NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A.J. Brown has repeatedly tormented the Texans’ defense.
The Tennessee Titans prolific wide receiver has 27 career receptions for 447 yards and five touchdowns on 39 targets in four career games against the 1-8 Texans.
Brown has 41 catches for 567 yards and three touchdowns this season, but had only one catch for 16 yards last week against the New Orleans Saints.
Brown has averaged 6.8 catches and 111.8 yards per game against the Texans heading into Sunday's game.
“He’s got great size, he’ll block, he’s a full receiver,” Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. “He does it all. I know what happened last week, but you look at his body of work and it says we need to be ready. It’s a big challenge for us. We’ll have to have all bodies on deck knowing exactly where he is.”
At 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, Brown is difficult to bring down after the catch. He’s averaged 16.6 yards per reception against the Texans.
“I think you look at this size,” Smith said. “He’s bigger, stronger than most of the guys he’s playing against, you start with that. Cornerbacks, a lot smaller. I think then he becomes a running back and he’s a hard guy to get down. Of course, he has excellent hands.
“Once he gets the ball, I think now it’s about what kind of guy you are. I think size helps that a little bit. He has broken a lot of tackles.”
The Texans will start Eric Murray at strong safety after he intercepted a pass against the Miami Dolphins as the replacement for Lonnie Johnson Jr., who has been moved back to cornerback.
Signed to a three-year, $20.25 million contract last year that includes $10.75 million guaranteed, Murray has regained his starting job.
After being on the bench for the previous five games after starting the first three games of the season, Murray had eight tackles against Miami and one of the Texans' five turnovers as he played 96 percent of the defensive snaps.
Murray has 29 tackles and played 49 percent of the defensive snaps. A year ago, Murray had 71 tackles in 14 starts while allowing six touchdown passes and an opposing passer rating of 134.5.
Murray’s play will be a key element in trying to contain Brown and quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a run-first offense that employs a lot of play-action passes even without injured star running back Derrick Henry.
“Well, the first step to that is stopping the run,” Murray said. “So, if we can stop the run then we can mitigate the play action. That’s our game plan.
"I see a lot of quick game, but more so they’re committed to the run. I think that’s the difference between them and other teams. They’re turning to hand it off at any time, so it’s a tough brand of football.”
The Texans are primarily a zone-coverage defense. A former cornerback with the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns from the University of Minnesota, Murray has more of a background in man-to-man schemes.
The Texans have allowed a significant amount of big plays this season.
“I think we stay deepest as the deepest, and the main thing is just everybody doing their job,” Murray said. “If your job is to stay deep, then you stay deep. If your job is to come up, support the run and be first support, second support, do that and do it effectively.”
Murray said he’s adapting to seeing the game in Smith’s vision.
“It’s giving me a lot of perspective, just being up there, meeting with Lovie, just seeing the game in a different way,” Murray said. “I think before I was so man-focused, like if it was a zone, somebody’s man is in my zone, so I’m focused on a man. But the quarterback will tell you everything you need to know, and I think that’s been the difference.”
“He tries to tell us that the quarterback is going to give you the picture. Yeah, you want to have your tendencies and your formations, but at the end of the day, they can do anything they want. So, be loyal to your keys, read your keys and then read the quarterback.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He's on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.