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Six reasons to still be optimistic about the 2017 Titans

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This has been a rough last couple days for Titans fans. Here are some reasons to pick your head up and have some confidence moving forward.

Oakland Raiders v Tennessee Titans

Titans fans have had a rough week. After getting a huge home win over the Seahawks it looked like this team was finally ready to make the leap to contender status. Then Houston happened. There has been a lot of negativity on here and in Titans Twitter since, myself included, but I’m here to tell you to hang in there, things are not nearly as bad as they seem right now. As Paul Kuharsky pointed out this morning, lots of good teams have gotten blown out against opponents they “should” have beat. Here are six more reasons why you shouldn’t write this Titans season off based on one bad loss.

Strength of Schedule

Football Outsiders ranks the Titans strength of schedule through the first four weeks of the season as the 5th hardest in the NFL. However, their future schedule is the easiest in the league and features matchups with the three very worst teams in the league, according to their DVOA metrics, over the next three weeks in the Dolphins (30th), Colts (31st), and Browns (32nd) before the Titans bye week in Week 8.

Just looking through the remainder of the Titans schedule will make you start to feel a little better about the team’s chances. After the three games discussed above, they have their bye week, then a pair of home games where they should be solid favorites hosting the Ravens and Bengals in back to back weeks before traveling to Pittsburgh for their Thursday Night Football game in Week 11. They then face the Colts on the road, return home for a revenge game against Houston, and then swing out west for matchups with the Cardinals and 49ers. The final two games are both at home with the Rams and Jaguars coming to town. At Pittsburgh is probably the scariest matchup on that schedule and even they have shown some vulnerabilities over these first four weeks.

In addition to the matchups themselves, the NFL schedule makers did the Titans some logistical favors for once this year. This week they face a Miami team who is traveling back from a London game the previous week. In their return matchup with Houston, they get the Texans traveling to Nashville on a short week following a Monday night road game in Baltimore. The only team they face coming off a Thursday game and getting a "mini-bye" is Baltimore, but the Titans are coming off a full bye week that week themselves. In Week 17 they get the Jaguars at home the week after the Jags have to travel all the way across the country to San Francisco. In fact, 8 of the 12 remaining games on the Titans schedule feature an opponent coming off a road trip the previous week. The only real disadvantage they face is when they play the Colts following their bye in Indianapolis. These are tiny advantages in the schedule, but they are advantages nonetheless.

The way the schedule sets up — particularly over the next three weeks — means the Titans don’t have to be great right now, they just have to be better than the worst while they play themselves in to form. This team still features lots of young players at key positions who are still growing in to their roles. The schedule allows them some time to grow.

Marcus Mariota

Mariota’s hamstring is being characterized has a "mild strain" and Mularkey claimed it was a "day-to-day type" injury similar to the one DeMarco Murray suffered in Jacksonville, not a "week-to-week type" like the ones that have cost Corey Davis and Johnathan Cyprien multiple weeks. Murray played the week following his injury and played well so there is at least some hope that we could see a close to full-go Mariota on the field in Miami.

Besides his hamstring prognosis, there are other reasons to be optimistic about the Titans third year quarterback. He has spent the past three weeks toiling against three top 10 pass defenses according to DVOA. The next three games — at Miami, vs Indianapolis, and at Cleveland — are all against opponents in the bottom 8 of the same metric. Seeing some softer secondaries and pass rushes may help this pass offense get off the ground.

Additionally, this is right around the time of year that Mariota and the offense really took off last year. Starting with a Week 5 trip to Miami following a Week 4 loss in Houston — sound familiar? — the Titans started an 8-4 run that featured some incredible performances from their quarterback. I think part of the slow-ish start for the passing game is directly attributable to Mariota missing a big chunk of the offseason due to injury, compounded by the fact that the Titans are breaking in almost an entirely new set of wide receivers.

As these guys get more reps together, you will see fewer and fewer passes landing in the grass as the receiver runs a route somewhere else. Mariota is a guy who throws to spots a lot of times. You have to be able to do this to be able to “throw guys open” like he does often. However, that also means that a quarterback can appear to be throwing inaccurate passes when his receivers are really just in the wrong spot. I’m not saying that Mariota never throws a bad ball — he does — but some of this is Mariota expecting a receiver to run a 10 yard dig and the receiver breaks it off at 8 yards. We’ve seen Mariota take over games before with lesser weapons at his disposal. There is no reason to think he won’t start ripping off big games soon.

Corey Davis

Speaking of those new receivers, the 5th overall pick has only played a few snaps so far due to a hamstring injury from training camp that he aggravated early in Week 2. His performance against the Raiders gave Titans fans a glimpse of his incredible talent, and he wasn’t even 100% healthy going in to that game.

The Titans are understandably playing it slow this time around with Davis’ hammy, trying to make sure it is fully healed and not at risk of re-aggravation again before they stick him back out there. He’s already been ruled out for Sunday at Miami, so hopefully he makes his return on Monday Night Football against the Colts.

Adding Davis to the mix will be a big help. His ability to go up and make contested catches is something this offense lacks in its current form. Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker are both quite capable of making the tough contested catches over the middle, but Davis is a throw it up and let him go get it type player. A 100% healthy Davis fundamentally changes this offense.

