Reminder: Each week, I’ll go ahead and watch the five most recent games our opponent has played, in order to get a feel for their strengths/weaknesses, tendencies, and how well they’ve been playing leading up to their game against the Titans. I’ll break my findings down into four sections: When the Titans Run, When the Titans Pass, When the Opponents Run, and When the Opponents Pass. I’ll also list 4 players (2 offense, 2 defense) from each team that I believe could swing the final outcome based on their play.
For the first season in a stretch of many, the Jaguars have capitalized on the potential contained within a roster chock-full of blue-chip draft picks. Their defense, specifically, is good to great (trending towards the latter) at every position. Perpetual laugh factory Blake Bortles is now playing acceptably, only getting in his team’s way once in a while (as opposed to doing so every other drive, like before). It’s hard to tell how much of an influence new HC Doug Marrone has had on the team’s turnaround, given that former Jags’ HC and current EVPFO Tom Coughlin is also working, behind the scenes, to right the ship.
In week two, this season, the Titans were able to wrestle control of the game away from the Jags in the second half with overpowering physicality. We have not seen those Titans since. Given Tennessee’s struggles in replicating that approach as of late, it will be interesting to see whether they attempt to go back to that well on Sunday. I know many of us fans are sick and tired of watching smash-mouth football not succeed. However, the Jaguars’ defense is a different breed and may not soften against the no-huddle quite to the degree that other teams’ defenses have.
With a playoff berth on the line for the Titans and nothing to gain for the Jaguars, it will also be interesting to see which team possesses more “energy” come game time. The enormous pressure on Tennessee could have a positive or negative impact on their play, and we can only speculate as to what degree division rivalry and week two’s loss will motivate Jacksonville.
When the Titans Run
If there’s a single weakness of the Jaguars’ defense, it’s their play against the run. By almost every statistical metric or analytical grade, they are mediocre to bad at corralling opponents’ ground games. Football Outsiders has them ranked 29th in run defense and they (coincidentally) place 29th in yards allowed per carry.
The eye test mostly confirms the numbers, but it is interesting to watch how their defense approaches handoffs. It is easy to see why Jacksonville made a move to acquire Marcell Dareus from the Bills, as their interior line play in running situations, even with him (he’s now their most consistent run-stuffing DL), leaves something to be desired. Their linebackers and secondary end up “cleaning things up” more often than not. Paul Posluszny remains a reliable gap-fitting MLB, and Barry Church is one of the best two-way safeties in all of football. Surprisingly, despite his raw tackle statistics not standing out, PFF has Telvin Smith graded 1st against the run amongst linebackers this season. Simply put, the Jaguar’s biggest asset in stopping ballcarriers is their athleticism on the back end.
Perhaps a lack of run-stopping penetration by their interior line can explain why Derrick Henry has had success against the Jags in past meetings. As we all know, when given a few yards’ head of steam, he’s a near-locomotive whom no linebacker, safety or corner wants to “greet” in a run gap, play after play. The Titans should remain committed to the run this week, and they need Henry to move powerfully and decisively. If he doesn’t, the Titans will not be participating in the 2017 NFL Playoffs. If he does, they just might be.
When the Titans Pass
The Jaguars’ pass defense, stylistically, could be described as a supercharged version of the Rams’ (which the Titans faced last week), and the Rams’ pass defense is prettaaay, prettaay good, if that tells you anything. So far this season, they have generated a whopping 32 turnovers (an average of 2.13 per game). PFF has six of their eight primary coverage players graded higher than 80 (out of 100) on the year, with all above 70 and two (both starting outside CBs, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye) above 90.
Not to worry, “Sacksonville” also only leads the league in QB takedowns. Football Outsiders has them ranked third in adjusted sack rate. In particular, off-season FA addition Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks so far this year) and 2nd-year pro Yannick Ngakoue (12), the undisputed king of the strip sack, have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks in 2017. The Titans, however, have only given up 4 sacks the teams’ last three meetings. I am ultimately not too concerned with this aspect of the matchup, thanks primarily to Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, but the Titans’ entire protection unit needs to remain ever vigilant during each and every snap. Win or lose, they simply cannot allow a repeat of last year’s week 16 catastrophe—Marcus Mariota had better walk out of Nissan Stadium on his own power (and in regular shoes).
