The Tennessee Titans linebackers will have their hands full when they face off against Carolina Panthers Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen.
For the first time in many years, the Tennessee Titans were a pretty good football team in 2016. They weren’t great, or even good, but they were pretty good. Pretty good was good enough for a 9-7 record that tied the AFC South champion Houston Texans, but pretty good was not good enough to win a playoff tiebreaker against the Texans.
The Titans showed many bright spots in their revival season, such as quarterback Marcus Mariota’s tremendous month of November, and the resurrection of running back DeMarco Murray’s career after a disastrous year with the Philadelphia Eagles. As many highlights as there were, however, there were also a handful of team weaknesses.
The front seven struggled, at times, to bring consistent pressure. The wide receivers’ general lack of speed kept them from being any sort of deep threat. And, the defensive backs were so bad that they were picked apart by Blake Bortles, who, if you haven’t heard, is not a very good quarterback.
As bad as the defensive backs were, perhaps the most frustrating of all the Titans’ 2016 problems was the fact that their linebackers were completely inept when it came to covering tight ends and running backs, and we’re not talking about Rob Gronkowski or Le’Veon Bell. Players who are, at best, above-average, such as Jack Doyle of the Colts, C.J. Fiedorowicz of the Texans, and Chris Ivory of the Jaguars looked like Hall of Famers when they faced the Titans’ linebackers.
Unlike at other positions that saw an offseason makeover, the Titans’ starting linebackers this season will be the same as last. Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson, two Kentucky alumni heading into their fourth year with the team, will both be counted upon to play a majority of snaps at inside linebacker, though they will have a new friend in rookie Jayon Brown.
Brown is an athletic, though undersized, coverage specialist who has already shown his outstanding quickness in the preseason. He is currently working as a starter at ILB in nickel sets, and could very well earn himself playing time in base formations.
Even if Brown plays every single snap this season, though, either Woodyard or Williamson would have to be out there with him. His presence will certainly make some sort of improvement in the Titans’ ability to cover tight ends and backs, but just how much remains to be seen. Against the Carolina Panthers this weekend, the group will get their first opportunity to show where they stand.
While the Panthers first-team offense is on the field Saturday afternoon at Nissan Stadium, the Titans defense will be forced to deal with the likes of RB Christian McCaffrey and TE Greg Olsen, two of the best pass catchers at their respective positions in the NFL.
Olsen has had three straight 1,000 yard seasons with the Panthers, and he made the Pro Bowl in each of those years. Though McCaffrey is a rookie and has barely made his way onto an NFL field, he was perhaps the most productive offensive player in the entire NCAA during his career at Stanford, totaling 5,128 total yards from scrimmage, a good chunk of which came on his 99 receptions.
At the end of the day, it’s okay if a defense struggles to contain players as talented as Olsen and McCaffrey. They’re known for giving defenses headaches, and it’s because they’re really good football players. But when you’re allowing Jack Doyle to catch nine passes for 78 yards, or C.J. Fiedorowicz (who is such an obscure player that I have to look up the spelling of his name every time I write about him), there’s clearly a problem.
It’s the preseason, so almost everything that happens is ultimately meaningless. However, one thing you can take away from the NFL’s series of exhibition games is matchups. Saying that the Titans’ offense will struggle this season because they only converted three third downs against the Jets is absurd.
But, if Brown, Woodyard and Williamson hold their own against Olsen and McCaffrey, it would be safe to say that the Titans’ 2016 tight end and running back issues, defensively, are behind them.