On Sunday, the Tennessee Titans will march into Jacksonville to face off against one of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Jaguars are coming off a 31-20 statement win over the reigning AFC champions, New England Patriots, while the injury-riddled Titans were able to defeat the Texans 20-17.
Most people believe the Jaguars, who are one touchdown favorites, should take this one at home. Let’s take a look at three reasons for confidence and three reasons for concern for Sunday’s game.
Reasons for confidence
Titans Secondary vs. Jaguars Passing Attack
Quarterback Blake Bortles seems to be playing at a very high level at the moment, as he led an improved Jaguars passing attack to a big win over the Patriots.
That being said, recent duels between the Titans and Jaguars have not fared so well for Bortles. Last year, Marcus Mariota led the Titans to a 36-17 victory early in the year, and a 15-10 victory to clinch a playoff spot in week 17.
Both teams have made solid improvements in the offseason, but the Titans have proven they can beat the Jaguars using a solid ground game, playing turnover free football, and getting to Bortles. The most important part of the game Sunday may be containing the passing attack, as the new and improved Titans secondary gets a chance to show what they can do.
In two games last season, Blake Bortles threw 4 picks vs. the Titans.
The Jaguars receiving core is improved, with Keelan Cole and DeDe Westbrook emerging as viable options, but they aren’t world beaters. Kevin Byard caught 2 interceptions in the week 17 win, and the Titans defense caused 4 turnovers in total.
While both teams have changed, this is a familiar opponent for the Titans, and with Byard and Adoree’ Jackson having played good games vs. the Jaguars in the past, the Titans secondary has a chance to force turnovers against the sometimes erratic Blake Bortles.
Battle In the Trenches
Despite not having their starting tackles for last Sunday’s game, the Titans have fared very well along the offensive line so far this season. In their last two games, Pro Football Focus has ranked the Titans 1st and 6th in their pass blocking metric, which is impressive given their numerous injuries.
The play of the interior has been solid, especially that of Guard Quinton Spain, who seems to have fully recovered from the turf toe injury that held him back from last season. What’s more is that Taylor Lewan is back from a concussion and has been cleared to compete.
It is no secret that the Jaguars have an elite pass rushing group. Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler JR. and Malik Jackson all are very solid, and the Jags have a bonafide young superstar in Yannick Ngakoue. They ranked 3rd in the NFL in pressure percentage last year, per PFF, and are off to hot start this year. The battle in the trenches should be fun to watch, but a Titans offensive line with Taylor Lewan may have the upper hand.
Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis
The Achilles heel of the mighty Jaguars defense is their run game. They ranked 21st last year in terms of rushing yards per game allowed. Derrick Henry, as a backup running back, had two touchdowns in two games vs. the Jags, including a 66 yard receiving touchdown to give the Titans a critical lead in week 17. Dion Lewis replaces Demarco Murray as a more talented and athletic back, and as mentioned above, the Titans offensive line looks good to start this year.
It may be tough to run the ball if the Titans can’t find a way to beat the Jags over the top and keep the safeties honest, but expect the Titans to use clever ways to get Henry and Lewis in space if Blaine Gabbert or a hampered Marcus Mariota starts.
The Jags defense has speedy playmakers up the middle in Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, but the Titans lineman have been able to get to the second level effectively this year and block downfield.Whoever starts under center, expect a run heavy scheme from Lafleur and co.
Reasons for concern
The number 1 question for the Titans this weekend is who will start under center. Credit to Blaine Gabbert for pulling out a win and playing smart football vs. the Texans, but he remains a backup quarterback that may not be able to consistently compete.
The Titans were able to use a creative gameplan to catch the Texans by surprise, which allowed them to move the ball without much of a downfield passing attack. One egregious example of this is that the Texans sometimes lined up with two deep safeties when Derrick Henry was running the wildcat.
The Jags will be more prepared for some possible wildcat formations, counter runs, and other trickery, so if Gabbert starts, don’t expect as much of the offense. Mariota needs to be there for the Titans to have a good chance to win the game
No matter who is under center, the Jags will likely stack the box and make Gabbert or an injured Mariota try to stretch them vertically. Daring the Titans to throw deep without a healthy, capable quarterback seems like an easy way to limit the Titans, as Henry and Lewis will have less room to work with offensively vs. eight-man fronts.
This game will be a telling test of Matt Lafleur, who will be required to get Henry, Lewis, and wide receiver Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor space to make plays, which is difficult given they have put the wildcat formation on film and the Jaguars will now prepare for it.
With a scary front seven, if the Jaguars throttle the Tennessee run game, the Titans may not be able to get anything going.
Jags offensive improvement
NFL fans, including myself, have ripped on Bortles endlessly for holding the Jaguars back. Truth be told, the jury is out on Bortles, but in three of his last four games he has looked like a potential franchise guy who can run a decently effective offense.
He looked great vs. the Patriots recently and impressed in last year’s playoffs. His weaknesses, accuracy and mental processing, seem to have improved, and he is known for having arm strength and serviceable mobility.
If Bortles plays turnover free football and plays smart, the Jags can use their great defense to consistently win low scoring battles. For what it’s worth, LT Cam Robinson is out for the season with a knee injury, which weakens pass protection, and the run game will be hampered if Leonard Fournette can’t play, who is questionable.
The Jags have a capable backup running back in TJ Yeldon. Throw in the emergence of Cole and Westbrook, the encouraging play of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and the addition of Pro Bowl offensive lineman Andrew Norwell and this unit could do damage against a good, but not great Titans defense. It is critical that the Titans get to Bortles from his blind side, where Robinson has left a void.
Titans 10, Jaguars 17 (Gabbert starts)
Titans 20, Jaguars 21 (Mariota starts)I see a close, hard fought divisional game, but eventually the Titans will struggle to move the ball with Gabbert or hampered Mariota under center. Bortles will manage the game and play effectively, and the Titans offense won’t have an answer.