking forward to seeing where we go from here," said Whisenhunt.
Whisenhunt doesn't have much to lose seeing as his club has lost five of six since beginning the season with a win over Kansas City.
The Texans also are struggling, having dropped three in a row and four of five since starting 2-0. They appeared to be in good shape going into halftime last weekend against Pittsburgh, but mistakes allow the Steelers to rip off 24 straight points in the final 3:08 of the first half en route to a 30-23 setback.
Arian Foster gained 102 yards on 20 carries and caught a late TD pass for the Texans, but also lost a fumble at his own 3-yard line that helped the Steelers rally.
After a Pittsburgh touchdown, Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was intercepted, allowing Pittsburgh to again find the end zone with 14 seconds left until halftime.
"It was a terrible second quarter and we couldn't come back from it," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said. "The whole thing is frustrating."
Fitzpatrick threw for 262 yards with two TDs and an interception, wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson combined for 11 catches and nearly 200 yards, while linebacker Whitney Mercilus had two sacks.
The Titans lead the all-time series 15-9.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Few will blame Whisenhunt for giving Mettenberger a shot. He did, after all, lead the NFL with 659 preseason passing yards and his 47 completions ranked third.
At two-year starter at LSU, Mettenberger threw for 3,082 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a senior.
"We are going to go with Zach at QB this week," said Whisenhunt. "We were still waiting to see where Jake's hand was going to be as far as whether he was going to be the backup or not depending on if he could do that. We feel good after two good days of practice with Jake that he can do that. So that's the order in which we're going to go from this point.
One has to wonder what kind of leash Mettenberger will be on given that Locker is able to serve as the backup, but it appears as though the Titans are ready to get a look at their young quarterback.
Mettenberger will join a number of young players already seeing action in rookie running back Bishop Sankey and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright.
Sankey has gotten the bulk of the work in each of the past two weeks due to Shonn Greene's hamstring injury and figures to be the feature back going forward. He has 267 yards and a score on 66 carries, while Wright is leading the club with 32 receptions and four touchdowns.
Of course, Whisenhunt is doing Mettenberger no favors by putting him in against a Texans defense led by the dangerous J.J. Watt.
Watt leads the NFL with 22 quarterback hits to go along with five sacks, three fumble recoveries, six passes defensed and three total touchdowns. He recovered the ninth fumble of his career in last week's loss, setting a new all-time franchise record.
"He's a good football player. I think we all know that," Whisenhunt said of Watt. "He's everywhere. He's going to line up in all different positions. It's not like you can target one spot that he's going to be in. You're going to be matched up against him at some point, but that's part of the challenge that's this league. You've got to be able to face those guys."
It's also a neat coincidence that Mettenberger will make his first start opposite Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played in 11 games with nine starts for the Titans last season as Locker battled injury.
Fitzpatrick threw for 2,454 yards and 14 touchdowns with the Titans a season ago, but doesn't expect to have any kind of advantage this weekend.
"I think they know me as well as I know them, so I'm not sure that it gives anybody a leg up," he said. "I think it's kind of a wash. It's definitely a different scheme. The one I'm running here is different from what we did there last year."
One thing Fitzpatrick would like to do in this game is get the ball to Johnson, who moved past Hall-of-Famer Steve Largent (13,089) for 14th place on the NFL's all-time receiving list.
Johnson has 109 catches, 1,381 yards and nine touchdowns in 20 career games versus the Titans.
"My job is to get the ball to our playmakers. I didn't get it to Andre nearly enough early (last week)," said Fitzpatrick. "It's just one of those deals. I have got to continue, as I progress, to continue to get better and continue to throw the ball to the right guy and making sure that everybody is on the same page with that."
Sunday also could mark the return of rookie linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to the Texans' lineup.
Clowney, the top overall pick of the recent draft, has not played since suffering a knee injury in the first half of Houston's Week 1 win over Washington. However, he was limited in practice on Wednesday and O'Brien said he would be a game-time decision.
O'Brien, though, did say earlier in the week that if Clowney were to play, he would be worked back into the mix alongside Mercilus.
Mercilus' two sacks were his first of the season and he also forced a fumble. he has 24 tackles and 15 career sacks.
"When JD (Jadeveon Clowney) comes back, he'll have to work back into the mix. That's not just something that's going to be handed to him, that's for sure," O'Brien had said. "Whitney's played well enough to deserve playing time, that's for sure, and that'll be a competition."
The appearance of Mettenberger and possibly Clowney give some much-needed juice to a matchup between teams struggling to get wins.
Things are a bit more urgent for the Texans, who are looking to get to .500 and at least keep pace with the AFC South-leading Colts (5-2).
"We've got to get back on track here in terms of winning some games," declared Fitzpatrick. "You look at every game and all of a sudden it comes down to 3-4 plays, mistakes by us, great plays by them, whatever it is that's the NFL for you. We've been on the bad end of it for the last few weeks here and we've got to turn that around."
The Titans would love to do the same ahead of their bye week.
"It's a good bonus, I think," Whisenhunt said of getting a victory before the weekend off. "It's really more about getting a win than it is getting a win going into a bye week. Do we want it? Sure. Does it make the bye week a lot better? Yes, it does. We're focused on getting a win, period, right now. That's what's important to us."
Mettenberger certainly becomes a nice x-factor for the Titans, but the rookie will be going up against a tough defense and will be able to force him into making some key mistakes.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Texans 20, Titans 13