The Titans and the Raiders square off in Nashville for a third consecutive year in what is quickly becoming a little bit of a rivalry in the AFC. There are some remarkable similarities between the two teams. Both are built around a young quarterback and a stout offensive line. Both Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota suffered a season ending broken leg during the same week last year. And finally, both teams are widely considered favorites to win their division and make the playoffs this year.
The first two rounds of this matchup have gone to the Raiders as they had a 4th-down-phantom-DPI-aided comeback win in 2015. The 2016 meeting featured the Titans attempting a comeback, but again, the referees were heavily influential in the outcome of the game. Taylor Lewan was called for a personal foul when trying to clear a pile at the end of a 19 yard completion from Mariota to Tajae Sharpe that would have had the Titans sitting at 1st and goal from the Oakland 2 yard line. The Titans then had what would have been Andre Johnson’s second clutch late game touchdown catch in as many weeks negated by a borderline — but probably deserved — offensive pass interference call. On their final shot the Titans saw Harry Douglas’ legs get tangled with Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie’s as he came out of his break. I won’t gripe with any of those calls or non-calls individually, but you could have seen all of them going either way and every single one went the Raiders way.
These are two very evenly matched teams and as Jimmy pointed out this morning, Vegas agrees. This game will likely come down to a few key matchups. These are the ones that I am most looking forward to watching. Let’s hope the refs don’t factor in to this game as much as they did in the last two in this series.
Khalil Mack vs. Taylor Lewan & Jack Conklin
Khalil Mack is among the premier pass rushers in the NFL. Last season he comfortably led the league in total pressures — a stat that combines QB sacks, hits, and hurries — racking up 96 over 16 games which is a stunning 6 pressures per game. The next closest was Olivier Vernon of the Giants at 86 pressures. That earned Mack the recognition of finishing 2016 as PFF’s #1 edge rusher.
However, the Titans get to counter with one of the best sets of tackles in the NFL in Lewan and Conklin. Last year these two held Mack to his quietest game of 2016 when he finished with 1.5 tackles and no sacks. He did pick up a couple pressures, but nowhere near his 6 per game average. Lewan ranked 8th and Conklin ranked 20th in the NFL in Pass Blocking Efficiency among tackles according to PFF so this is a premier matchup on both sides.
I went back and studied the tape of last year’s Titans-Raiders game to see what could be learned about this matchup. Mack lined up for 27 snaps as a defensive end on Lewan’s side, 25 snaps on Conklin’s side, and 4 snaps between the guards. So I wouldn’t expect him to be stationary this Sunday either. The Raiders will try to move him around and keep the Titans offense guessing where he will pop up. This also means that both Lewan and Conklin will get tested by Mack throughout the game.
Last season the Titans did a good job of protecting their tackles against Mack. Most snaps, especially in the first 3 quarters, saw the Titans giving some sort of help, whether it came through a tight end, a running back chip, or a simply a tight bunch formation to Mack’s side that kept him from being able to attack up field as aggressively. They also did a good job of slowing Mack down by running at him and/or putting him in a read. The best way to slow an elite pass rusher is to keep him off balance. "Help" shouldn’t be considered a dirty word when talking about this stuff either. It is smart coaching against a guy this disruptive, no matter how good your tackles are. Here are some examples of how the Titans helped against Mack.
Here you’ve got a set with 13 personnel (1 running back, 3 tight ends) on the field. Let’s take a quick moment to appreciate the fact that the Titans had Jace Amaro, Anthony Fasano, Phillip Supernaw, and old man Andre Johnson on the field for this play which is quite possibly the slowest set of receiving options any NFL team fielded on one play all last season. It’s hard to describe how much more talented the Titans pass catchers are this year. Anyway, Amaro releasing down field, even though he didn’t block Mack, at least slows him down as he’s coming off the ball. Also, notice that Khalil Mack is lined up offsides as he is almost every play it seems like. Let’s see if referee Jerome Boger and crew force Mack to line up in a legal position Sunday.
Another method for slowing down an edge rusher is to run at him. Here the Titans run a little triple option look where Mack is the read on the play. The Titans got a pretty nice gain out of this play and could have had a few more if Harry Douglas had been able to handle the pitch. This kind of play makes Mack think and that’s a good thing for the Titans.
Later in last season’s game the Titans got in to a hurry up offense trying to play catch up. That led directly to Mack getting a lot more one-on-one looks — particularly against Conklin — and while he didn’t get home, he did get some pressure on Mariota. The Titans will need to avoid digging themselves a big hole early Sunday, because those are the scenarios that a Khalil Mack-type player thrives in.
