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What to watch for during Titans-Steelers

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What to look for during the Titans “dress rehearsal” game.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason game three is typically treated as the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season with starters often playing all the way through the first half. However, many NFL teams — led by the Rams last season — have started to ignore the preseason altogether, leaving their starters on the shelf entirely until the games begin to count.

With most of the league’s third preseason games already in the books, it’s worth noting that teams are resting starters at unprecedented levels. Several of the league’s starting quarterbacks will go the entire preseason without taking a single snap, including Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff among others.

Some of the teams who have chosen to play their starters have paid dearly for those choices. Just this week Cam Newton and Jordan Reed have picked up new injuries that could threaten their Week 1 availability. The Texans lost Lamar Miller for the season with a torn ACL in the same game that also saw both of their starting guards leave with injuries, though those are expected to be relatively minor.

To me, the risk of losing a key player to injury far outweighs any benefit to be gained from getting your starters some reps running the most basic section of your playbook.

Full disclosure — I had written everything above, with the exception of the Texans injury details, before Andrew Luck announced his retirement and turned the NFL upside down. While I know that Luck’s strange calf/ankle injury wasn’t suffered in a preseason game, there just seems to be some weird voodoo going around the AFC South right now and I want no part of it if I’m the Titans. Tennessee has been pretty fortunate with injury luck so far this preseason, losing on Cameron Batson and D’Andre Walker for extended periods of time. Why not get out healthy when you have the chance?

With that being said, here’s what I’ll be watching for when the Titans and Steelers kickoff at 7:00 PM Central in Nissan Stadium.

Do the Titans and Steelers play their starters, and if so, which ones and how much?

As laid out above, I believe the smart play is to sit most of the key starters and contributors for this game, but it will be interesting to see how the Titans approach it. Last season Marcus Mariota and the starters played the first four offensive drives, leaving the game with 4:03 left in the first half. That’s way more than I would like to see tonight.

The only projected starter who is yet to take a preseason snap for the Titans is Derrick Henry, who was held out of the first two preseason games with a calf strain. He returned to practice this week so it’s possible we see him make a brief appearance against the Steelers just to get a few live reps under his belt before Week 1.

The other guy who could make his debut is Jonnu Smith. The third year tight end was activated off the PUP list at the beginning of the week and has been practicing ever since.

I’d be pretty surprised to see Harold Landry — who has missed practice most of the week with either maintenance or an injury, Vrabel won’t say — or Cameron Wake. Titans fans likely will have to wait for Week 1 to see their top pass rush duo take the field together.

Will Ryan Succop make his preseason debut?

Like Smith, Succop was activated off PUP at the beginning of the week and has been practicing. Given the fact that kickers aren’t really any more likely to get hurt in a preseason game than they are in practice, I wouldn’t mind seeing him get some realistic reps with his long time holder (Brett Kern) and long snapper (Beau Brinkley).

What will be more interesting to see is whether Succop handles any kickoff duties. Amie Wells of Titans Online brought up an interesting point on a recent episode of the Official Titans Podcast, mentioning that the team could choose to keep Austin Barnard as a fourth specialist specifically to handle kickoffs if Succop’s recovery from a knee injury leaves him unable to be effective in that role. You’d certainly hate for that to be the case because it robs the team of a critical roster spot that could be spent elsewhere as well as putting the team in a spot where they’re using 4 of their 46 active spots for game days on players who can only play in the kicking game. That would be a real issue, so I’d love to see Succop get some run and boot a couple touchbacks tonight.

The frog man cometh?

Titans third round pick Nate Davis could make his preseason debut tonight after missing the first two matchups with an undisclosed injury. He returned to practice this week and if he’s physically ready for live action, it would be great to get him as many reps as possible at right guard.

I think it would be a major surprise at this point if Davis was able to overtake Kevin Pamphile for the starting job before Week 1, but he can begin building his case for a midseason move if he can play and play well against Pittsburgh’s stout defensive front.

Will A.J. Brown make his first NFL (preseason) catch?

Brown made his preseason debut last week, and while he did draw a big pass interference penalty and had a couple other moments that looked impressive on closer inspection, the ball never found him while he was on the field. With another week between him and the injury that cost him the first couple weeks of camp, I’d imagine that we will see Brown again tonight and it would be nice to see them feed him the ball a little bit. Of all the possible things that could happen tonight, Brown making some big catches would be the most exciting.

Battle for final 53-man roster spots

I went through and laid out my thoughts on who could still make the roster and who is trying to play their way in yesterday, making arguments for and against all the options. I still expect there to be a surprise or two on the 53-man roster when it’s announced, but it does feel like we are starting to zero in on what the Titans initial group is going to look like.

The next two preseason games — tonight against the Steelers and Thursday night in Chicago — are going to be very important for guys like Logan Woodside, Jeremy McNichols, Isaiah Mack, Amani Bledsoe, Derick Roberson, and Kareem Orr as they try to push their way onto this Titans roster. All six of those guys have flashed either in preseason or training camp, but still have some significant hurdles between them and their goal of making it on the team.

Will Arthur Smith be in the booth or on the sideline?

The Titans first time offensive coordinator has been trying to work out which location he would prefer to call games from this season. In the first preseason game against the Eagles Smith had planned on being in the booth, but a headset malfunction in Philadelphia forced him to move down to the sideline instead. Against the Patriots, Smith split time, spending the first half in the booth and then moving down to the field for the second half. It remains to be seen where he shows up tonight, but if the Titans are, in fact, treating this as a dress rehearsal, Smith’s location may be telling.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. The booth offers a better vantage point to see what the defense is doing and a quieter, calmer setting to work from. The sideline offers a more hands on approach, giving the coordinator a chance to meet with his entire offense between series and grab guys for quick conversations as needed. This article from Thomas George has some good quotes from current coordinators on which approach they prefer and why.

I don’t believe there is a right way or a wrong way necessarily so I’ll be good with whatever makes Smith feel most comfortable on game days. After all, his ability to direct Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense to greater heights this season will be critical to the team’s ultimate success or failure.