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Six matchups to watch during Titans-Eagles

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The Titans host the defending champs this week.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans are finally getting healthy(ish) and it couldn’t be coming at a better time. The defending champion Eagles are coming to Nashville this weekend and they will represent another huge test in what has been a season of huge tests for Tennessee.

Here are some of the matchups that I am most looking forward to seeing.

Titans Linebackers and Safeties vs Eagles Tight Ends and Backs

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles receiving corps is banged up right now with Alshon Jeffery questionable and Mike Wallace out for the foreseeable future with a broken leg. They signed Jordan Matthews prior to last week’s game against the Colts and still have Nelson Algholor, but it’s not a great group right now, especially if Jeffery can’t go again.

Instead, the Eagles passing attack thrives getting the ball to their tight ends and backs. Last week, backs and tight ends caught 19 of the 25 completions Carson Wentz threw. They were led by rookie Dallas Goedert who had 7 catches for 73 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Zach Ertz, the Eagles best pass catcher, chipped in 5 catches and 73 yards of his own.

The Titans safeties and linebackers are going to have their work cut out for them. Kevin Byard is a natural fit to defend Ertz, but that takes him out of his valuable role as a rangy ballhawk in the middle of the Tennessee defense. My guess is that the Titans have a plan for Ertz on every play, but it likely won’t be the same plan each time. I would expect Kenny Vaccaro and Jayon Brown to also get turns defending the Eagles excellent tight ends.

The Eagles backs are a problem as well, though they may be down their top two receiving backs in this game. Darren Sproles has been ruled out with a hamstring injury and Corey Clement is listed as questionable with a quadriceps injury. The Eagles will be getting power back Jay Ajayi back for this game, but he’s not much of a threat in the passing game. Instead, I would expect Wendell Smallwood to be the primary 3rd down back if Clement can’t go. Smallwood had a big 34-yard grab against the Colts last week on a wheel route out of the backfield.

This is the matchup of the game in my opinion. If the Titans can take away — or at least limit — Ertz and Goedert, they will likely have another excellent game on defense.

Titans Offensive Line vs Eagles Defensive Line

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jack is back!

The Titans are getting their excellent right tackle, Jack Conklin, back for this game as he makes his season debut following a torn ACL suffered in the playoffs last season. That means the Titans will have their starting five up front healthy and ready to roll finally. The Titans were extremely unbalanced in the run game last week as they almost exclusively ran to the left behind Pro Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan. Check out this chart of Derrick Henry’s runs against the Jaguars.

Next Gen Stats at NFL.com

Conklin’s return should allow them to become much more balanced and unpredictable both in the running game and in how they give help in pass protection.

While Conklin has been out, the Titans have started a different player each game at right tackle. Dennis Kelly got the call in Week 1 and played very well, but then he came down with an illness that landed him in the hospital and has sidelined him for two weeks and counting. With Lewan also missing in Week 2 with a concussion, the Titans were forced to promote practice squad tackle Tyler Marz and start him at right tackle against J.J. Watt and the Texans. Week 3 saw Kevin Pamphile — who is also now injured — slide over to right tackle as Lewan returned to his post on the left side.

Despite all that shuffling, Tennessee’s offensive line ranks 1st in the NFL in PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency metric, allowing just 10 pressures total over three games despite facing a slew of tough pass rushers in Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Calais Campbell, and Yannick Ngakoue.

Philly will present yet another big challenge though. The Eagles have famously stockpiled some ridiculous levels of talent at this position group in recent years. The starters in their typical base defense are Derek Barnett, Haloti Ngata, Fletcher Cox, and Brandon Graham with Michael Bennett and Chris Long coming off the bench.

Cox is the star of the group. Like the Titans Jurrell Casey, he does his damage on the interior of the line and is off to a great start in 2018 with 2.5 sacks and is currently rated by PFF as the NFL’s second best interior defensive lineman behind Aaron Donald. His movement skills for a 6’-4”, 310 pound man are nothing short of ridiculous. The Titans must find ways to help whoever gets matched up with Cox on the inside as often as possible.

On the outside, the Titans tackles will be tested all day as the Eagles send waves of edge rushers at opponents. Taylor Lewan will likely get matched up with former Brentwood Academy and University of Tennessee star Derek Barnett on most downs with Michael Bennett rotating in behind him. Barnett is a rising player in the league, but Lewan should have the advantage here.

Conklin will draw Brandon Graham and Chris Long on the other side. Those two have combined for 26 pressures through three games with Long leading the way with 16. That lands him among the top 10 in the NFL in pressures currently despite relatively limited playing time. Conklin at his best would be a pretty good match up for these guys, but I’d expect to see the Titans give him some help early on in this one as he knocks the rust off.

It will be interesting to see how Conklin is moving around on Sunday. During the offseason, he reportedly dropped 10 pounds as he focused on getting quicker to fit in with the new zone blocking scheme. He certainly looks like a slimmer guy compared to last season.

Getting this guy back is a massive deal for the Titans.

Titans Pass Rush vs Eagles Offensive Line

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Flipping that to the other side of the ball gives us another excellent matchup. The Eagles offensive line is back to full strength as 9-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters is back at his post after dealing with a torn ACL last season and then a strained quad that pulled him out of their Week 2 game in Tampa Bay. At 36 years old, he’s not quite the player he once was, but he’s still got enough left in the tank to get the job done. In the two full games he’s played in 2018, he’s allowed just two pressures and no sacks according to PFF.

