The regular season is finally here which means we can stop agonizing over who will be the 5th cornerback or how many running backs the team will keep and turn our attention to actual NFL football games. The first game of the year is always the toughest to predict. It’s hard to tell how new pieces will fit in, how new coaches will impact performance, or how offseason development will change a team’s trajectory. Last season at this time, you would have been laughed off the internet for predicting the Rams to be runaway division winners or putting the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. Going the opposite direction, who predicted the Raiders — the Rams of 2016 — crashing back to earth with a 6-10 flop or the Giants going from contender to owning the No. 2 overall pick?
The NFL is unpredictable. Injuries and just plain old-fashioned luck influence the outcomes of these games far more than most feel comfortable admitting. The good news is that we get to start finding out what these teams are made of this weekend. For the Titans, there will be a lot to watch from the brand new coaching staff, but here are the six on-field matchups I’ll be keeping an eye on in Miami on Sunday.
Titans Protections vs Dolphins Blitzes
Last season’s Titans-Dolphins game was an offense-free contest that the Dolphins won 16-10, featuring questionable calls by referees on the two biggest plays of the game. I don’t think there is a ton that should be taken away from that game. Miami’s leading rusher from that game, Jay Ajayi, now plays for the Eagles. Leading receiver, Jarvis Landry, plays for the Browns. And leading passer, Jay Cutler, is a full-time reality TV star. It’s a similar story for the Titans as leading passer, Matt Cassel, is now (mercifully) in Detroit as a backup quarterback. Leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, is now a FOX college football analyst. And leading receiver, Eric Decker, is a full-time reality TV star.
It’s safe to say that both teams will look quite a bit different in 2018. However, one thing I will be watching closely is how the Miami defense decides to attack the Titans offense schematically. During last season’s game the Dolphins aggressively blitzed Matt Cassel all game, racking up 6 sacks and forcing the game-swinging “fumble” that got returned for a touchdown by one of the 13 Dolphins on the field. Blitzing Marcus Mariota is a very different proposition than blitzing Matt Cassel though. Mariota’s DVOA when facing pressure was 12th best in the NFL in 2017 and he also offers the added threat of being able to escape from the pocket with his legs.
Asking your quarterback to be good under pressure isn’t really a plan though. Last season the Titans really struggled to pick up Dolphins pressures when they went to double A gap blitz looks like the one shown below. You can see both inside linebackers are mugging the A gaps on either side of center pre-snap. Both end up bailing out on this snap, but the presence of Kiko Alonso in the A gap combined with wide splits from the 3-tech defensive tackles and the wide-9 splits from the ends forces Jack Conklin to check inside first to see if he needs to pick up Ndamukong Suh. That check gives Conklin no chance to get back outside to stop the speed rush of Cameron Wake. This was good design from Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke as Miami is able to get pressure with just four rushers here by confusing the protection.
Marcus Mariota and the offensive line will need to be on top of their communication during this game and that’s something they really struggled with the last time we saw them suit up in the preseason. In Pittsburgh, the Titans were overwhelmed by some relatively simple blitz concepts from the Steelers. This week the Titans coaches will surely have pulled game tape from Miami showing some of their pet blitzes and going over which lineman should have which defender in each scenario.
In addition to simply picking up the blitzes, there are a few other things that the team can do to slow down Miami’s rushers. I would expect the Titans to have plenty of screens built in this week to help them cope with these types of looks from the Dolphins. They could also choose to spread the Dolphins out by motioning a back out wide to simplify protections for the offensive linemen and reads for Mariota.
Dennis Kelly vs Cameron Wake
When the Dolphins aren’t blitzing, they’ll be relying on their front four to get pressure. With Suh gone the interior pass rushers aren’t quite as formidable in 2018, but the edge rushers could be a threat. Miami traded for Robert Quinn who had 8.5 sacks last season for the Rams and also features 2017 1st round pick Charles Harris as a rotational pass rusher. However, the biggest threat is still Cameron Wake. Wake picked up 10.5 sacks in 2017 at age 35. He’s now 36, but there is no reason to think that he’s suddenly going to drop off the cliff.
