On Sunday, the Tennessee Titans will play their season opener in Nashville against the Oakland Raiders. Here are three keys to victory.
1. Protect Marcus Mariota
Last season, in a stark contrast to his rookie season, quarterback Marcus Mariota was well-protected by one of the best offensive lines in football. The line will return all five starters in 2017: Taylor Lewan, an elite franchise left tackle; Quinton Spain, a big run blocking specialist; Ben Jones, an experienced and talented center; Josh Kline, a veteran guard who has a Super Bowl ring; and Jack Conklin, a hard-nosed “tough guy.”
The unit’s success in 2016 resulted in a Pro Bowl berth for Lewan, and Conklin was named a member of the AP’s All-Pro first team. Having all five starters return should do wonders for their continuity, and one would think that it could allow them to be even better. However, in the preseason, they did not look good at all.
Luckily, the games they’ll probably want to forget were nothing more than exhibitions. It will all be a distant memory if they have success during the season. It won’t come easy, though, as their first opponent, the Oakland Raiders, will present a unique challenge.
The Raiders’ two starting edge rushers, linebackers Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, are one of the fastest pass-rushing duos the NFL has seen in some time. Mack is one of the best players in the entire NFL. Their athleticism allows them to rush standing up or with their hands in the dirt, and to play coverage.
Wide receivers Eric Decker and Corey Davis will return for the Titans on Sunday, but it would be pretty meaningless if Mariota doesn’t get enough time to get the ball to them. When these two teams played last season, Mack and Irvin both put goose eggs in the sack column. For the Titans to win this week, the offensive line needs a repeat performance.
2. Keep Cooper and Crabtree in Check
A good portion of the Titans’ offseason was spent on improving the team’s group of defensive backs, which was totally and completely inept last season. They signed safety Johnathan Cyprien and cornerback Logan Ryan in free agency, and drafted cornerback Adoree’ Jackson.
Already stretched thin thanks to an injury to CB LeShaun Sims, who has already been ruled out for the game against Oakland, the group will have their hands full with the Raiders’ impressive core of receivers. It will be up to the newbies, in addition to returning players Kevin Byard and Brice McCain, to keep them in check.
The Raiders’ top two receivers, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, have given defenses fits over the last two years. In 2016, both players reached the 1,000 yard mark, and each caught over 80 passes. In addition to them, the Raiders’ offense was bolstered by speedy TE Jared Cook and shifty playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson.
Oddly enough, the last two times these teams have met, the receiver that has given the Titans the most problems is Seth Roberts, who has 8 catches for 140 yards and 3 touchdowns in two career games against the team.
Oakland has a plethora of talented weapons, including running back Marshawn Lynch, but the key to stopping their offense is silencing their star perimeter players. Regardless of how the Titans accomplish this, whether through consistently pressuring Derek Carr or through quality coverage, it must be done if they want to be 1-0 after Sunday.
3. Run the Ball Early and Often
In 2016, the Titans’ offense was one of the best in the entire league at running the football. The offensive line was superb at creating holes. RBs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry used those holes to their advantage.
Murray led the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards, which earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl. Henry was also impressive in his rookie year, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and showing plenty of power in the process. Unfortunately for the Titans, the passing game was not nearly as productive.
Marcus Mariota had a very respectable season, along with Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker, but the passing game was not very consistent. To fix that, the Titans added three talented receivers to the roster during the offseason: Corey Davis (Draft), Taywan Taylor (Draft), and Eric Decker (Free Agent). If the Titans are smart in their game-planning, they won’t focus on those guys.
The Titans’ new and improved receiving core will have plenty of opportunities to shine throughout the 2017 season. It likely won’t come against Oakland. All three of the Titans’ top three receivers are 6’0″ or taller. The same is true for the Raiders’ cornerbacks. David Amerson, Sean Smith, and rookie Gareon Conley are bigger corners with the ability to cover bigger receivers like the ones the Titans have.
As good as the Oakland Raiders’ roster is, it has a massive weakness at inside linebacker. Their two starters, Marquel Lee and Cory James, have a combined five career starts and 46 tackles. Actually, all of those stats belong to James, as Lee is a fifth-round rookie.
Every time you throw the ball against the Raiders, you give their star pass rushers an opportunity to wreak havoc. You also give their skilled corners chances to make plays. Whenever you run the ball, you force their biggest weakness to step into the spotlight.
Against the Raiders last season, Murray and Henry rushed for a combined 159 yards on 26 carries. If they are able to have similar success on Sunday, the Titans will be in a tremendous position to be successful. It all starts with establishing the run early, and keeping it going throughout the game.