The Titans pulled off a big win over a division rival last weekend despite being down their top three tackles, Pro Bowl tight end, and starting quarterback. They’ll look to knock off another AFC South team this weekend, but they will be getting at least one — and possibly three — of those key players back for the trip to Jacksonville.
The Jaguars are coming off an impressive win in their home opener over the Patriots and are looking to open up a two-game division lead just three games into the season. On the other hand, a Titans win would leave Tennessee sitting at 2-1 and in first place despite the crazy slew of injury issues they’ve been faced with to open the season. This certainly isn’t a “must-win” for either side, but the stakes are high and the rivalry will add just a little more juice to this game. Below are the matchups that I am most looking forward to watching.
Derrick Henry vs Jaguars defense
Derrick Henry is a legend in Jacksonville. Playing his high school football in suburb just north of the city, he still holds the national all-time high school rushing record with 12,124 yards. He also turned in one of his best games as a pro when the Titans played in Jacksonville last season, finishing with 14 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown. He played the role of the Titans closer in that game — a 37-16 laugher that was over by the start of the 4th quarter — coming on strong in the second half as the Jags defense wilted in the Florida heat.
Now Henry returns home once again to play in a revived rivalry that has his handprint all over it. Titans fans love few images more than photos of Henry stiff-arming or bulldozing Jalen Ramsey or other Jags defenders. Jags fans hate those same images just the same.
The Titans have failed to really get Henry on track early this season and that needs to change for them to succeed this weekend. Of course getting Taylor Lewan (and possibly Jack Conklin) back in the lineup will be a huge boost to the running game. Henry has run well in my opinion and the general outlook on his season so far is probably quite a bit different if the refs don’t call a phantom holding penalty on his long touchdown run in Miami, but this needs to be one of those Angry Derrick Henry games.
The Jaguars defense is built to pin their ears back up front and rush the passer with an excellent secondary and athletic linebackers covering the back end. That’s what they want to do. What they don’t want to do is tackle a 240 pound back running behind a physical offensive line. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, I suspect the Titans will come in to this game looking to lean on Derrick Henry and the running game to wear down the Jags defense.
Corey Davis vs Jalen Ramsey
Davis is clearly the focal point of the Titans passing game this season with four times as many targets as any other Tennessee wide receiver and more than double the next most targeted player at any position. The passing game has been relatively conservative through two weeks — a function of game planning around backup tackles and a backup quarterback — but if they begin to open things up, it figures to be Davis leading the way.
The Jaguars often use their First-Team All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey to shadow the opposing team’s top receiver and I would expect that to happen with Davis. Whether that keeps Tennessee from funneling targets towards their top receiver will largely depend on how often he’s able to win against Ramsey.
That will be a big test in Davis’ development. Last season he aggravated a hamstring injury early in the first Jaguars game and then was held without a catch in the second matchup (the only time he’s gone catchless in an NFL game). He was open deep a couple times during that game, but the Titans chose to play it conservative with their defense playing lights out after jumping out to an early lead.
Both Davis and Ramsey are extremely physical and fierce competitors which should make this a fun matchup to watch regardless of who comes out on top. Tennessee is going to need a few big plays from their top wide out on Sunday.
Titans tackles vs Jaguars edge rushers
Getting Lewan back for this game is huge. The Jaguars best edge rusher, Yannick Ngakoue, lines up over the left tackle about 75% of the time and Ngakoue versus Pamphile would have been a big problem. Instead, the Titans will have Lewan at his usual post.
In four games against the Titans, Ngakoue has been held to just one sack compared to 20 sacks in the other 30 games of his career. Lewan has had his number so far and the Titans will hope that continues on Sunday.
The opposite side of the field is far less settled for the Titans. There is a chance that we see the return of Jack Conklin and that would clearly be the best case scenario. However, if he’s not quite ready to go this week, they’ll likely turn to Kevin Pamphile at that spot with Dennis Kelly remaining out for another week. Tyler Marz got the start there last week and performed admirably, but I would still expect Pamphile to get the nod.
The Jaguars typically will play Calais Campbell as the defensive end across from the right tackle on early downs before bumping him inside and letting Dante Fowler rush from that spot on 3rd downs. Pamphile — or Marz if he’s the choice — will need help with both guys throughout the game. Even if Conklin does go, we may see the Titans help to his side as he tries to knock off the rust. Having Lewan playing on the left will make that possible.
Brian Orakpo and Harold Landry vs Josh Wells
The Jaguars lost starting left tackle Cam Robinson to a torn ACL midway through last Sunday’s win over the Patriots. That means reserve offensive lineman Josh Wells will get the 5th start of his career on Sunday.
The Titans will primarily line up Brian Orakpo and Harold Landry against Wells a week after those two had five pressures each against the Texans. The Jaguars offensive line has been good through two weeks, allowing Blake Bortles to be sacked just once, but the Titans pass rush will be a much tougher test than the Giants or Patriots were.
Orakpo had 2 of his 7 sacks in 2017 against Jacksonville, including a strip sack of Bortles during the first meeting. Landry was extremely close to getting his first NFL sack a few times during his outstanding debut last week and he will continue to try to break through against a beatable pair of Jags tackles this week.
Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler vs Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, and Donte Moncrief
The Jaguars receivers have outperformed expectations early in the year, particularly Keelan Cole who turned in a 7 catch, 116 yard, 1 touchdown against the Patriots which included a highlight reel one-handed grab along the sidelines. Westbrook and Moncrief have had impressive moments as well.
The Titans trio of cornerbacks will have their work cut out for them in this game, but they’re playing pretty well themselves. Jackson is coming off, arguably, the best game of his career and Butler is certainly playing better than the numbers would suggest. Logan Ryan has only been targeted five times over two games, and indicator that he’s doing a nice job of taking away space in the slot.
Last season, Bortles was 35 of 68 (51.5%) for 381 yards, 1 touchdown, and 4 interceptions in 2 games against the Titans. However, he’s also coming off what was probably the best game of his career against New England. The only thing consistent about Bortles’ NFL career has been inconsistency. He is capable of being the guy that we saw against the Patriots or the guy we saw against the Titans in 2017 at any given moment. However, if the corners can make the windows tighter it makes it all the more likely that Bad Bortles shows up.
Jurrell Casey vs Andrew Norwell and A.J. Cann
Casey spent most of last week reminding everyone why he’s considered one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game, racking up 8 pressures, 2 sacks, and 2 run stops against Houston. He has typically dominated against Jacksonville throughout his career with 8 sacks in 14 games.
However, the Jaguars spent big money in the offseason to try to shore up the interior of their offensive line by signing former Panthers guard Andrew Norwell to a massive free agent deal. Norwell went all of 2017 without allowing a sack or QB hit, the only offensive lineman to achieve that feat last year. He’s clean through two weeks this year as well.
I would expect to see the Titans trying to get Casey lined up against right guard A.J. Cann on 3rd downs more often than not. Cann isn’t terrible, but he’s been a below average player for most of his career. Making matters worse, he picked up a triceps injury that made him a limited participant in practice all week. He’s listed as questionable headed in to this game, but chances are he plays.
When Casey does line up against Norwell that will be must-watch football for those that love line play. Those are two of the best in the game at what they do and I’m excited to see who gets the best of that matchup.