Opposite of him is First-Team All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson. Johnson is one of the freakiest athletes in the NFL, running a 4.72 40-yard dash and 118” broad jump at 6’-6” and 300 pounds. He has struggled a bit to start the 2018 season though, already allowing 15 pressures and 2 sacks in just three games.

The interior of the Eagles line is no slouch either. Stefen Wisniewski and Brandon Brooks are solid veterans at the guard spots and Philadelphia boasts the best center in the NFL in Jason Kelce. The things that Kelce can do on the move for this Eagles running game are incredible.

The Titans defensive front will be led, as usual, by stud defensive end Jurrell Casey who is tied for 7th in the NFL with 3 sacks already. He’s off to a great start as new Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees locked him in to a 3-technique role, allowing him to switch sides and making him far more difficult to double team.

Outside of Casey, reliable Titans veterans Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are joined by newcomers Kamalei Correa and Harold Landry to form a versatile and productive front. The Eagles allowed 5 sacks last week as the Philadelphia offensive line really struggled with stunts and games along the Colts defensive line. The Titans have shown a few of these looks over the last couple weeks with great success as highlighted here.

Harold Landry, the Titans 2nd round pick this spring, has looked great in his first two games in the two-tone blue. He helped force 2 of Casey’s 3 sacks and flushed Bortles on a key 3rd down late in the Jacksonville game to force a punt. It seems that the bigger the moment, the more likely it is that you’ll see Landry come screaming around the edge with that distinctive bend. Playing at home with crowd noise is always going to help a speed rusher like Landry more than most so I think there is a good chance he gets on the board with his first sack against the Eagles.

Brett Kern vs Corey Clement

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

That’s right, you’re getting a punting take from me in the matchups this week. Kern is off to another great start after a Pro Bowl season in 2017, but this is more about the Eagles return game than anything.

Philadelphia’s primary punt returner, Darren Sproles, remains out with a hamstring injury and last week Corey Clement really struggled fielding punts. He didn’t end up turning any over and there was some rain involved in that game which may have contributed, but he put one on the ground and nearly dropped a couple others.

Clement is questionable for Sunday’s game so we aren’t sure if he’ll be out there. If he’s not able to go, it sounds like Eagles leading receiver Nelson Agholor would get the call to return punts.

Beyond the punt return issues, the Eagles special teams have really struggled early on. They’re currently ranked 29th in DVOA in the third phase, while the Titans rank 4th. The Titans have had a major special teams play every single week this season. In Week 1, it was Darius Jennings’ kick return touchdown. Week 2 had the fake punt pass from Kevin Byard to Dane Cruikshank for a 66-yard touchdown. In Jacksonville it was Cruikshank combining with Jayon Brown and LeShaun Sims to stop a Jaguars fake punt and give the Titans offense great field position. Another big special teams play could go a long way towards helping swing this game in the favor of the home team.

Titans Vertical Passing Game vs Eagles Safeties

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans vertical passing game has been non-existent to this point. No team has attempted fewer passes deeper than 20 yards downfield than Tennessee’s four. Three of those four came prior to Marcus Mariota’s injury in the opener in Miami so I think it’s safe to say that the disappearance of the deep ball was a response to the injury situations at quarterback and tackle rather than the way offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur would prefer to play offense.

This week, the tone surrounding Mariota’s injury has taken a positive turn. Mike Vrabel said throughout the week that he doesn’t expect Mariota to be limited on Sunday and reporters who observed open parts of practices have all reported that the throws are looking much more crisp than they have the last two weeks. That should mean a return to a more balanced run-pass split and some deep play action shots this week.

This would be a good week to take some deep shots as the Eagles will be without starting free safety Rodney McLeod who suffered a season-ending MCL tear against the Colts. That will leave 33-year old journeyman Corey Graham patrolling the center of the field for Philadelphia. Graham isn’t a terrible player, but he will be a pretty big downgrade from the rangy McLeod.

I would be shocked if we don’t see the Titans open up the passing attack further this week. Whether they have some success there will be a big factor in how this game goes. The Eagles defense runs and tackles too well to beat them with the short passing game, something the Colts found out last week.

Corey Davis vs Jalen Mills

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles don’t move their corners, Ronald Darby plays on the offense’s left side and Jalen Mills sticks on the right. Corey Davis has primarily lined up on the right side of the field for Tennessee which would mean he will draw Mills in coverage more often than not.

Next Gen Stats at NFL.com

Mills is a feisty, physical corner who tackles well, but can be a liability in coverage. He’s been targeted 18 times this year and has allowed 14 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown and nearly half of the yardage came from a 75-yard DeSean Jackson touchdown that Mills gave up on the opening play of their loss to the Bucs.

Mills has a tendency to get grabby at the top of routes. He has 2 defensive pass interference calls already this year. In 2017, he finished tied for 8th in the NFL with 4 DPI calls and tied for 1st in the league with 5 defensive holding calls. His physicality makes him effective at times, but it can come back to bite him when the flags start coming.

With Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews no longer with the team for very different reasons, Davis is the clear focal point of the passing game for the Titans. He has played well through three games, but the numbers haven’t followed, largely due to the lack of downfield passing mentioned above. If the Titans do open things up more this week — and I expect they will — Davis could have a breakout game.

Davis and Mills are both physical players and we’ve seen Davis showing far more emotion on the field this year. This is going to be a big time battle on the outside.