The Titans take on the Cowboys in their home opener, after downing the Chiefs 26-10 last week. They come into the game on the back of a well-rounded performance against a 2013 playoff squad. They will be facing an offense with extra dimensions to deal with this week, but also going against a defense that doesn't look quite as dangerous on paper. Below we break down each position group (in as much detail as I can afford).
We've talked a lot about Locker over the past week, and rightly so. He was an effective weapon in Arrowhead week one, notching a couple of scores and spreading the ball around to his playmakers. He figures to have an easier go of it this week as well; going up against a Cowboys defensive front without the deep talent of a Kansas City. Locker will need to continue to grow, and refine the little things in his game, but I think he matches up well in this one.
Last week we saw Locker stand tall in the pocket, change protection calls at the line, and generally look in command of the offense. This week, I expect more of the same quick-release patterns, especially early in the game, but I think this week presents an increased opportunity for the Titans to push the ball deep. For all the harping on the struggles of the Cowboys defensive front, it was the secondary that burned them more often than not last weekend against the 49ers. Locker will no doubt look to take advantage of the soft coverages and the lack of depth in the deep quadrants of the field.
The Titans ran with a multitude of offensive personnel groupings last week, but they seemed to be most effective from the 11. The presence of three quality wide-outs in Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, and Justin Hunter, a shifty versatile runner in Dexter McCluster, and a balanced tight end who can hurt you in the passing game in Delanie Walker, and you have an offense that is supremely flexible.
Wright commanded attention underneath, but this may be a week where the Titans look to mix in more deep routes for the young pass catcher. The defensive attention he garners can open up opportunities for his teammates like Justin Hunter, as it did last week in spurts. The Titans were also willing to exploit Wright's versatility, working him inside, outside, and even out of the backfield in week 1 (even though all his catches came from the slot). The ex-Baylor star's shiftiness is likely to prove troublesome for Cowboys starting corner Brandon Carr. Fun fact, Kendall Wright's 158 catches over first two seasons rank 5th all time in NFL history.
Justin Hunter will also have an interesting match-up. He figures to line up opposite young corner Morris Claiborne on at least half the plays he's in the game. Delanie Walker had a strong showing in opener, and Whisenhunt clearly understands how to use him to best effect. The Cowboys dearth of safety talent will be a concern as well, and I see the Titans being able to move the ball through the air with relative ease.
After reviewing last week's tape, I was happier with the offensive line than I was at first glance. The run blocking was actually better on the left side of the line, with Michael Oher and Chance Warmack having the most lapses in that aspect on the right. That said, there are still valid concerns about Andy Levitre, who struggled with the bull rush in Kansas City, and Locker paid the price for it.
The Cowboys defensive front is not comparable to that of the Chiefs (at least as far as we know), and the Titans were able to rack up 168 rushing yards on them. I see a similar number this week, with less pressure on Locker from the interior. Attention needs to be paid to Henry Melton on the inside of the 'Boy's defensive line, and to weak outside linebacker Bruce Carter who has a definite nose for the football.
As stated above, the Titans were able to have success on the ground against a fairly accomplished defensive line last week. They did this with a true committee approach, working in Dexter McCluster, Shonn Greene, Bishop Sankey, and even Leon Washington with effect. Their efforts were improved with a steady dose of solid play calling which, often times, was unpredictable in nature. One of the most important factors was the running backs' ability to generate consistent positive yardage, helping Jake Locker and co. to more manageable third down distances.
I see Shonn Greene getting the bulk of the carries again against the Cowboys, and he ran very solidly in the opener. Cowboys Justin Durant (MLB) is out with an injury, placing some added burden on Bruce Carter (WLB), who will be tasked with bringing the Titans running backs down. I'm not confident that Dallas is equipped to deal with the versatility of this Tennessee skill position group.
We can't talk about the Titans defensive line without starting with Jurrell Casey. He was nothing short of dominant in his debut as a 3-4 end in Ray Horton's multiple scheme. He will match up against Left Guard Ronald Leary, a weaker link on a fairly strong Cowboys offensive line. Casey should thrive in this match-up as he did last week, where he flashed consistently as both a run stopper and a pass rusher.
Less appreciated teammates Ropati Pitoitua, Sammie Hill, and Karl Klug, were also effective defenders, and key in holding Charles to 19 yards on the ground. They will have much the same task this week in containing DeMarco Murray and forcing the Cowboys to air it out. When they were able to force Alex Smith to do so, the Titans were able to pin their ears back and put an incredible amount of pressure on him, culminating in 18 QB pressures and 4 sacks. Their plan will be much the same with a Tony Romo who still doesn't look 100% after off-season back surgery.
The Titans linebackers were a huge concern going into the regular season; they couldn't tackle, the were shallow at ILB, and their hopes seemed to be pinned on a defensive end convert named Derrick Morgan who had never played the position. Fast forward to the second week of the season and there is a new outlook that has pervaded NFL analysts and Titans fans alike. Derrick Morgan in particular was a standout in week one, faring excellently in both pass coverage and rushing the signal caller, dominating his opposite number consistently. Morgan will lead a Titans corps into battle at LP against a much better Cowboys offense, but the strategy should be much the same.
Inside the Titans lost linebacker Zach Brown, presumably for the season, to a torn pectoral muscle. In his stead, a combination of Zaviar Gooden and Safety George Wilson filled in, and the defense didn't miss a beat. Wesley Woodyard was also a big part of the defensive efforts, leading the team in tackles and tracking down the Chiefs running backs with aplomb. The Titans backers will need to maintain their gap integrity against a better offensive line, and keep a close eye on athletic tight ends Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. The former is a match up problem, and one to watch as the game develops.
Jason McCourty had a stunning performance last week, reeling in two interceptions and causing a third. He will face stiffer competition this week against the likes of Dez Bryant. McCourty is athletic and rangy, as is Byrant, who is no doubt one of the top receiving weapons in the league at this point. The outcome of their outside battle could well decide a lot about whether the Cowboys can move the ball. On the other side Blidi Wreh-Wilson will be matched up with Terrence Williams often, who quietly had a solid campaign last season. That will be a better gauge of the young corner's skills than Frankie Hammond...
In the deep secondary Bernard Pollard and George Wilson will be relied upon to play close to the line and provide run support against DeMarco Murray and co. That said, I see the Titans playing more cover two schemes than they did last week, with the deep threat noticeably more potent. Michael Griffin will also have an important role in keeping sound coverage over the top. The Cowboys took a lot of shots deep despite Romo's limitations in that aspect of the game right now, so the Titans need to be ready to defend the entire field.
Ryan Succop was the week one hero, of sorts, for the Tennessee Titans, kicking 4 for 4 against his old team. He also played well on kickoffs, sending them through the endzone. The Cowboys' special teams unit is less decorated than that of the Chiefs, but it will be worth watching if Succop can build on that positive performance. Brett Kern is also a big factor at times, and is among the best punters in the game at this point. He was on the money in week one.
In the return game, Dexter McCluster and Leon Washington will look to do some damage if they can get some open space.
The Titans face another viable challenge this week for their home opener at LP. The Cowboys have a weak defense (from all accounts) but an offense that can be explosive. I see more points in this one, and see the game hinging on who can get off the field on 3rd down. Right now, with Casey, Morgan, and McCourty leading each of the Titans defensive groupings, and with Horton scheming to bottle up DeMarco Murray, I'd say the Titans have a strong chance to be that team. In the end of the day, the game could come down to Tony Romo's arm versus that of Jake Locker. What kind of results that competition bring are yet to be seen.