Wake primarily lines up against opposing right tackles which means he will draw Dennis Kelly for most of the day. Kelly — starting in place of Jack Conklin as the Titans starter continues to recover from offseason ACL surgery — was pretty good in the preseason, but he didn’t face any rushers the caliber of Wake.
I would expect the Titans to try to give Kelly help as much as possible with Wake throughout the game. They’ll probably look to provide that help in a number of ways, including chips with backs, tight ends, and reading Wake on read options and RPOs. That will leave Taylor Lewan one-on-one with Robert Quinn often, but that’s a matchup the Titans should feel good about.
MMCNB vs Dolphins Receivers
The Dolphins will be without one of their starting receivers on Sunday as DeVante Parker will miss the game with a broken finger. They’re also looking to replace one of the most productive receivers in the NFL in Jarvis Landry who is now in Cleveland. That leaves Miami with Kenny Stills, Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, and Jakeem Grant as the top targets on Sunday. Stills, Amendola, and Wilson have all had productive seasons in the NFL, but none of those guys would be considered a gamebreaker by any means. These are the kind of guys that the “My Man Catch No Balls” crew should eat alive if they’re going to be the secondary that they want to be.
We don’t know if the Titans will use cornerbacks to shadow certain wide receivers this year, but in 2017 Malcolm Butler shadowed Stills in both Patriots-Dolphins games, holding the Miami speedster to just 2 catches for 14 yards on 7 targets total. If Butler can repeat that performance in Week 1, that will qualify as a great start to his Titans career.
Amendola and Wilson came to Miami from the last two teams the Titans faced last season so there will be no shortage of familiarity with these matchups. Furthermore, the only Dolphins receiver over 6 feet tall is Stills who is just 6’-1”. If the Titans cornerback room has a weakness, it’s a lack of tall, long corners to matchup with bigger receivers. That won’t be a problem in Week 1. This should be a massive advantage for Tennessee.
Kevin Byard, Kenny Vaccaro, and Jayon Brown vs Mike Gesicki
While the Dolphins receivers don’t offer much of a size threat, their rookie tight end certainly does. Mike Gesicki, the Dolphins 2nd round pick, is a 6’-6”, 247-pound freak of an athlete. The former Nittany Lion turned in a 41.5-inch vertical, 4.54-second 40-yard dash, and a 6.76-second 3-cone drill, essentially breaking the combine.
While he’s not currently slated to be the Dolphins starter at tight end due to his deficiencies as a blocker — journeyman MarQueis Gray who has just 27 receptions in 6 NFL seasons will get the start — I would expect Gesicki to get involved in the passing game, especially in the red zone. The Dolphins have shown a fair amount of Y-iso looks with Gesicki split out to the 1-side of a 3x1 set such as the play below.
This look is tough to defend and the Titans can bank on seeing this at least a few times on Sunday. The question then becomes which defender does Tennessee counter with when Gesicki is on the field? There seem to be three options: safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker Jayon Brown. All of those guys can run with Gesicki and match or exceed his physicality, but they’ll also be giving up 6 inches of height and several inches of vertical leap to the Dolphins rookie. The Titans defenders will need to beat Gesicki before he gets vertical.
Byard is probably the best option here. He did excellent work last season when matched up one-on-one against a similar tight end in Jimmy Graham. However, if Vaccaro or Brown can stick with Gesicki that frees up Byard to play centerfield and use his smarts and anticipation to create turnovers. It will be interesting to see how the Titans choose to defend this look.
Update: MarQueis Gray has been put on IR with a foot injury. That likely means A.J. Derby gets the start — again because of his ability to block in the run game — but we will probably see at least a little more Gesicki than we otherwise would have if Gray were playing.
