Boy Green goes ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ with Music City Miracles ahead of an AFC showdown between the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans.
In our weekly “Behind Enemy Lines” segment, Boy Green sat down with Music City Miracles contributor Mike Herndon to get a better understanding of this New York Jets-Tennessee Titans matchup on Sunday.
These are the five burning questions Mike answered or if you’d like you can listen to the full audio version of The Jets Zone by clicking here. Every month we do a free Jets t-shirt giveaway and by clicking the link above you’re automatically entered into our monthly drawing!
1. Take us through the Tennessee Titans season thus far, have things gone as expected?
In a word—no. It’s been virtually impossible to calibrate expectations for the Titans in 2018. Before the season started, I think most fans/media were expecting the team to compete for the division title and be a borderline playoff team. It was a brand new coaching staff with a first-time head coach and a first-time offensive play caller, but this was a team that won a road playoff game a year ago so most thought it would be a for sure playoff contender. Then Miami happened.
The Titans season opener was one of the strangest football games I’ve ever witnessed. There was not one but two long weather delays due to lightning around the stadium in the middle of the game. By the time the teams finished it took seven hours and eight minutes to play 60 minutes of football. Mixed in with the weather delays was the Titans losing their three best offensive players to injuries. Marcus Mariota suffered nerve damage in his elbow thanks to a cheap shot from a Dolphins defender well after the handoff on a read option. Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan took a blindside hit during an interception return (on a ball Mariota sailed because he couldn’t feel his throwing hand) and suffered a concussion. Finally, Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker was lost for the season with a broken ankle. It was an utter disaster of an opener and I think everyone tried to dial back in expectations after that.
Since then, the Titans have been on a rollercoaster of a season. They beat the Texans with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback and their 4th and 5th string tackles blocking for him. They beat the Jaguars in a strange game where Gabbert started, got hurt, and an injured Mariota was forced to come in and finish the game.
Then they started to get healthy and they beat the Eagles, putting them at 3-1 and already past what we all expected to be the toughest stretch of their schedule. Expectations soared.
Then the offense completely no-shows in embarrassing losses to the Bills and Ravens. At one point the Titans went 10 consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown. They lost a close game in London to the Chargers that they had a chance to win late, but they had dropped to 3-4.
After regrouping over the bye week, they came back out and played incredible football for two games, decimating the Cowboys and Patriots before crashing back down to earth and getting bullied by the Colts and Texans.
It’s essentially a Jekyll and Hyde football team. They can dominate some of the better teams in the NFL and then turn right around and be dominated by mediocre squads. You truly never know what you’re going to get out of them on a week to week basis. The Titans still consider themselves to be in the playoff race, but they know they basically have to win out to get there.
2. What’s the health status of Marcus Mariota and what has been going on with him this season?
Mariota is fully healthy and should be ready to go for the game this weekend. He was knocked out of the Colts game just before halftime with what the team has termed a “stinger,” but he started the Texans game and played one of the best games of his career, completing 22 of his 23 pass attempts for 303 yards and two touchdowns.
It’s been a weird season for him though. It all started with the ulnar nerve injury in his throwing elbow in Miami. He had been playing OK in that game before the injury and then ended up throwing two interceptions while trying to play through it before they pulled him. Once he came back a couple weeks later he was playing with a special glove on this throwing hand that covered the ring and pinky finger (those are the two fingers that were still numb/tingling). In addition to the numbness, he was also struggling with his grip a little bit and the Titans clearly limited some of the deep outs and comebacks to account for that. He had some really good performances against the Eagles and Chargers, but was pretty bad against the Bills and Ravens during that stretch.
The glove came off after the bye and Mariota declared himself “100 percent”. Since that time he’s gone 69 of 89 (77.5 percent) for 856 yards (9.6 YPA), six touchdowns, and one interception in basically three and a half games. It’s been among the best stretches of his career. His overall season numbers aren’t that impressive, but with the context of the injury (and yet another new offensive system getting broken in), you could build a much stronger case that he’s playing at a pretty high level right now. He’s certainly trending in a positive direction.
#NYJvsTEN full game preview: @BoyGreen25 spoke w/ @MikeMiracles of @TitansMCM & @FWordsPod to talk #TitanUp vs #Jets matchup + why a dumpy looking @Jurrellc is so successful + an update on Marcus Mariota. #Titans #JetUp https://t.co/KlskdXZgKW
— The Jets Zone (@TheJets_Zone) November 28, 2018
3. How has the running back duo been of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis this season? Has it worked?
I was a big fan of both of these guys coming into the year and expected the Titans to have one of the best 1-2 punches in the NFL, but it hasn’t really worked out that way.
They started the year with Henry and Lewis in a 1A-1B type split. Henry would usually get the start and the majority of the early down work while Lewis would get third downs and a few drives to himself mixed in. However, it quickly shifted towards Lewis after a strong showing from him in Miami. After his best game of the season against the Chargers in London, the Titans came out of the bye with Lewis as the true feature back against the Cowboys, but since that game, Henry has been the stronger performer and has started eating back into the workload. In the Houston game on Monday night, they were back to nearly an even split.
