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What to watch for during Titans-Patriots

A few things to keep an eye on during Tennessee’s preseason home opener.

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

After going toe to toe in two joint practices this week, the Titans are set to welcome the Patriots to Nissan Stadium tonight for preseason game number two. Last year Mike Vrabel chose to play his first team offense just two drives against the Buccaneers. I’d expect something similar in this game with Marcus Mariota and company trading their helmets for ball caps well before halftime.

I think it’s a virtual lock that we won’t see Derrick Henry, Nate Davis, David Fluellen or Adam Humphries tonight. All those guys have been dealing with injury issues lately and did not participate in the latest practice. There are plenty of veterans that might be held out for precautionary reasons as well. Guys like Rodger Saffold, Cameron Wake, Delanie Walker, and Jurrell Casey are all vets who would stand to gain little from preseason action, though Walker hinted after practice on Thursday that he expects to play tonight.

The Titans also held out some younger guys like Corey Davis and Harold Landry last week who have dealt with injury issues in previous seasons and whose presence is absolutely critical to the team at their respective positions. I don’t know if we will see those two or not, but if they do get on the field, don’t expect it to be for long.

However, there are always some good storylines to watch during preseason action, even if you don’t see a ton of the more recognizable names on the roster. Here are a few that I will be keeping an eye on.

Game Day Experience

We will start with an off-field item for those attending the game tonight before we get into the actual football analysis.

The Titans hired Gil Beverly earlier this year to be their Vice President of Brand, Marketing & Communications and part of his responsibility in that role is to work on improving the team’s game day experience for fans. That’s a big role and I believe his appointment to be an indication that Amy Adams-Strunk understands that fans want a better game day experience than the one the team has provided in recent years.

One thing that we can expect to see immediately is an improved WiFi network at Nissan Stadium. The Titans controlling owner told Paul Kuharsky earlier this offseason that they were going to triple the bandwidth in the stadium which should allow fans much quicker download and upload speeds while at the game.

I suspect there will be more changes, but it remains to be seen what those might be. My hope is that we get a revamped music selection, shorter lines coming into the stadium, fewer cheesy “guess the temperature” and “find T-Rac” games, and a general focus on keeping the energy going throughout the game with the crowd. Obviously, I don’t expect the stadium to be rocking tonight — it’s a preseason game in 90-plus degree heat — but we should get a preview of what the Titans will be going for with their stadium experience this year.

Will Marcus Mariota do enough to cool the national media’s desperate clamoring for a QB competition?

The big topic of conversation in the Titans fan base this week has surrounded two separate reports from Dianna Russini of ESPN and Ben Allbright of KOA News Radio. Both Russini and Allbright reported that Marcus Mariota is “on a short leash” and suggested that Ryan Tannehill could earn the starting gig, possibly even before Week 1. You can listen to Russini’s exact words here:

Local media and fans who follow the team closely have pushed back pretty strong against the suggestion that this is anything close to a quarterback competition and rightfully so. The team has publicly made it crystal clear since Tannehill was acquired that he was to be Mariota’s backup. Nothing that we’ve seen or heard in camp has suggested that thinking has changed, despite the strong Tannehill preseason performance that seems to have stirred the national media.

I think it’s apparent that the Titans have some doubts about Mariota as the long term solution at this moment. Teams that are convinced they’ve got the guy simply don’t let their quarterback play out the final year of his contract as the Titans appear to be set to do with Mariota. Whether it’s health or performance — or both — Jon Robinson wants to see something from Mariota in year five before he commits the franchise financially to 8. So in a sense, Mariota is on a short leash, I just don’t think there is any way that leash doesn’t extend at least a few games into the regular season.

I didn’t think Mariota was terrible against the Eagles. He was a beat late on a couple throws — the ball to Darius Jennings on the sideline in particular — but did some nice things as well. However, Greg Cosell — one of the best football analysts in media in my opinion — had a pretty scathing review of Mariota’s footwork on the Midday 180 this week. You can listen below (top link):

Mariota was much better than Tannehill in practice against the Patriots this week, but that won’t help quiet the national media clamoring for a quarterback battle if it doesn’t translate to the preseason game. The national media’s opinion shouldn’t matter honestly, but for those that want this “nontroversy” to go away, a good Mariota showing would be the best antidote.

That being said, fans certainly shouldn’t be rooting against Tannehill. That should go without saying, but I’ve seen plenty of fans celebrating the backup QB’s struggles in practice this week. Tannehill’s success can only help the Titans. Obviously, you want him to play well if he’s forced into regular season action, but his preseason performance can also help the team on another front. If Tannehill performs well and earns a contract elsewhere to be a bridge quarterback, the Titans could be in line to receive a high round compensatory pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Will A.J. Brown make his Titans (preseason) debut?

