Tennessee Titans: Important Player Matchups to Watch in Week 16

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 17: Running back Todd Gurley
SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 17: Running back Todd Gurley /

Key matchups vs. the Rams in Week 16 for the Tennessee Titans.

At its core, football is a game of matchups. Whichever team is able to find the most favorable matchups throughout the course of the game, and exploit these matchups, will likely win. However, some matchups are more important than others and some games can hinge on these few matchups.

Only a couple of weeks ago, many around the league expected the Titans to have clinched a playoff spot at this point in the season with two favorable matchups against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, but after falling flat against both teams, the Titans now face a gauntlet of two of the league’s hottest teams in the LA Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars in order to keep their playoff hopes alive.

More from Titan Sized

It’s an almost certainty that the Buffalo Bills will lose in Week 16 to the New England Patriots when they try and stand between Tom Brady and a first round playoff bye, but the Bills should be able to take care of the division rival Dolphins in Week 17 to improve to 9-7. Meanwhile, the Ravens squeaked by the Colts last night to improve to 9-7. Thus, the 8-6 Titans will now likely have to win one of their remaining games for a wild card spot and winning record.

This week, the Titans will have their first opportunity to win against the LA Rams, who boast a 10-4 record under new head coach Sean McVay. The defense had several solid years under former Coach Jeff Fisher, but DC Wade Phillips has this unit looking as solid as ever and McVay’s new offensive scheme has far outclassed Fisher’s “middle school offense” from years prior and turned Jared Goff from a potential bust to a top 10 quarterback and allowed Todd Gurley to rebound from his underwhelming sophomore season to emerge as an MVP candidate.

LA might not have a chance at a first round bye, but in a strong NFC playoff race, the No. 3 playoff seed is still a valuable asset in that they will face an easier road to the NFC Championship Game, which makes today’s contest an important one for the Rams. Both the Titans and the Rams need to win this game for different reasons, so the Titans will be unable to eke out a win against a team that is resting its starters as one might hope at this point in the season. Let’s examine some important matchups that could determine the outcome of tomorrow’s game.

Matchup 1: DT Aaron Donald vs. RB DeMarco Murray

As Titansized’s own Nick Lombardi noted in a recent article, the Titans might have played far worse than LA this season, but the Titans’ strength lines up perfectly with the Ram’s biggest weakness. At times this season, the Tennessee running game was the only thing working for the team. The Rams defense, meanwhile, has been brutal against the pass with the second most sacks in the NFL and a top ten pass defense, but have not been as successful against opposing rushing attacks.

Even though Derrick Henry has outperformed DeMarco Murray up to this point in the season, but the Titans coaching staff seems intent on giving Murray the bulk of the carries, so LA will need to gameplay against him. Murray has not shown the same burst and vision as last season, but he has proven capable of breaking off big runs on occasion, including a long run last week that was called back due to penalty. The Rams front seven is solid if unspectacular except for All-Pro DT Aaron Donald who has been one of the league’s best players at any position. Donald’s ability to beat offensive linemen to collapse the pocket or get into the backfield and disrupt plays. Donald also makes effort plays down the field due to his unnatural athleticism for a defensive tackle.

Donald has proven throughout his career that he can wreck an opposing game plan, but for the Titans to exploit the Rams weak run defense, they must neutralize Donald or at least minimize his impact in today’s game.

Matchup 2: LB Wesley Woodyard vs. RB Todd Gurley

In the midst of a career year, Wesley Woodyard has been a tackling machine for the Titans and displays vastly improved decisiveness and burst to shoot gaps and shut down opposing runners behind the line of scrimmage. His coverage ability has also been a bright spot for the linebacker in his fourth year with the team. He has played an important role in the Titans No. 3 overall run defense, but Woodyard faces a challenge in MVP candidate Todd Gurley.

More from Titans News

After a down year with former Titans and Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, many were worried that Gurley might never be able to top his stellar rookie season. Turns out that all Gurley needed was a coach who was even semi-competent to regain his form. Under McVay, Gurley already has almost 1200 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns on the ground as he routinely displays the speed, power, and athleticism that made him the 10th overall selection in 2015.

Furthermore, McVay has unlocked Gurley’s capacity as a receiving threat with 630 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air. Gurley will test both Woodyard’s tackling ability, as well as his ability in coverage. Woodyard’s success in limiting Gurley will determine whether or not the Titans can hang with Los Angeles today.

Matchup 3: SS Johnathan Cyprien vs. QB Jared Goff

Much like Todd Gurley, Jared Goff has experienced a career renaissance under new coach Sean McVay, whose system has drastically improved Goff’s development as a passer. Goff, like Gurley, has been thrown around as a potential MVP candidate. Even though he would need to lead his team to the Super Bowl to win this prestigious honor, his level of play still should prove a threat to the Titans pass defense.

Fresh off of a performance in which the Titans secondary allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to throw for almost 400 yards, they now face a cast of receivers that far exceeds the talent level of those in San Francisco with a more experienced quarterback. With cornerback LeShaun Sims out, CB Brice McCain should see a number of targets from quarterback Jared Goff in relief, but starting safety Johnathan Cyprien’s coverage ability could make or break the Titans’  game on defense. Cyprien, in his first year with the Titans, received a large contract last offseason to be the team’s starting strong safety. Cyprien’s tackling ability and comfort playing in the box make him a star against the run and as a physical enforcer in the middle of the field, but he has not been the most adept in coverage throughout his career and 2017 is no exception. Last week, against the 49ers, Cyprien’s coverage ability was exploited frequently and a number of chunk gains in the middle of the field can be attributed to poor coverage on his part.

Goff and McVay, watching last week’s film, certainly should recognize and attempt to exploit Johnathan Cyprien in coverage, so Cyprien will need to improve his performance against the Rams or allow Goff to repeatedly abuse his area of the field for the big plays that have become a hallmark of this new-look Rams team.

Next: Injury Report for Today's Game