The “new look Tennessee Titans” is a particularly apt phrase for what fans will see tonight in Green Bay. The team quite literally will have a new look as they appear on a football field in their new uniforms for the first time (the navy helmets are beautiful). The team is also going to look much different in a football sense. New head coach Mike Vrabel and his coordinators — young up-and-comer Matt LaFleur on offense and the wise veteran Dean Pees on defense — will have new schemes installed. We will also see the debut of some new players added through free agency and the draft since the end of last season.
We have spent the offseason talking about all of these changes around here, but Thursday represents the first chance to catch a glimpse of them in action, even if it’s a watered down version. I already hit on six of the under the radar players to watch, but here are the big storylines that I’m most excited to see tonight.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this site regularly, but I’m downright giddy about seeing Landry in action for the first time in a game situation. Nothing that I’ve seen at training camp has dampened my enthusiasm about Landry’s pro prospects. In fact, my thoughts about him — which you can check out at length here — have only been reinforced.
Landry has been disruptive as a pass rusher in camp, particularly when lined up against anyone not named Taylor Lewan. It will be exciting to see him work against some opposing tackles for a change, and Green Bay’s two starters, David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, are both going to be sitting out tonight as they recover from injuries. That could spell a big night for the Titans 2nd round pick rushing off the edge.
Landry’s best weapon right now is his speed, but I want to see if he can add some additional combos and counters to his pass rush arsenal as he continues to work with Vrabel, outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen, and his veteran teammates Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. Early reports are that he’s really taking advantage of the extensive resources at his disposal, including picking the brain of his frequent practice opponent, Lewan. Thursday will be a good chance for him to put what he’s learned in camp to use and I can’t wait to see it.
The New Offense
Probably the most discussed topic of the offseason has been the change from Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie’s “exotic smashmouth” to Matt LaFleur’s non-nicknamed version of the west coast offense. The guess all along was that LaFleur would incorporate heavy influences from Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Mike Shanahan, and Gary Kubiak based on his previous coaching stops in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, and Houston.
His biggest influence is likely the younger Shanahan — now the head coach of the 49ers — as LaFleur had spent eight of his nine seasons as an NFL coach working under Kyle. Earlier this offseason I took a deep dive into some of LaFleur’s previous stops to get a feel for what the Titans offense might look like in 2018. You can check that out here, but the short version is that you can expect to see a lot of outside zone runs — something SuperHorn detailed beautifully here — as the base of the offense with a bunch of screens, bootlegs, and other west coast passing concepts built off of it. There will be heavy usage of play action, something that Marcus Mariota was extremely effective with last season.
Marcus Mariota was the of play action this season! pic.twitter.com/NZ1hu5HcnZ— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 31, 2018
The beauty in the design of this offense is that many of the plays look the same even for a second or two after the snap. The outside zone blocking technique allows offensive line to help sell play action far more credibly.
Its a system that really marries well on paper to the personnel the Titans have on multiple levels. Mariota’s mobility, quick release, and play action proficiency make him an ideal quarterback to run this offense. Derrick Henry had success in college working in a zone blocking run scheme and has looked natural running it in practice so far.
Even the wide receivers — a long time issue with this franchise — should be excellent fits. The offense is designed to get the ball to playmakers in space and let them work. Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in particular are players that present some real danger with the ball after the catch.
Despite my excitement for this offense, I should mention that patience will be needed. This system is one that takes time to really grasp and be comfortable with, particularly for quarterbacks. It shouldn’t be alarming if we see some growing pains from Mariota as he adapts to yet another new offense.
I am really looking forward to seeing the offense operated in a true game situation for the first time tonight, even if it is a watered down preseason version of what we eventually see when the regular season starts.
The MMCNB secondary — MMCNB stands for “My Man Catch No Balls” if you missed it — has been the talk of Titans training camp so far. New free agent addition Malcolm Butler started his first Titans camp with a bang, making play after play in the secondary. Not far behind him in camp have been Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Kevin Byard who all have been outstanding in the practices that I’ve seen.
