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What to watch for during the Titans “dress rehearsal” in Pittsburgh

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This will likely be our last glimpse of the starters until Week 1 in Miami. Here are a few things that I’ll be watching on Saturday.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans travel to Pittsburgh this weekend for the third of four preseason games. Commonly referred to as the “dressed rehearsal game”, this will likely be the last time that we see Marcus Mariota and most of the other key starters until Week 1 in Miami. With that in mind, here are a few of the things that I’ll be looking for on Saturday afternoon at 3:00 CT.

Marcus Mariota attacking downfield

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first two preseason games, we’ve seen Marcus Mariota and the first team offense for a grand total of three drives. Two of those three have resulted in touchdowns which is certainly a good sign for Matt LaFluer’s new-look unit, even considering the “it’s just preseason caveat”. Mariota’s numbers look good — 6 of 10 for 122 yards and 2 touchdowns — but they are a bit misleading. The vast majority of those yards — 85 to be exact — have come from a quick slant that Nick Williams turned in to a 38-yard play and a wide receiver screen to Taywan Taylor for a 47-yard touchdown.

The throws on both of those plays were on-time and well-placed — and that matters, even on the short passes — but the degree of difficulty was not exactly high. In fact, we’ve seen very little of Mariota attacking down the field in preseason. None of his completions have traveled more than 10 yards in the air. In fact, the only pass he’s attempted that’s traveled more than 10 yards in the air was the severely underthrown — or miscommunicated — go route to Corey Davis against Tampa Bay last weekend.

This offense is designed to get the ball in the hands of playmakers in space — and that’s exactly what it’s done so far — but I’ll be interested to see if the Titans expand their intermediate to deep passing concepts against the Steelers on Saturday. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see an offense that can be explosive without requiring Mariota to hit high degree of difficulty passes all the time, but at some point a good defense is going to take the underneath stuff away and force the passing game to win over the top. It would be good to see Mariota connecting with his targets deeper downfield in Pittsburgh.

Corey Davis getting involved in the passing game

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Davis is saying and doing all the right things right now. He’s changed his diet, put in extra work on the JUGS machine, and taken a leadership role among the wide receivers. In practice, he’s often looked the part of a true #1 receiver. However, after missing the first preseason game in Green Bay, Davis was targeted just once against the Bucs. I don’t take that as a red flag, mostly because the Titans only attempted 7 passes while Davis was in the game and a couple of those were designed screens where he wasn’t even running a route.

However, Titans fans want to see Davis do the things that they hear about from practice reports and that’s understandable. His rookie year was a roller coaster, ranging from the highs of his 6 catch, 69 yard debut against the Raiders to the lows of the 3 catch, 27 yard performance in Pittsburgh and then back to the high of the 5 catch, 63 yard, 2 touchdown line he put up in New England in the playoffs. For the 2018 Titans to get to where they want to go, Davis will need to more consistently live near the top of that range of outcomes.

Davis should get some significant run with the first team offense on Saturday and it would be good to see him make some plays while he’s out there.

Adoree’ Jackson vs JuJu Smith-Schuster

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson and Smith-Schuster played together at USC and remain close, often interacting and supporting each other on social media. They’re also two of the most dynamic young players in the NFL at their respective positions and will likely get a chance to line up against each other on Saturday. Even if these two weren’t friends, this would be one of the most intriguing matchups of the game.

Jackson has had an excellent camp and appears poised to become one of the Titans biggest stars on defense. He’s yet to show a lot of that playmaking ability in the first two preseason games — again, in very limited opportunity — but I fully expect it to show up often during this season.

Jayon Brown working with the first team defense

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

One guy that’s gotten a lot of opportunity during the first two preseason games is second-year linebacker Jayon Brown. He’s played a bunch of snaps with first round pick Rashaan Evans being out and veteran starter Wesley Woodyard missing the Buccaneers game with an injury. Brown has constantly been around the ball when he’s been out there. In the past week, nearly every media outlet covering the Titans — including this one — has written a piece talking about the impression #55 has made and whether or not he could even earn a role as a full-time starter in this defense.

Woodyard returned to practice this week and likely will at least see some snaps on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see whether it is Brown or Will Compton who joins him in the starting lineup in the base defense. Brown will likely get a chance to play a lot of snaps in Pittsburgh, so even if he doesn’t get the starting nod this week, he will get a chance to continue his push for a bigger role.

The battle for the CB5 roster spot

NCAA Football: Texas State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

There are only a few roster spots that I really feel are truly up for grabs still. Guys like David Fluellen, Nick Williams, Corey Levin, Julius Warmsley, and Sharif Finch have largely solidified their spots on the 53-man roster. I think it would be an upset at this point if any of those guys got cut (barring injury of course).

One of the spots that now has my attention is the fifth cornerback position. The Titans are almost certainly going to keep at least five here and after season ending injuries to Tye Smith and Kalan Reed, there are only four guys that clearly belong on the team — Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, and LeShaun Sims. The top two competitors for that fifth spot right now appear to be UDFA Rico Gafford and journeyman practice squader Kenneth Durden. Both have had good and bad moments in preseason action, and it seems like this job is still wide open. In fact, I’d say there is a decent chance that this is a spot that the Titans address with a waiver claim after roster cuts on September 1st, but for now I’m interested to see what Gafford and Durden do with their opportunity.

Harold Landry, Aaron Wallace, and Sharif Finch versus Steelers starting tackles

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Orakpo remains out with a shoulder injury of some sort that was suffered during the second practice of training camp. Derrick Morgan had surgery to repair a torn meniscus suffered in the second preseason game and will likely be out for another three to four weeks (or until Week 2 or 3 of the regular season). That means that the Titans young edge rushers — Landry, Wallace, and Finch — will need to be ready to play a significant role early in the season even if Orakpo is ready to return by Week 1.

Each of these guys have flashed during preseason — particularly Landry and Finch — but much of their best work to this point has come against backups like Kyle Murphy, Byron Bell, and Brad Seaton. The Titans won’t be seeing guys like that when the regular season opens — at least until they play the Texans — so we need to see what these guys can do against the Steelers quality starters in Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. Landry and Wallace are likely to start and get most of the snaps early, but I’d be surprised if they don’t get Finch some reps before the Steelers starters come out. If they can pick up a sack or a few pressures early, that could do a lot for their confidence heading in to Week 1.