Sophomore TE Jonnu Smith has some big shoes to fill in Delanie Walker’s absence, but Sunday’s home opener against the Houston Texans has all the makings of a breakout game for the young TE.
The hearts of Tennessee Titans fans sank upon seeing the gruesome injury TE Delanie Walker suffered towards the end of the bizarre loss to the Miami Dolphins last week. It was instantly clear that his 2018 season had ended soon after it began. The Titans were already banking on sophomore TE Jonnu Smith to make strides this season, but with Walker’s injury, the team will have to depend on him even more. Smith has shown flashes during his short career, but he still has yet to show he has what it takes to be a consistent starter in the NFL. However, the Titans’ matchup this weekend against the Houston Texans might be the perfect time for him to breakout.
The Texans have been known for their staunch defense ever since J.J. Watt took the league by storm. Injuries and roster turnover have sullied that reputation a bit over the past few years, but this is still a defense that presents challenges for its opponents. However, if there is one area that can be exploited, it’s their ability to defend TEs. Per Football Outsiders, the 2017 Texans were 27th in the league in terms of defending TEs. That must have been their lucky number, because they also finished 27th across the board in yards allowed, yards per attempt, and TDs allowed to TEs.
The Texans’ defense of tight ends was tested early in the 2018 season, as Rob Gronkowski lined up across from them in Week 1. Despite their obvious focus on stopping him, Gronk could not be slowed: He finished with 7 catches for 123 yards and a TD. Granted, Gronkowski has thwarted many a team’s effort to stop him, because, despite what Jalen Ramsey says, Gronk is one of the best to ever play the position. But it is clear that the Texans have not yet overcome their struggles in defending TEs.
In addition to facing a defense that routinely struggles against TEs, another benefit that Smith will have is the insight of his head coach, Mike Vrabel. After all, Vrabel was the one who coached that Texans defense to finish 27th in the league in all those categories; he should be very familiar with their struggles and how the Titans can further exploit them. There are some new faces Vrabel won’t be familiar with (FA signee Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Justin Reid), but the scheme itself should be familiar since his mentor Romeo Crennel has reclaimed the DC role. Vrabel should be able to help OC Matt LaFleur strategize on how to get their young TE quality looks.
It might be a stretch to think Smith can excel so soon after being thrust into the starter’s role, but this is a window of opportunity for him. The Titans face the staunch defenses of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles in Weeks 3-4, so it would be ideal to get Smith comfortable as a starter prior to those matchups. Sunday’s game will be a great opportunity for him to use his athleticism that was held in check by the Mike Mularkey offense and take the defense by surprise. With a weak defense against the position and insight from his head coach, there’s a good chance we witness the debut of the Titans’ TE of the future this weekend.