Last week the Titans saw just two of their six draft picks — fourth round safety Amani Hooker and sixth round linebacker David Long — get to see preseason playing time. While they both were pretty impressive against the Eagles, Titans fans will be hoping to see another rookie draft pick join them on the field tonight.

A.J. Brown was one of the more eye-catching players from the Titans-Patriots joint practice sessions. He made the catch of the day on Wednesday, making a beautiful over the shoulder grab on a deep ball from Ryan Tannehill. Brown followed it up on Thursday with a couple more impressive contested catches. The natural ball skills and ability to track the ball in the air that made him such an intriguing prospect were on full display.

I don’t know if the Titans will put him out there tonight. Brown got what appeared to be a full complement of reps on Thursday after slowly ramping up his activity throughout the week as he worked back from an injury, but this team tends to err on the side of caution in these situations. If Brown plays, I’d take that as a great sign that the team believes he’s completely past the injury and ready to be turned loose.

[UPDATE: A.J. Brown WILL play in tonight’s preseason game per Paul Kuharsky.]

I wouldn’t expect Brown to get a ton of run, but I’m excited to see what he can do in a game situation.

Can Taywan Taylor translate a great week of practice into preseason action?

Taylor drew the ire of Titans fans last week with an abysmal performance against the Eagles, dropping two key passes and failing to get a second foot in on another. It was one of the worst preseason performances that I’ve ever seen.

However, Taylor responded with the best week of practice he’s had since arriving in Tennessee. He was a menace to the Patriots secondary, regularly creating space and making catches. Taylor hauled in two deep bombs during Wednesday’s practice, showing off the ability to get behind the defense that makes him so intriguing as a receiver. He was seen staying late and getting extra work on the JUGS machine and earned some unsolicited praise from Mike Vrabel for taking coaching from the meetings and applying it on the practice field.

NFL: New York Jets at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Now we need to see if Taylor can translate that to preseason action. I hope he can. The Titans need the speed element that he brings to the offense as well as his ability to create separation — something that many of his teammates struggle with — even if it’s just in a rotational role.

Guard Thunderdome

I wrote a lot about the top competitors for the open right guard spot earlier so I won’t go too deep here, but I’ll be interested to see who gets the start at that spot and what combinations get looked at with the first team unit. My guess is that Kevin Pamphile will get the nod first after being the primary starter during the two joint practices this week, but Jamil Douglas got some run with the ones earlier in the week as well so it wouldn’t be a total shocker to see him out there first.

The Titans also used Austin Pasztor inside at guard with the second team for part of practice on Thursday so it would be interesting to see if he gets any snaps there after struggling at tackle against Philadelphia.

Ultimately, you’d like to see someone start to run away with this spot sooner rather than later. Tonight is a good opportunity for one of these guys to make a move.

Three undrafted rookies who are pushing to make the roster on defense

Most of the starting spots on the Titans defense are spoken for. We know that Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson, Kevin Byard, and Kenny Vaccaro are going to start in the secondary. We know that Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, and Cameron Wake are going to start at the linebacker spots (with Wake sharing some of his workload with Sharif Finch). We know that Jurrell Casey and DaQuan Jones are likely to be the primary starters on the defensive line in nickel packages.

What we don’t know is who might be able to earn some snaps in those rotational defensive line and outside linebacker spots. On the defensive line Brent Urban, Austin Johnson, and Matt Dickerson have gotten a lot of work high in the rotation, but they were joined by a newcomer this week: undrafted rookie Amani Bledsoe. He got some snaps with the first team defense this week and seems to be making some moves up the depth chart after grading out as the Titans top defender against the Eagles according to PFF. I’d be surprised if the Titans kept six defensive linemen, so Bledsoe likely needs to push one of those top five out if he wants a roster spot. Keep an eye on #95 tonight.

NFL: Preseason-Tennessee Titans at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The second guy to watch is outside linebacker Derick Roberson. I’ve been on Roberson since prior to the draft so one unimpressive preseason showing isn’t going to push me away, especially when he continues to show up in practices. He worked primarily with the second team defense this week and appears to have a pretty firm grasp on the fifth outside linebacker spot right now behind Landry, Wake, Finch, and Correa. Roberson is an explosive pass rusher who has shown some real ability to bend the edge in college and in some practice reps that I’ve watched. Look for #50 to make some plays tonight.

Finally, keep a close eye on cornerback Kareem Orr (#32). He has consistently been good in camp and continues to draw praise from coaches. I think LeShaun Sims and Tye Smith are two of the better depth corners in the NFL, but Orr could make the Titans make a tough decision here if he can keep up his strong play.