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Know Your Foe: Tennessee Titans

In 2017, the Houston Texans outscored the Tennessee Titans 70-38 in two games, yet the Titans ended up playing in the AFC divisional round while the Texans licked their wounds after a 4-12 season. The Titans achieved what many expected in some sense, but it was far from the team that was ready to compete for a Super Bowl.

Heading into 2017, the Titans were the AFC team du jour, racking up high praise from plenty of analysts and writers. In 2018, that noise isn't muted, but certainly lessened. Jacksonville is the new beast of the division. Furthermore, there's been significant change in Nashville. There's a new leader in charge in Mike Vrabel. The jerseys and helmets are new. There's a new offensive scheme for quarterback Marcus Mariota to digest. Ditto on defense with Vrabel and new DC Dean Pees. Add in a few more Patriots that chose to make Nashville home (Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler join Logan Ryan who left in 2017). It's a different team in many ways, but is it ready to break through as many predicted last season?

Let's get to know the 2018 Titans.

Rushing yards per game - 116 ypg (15th in the NFL)
Passing yards per game - 220 ypg (21st)
Total offense per game - 336 ypg (18th)
Turnovers lost - 3 INT

Titans starting offense in Week 1 at Miami:
QB - Marcus Mariota (left game with elbow injury, should play v. Texans)
RB - Derrick Henry
WR - Corey Davis
WR - Tajae Sharpe
WR/TE - Delanie Walker (LOST FOR THE SEASON - IR)
TE - Jonnu Smith
LT - Taylor Lewan (suffered concussion, status unknown v. Texans)
LG - Quinton Spai
C - Ben Jones
RG - Josh Kline
RT - Dennis Kelly

Other key offensive pieces:
WR - Rishard Matthews
TE - Luke Stocker
WR - Taywan Taylor
WR/ATH/DB - Adoree Jackson (don't be surprised to see him on offense some this year)
OT - Jack Conklin (tore ACL in AFC divisional round, on 53-man roster, not projected to play until Week 3 or 4)

**All caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition

Keys to the Titans offense:

LaFleur Is No Average Joe – Unlike his Dodgeball counterpart Peter LeFleur, new Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has plenty of weapons and athleticism on his side of the ball as he enters his first year running an NFL offense. He spent the 2017 season in Los Angeles as offensive coordinator, but head coach Sean McVay called all the plays. This year, LaFleur, who has worked with some of the best and brightest in the NFL game, will call plays for the first time.

That presents a unique set of challenges and problems, especially when the expectations are so high for the Titans starting signal caller. Plenty was expected of Mariota the past two seasons and he underwhelmed, especially in 2017. In eight fewer games, Mariota threw six fewer touchdowns than Texans rookie Deshaun Watson. He finished with more interceptions than touchdowns (15 INTs to 13 TDs). In 2016, he created 57 plays of 20+ yards. In 2017, he created only 45 plays of 20+ yards. The onus is clearly on LaFleur to get more from Mariota and truly capitalize on his dual threat skills, which was something that presumably cost the previous Titans coaches their jobs. That marriage was put on hold somewhat as Mariota suffered an elbow injury and missed a portion of week one in Miami.

One Catch – When Corey Davis was drafted fifth in the 2017 NFL Draft, many were incredulous. The General John McClain tweeted that night that he didn't see anyone with Davis at No. 5. Of course, I then sent him my first mock draft of the 2017 season that had Davis penciled in at No. 5 to the Titans. I was, am and will be bullish on Davis until he proves me otherwise and was mortified that the Titans were smart enough to make that selection. Part of the reason no one really talked about him was that he didn't go through the pre-draft process in full due to an ankle injury, one that slowed him during his rookie season as well.