Jackson, in particular, looks like a star in the making right now. Coming off the first football only offseason of his entire career, the young cornerback looks more comfortable than ever and has regularly been locking down receivers who line up across from him. You could see the light starting to come on for Jackson at the end of 2017. If he can continue that trajectory in to this season it could be a really special season for him.
When Johnathan Cyprien went down with a season ending torn ACL early in camp it looked like a tough blow for this group, but a strange glut of safety talent this late in the offseason played to the Titans favor as they were able to sign former Saint Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro has quickly gotten up to speed and is already working with the first team defense and I would expect to see him get a lot of snaps tonight as they try to make up for lost time with him working in this defense. As a player, I think Vaccaro could actually be a slight upgrade over Cyprien and he should fit in perfectly with this secondary.
The leader of the group is fiery defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs — pronounced “Combs” — who has won over Titans fans everywhere with his high energy approach. His top lieutenant is All-Pro safety Kevin Byard whose outstanding work ethic and study habits have endeared him to Titans coaches, players, and fans alike. Byard organized group workouts all offseason with the other defensive backs, helping build a camaraderie within a unit that requires outstanding communication. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has also noted that Byard often comes in to defensive meetings with questions about parts of the defense that they haven’t even installed yet and has taken it upon himself to spend time meeting with 5th round pick Dane Cruikshank one-on-one to review film together.
This group has the potential to be one of the elite secondaries in the NFL in 2018. The nickel package of Byard, Vaccaro, Jackson, Butler, and Ryan is experienced, talented, and hungry across the board. The ability for the Titans to matchup play press man coverage without exposing a glaring weakness is pretty unique in the NFL and could make this defense feel suffocating at times. We likely will only see the full MMCNB crew for a series or two tonight, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.
We likely won’t see Corey Davis tonight — though he reportedly did make the trip to Green Bay so there is a chance — but we almost certainly will see some Taywan Taylor. The Titans “other” second year receiver has been making his presence known in camp and appears to be on track to have a pretty large role in the Titans offense this year. Obviously, we still need to see where the receiver group stacks up when Rishard Matthews eventually returns from the PUP, but for now, Taylor is a clear starter.
Last season, he got the majority of his work in the slot, but this year he has spent camp working almost exclusively outside, often as the X receiver. Playing outside is nothing new for him though. He spent over 85% of his snaps as an outside receiver during his senior year at Western Kentucky according to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception. Comparing his usage in practice so far to the roles of Matt LaFleur’s 2017 Rams receivers, Taylor appears to be playing the Sammy Watkins role as a split end with deep speed that can run clear outs and stretch the defense vertically.
Taylor has really shined in this role in camp and appears far more confident. His speed and quickness in and out of his breaks make him dangerous and he’s improved his ability to hang on for contested catches. Of course, hanging on to contested catches in practice is one thing, but hanging on to them in live action with hard hitting safeties coming at you full speed is another. It will be interesting to see if these improvements carry over tonight.
The leap in performance from Year 1 to Year 2 is often the biggest jump in an NFL player’s career. In addition to Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Adoree Jackson, another guy poised to make that leap is tight end Jonnu Smith. Last year Smith was inconsistent, mixing some great work as a receiver with some rough moments as a blocker.
Like Taylor, Smith looks more confident heading in to his second season. He has received praise from the coaching staff throughout camp and appears to be in line for a large role in the offense. The Titans first depth chart listed Smith as a starter opposite Delanie Walker, and while that depth chart was mostly hogwash, it largely matches the usage that we’ve seen so far in camp. Matt LaFleur has been toying with ways to create matchup problems for defenses using Walker and Smith together.
Smith isn’t going to overtake Walker as the top target among the Titans tight ends any time soon, but I think he will blow by his numbers from 2017 — 18 catches for 157 yards and 2 touchdowns — with ease. If his blocking takes the next step as well, the Titans will boast one of the best tight end combinations in the NFL.