The Tennessee Titans are set to take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the 2014 season opener. The game will mark the first step into the Whisenhunt era for Tennessee, and hopefully the Titans get it off to a good start with a win. Below we break down the match-up in depth. It's time to get excited for another season of Titans football.
The Titans will need plenty out of Jake Locker against a solid Chiefs front seven. The Chiefs OLB's Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are a formidable duo who are likely to cause a lot of backfield pressure and disruption. I would expect a game-plan of quick release passing for Locker, without hanging him out to dry in the pocket too often. Locker will likely be using his superior mobility early and often, to move around the pocket and buy extra time.
On the second level, Locker will have to anticipate the coverages of both Eric Berry and Husain Abdullah, the former of which is one of the premier players at the position. Berry is coming off an injury in the pre-season, so the Titans will be the first team to test how far back he is when they play in the opener. Jake has sometimes struggled to effectively "look off" safeties in the past, but he will need to do a solid job of that if the team it to take some deep shots to Justin Hunter and co.
One of Locker's criticisms coming into then season was his inability to perform well with pressure in his face. PFF factored in pocket pressure when grading Locker's last match-up (against the Falcons in the 3rd pre-season game), and he came out with an impressive 135.4 rating. While he has plenty of questions still to answer, there is as many reasons to be optimistic about his 2014 season, and that starts with a legitimately tough assignment against Kansas City.
The Titans enter the 2014 season with arguably the most talented crop of receivers they have had since they arrived in Nashville. They will need to be effective in space against an aggressive Chiefs defense, especially in the underneath zones where the Titans will likely try to find the majority of their yards.
Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith will likely be matched up with Kendall Wright for much of the day, which will be more than a handful for him. Wright made quick work of most corners last season including the likes of Patrick Peterson, so this may be one of the areas of greatest advantage for the Titans.
On the other side Tennessee receivers will be facing the youngster Marcus Cooper, who played well at outside corner in nickel packages last year but faded down the stretch. This season, the Chiefs new emphasis on press-man coverage should suit his skill set better, and he seems a natural fit outside following the release of veteran Brandon Flowers. Nate Washington and Justin Hunter will test his early, but it may come in the form of a thousand cuts rather than the deep bomb.
The Titans will also look to utilize Delanie Walker (and maybe even Taylor Thompson) to take advantage of personnel mis-matches. Both guys are capable threats in the passing game, and Walker's strong first season as a Titan is hopefully a sign of things to come. He should gives Jake Locker an outlet when the pressure is on.
The Titans are entering a new era with their coaching staff, but they are also in transition in the running game. The committee approach is in full swing, and Titans fans will get their first chance to see it in "real" action against the Chiefs. On the back of a positive pre-season, Shonn Greene will likely take the lion's share of the carries, mixed in here and there with the rookie Bishop Sankey, and replaced on 3rd downs by the versatile Dexter McCluster, who'll be returning to Arrowhead Stadium for the first time as a non-Chief.
Chief's veteran inside backer Derrick Johnson has proven adept at tracking down the runner, and the Titans running backs will have to be keen on where the unblocked defender is on every down. While not the most thrilling of areas to watch, the running backs picking up the blitz to buy Jake Locker more time may turn out to be a key factor in deciding the outcome of the game.
Dontari Poe and the Chiefs athletic linebackers will make things difficult for the Titans to operate, especially with an offensive line that, while talented, features only a single starting member who has been with the team more than one season (Michael Roos). On the inside, Andy Levitre, Brian Schwenke, and Chance Warmack will take turns handling Poe (and probably double teaming him when possible) to allow the running game to breathe. The Tackles may have the toughest tasks though; trying to slow down Hali and Houston. I would expect Oher to have some trouble on the right side especially, but I'll save my judgment for after his official debut as a Titan.
The Titans have had a rougher go of it through the pre-season on the defensive line, but there are reasons for optimism. Jurrell Casey will be a handful for an inexperienced Chiefs interior offensive line, regardless of the down and distance. He'll be matching up with Redskins castoff Mike McGlynn, a depth player that has been pressed into service on the Chiefs line, and (situationally) a fourth year Center in Rodney Hudson, whom the Chiefs organization have expressed concerns about as a starter as well. Casey should have a field day.