The Secondary

Yes, I know. They were awful in Houston and often looked like they were completely unprepared to see the looks that the Texans were using. However, I would preach patience with this group. Not a single player from the regular starting group — Kevin Byard, Johnathan Cyprien, Logan Ryan, and Adoree’ Jackson — have ever played together prior to this season. Much like an offensive line, cohesion is important in the secondary. Players must understand both their role and the roles of their teammates in various coverages against the endless array of route concepts that offensive coordinators might throw at them. They also must have a great feel for timing when it comes to switching or passing a receiver off between zones. This is the kind of thing that can only come with experience playing with each other.

Cyprien has missed the past three games with a hamstring injury and has been replaced by a combination of Da’Norris Searcy and Curtis Riley. While he missed a ton of tackles in the Raiders game, Cyp is still the best option on this roster to start across from Byard. The Titans will be glad to get him back healthy soon.

Byard is a guy that had massive expectations heading in to this year as a great rookie year led to an offseason narrative that he was ready to make the leap to being a star safety and leader of this secondary. While I think Byard is absolutely a leader, his performance on the field so far has been just OK. I have felt like he has been pressing a little bit trying to get his first NFL interception after finishing his career with 19 at MTSU. Lost in the debacle that was Sunday was Byard making a great break and even better catch on a (terrible) Deshaun Watson pass late in the first half to finally get that first interception that he has been hunting. Hopefully that settles him down and lets him just get back to playing his game. Another side effect to getting Cyprien back would be freeing up Byard to play more center field again which should help this team.

Dick LeBeau’s defense famously asks a lot of its cornerbacks and that’s been true this season as well. The corners have been up and down so far, particularly Adoree’ Jackson, who goes from “wow what a play” to “what is he even looking at” on a seemingly play to play basis. That’s the life with rookie corners, particularly ones that were considered pretty raw players coming out of college. The good news is that they typically get better with more experience. There is no doubt that the athleticism and effort are there with Jackson. He just needs to improve his recognition and technique. He has an advantage of being in a DB room filled with guys like Ryan, Sims, and Byard who go above and beyond when it comes to studying film. Hopefully Jackson is in there with those guys learning from his early mistakes.

Dumb Luck

Luck plays a larger role in the outcome of NFL games than we would like to admit sometimes, but its true. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating here: Turnover differential is the single best predictor of final record in the NFL and over half of the cause of turnover differential has been statistically proven to be luck. The 2016 Titans went 9-7 despite finishing with the 4th worst “turnover luck” in the league. The other 4 teams in the bottom 5 of that list all earned top 6 picks in the draft. That means the team really played well enough to be a 10-11 win team had they had league average luck when it came to turnovers.

Unfortunately that luck hasn’t improved much in 2017 to this point. While interceptions have a good deal of randomness to them — tips at the line of scrimmage for example — fumble recoveries are almost pure luck. There just isn’t much skill involved in falling on an oblong shaped ball bouncing around in an unpredictable pattern.

The Titans have had the worst luck of any NFL team when it comes to recovering fumbles this year. The Titans have only fumbled once this year (thanks Cassel), so that means their opponents have fumbled 8 times against them. If the Titans had recovered half of those, as statistics would indicate they should have, they would have created 3 additional turnovers. Depending on when those occurred, they may have been enough to swing a loss to a win.

The AFC South

Going in to the season if I told you the Titans would split road games against the two best teams — besides the Titans — in the AFC South, would you have taken it? I know I would have. While the way they got beat was disappointing to say the least, the overall result from two road division games isn’t bad. Out of our four remaining division games, three of them are at home.

The opposite is true for the Texans who have to travel for three of their four remaining division matchups. And while Houston looked much better than I expected against the Titans, I still don’t think they’re a threat to run away with the division. Unless Deshaun Watson really is Michael Jordan in cleats — he’s not — he’s going to have some very very bad games to go along with the good one he had against the Titans on Sunday. And if you really look at his performance, a lot of the big plays were results of horrific Titans mistakes instead of outstanding plays by Watson.

One example of this was the big pass interference call on Jackson towards the end of the first half. Fuller has a step on Adoree’ — he should have had safety help, but Byard takes a step up towards the deep crosser that Jayon Brown should have had — but the ball is badly underthrown and Fuller has to come to a complete stop to try to catch it. It is so badly underthrown, in fact, that it surprises Jackson. He had jumped too early trying to make a play and was caught in mid-air when Fuller stopped leading to the DPI call. Mistakes all around by the Titans, but if Jackson doesn’t jump too early or if Byard doesn’t get distracted by the deep crosser, this is likely an interception.

The Jaguars are the ultimate Jekyll & Hyde team with blowout wins over the Texans and Ravens, a blowout loss at home against the Titans, and then an overtime loss to the lowly Jets last week. The excellent defense will only carry them so far. Eventually Blake Bortles is going to have to make plays for them to win the division and I don’t think he’s capable.

Then finally you have the Colts. They have the worst roster in the division, but that stink has largely been masked by Andrew Luck over the last few years. Luck is reportedly finally getting eased back in to practice reps this week, but he’s not going to play this week and it still seems unlikely that he’s ready to go against the Titans on Monday Night Football the week after. Brissett hasn’t been bad since he came in, but this team needs a 100% healthy and productive Andrew Luck to be a contender in the division. I’m not sure we will see that version of Luck all season.

The Titans have the easiest schedule and are still the most talented team in the division. This is still their division to lose regardless of what happened in Houston. Hang in there Titans fans, there is still plenty to look forward to in this season.