Author’s note: one of these weeks I’m going to have time again to gather GIFs for this series. In my view, in order to form educated opinions, it’s more important that I actually watch the games than sift through individual plays to save time. Watching five games, even five condensed games, takes a good chunk of time. My apologies once again.
The Titans look to extend their streak against the Jags tomorrow fresh off their first division win of the season. It would obviously be a boon to their AFC South title chances to leave Everbank Field with a win against both of the other anticipated contenders in their back pocket.
The Titans are slowly getting back to full strength but are still waiting to decide on the status of their most important piece (especially against a vaunted defense), QB Marcus Mariota. Unlike last week, the Titans offensive staff will need to entrust whoever starts at QB to attack the defense and ask/allow them to be aggressive—Jacksonville will not be beaten by quick screens and wildcat looks.
Blake Bortles is coming off perhaps his most impressive career performance. Can the Titans defense, with their familiarity facing him, bring him crashing back down to Earth? Or, has he finally shed enough of his flaws to become a formidable signal caller?
The games I took in this week are as follows:
2018 Week 2 - New England at Jacksonville
2018 Week 1 - Jacksonville at New York Giants
2017 Week 16 - Jacksonville at San Francisco
2017 Week 6 - Los Angeles Rams at Jacksonville
2017 Week 2 - Tennessee at Jacksonville
The choices for 2017 games were easy this time around. Matt LaFleur’s connections to Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay made their coaching match-ups against the Jags’ defense must watches. I felt the Titans/Jags week 2 contest last season had more parallels to this upcoming game than their 2017 week 17 bout.
When the Titans Run
The Jaguars defensive front generally dominates the line of scrimmage early in games on run calls. Because of this, opposing offensive coordinators will often be forced to dig into their bag of tricks to try and find space for their HBs. The important thing is continuing to run consistently, even if it isn’t netting positive results right away. Offenses that abandon their rushing attacks at the first sign of defeat against Jacksonville miss out on an opportunity to soften them up as the game wears on.
While no one here is going to label the Titans’ prior offensive coaching staff “smart”, I will say that they knew full well the key to controlling game tempo against the Jags was smacking them in the mouth over and over again until they could no longer maintain their defensive swagger.
Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay did continue to feature, respectively, Carlos Hyde/Matt Breida and Todd Gurley despite not seeing returns from their run-game “investments” in the first halves of their games. It eventually paid off with some chain-moving plays. However, none of those backs sought to break Jacksonville’s will quite like Derrick Henry has in his prior match-ups against them. I’m not sure why Henry only seems to bring his boom stick with him when facing the Jaguars, but in the past he has looked to demolish any willing teal-colored tackler in his path. Hopefully, we will be able to add a few more soul-crushing runs to his highlight reel after this one is over.
I anticipate Dion Lewis being a bigger part of the passing game than the running game in this one, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some creative looks with both him and Henry on the field at the same time. I also expect to see plenty of Luke Stocker and/or Jonnu Smith lining up in the backfield. Kyle Shanahan found myriad ways to exploit the Jags’ coverage by using heavy formations that featured a wide variety of looks. This kept Jacksonville from knowing whether to play run or pass and also allowed FB Kyle Juszczyk to leak out virtually uncovered a handful of times.
When the Titans Pass
Jacksonville has three obvious strengths in coverage: 1) They rarely miss tackles once the ball is caught. 2) They play short, quick routes better than any defense in the league. 3) They are dominant in the close quarters of the red zone, where their across-the-board athleticism can control every inch of field the offense has to work with.
So, the key to moving the ball through the air against Jacksonville is simple (no, really): offenses have to be willing to attack the intermediate middle and deep portions of the field. At times, it seems some OCs buy into the hype surrounding "Sacksonville" and opt to play it safe. This plays right into those aforementioned strenghths, however.
An aggressive approach does require a QB who can place the ball accurately (sorry, Eli Manning), but it doesn’t necessarily require world-class receivers. Route concepts are critical and after watching Shanahan’s and McVay’s approaches against this defense, I’m excited to see what Matt LaFleur draws up.