Here is an example of one of those plays. Conklin does just enough to slow him down and let the ball get out, but Mack gets a hit on Mariota and was very close to a big play. It will be critical for the Titans to get off to a good start.
Marquette King vs. Adoree Jackson
Last season Raiders punter Marquette King finished 2nd in the NFL in punting average at 48.6 yards per punt behind only Barstool Sports contributor (and former Colts punter) Pat McAfee. King has one of the NFL’s strongest legs and brings a little excitement to punting.
King’s long punts can flip field position for the Raiders, however it also makes his punts among the most returnable in the NFL. Last season teams averaged 12.3 yards per return on King’s punts which was 3rd in the NFL behind Pat O’Donnell of the Bears and Brad Nortman of the Jaguars. He also yielded the 7th lowest percentage of fair catches in the league which means he is pretty regularly out-kicking his coverage.
Jackson has a chance to make the most of these opportunities thanks in part to two of the Raiders best core special teams players last season — safety Brynden Trawick and linebacker Daren Bates — leaving Oakland to come play in Tennessee during the offseason. The Titans focus on improving special teams showed during the preseason and I expect it to carry in to the regular season as well. The Raiders will be aware of Jackson given his 4 punt return touchdowns at USC over the last two years and the one he took back in preseason against the Panthers (it was called back due to questionable penalties, but still), however I’m not sure they will fear him yet. I don’t expect Jackson to get the Tyreek Hill treatment — directional punts out of bounds, intentionally exaggerated hang times — until he shows he can do some damage in the league.
This is a big opportunity for the rookie return man right out of the gate. I am excited to see if he can take advantage of it. Sign me up for one of these on Sunday.
Raiders Receivers vs. Titans Corners
This is probably going to be the story of this game. The Raiders return their top 3 receivers from a year ago — Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and Seth Roberts — while adding Cordarrelle Patterson to the mix and also former Titans tight end Jared Cook (who is really just a big receiver). The Titans secondary will be entirely different from the one the Raiders faced a year ago. In fact, the 4 defensive backs with the most snaps from the 2016 Titans-Raiders meeting — Jason McCourty, Perrish Cox, Rashad Johnson, and Daimion Stafford — are all gone, and 3 of them are out of the NFL altogether.
Replacing that group are top free agent acquisitions Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien, 1st round draft pick Adoree Jackson, and two rising second year players in Kevin Byard and LeShaun Sims. Make no mistake about it, this Titans secondary is far more talented than the one that started the 2016 season. However, they are also a relatively inexperienced group outside of nickel corner Brice McCain, Ryan, and Cyprien so we may see some growing pains in this game against one of the best passing attacks in the NFL featuring two guys — Cooper and Crabtree — coming off 1,000 yard seasons.
Last year the Titans actually did a decent job against the Raiders receivers. Amari Cooper only caught 4 of 9 targets for 62 yards. Seth Roberts caught 2 of 6 for 27 yards, of course one of those was a touchdown because Seth Roberts always scores touchdowns on the Titans. However, the one guy they struggled with all day was Michael Crabtree who grabbed 8 of 11 targets for 102 yards and seemingly converted a million 3rd downs to keep drives alive.
The good news is that the Titans now have a corner in Logan Ryan who matches up very well with Crabtree. Crabtree is a guy that wins with size, strength, savvy route running, and the ability to make contested catches. Ryan is a grinder of a corner. He uses film study and physicality to harass and frustrate receivers, especially the bigger targets like Crabtree, DeAndre Hopkins, and Demaryius Thomas. Below is a perfect example of this from last season with Ryan working in press man against Hopkins at the bottom of the screen. Hopkins is very similar to Crabtree.
Amari Cooper was relatively quiet against the Titans last season, but I don’t expect that to be the case this year. The third year wideout has gotten better each season and now appears to be on the verge of taking it to the next level. The Titans will have a tough matchup on their hands regardless of who is tracking Cooper. Cooper is tough because he’s got a great combination of size, speed, and quickness in addition to superb route running and feel for getting open. The Titans won’t announce their starters at corner until Sunday, but I feel like it is safe to say at Ryan, Sims, McCain, and Jackson will all see significant action during this game. Sims can match the size of Cooper, but Jackson or McCain give more speed and quickness to stick with him. I actually think Jackson is probably the best fit from a skill standpoint, but putting a rookie on Amari Cooper for his first NFL start seems like a recipe for disaster.
Seth Roberts is a large slot receiver who had his career game — and there’s not a close second — on November 29, 2015 against the Titans when he went for 6 catches, 113 yards, and 2 touchdowns. His second biggest game of his career is 3 catches for 73 yards. Roberts is a tough matchup for Brice McCain due to the size disadvantage. I tend to think we see more Logan Ryan in the slot this game to account for that.