Then, in three of the last four games of the 2017 season, Davis showed flashes as to why he was selected as a top five pick. He finished with 15 catches in those three games for 190 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, he accounted for both touchdowns in that loss to the Patriots in the AFC divisional round playoff game. But, it was that first touchdown that got everyone's attention. With former Patriot/current Titan Malcolm Butler glued to his hip, Davis reached out with one hand and snatched a touchdown in the back of the end zone that had everyone buzzing. I remember thinking at the time that it could be the type of play that jump-starts a great career. Don't believe me? I seem to remember a rookie that once made a catch for a touchdown in a playoff game which catapulted him to superstar status almost overnight. If Davis turns into a star, we'll look back at that one-hand touchdown grab as his J.J. Watt moment. Unfortunately.

Rushing yards allowed per game - 120 ypg (13th in the NFL)
Passing yards allowed per game - 222 ypg (13th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 342 ypg (17th)
Turnovers generated - 2 INT 

Titans starting offense in Week 1 at Miami:
DE - DaQuan Jones
NT - Austin Johnson
DT - Jurrell Casey
ILB - Wesley Woodyard
OLB - Brian Orakpo
CB - Logan Ryan
S - Kevin Byard

Other key defensive pieces:
CB - Adoree Jackson
LB - Jayon Brown
OLB - HAROLD LANDRY (rookie - injured Week 1)
ILB - RASHAAN EVANS (rookie - injured Week 1)

**All caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition

Keys to the Titans defense:

No Fly Zone – Two years ago, the Tennessee Titans secondary was a mess and needed a complete overhaul.

The starting secondary against the Texans in the 2016 finale featured the following:
CB - Brice McCain
S - Da'Norris Searcy
S - Kevin Byard (rookie)
CB - LeShaun Sims (rookie)

Well, the renovation is nearly complete and it's time to see whether it was a success or not.

The projected secondary heading into 2018 will feature:

CB - Malcolm Butler, Super Bowl champion, Pro Bowler
S - Jonathan Cyprien
S - Kevin Byard, led league in interceptions
CB - Adoree Jackson, 2017 1st rounder
CB - Logan Ryan, Super Bowl champion

Quite the change in just two seasons time, but it was needed. Has it been enough, though? Butler didn't play in the Super Bowl and had worn out his welcome in New England, apparently. Jackson showed some promise as a rookie but was prone to an abundance of mistakes in coverage. Ryan was repeatedly beaten by DeAndre Hopkins in the Titans win in December and they had to move him to the other side. As such, there's still some question marks in that group, especially at corner. When Ryan and Butler were with the Patriots, they had a plan to stop Hopkins. They gave Ryan help all night long while Butler typically played solo away from Hop. When Ryan didn't have that help against Hopkins, it was a long afternoon. With the improved Texans receivers alongside Hopkins, this revamped secondary will get tested in Week 2, at a minimum.

Hey, That Looks Familiar – The Titans defensive scheme should be quite familiar to the Texans offensive staff. The Titans are now led by former Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel and the defense is led by former Patriots defensive coordinator (and most recently Ravens DC) Dean Pees. So, given the history between the coaching staffs, dating back to their days together in New England, the Texans should be prepared to face a Vrabel-Pees reunion in Nashville. Not to mention, this Texans offense will face Tennessee one week after facing New England, so they'll see some similar stuff two weeks in a row.

For the past few years, Dick LeBeau ran the Titans defense, but did so in a much different manner than it will be this year and beyond. LeBeau could manufacture pressure to the quarterback with his scheme by sending a ton of rushers at the quarterback or overloading heavily to one side. With Pees in charge, the Titans defense won't seemingly be as much "throw caution to the wind" and more "selectively aggressive". There were times with LeBeau that it seemed as though the Titans were more blitz heavy when they wanted pressure because they couldn't get to the quarterback in their base rush schemes. Under Pees, this defense should be more sound across the board and not nearly as wildly aggressive. In Baltimore, though, Pees relied on some excellent edge rushers to get to the quarterback.

In Tennessee, it's not quite that way, which puts pressure on rookie Harold Landry to get up to speed quickly but he missed week one with an injury. Longtime veteran Derrick Morgan should be closer to full speed, but he's not quite the all-around edge player that he once was. Pees pushed to add Correa after coaching him in Baltimore and the former Raven had the only Titans sack in week one.

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