Delanie Walker and Dion Lewis vs Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan
The Dolphins allowed an NFL-worst 94 catches to opposing tight ends in 2017 and finished 28th at defending the position in DVOA. During last year’s Titans-Dolphins matchup, Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith were the target of 10 of Matt Cassel’s 32 pass attempts, turning those opportunities in to 8 catches but just 46 yards (The Matt Cassel Effect). Not included in those stats, however, was the 59-yard touchdown that Walker had wiped off the board by a ticky tack offensive pass interference penalty called against Smith (who was nowhere near the play).
A big reason for the Dolphins struggles against tight ends was Kiko Alonso, who was one of the worst linebackers in the NFL in pass coverage last season. Alonso was targeted 91 times in 2017, allowing 77 catches for 810 yards and 4 touchdowns. That was good for a 118.4 passer rating against, 8th worst among linebackers with at least 600 snaps last season.
Alonso returns as a starter for the Dolphins in 2018, and is joined by Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker in the starting lineup. McMillan figures to be the green dot, every down middle linebacker for the Dolphins, but the big knock on him coming out of Ohio State last year was concerns about his ability to play in coverage. He missed all of 2017 after tearing an ACL during preseason, so this will be his first NFL start. It will also be Baker’s first NFL start. The Dolphins 2018 3rd round pick is a bit undersized and raw, but is an excellent athlete and profiles as the best pass defender of the bunch. Strangely though, it seems the Dolphins plan is to take Baker off the field in nickel packages, choosing to stick with McMillan and Alonso instead.
That should give the Titans a chance to get Delanie Walker and Dion Lewis matched up against two linebackers who struggle in coverage when they go to 11-personnel. This would qualify as a massive advantage for Tennessee. The Dolphins may also choose to use safeties T.J. McDonald or Reshad Jones to pick up Walker, but neither of those players excel in coverage either. Walker will be a mismatch in favor of the Titans regardless of who Miami lines up across from him on Sunday. He’s a 3-time Pro Bowler, so that’s often the case, but it will be especially true against Miami.
If you’re playing fantasy football, I would expect this to be a heavy Dion Lewis game in the Titans backfield. He probably won’t out-carry Derrick Henry, but I would expect him to be a big factor in the passing game.
Titans Wounded Pass Rush vs Dolphins Re-Built Offensive Line
The Titans pass rush has been a point of much discussion this offseason. In 2017, the Titans finished 5th in the NFL in sacks with 43, but the team had to blitz far too often to generate those numbers, effectively hanging their back end out to dry. Adding Malcolm Butler to an already improving secondary should help on that end, but generating more pressure with fewer players is still a priority.
The Titans drafted Harold Landry to help with that issue and he has looked the part of a dynamic pass rusher off the edge early on, but an ankle injury suffered during preseason game No. 3 has his availability for Miami in doubt. The returning starters — Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan — are also returning from injuries of their own right now. How available and effective these guys are will have a big impact on this game. Depth players like Kamalei Correa, Aaron Wallace, and Sharif Finch could all be called upon early if any of the top three are held out.
The unit they are facing looks pretty different from the 2017 Dolphins offensive line. The starting tackles, Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James, return for another season, but the interior has been completely replaced. Out are Ted Larsen, Mike Pouncey, and Jermon Bushrod. In are Josh Sitton, Daniel Kilgore, and Jesse Davis. It’s a veteran group outside of Davis, but with three new starters in place, how quickly will the chemistry come together for them? And can Tunsil improve on a 2017 season that saw him allow 5 sacks while being flagged for 11 penalties at left tackle? Those are the questions that the Dolphins will begin to answer this weekend.
The Titans will need a big game from Jurrell Casey. Their often-overlooked star defender might be the best player on the field for either team on Sunday and they need him to play like it. His quickness in small spaces will be tough for Sitton and Davis to handle inside. With seemingly every Titans edge rusher banged up, inside pressure from Casey will be at a premium value.