Tennessee head coach Mike Mularkey wasn't kidding when they said they wanted to focus on the run. The Titans rode a productive ground game to victory Saturday night, rolling over the Chargers on the backs of Demarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and others. Early in the 4th quarter, the team was averaging 9.4 yards per carry. They equaled the Chargers total offensive production with their ground game alone. First it was Murray, who flashed speed and vision, taking a 71 yarder for a score early on. Derrick Henry showed up in a big way afterwards, barreling through defenders and showing some nifty vision and quickness to gain consistent yardage. He joined the score line as well, dragging several defenders into the end zone. Later in the game, a rare Bishop Sankey carry resulted in a 44 yard TD run. This is a crowded running back room right now.
So what else did we learn from the Titans preseason debut?
1) The offensive line is coming together. Taylor Lewan put on a masterclass for most of his snaps, springing multiple big runs off the left side of the line. On Demarco Murray's long TD, Lewan was the key contributer. Ben Jones and Quinton Spain also had very good nights. Warmack and rookie RT Jack Conklin held their own on the right side of the line. The Titans will need this group to far outproduce their prior iteration from 2015, when they were one of the worst units in the league. While it's tough to jump to any conclusions after one preseason game, this was certainly a step in the right direction.
2) Tajae Sharpe is more than a camp star. Sharpe got going early on, hauling in a long Mariota bomb to spark the first drive of the night. The late round pick continues to turn heads, and got the nod to start the game opposite Rishard Matthews. It is not a motivational technique at this point. If DGB and the other Titans wideouts want to start, they will have to earn that spot by dethroning Sharpe.
3) The run defense needs work. The first unit for both squads was telling; the Chargers pushed the Titans around far too much in the trenches, and Melvin Gordon did plenty of damage accordingly. Avery Williamson in particular was active in the run game, and had a few nice plays. But he was also guilty of what appeared to be a blown coverage, where Gordon took a simple dump-off pass 41 yards for a score (also guilty were the DB's who failed to bring him down). Lebeau and this Tennessee defense need to do better. The preseason is naturally tilted towards offenses, as defenses run a much simpler play set and don't reveal much. That said, it was discouraging to see the Chargers running very strong early on.
4) The Titans have some quality depth. This team has long suffered from razor thin depth issues at multiple positions, and while the roster will still need a lot of work in the coming seasons, the rookie class and free agent adds are making a difference on both the front and back end of the roster. Daimion Stafford is actively competing with Da'Norris Searcy at strong safety. Antwon Blake made some nice plays and had decent coverage, and he is out competing with Perrish Cox (out through injury). In the trenches, J.R Tavai had a strong night as the DT/DE spot, recording a sack and a few nice pressures. Kevin Byard, the rookie safety (behind Rashad Johnson), recorded a nifty interception on the night. And on the offensive line Sebastian Tretola helped open big lanes in both the running and passing game. There is definitely increased competition across the board, and that will ultimately result in a roster far more resilient to injury.
5) Mariota looked calm and collected. The Hawaiian QB went an efficient 5 for 5 on the night in which the runners stole the show. His completions included some improvised scramble-passes, a deep bomb, and some rhythm passes. He continued the theme that he has carried through camp; he is comfortable leading this offense. If the team can continue to support and complement him, there's no reason Tennessee can't make some waves in 2016.
What did you think of the Titans preseason victory?