Key matchups vs. the Jaguars in Week 17 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.
Many weeks ago, most analysts pegged this Week 17 game as one of the biggest game of the week with Tennessee and Jacksonville duking it out at the top of the AFC South standings for the first three quarters of the season. Now, after the Jaguars have wrapped up the division, this game becomes relevant for an entirely new reason: the Titans must win to get into the playoffs after their three-game losing streak and this game will likely decide the fate of this coaching staff.
Earlier in the season, the Titans won in Jacksonville convincingly, but that win seems ages ago. These teams have performed far differently down the stretch compared to their play at the beginning of the season and Jacksonville displays far greater poise and consistency than in Week 2.
Jacksonville has nothing to play for after they clinched the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff picture, but will look to right the ship after an embarrassing loss to San Francisco so that they can enter the playoffs hot. Head Coach Doug Marrone has indicated that he will not rest his starters, but the smart move would be to rest his key players and avoid catastrophic injuries. The playoff race has been rocked by injuries to stars like Carson Wentz and Antonio Brown and Marrone knows better than to risk his players on a meaningless Week 17 game and risk the same fate befalling his Jaguars roster.
As such, predicting matchups will be tricky because typical Jaguars starters are not a lock to actually play. Thus, I will be taking a less specific approach to these matchups and focusing more of why the matchups are important in the grand scheme of the game rather than the individual players themselves. That said, let’s examine three key matchups in today’s do-or-die Titans game.
Matchup 1: DT Marcell Dareus vs. Titans Interior OL
In the first meeting between these two teams, the Titans won on the back of their rushing attack and stout defense. The Titans rolled up 179 yards on the ground at a time when their rushing attack still had its way with opposing defenses. Early on, Jacksonville struggled against the run, as exhibited in the Titans victory, which led to their acquisition of talented, but disgruntled Bills DT Marcell Dareus to beef up their defensive line. Since the acquisition of Dareus, the already-frightening Jags defense became even stouter at the point of attack, which further enhances their plan to control the ball with a strong defense and running attack while preventing the opposition from doing the same.
Many quarterbacks have struggled in the face of the vaunted Jaguars secondary that boasts two lockdown corners in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye and Mariota has struggled against lesser secondaries, so the Titans will likely look to replicate their success on the ground from Week 2 with Derrick Henry as the feature back now that DeMarco Murray is sidelined due to injury. The Titans interior offensive line (Ben Jones, Quinton Spain, and Josh Kline) must control Dareus and his running mates and get a substantial push off the line to open holes for Henry if the Titans want to stand a chance in this game.
Matchup 2: OLB Myles Jack vs. TE Delanie Walker
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In their most important game of the season, pressure will be on QB Marcus Mariota to avoid costly turnovers and move the chains consistently to prevent Jacksonville from loading up the box against Derrick Henry. Against one if (if not the) best cornerback duo in the NFL, Mariota will find fewer opportunities to get the ball to his outside receivers and will instead look to his most trusted target: Delanie Walker.
Walker has been Mariota’s security blanket throughout his entire career and his steady hands, route-running ability, and veteran savvy make him the best Titans player in clutch situations and is most likely to see targets with the game and the team’s playoff hopes on the line.
Likely tasked with covering Walker, will be OLB Myles Jack, the second year linebacker out of UCLA whose sideline-to-sideline speed and coverage ability allow him to matchup well against a smaller, quicker tight end like Delanie Walker. Jack may be rested in tomorrow’s game, but any safety or linebacker that covers Walker in today’s game must make a concerted effort to shut him down and deal a crippling blow to the Titans passing attack.
Matchup 3: DT Jurell Casey vs. RB Leonard Fournette/ Chris Ivory/ TJ Yeldon
Coming off of a disappointing week on the ground, part of Marrone’s reasoning for not resting his starters must come from the fact that he wants to get his ground game on track heading into the playoffs because teams have proven for years that QB Blake Bortles can not put this team on his back and win games.
However, due to Fournette’s battles with injuries this season, Marrone would be foolish to play him. Fournette is the team’s biggest offensive star and the most important piece to the team’s gameplan. Thus, I anticipate Chris Ivory or TJ Yeldon making a start in his stead, but shutting down Jacksonville’s run game remains paramount for Tennessee.
In much the same way that Delanie Walker will need to step up for the offense as the team’s veteran playmaker, so too will DT Jurrell Casey need to step up and throw a wrench into Jacksonville’s game plan. Next to players who are inexperienced or inconsistent like Sylvester Williams, Austin Johnson, and David King, Casey must make even more of an effort to plug holes, penetrate the backfield, and shed blocks. In one of the most important games of Jurrell Casey’s career, the Titans need him to play lie the superstar they know he can be and force the Jaguars offense to become one-dimensional.