Last week’s game plan should be crumpled up, stomped on, and then burned going into this week. The Jags will devour the short screens we saw work against Houston. Whether Mariota or Gabbert gets the nod, LaFleur must encourage his QB to push the ball and trust his arm, win or lose. Odell Beckham Jr. Corey Davis is not (yet, atleast), but in week 1 the former had plenty of success getting open downfield against Jalen Ramsey. The only problem was Eli Manning’s absolute inability to throw him a catchable pass. Last season, we saw Taywan Taylor get open downfield against A.J. Bouye.
The Titans mustn’t be scared of the Jags’ reputation. It will take some big plays in order to get down into the red zone—dinking and dunking won’t cut it, especially without Delanie Walker. Once there, Tennessee can rely on their run game to hit pay dirt.
When the Jags Run
Former Titans’ scout Blake Beddingfield made the point this week that Leonard Fournette tends to disappear when you can rough him up early in games. Why a man Fournette’s size would allow that to discourage him I can’t say, but after watching the tape, I tend to agree with Beddingfield. Fournette never really got going against the Titans in week 2 last year, and I think a large part of that had to do with the Titans bottling him up in the backfield several times in the first half. Overall, despite his reputation, I haven’t been overly impressed with Fournette as a pro. He disappears from games for long stretches at a time and seems reliant on big plays to make an impact.
T.J. Yeldon is a solid, versatile backup who does a good job taking what’s available. Corey Grant is one of the fastest players in the NFL and is used as a weapon on screens and fakes, but doesn’t feature prominently as a ball-carrier.
It’s hard to tell how much of an impact the addition of LG Andrew Norwell has had on Jacksonville’s run game, as the Jags have been more aerially focused, surprisingly, through two weeks. Any talk of them sticking with the same approach as last season has gone out the window—they are looking to beat teams on both sides of the ball, not just play it safe on offense and hope their defense can win games on their own.
When the Jags Pass
Blake Bortles can still Bortle with the best of them but I have to admit, despite a small sample size, he looks decidedly more confident in 2018. He’s playing with more rhythm and less hesitancy. His accuracy has always been hit or miss, and he’s still leaving some plays on the field, but he’s done a good job so far giving his receivers chances to make plays within the timing of the offense.
I think the biggest key this week will be dialing up pressure and making Bortles move around in the pocket. I’m no longer of the belief the Titans defense can depend on multitude three and outs simply due to offensive ineptitude on Bortles’ part. I do expect there will be opportunities to generate turnovers off of him, but pressure will play a large role in determining just how many.
Since his hiring, OC Nathaniel Hackett has done a great job constructing an offense around the specific pieces at his disposal. Despite still not having the most outstanding offensive weaponry, he’s now expanding his concepts and getting the ball downfield more often. He (or the team) seems to recognize that Jacksonville can only take the final step in competing for a championship if Bortles is a part of the success—hiding your QB doesn’t win reliably, especially in January.
Now that secondaries have to respect the vertical passing threat, Hackett can mix in the short, quick routes (shallow crosses and screens) he relied on last year knowing his receivers will encounter more favorable match-ups and open field.
Keelan Cole is an undrafted gem and will be more of a household name by the end of the season. He’s a quality route runner, has good speed, and as evidenced by his Catch of the Year submission from last week, has sticky fingers.
Outside of Cole, Donte Moncrief, Dede Westbrook, and D.J. Chark round out a receiver group with lots of speed and quickness. With it being so early in the season, it’s hard to read too much into WR performance, but the group as a whole has been far more effective and reliable than most envisioned. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan in particular will be at an athletic disadvantage most of the game. I hope to see Dean Pees assist both with linebacker and safety help.
If the Titans hope to walk out with a win, they must win this facet of the match-up. That means limiting vertical completions as well as taking advantage of opportunities for interceptions. Tennessee’s offense is unlikely to carry the team this week, so big flips in field position (in the Titans favor) will be crucial.
Four to Watch
Offense: RB Derrick Henry
Defense: S Kevin Byard
Offense: WR Keelan Cole
Defense: LB Telvin Smith