Speaking of Mariota, he will need to be careful with the football in order for the Titans to have a chance to win. Despite their reputation, the Jags’ pass defense is more opportunistic than “shut down”. They bait quarterbacks who stare down receivers, and their underneath coverage is always moving, lurking. Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie should avoid asking too much of Mariota and the receivers, given the sustained evidence that things aren’t fully “clicking” between all four parties this year. While I am curious to see how effective the Titans’ no-huddle passing attack can be against the Jaguars’ defense, Tennessee’s game plan shouldn’t solely rely on it working; the Titans will need to be able to effectively pass out of their run-based formations as well.
When the Jaguars Run
The Jags’ power run game is heralded somewhat by national talking heads, but I’m not convinced that it’s all that great. While they lead the league in total rushing, I suspect a lot of that has to do with the situations their offense has faced (playing with a lead, relying on their defense to maintain it). They do rank 8th in average yards per carry, and Football Outsiders has them ranked 12th in rushing DVOA (the Titans rank 6th). Frankly, there just aren’t that many good running teams league-wide this year. PFF has Leonard Fournette graded 26th amongst HBs on run plays, and no member of their offensive line grades out higher than 73.9 (C Brandon Linder) year-to-date in run blocking.
As we saw in the teams’ week two matchup, the Titans can absorb the Jags’ physical running style as long as Tennessee’s defenders bring Fournette and Chris Ivory (if he plays this week) down on first contact. When allowed a “second chance”, both players are capable of building momentum a la Derrick Henry. Fournette, also like Henry, possesses breakaway speed when allowed into the second level.
Corey Grant, the Jags’ rotational scat back, worries me most out of the three, honestly. He’s averaging 8.3 yards per carry (on 30 carries) this year, and can fly. If the Titans’ defense allows him through a gap, untouched, or generally doesn’t account for him when he enters the game, he could be in the end zone before they have a chance to say goodbye.
When the Jaguars Pass
This section of the breakdown is presented by @BortlesFacts.
Blake Bortles needs 16,966 rushing yards on Sunday against the @49ers to become the @NFL's all-time leading rusher (@EmmittSmith22: 18,355). pic.twitter.com/bfB9e5rJ78— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) December 21, 2017
Blake Bortles and Tom Brady have combined for 5 Super Bowl Titles, 4 Super Bowl MVP Awards, 12 Pro Bowls, and 2 NFL MVP Awards.— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) August 12, 2017
With that out of the way, let me say that Blake Bortles has not completely sucked as of late. He’s still good for a couple of terrible throws per game, but Jacksonville’s OC, Nathaniel Hackett, is consistently scheming the Jags’ passing offense around the two (or so) things Bortles is actually alright at: throwing to crossing receivers and placing sideline passes on a receiver’s back shoulder with proper timing.
The Jaguars’ receiving corps is depleted, but they’re getting solid production from young receivers stepping into larger than expected roles. One of those players, Marqise Lee, who has 56 catches for 702 yards so far this year, is likely to miss Sunday’s tilt with an ankle injury. My best guess is that Jaydon Mickens (actually click that link), the Jags’ excellent punt returner, will see an increased snap count due to Lee’s injury. He’s actually been quite good when given chances to play on offense. Starter Allen Hurns, speedster Keelan Cole, and veteran TE Marcedes Lewis are also banged up, though not to the same degree as Lee. Given the high-risk/low-reward scenario in play for Jacksonville, I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if all three sat out. That would mean facing a set of receivers comprised of Dede Westbrook, Mickens, and Larry Pinkard (Who?).
Obviously, a lot will depend on Jacksonville’s final injury report. If Doug Marrone and the Jags’ trainers choose to play it safe, the Titans’ chances of winning will go up exponentially. That being said, what WRs are being asked to do within their offense is not complicated: run forward a certain distance, then turn inside and run as fast as you possibly can. As simple as it sounds (and is), that formula has proven difficult for other teams to defend. I’d like to see a little more reliance on zone coverage this week, as I’m not sure the Titans possess the speed at CB to consistently man up against those types of routes. The Titans should also be selective with their blitzing, at least until the secondary shows it can handle things. Against Bortles, you’d rather have too many people in coverage than not enough—he will reward you eventually.
8 Players to Watch
HB Derrick Henry, RT Jack Conklin, LB Wesley Woodyard, S Johnathan Cyprien
QB Blake Bortles, WR Dede Westbrook, EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, S Barry Church