Ropati Pitoitua also figures to play well, matching up against RT Jeff Allen, a young fill-in for suspended OT Donald Stephenson, who will miss the first four games of the season. The Chiefs line also features a sixth rounder that Titans fans are probably familiar with; ex-Volunteer guard, rookie Zach Fulton. Kansas City have legitimate concerns on their offensive line; if Tennessee is to capitalize on one area, it's this one.
Linebacker is a spot with some question marks for Tennessee. While I love the collection of athletic talent, they are still very much learning the ins-and-outs of Horton's defense, and their showing (as a unit) was not exactly admirable in the pre-season. That said, they will get an easier start to the season in one aspect (going against an inexperienced offensive line) and a nightmare in another (facing Jamaal Charles out of the gate).
On the outside, Derrick Morgan, Shawn Phillips, and Kamerion Wimbley need to be able to generate pressure off the edge on Alex Smith. There will be a heavy dose of quick passes, especially out of the backfield and quick outs to the tight ends, courtesy of the Andy Reid offense. If they do manage to get the ball out quickly as they have in the past, Wesley Woodyard and Zach Brown will need to be overly active to the perimeter to track these pass catchers down. Tackling, which has been a concern so far, will have to be solid if the defense expects to get off the field.
With Dwayne Bowe suspended, the Titans secondary have a much easier task to perform. The Chiefs roll into 2014 with a starting receiving corps consisting of fomer Titan backup Donnie Avery, rookie Frankie Hammond, and 49ers failed draft pick AJ Jenkins. While it shouldn't be overlooked, it's not a unit that is going to blow your socks off. The Titans need just that kind of scenario to start the season, with a lack of experience behind Jason McCourty. Blidi Wreh-Wilson won the starting job opposite McCourty, but I would expect Coty Sensabaugh to be on the field plenty with the Titans operating out of a lot of nickel packages.
In the deep secondary, Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin need to play aggressively. Pollard will play close to the line to provide another defender in the running game, and to help stem the underneath zone routes that will likely come early and often. I expect a lot of cover 1 and cover 3, with Griffin as the single high safety. Hopefully both guys can play to their strengths and start the season off strong.
Exit Travis Coons and Maikon Bonani. Enter Ryan Succop. The man who was a Chief less than a week ago had been a solid kicker of the past few years, and should be a solid addition to a Titans roster that has been shaky at the spot in the wake of Rob Bironas' cut. Facing a stout defense in Kansas City, Succop will likely be relied upon to make every drive into opposing territory count.
The Tennessee Titans have a lot of special teams talent on the squad this year, but have finally settled on Leon Washington returning kickoffs, and Dexter McCluster fielding punts. Both are dynamic returners and can do some damage if they get some space and a head of steam. Ken Whisenhunt remarked that we might see both Washington and McCluster on the field at the same time for punt returns, that will be interesting to see. As always, ball security here is king.
The Chiefs at Arrowhead is a tough start to the season for the Titans. They have a strong running game, despite the offensive line woes, a fierce pass rush, and a coach who knows how to score points. Match-ups in the trenches will be key on both sides of the ball, with the winner of those battles taking the win. I anticipate big things from Jurrell Casey against an inexperienced line, and if the Titans can control the line of scrimmage, they can minimize the damage done by Jamaal Charles.
Possibly the biggest area of advantage for the Titans is at the skill positions on offense. Chiefs corners Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper will have their hands full with Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, and Nate Washington, even with Eric Berry manning the secondary.
The Titans will be able to test their own offensive line, and I think they show up in a big way. Handling Poe and the Chiefs athletic pass rushing linebackers will be a tough prospect, but it's within their capabilities as a unit. After years of investment at the position, the coaching staff and fans alike should expect some healthy returns.
It would be considered a surprise win for Tennessee, but I think they pull it off, if narrowly, to get the Ken Whisenhunt era off to a good start.