The Titans rushing attack has been really poor for most of the season, but I think that’s far more about the performance of the offensive line than it has been reflective of the ability of their backs. Center Ben Jones and right guard Josh Kline simply spend too much time getting pushed back into the backfield which disrupts the timing and flow of the running backs. Lewis has been effective as a pass catcher out of the backfield, something the Titans really want to be proficient with and that’s likely the biggest reason for the backfield split being in his favor most of the season.
However, one thing that has been consistent with Mike Vrabel over the course of this season is that he’s going to play the guys that are producing. We’ve seen a high dollar free agent corner in Malcolm Butler relegated to just playing in nickel packages because he was being outplayed by Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson. We’ve seen undrafted free agents like wide receiver Cameron Batson and edge rusher Sharif Finch earn significant roles on the team with strong showings. Vrabel rewards performance consistently and that tells me that we are probably about to see one of the bigger Henry workloads of the season. Over the past four weeks (since the Titans bye) Henry is averaging 4.74 yards per carry compared to Lewis’ 2.70 yards per carry. The tape has been every bit as slanted towards Henry as the numbers are too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tennessee come out and try to get the big guy 15-plus touches in this game.
4. Give us the lowdown on defense, how have things been on that side of the ball? Who are the stars? What players have surprised?
The defense has mostly been excellent in 2018, but they’re coming off their two worst games of the season against the Colts and Texans. Prior to those two games, they had the best scoring defense in the NFL. The problem is that I’m not sure if these are just two bad days at the office or a trend in the wrong direction. Part of the struggles likely has to do with defensive coordinator Dean Pees dealing with a medical emergency. He had a scary incident in the booth during the Colts game and actually had to be rushed to the hospital mid-game, leaving Mike Vrabel to suddenly be pressed into playcalling duties. Pees is thankfully OK and back to work now, but he missed at least a day or two of prep time last week as he underwent a test in the hospital in Indy.
The true stars of the defense are defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and safety Kevin Byard. Casey has been selected to the last three Pro Bowls and is one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the league. He’s constantly disruptive on the interior. Byard is a third-year safety who led the NFL in interceptions in 2017. He only has two this year, but he influences everything for the Titans secondary.
The biggest surprise on defense has been inside linebacker Jayon Brown. He’s a former fifth-round pick who played a lot as a rookie in a coverage linebacker role. Jayon is a smaller linebacker who can really run and he played well in that capacity, but he’s taken off to another level in 2018. He’s played the most snaps of any player in the front seven and leads the team in sacks and QB hits (a testament to the Titans struggles to get pressure without blitzing). He’s also second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss. At least once a game Brown will make a “wow” play. Keep an eye on No. 55 Sunday because he’s been outstanding.
I mentioned the Titans inability to create pressure without blitzing and that’s definitely the biggest weakness of the team. The Titans only have 27 sacks total on the year and they’re led by Brown, Casey, and the other starting inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard. That’s two inside, off-ball linebackers and a defensive tackle. You have to drop all the way down to fourth and fifth on the team to find the first edge rushers and those are “backups” Harold Landry and Kamalei Correa. The starters, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, have gotten old in a hurry this year, combining for just two sacks all season. Landry, the Titans 2018 second-round pick, is easily the most dangerous edge rusher on the team. Opponents have been helping and chipping to his side frequently to slow down his explosive speed rush. He is still a work in progress as far as developing other counters and inside moves, but if you leave him one-on-one with a tackle without a chip you’re in real trouble.
The Titans biggest strength on defense is in the secondary. Byard and Kenny Vaccaro have combined to form a formidable safety duo. The cornerback trio of Adoree Jackson, Malcolm Butler, and Logan Ryan have largely been good as well, though Jackson and Butler certainly have games they’d like to have back. Ryan spends most of his time in the slot when opposing teams are in 11-personnel and he’s been the best of the bunch. He’s an extremely smart player who anticipates routes and plays with a physical edge to his game. Jackson is one of the best athletes in the NFL and is starting to come into his own as a high-level corner. My guess is that he draws coverage against Robby Anderson to match speed with speed. Butler has been a rollercoaster since signing this offseason. He allowed a ton of long touchdowns early in the season, but seems to have settled down in recent weeks. He’s still capable of being a lockdown corner when his head is right, but he has a tendency to bite on double moves and get burnt.
5. Finally a prediction, how do you see this one playing out?
The Titans may be the toughest team to predict in the NFL so this is a tough task, but they generally play well at home. They’ve won 13 of their last 16 at Nissan Stadium including a 3-1 mark this season. I expect the Titans defense to bounce back this week after two bad games on the road against good quarterbacks. They should match up well with the Jets offense and I expect them to hold Gang Green to 20 points or fewer (something the Titans have done in more than half their games this year) which leaves the question of which Titans offense shows up. Will it be the one that went 10 quarters without a touchdown in October or the one that has marched up and down the field with relative ease in 4 of the past 5 games? I think they do just enough to get it done against a good Jets defense. Give me Titans 20, Jets 17.