The 3-1 Titans travel to western New York this week to take on the 1-3 Buffalo Bills. Both teams have had very strange starts to the season, but in very different ways. The Titans fought through a rash of early injuries to key players to beat two division rivals and the defending Super Bowl champs.
The Bills opened with a blowout 47-3 loss against the Ravens which prompted an immediate break-glass-in-case-of-emergency call to rookie quarterback Josh Allen. Since making the QB change, Buffalo is 1-2 with the win being the most shocking result of the season as the Bills went on the road and their defense stifled the Vikings on the way to a 27-6 win.
This has all the makings of a trap game for Tennessee. On the road against an inferior opponent, coming off an emotional win against the defending champs, big home game against Baltimore looming next week. However, these are games that good teams win and if the Titans don’t sleepwalk through this one that’s exactly what they should do.
Dean Pees vs Josh Allen
Josh Allen was as polarizing a quarterback prospect as I can remember heading in to the draft earlier this year. Some fell in love with the 6’-5”, 237 pound frame, cannon arm, and excellent athleticism. Others saw a guy who had it all physically, but was an inaccurate thrower and seemed to have a lack of understanding with regards to how to attack defenses. For the record, I fell in with the latter group, partially because I’ve lived through the Jake Locker Experience before and didn’t particularly enjoy it.
Now is not the time to judge Allen’s ability as a pro. If we’ve learned anything from Jared Goff’s career, it should be that a bad rookie season — even an awful, all-time bad one — isn’t necessarily the end of the road for quarterbacks. That being said, Allen is not a good quarterback right now. His raw numbers are a trainwreck: 55 of 103 (53.4%), 666 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs, and 18 sacks. That leaves him with an ANY/A — Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt, a metric that measures total QB effectiveness — of just 3.12 which would be the 14th worst showing in that metric in the last decade for quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Allen has often been surprised by blitzes over three starts and Buffalo has allowed an NFL worst 21 sacks through 4 weeks. On the other hand, Dean Pees’ creative pressure packages and talented front seven have picked up 12 sacks, good for 7th in the NFL. I would expect the Titans to regularly get pressure against a bad Buffalo offensive line and possibly force Allen in to some rookie mistakes. This feels like the week that Kevin Byard gets his first pick of the 2018 season.
Rashaan Evans vs LeSean McCoy
LeSean McCoy has been virtually invisible for the Bills so far this season with just 29 total touches over 3 games (he missed the Vikings game with a rib injury). In last week’s 22-0 loss to the Packers, he got just 5 carries before leaving the game with a hand injury. He will be back in action this week and the Bills have talked throughout the week about getting him more involved.
The Titans defense has been susceptible to opposing running games so far this year. That’s partially due to the fact that they’ve taken the tact of staying in nickel defense regardless of their opponent’s personnel. Will they stick with that approach against a Bills team that wants to run the ball and take the pressure off their rookie quarterback?
They’re currently allowing 4.9 yards per carry which ranks them 27th in the league through 4 weeks. Even for a team that is clearly focused on stopping the pass first, you’d like to see that number come down a little bit.
Tennessee will be without top inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard on Sunday which means we will see heavy doses of Jayon Brown and first round pick Rashaan Evans in this game. Evans got his first extended action against the Eagles last week after Woodyard went down early and the results were mixed. He sometimes looked lost and unsure of what he was supposed to be doing, particularly in zone coverage. However, when he was able to read and get downhill, he showed the immense physicality that helped make him a top prospect in the draft.
If the Bills do try to establish the run game with McCoy early, Evans will be a big part of the Titans plan to stop him. This is a big opportunity for Evans to show progress from the week before and try to carve out a bigger role on this defense moving forward.
Taylor Lewan vs Jerry Hughes
When the Titans have the ball, this will be one of the biggest matchups on the field. Hughes isn’t on the same level as guys like Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, and Michael Bennett that the Titans faced last week, but he’s still a potentially disruptive player. Two weeks ago, he was a key part of the Bills win in Minnesota as he racked up an insane 13 pressures during the game per PFF.
He will be facing Titans Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan this week. Lewan has allowed just 4 pressures all season and ranks 3rd in the NFL among offensive tackles in ESPN’s new fancy pass blocking stat that measures the percentage of snaps that a pass blocker holds up for at least 2.5 seconds. He’s been excellent as usual.
The Bills got the win over Minnesota by harassing Kirk Cousins all game. They pressured the quarterback 32 times, hit him 6 times, sacked him 4 times, forced 3 fumbles, and recovered 2 of them. It was a dominant performance up front from Buffalo.
The Titans offensive line has allowed just 28 pressures all season and ranks in the top 10 among pass blocking units through 4 weeks. If they can keep Marcus Mariota clean in the pocket, that would go a long way towards helping them win this game.
Corey Davis vs Tre’Davious White
Corey Davis broke out against the Eagles with a massive 9 catch, 161 yard, 1 touchdown game including hauling in the clutch game winning grab in overtime. It was a game that had been boiling under the surface all season. The offense finally got healthy enough to showcase what Davis had been doing all along. Now he has to follow that up and continue to build on it.
Playing opposite Davis this week will be another star of the 2017 draft class in Tre’Davious White. White was outstanding during his rookie campaign, finishing as the runner up behind Marshon Lattimore in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He’s off to another good start this year as well, allowing just 10 catches on 17 targets for 118 yards through 4 weeks.
Last week, White shadowed Packers top receiver Devante Adams in over 76% of his routes per PFF, allowing 4 catches for 46 yards on 7 targets. That was the first game that the Bills have used White to shadow the opponent’s top target and it will be interesting to see if Davis gets the same treatment coming off his big week.
If White does track Davis, the Titans could look to Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe more often. Those two are also coming off good performances and will be matched up with rookies Ryan Lewis and Taron Johnson. Both guys have performed pretty well early on, but I’d imagine Matt LaFleur will be interested to see if he can catch the young guys biting on a double move at some point.
Derrick Henry vs Bills Run Defense
According to DVOA, the Bills run defense ranks as the 14th toughest in the NFL through 4 weeks. That’s decent, but it stands as the worst run defense the Titans have faced this season. The Dolphins (12th), Texans (2nd), Jaguars (6th), and Eagles (3rd) all rank higher and are a big part of the reason the Titans run game hasn’t gotten going to this point. Those teams are hard to run on even when your offense is fully healthy and clicking. The Titans offense hasn’t been, but it is now and that could mean we finally start to see a break through from the ground game.
Derrick Henry has just 163 yards on 54 carries for a 3.0 yards per carry average this season, well below his averages of 4.5 and 4.2 in his first two seasons. Getting Henry on track against a good-not-great Bills run defense would do a lot for the offense.
Malcolm Butler vs Kelvin Benjamin
This is a matchup of two struggling players and one will likely leave this game at least temporarily feeling better about their early season performance. Titans fans know Butler’s issues well at this point. He’s simply allowed far too many big plays. The 4 long touchdowns over 4 games isn’t going to cut it for a guy the team gave $61M to this offseason.
On the opposite side, the Bills can’t be feeling great about the trade to give up 3rd and 7th round picks in exchange for Benjamin last season. The jumbo-sized wide receiver has just 7 catches for 92 yards and a touchdown so far in 2018 and looks pretty ridiculous for claiming that Cam Newton was “holding him back” in Carolina.
The problem with Benjamin for the Titans is that they simply don’t have anyone who matches up particularly well with big wide receivers. Butler will probably draw Benjamin most often simply because of alignment. He is a very physical corner even if he is a bit undersized. It will be interesting to see which of these guys get back in their fan base’s good graces this week.