A little less than three weeks ago the Titans were 3-1, coming off a massive win over the defending Super Bowl champs and optimism was at an all-time high. What a difference two weeks makes.
Now 3-3 — but still tied for first place in the AFC South — the Titans will look to use their trip across the pond to jumpstart an offense that has lost its way over the past two games. The Chargers won’t make things easy. They’re 4-2 with the two losses coming against two of the NFL’s best teams in the Rams and Chiefs. Here are some of the matchups I’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
Marcus Mariota vs the Chargers secondary
Much has been made about Mariota’s struggles the past two weeks — and there is certainly some cause for concern coming out of those two games — but it’s worth noting that Buffalo and Baltimore are two of the top five pass defenses in the NFL according to DVOA (and virtually any other metric). The Chargers are far from a sieve on the back end — they rank 12th in Pass Defense DVOA and have some real talent in the secondary — but they aren’t quite as imposing as some of the Titans previous opponents. The Chargers are allowing 7.4 yards per attempt through the air, 9th most in the NFL, so there has been some success to be found there for opposing passing games.
The Chargers defense is led by a man Titans fans are pretty familiar with in former Jaguars coach Gus Bradley. Known for his Seattle Cover 3 scheme, Bradley’s defense trends towards zone coverage more often than not and gives his secondary a chance to jump routes and make plays on the ball. However, that also leaves holes to be exploited by accurate quarterbacks and well-schemed route combinations.
From a talent perspective, the secondary is the most dangerous level of the Chargers defense right now. Corner Casey Hayward is one of the best in league and nickel corner Desmond King is an opportunistic ballhawk. The starting corner opposite Hayward, Trevor Williams, is the spot that I would target if I was the Titans. He’s allowed 20 catches on 27 targets for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns on throws in to his coverage per PFF.
Jahleel Addae and standout rookie Derwin James will man the safety spots. Addae is a solid veteran player, but James is a rising star. He’s likely the early leader in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race as he’s stuffed the box scores with 36 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 interception, 6 passes defensed, 4 tackles for loss, and 6 QB hits through 6 games. The Chargers will line up James all over the field to take advantage of his diverse skill set and the Titans will need to make sure they know where he is at all times. If the Chargers follow the Ravens blueprint from last week, James may be used as a spy on Mariota.
Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin vs Melvin Ingram
If you want to look for some reasons for optimism when it comes to the Titans offense bouncing back, the battle in the trenches is a good place to start. The Chargers usually have two great talents on the defensive line with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, but Bosa remains out with an injury. Without Bosa, the remainder of the Chargers defensive line is very average, especially compared with the talented Baltimore front the Titans just faced.
Ingram is very dangerous though and the Titans must have a plan for him. He will generally line up to the open side of the offense’s formation (the side without a tight end) in an effort to use his speed to his advantage. Usually I would feel pretty good about the Titans ability to handle Ingram, but with Lewan looking far less than 100% last week, I think it would be wise for Tennessee to make sure they have someone available to chip Ingram on most passing downs.
Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis vs Denzel Perryman
The Titans rushing attack has been stifled early in the season and that has certainly contributed to some of the offense’s woes. Part of the reason for that is the run defenses they’ve faced. Through six weeks they’ve played four of the top seven run defenses in the NFL according to DVOA and have yet to play a run defense ranked outside the top 12. The Chargers check in at 20th on that list heading in to this game so theoretically, this should represent the best chance the Titans run game has had to figure things out yet.
Denzel Perryman is the leader of the Chargers run defense from his inside linebacker spot. He’s a decent run stopper, but far from the talent that Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley or Buffalo’s Tremaine Edmunds were the last couple weeks. When Lewis is in the game, he should have a big advantage over Perryman and the other Chargers linebackers in the passing game.
Wesley Woodyard vs Melvin Gordon
The Titans will face one of the best running backs in the NFL this week in Melvin Gordon. He’s really come in to his own over the past couple seasons and is currently the third leading rusher in the league with 466 yards. He’s not just a volume runner either, he’s averaging 5.12 yards per carry and also contributes in the passing game with 30 catches for 279 yards. All of those numbers are on pace to be career highs. Gordon was reportedly added to the Chargers injury report on Saturday with a hamstring issue and is listed as questionable to play Sunday.
That could be a break for the Titans run defense, but things don’t get much easier with Gordon’s backup Austin Ekeler. Ekeler is averaging 6.4 yards per carry on 41 carries along with 14 catches for 207 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Regardless of who runs the ball for LA, the Titans struggling run defense is in for a challenge. The good news is that they will be getting their best linebacker back in the lineup in Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard’s return also has a ripple effect. The responsibility for getting the defensive calls communicated and making adjustments on the field falls back on his shoulders and comes off Jayon Brown’s plate. It also likely allows Rashaan Evans and Brown to return to a run down/pass down platoon which plays to both player’s strengths. The Titans will need this entire position group on top of its game to contain Gordon and Ekeler both on the ground and through the air.
Logan Ryan vs Keenan Allen
The Chargers passing attack is easily the best the Titans have faced in 2018. Their wide receivers are all big and very talented. This group will pose a major threat to the Titans corners.
Their best receiver, Keenan Allen, lines up all over the field, but spends about 50% of his time in the slot where he will likely draw Logan Ryan most of the time. Ryan has been excellent this season and will need to continue that high level of play Sunday. Allen uses his unfair level of quickness for a man who stands 6’-2” and 211 pounds to create separation and seems to be able to get open at will.
Harold Landry vs Joe Barksdale
This is a huge matchup for the Titans. Derrick Morgan is out with a shoulder injury which means Landry is likely to get the start opposite Brian Orakpo. Getting quick pressure on Philip Rivers is absolutely crucial. He holds the ball in the pocket for an average of just 2.39 seconds per drop back, the least amount of time for any current starting NFL quarterback. That makes him very difficult to sack — something that’s happened just 7 times this season — or even pressure.
Landry is one of the few players that can generate quick pressure and he should spend most of his time matched up against Chargers right tackle Joe Barksdale who is making his return from a knee injury that cost him the last five games. Barksdale isn’t the quickest tackle to begin with and if he’s anything less than 100% coming off the knee injury, he could struggle with Landry’s speed off the edge.