Preseason football is often not even remotely reflective of what is to come when the regular season starts so making sweeping proclamations based on a smattering of exhibition snaps is generally a bad idea. Don’t believe me?
“A year ago we were 0-4, so these guys came back with a different mentality,’’ said coach Hue Jackson. “We understand it’s just the preseason, but you’ve got to start someplace. They accomplished something that hadn’t been done in 31 years, which is be 4-0 and that’s a credit to them... I can see something building in the locker room, and that’s what you want,’’ said Jackson. “We all know football’s a whole lot different in the regular season, coming up against Pittsburgh.’’
The Browns, of course, would go on to become the second team in NFL history to go 0-16 in the regular season, joining the 2008 Lions, who also went 4-0 in the preseason.
If these are the 2018 Colts, then the 2018 Colts are bad. They can’t protect quarterback Andrew Luck. Can’t run the ball. Can’t stop the run. Drop too many passes.
The Colts would go on to field one of the league’s best offensive lines, ranking fourth in adjusted line yards in the running game and second in adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders while their defense ranked fourth in run defense DVOA. The team would start slow in the win-loss column as injuries ravaged the roster early in the year, but they became the league’s hottest team down the stretch, winning 10 of their final 11 games to make the playoffs.
The preseason in 2019 matters less than ever. Teams are playing their starters less and less — even in the third preseason game that has traditionally been viewed as the “dress rehearsal game” — as they try to focus on staying healthy into the beginning of the regular season, choosing to get the majority of their work to get the team ready done during practices. Assuming the Titans don’t play their starters during the final preseason game on Thursday, Marcus Mariota and the first team offense played 31 offensive snaps on 5 drives, the equivalent of about half a game total. The first team defense is right in that same ballpark.
Within those drives, there were varying levels of participation from the players that are expected to be on the field a lot this fall for the Titans. We’ve seen zero snaps from Derrick Henry or Harold Landry and just ten for Cameron Wake. Those are pretty important pieces to their respective units.
Making big sweeping judgements about the upcoming season and how the team will perform based on less than a half’s worth of snaps spread across three meaningless games is a fool’s errand. However, there are some minor themes that we can pick up on as positive or negative trends to watch heading into the regular season.
Jack Conklin is back
There are two trends I feel very strongly about coming out of preseason. This is one of them. Conklin has graded out as the second highest rated offensive lineman in the entire NFL during the preseason according to PFF and the tape absolutely backs that up. For all the problems the Titans offensive line has had at times, particularly against the Steelers, Conklin has been squeaky clean at right tackle.
Conklin’s status was very much in doubt heading into training camp after a tough 2018 season. It’s looking more and more like his struggles were directly related to the ACL injury that he suffered in the Divisional Round loss to the Patriots at the end of the 2017 season. Conklin’s comments to Erik Bacharach of the Tennessean sound like a guy who feels pretty confident about where he’s at physically heading into this year.
“Feels better than it felt since before the surgery,” Conklin said of his knee. ”I’m feeling way more confident in it. I’m feeling like I can sit down and take on bull rush. I feel strong, my legs are stronger than before I tore my ACL. I’m feeling good. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be feeling better than I am right now.”
All-Pro level Jack Conklin is back and that’s fantastic news for the Titans.
The drop off from Taylor Lewan to Dennis Kelly is going to be a significant one for the first four weeks
This may be obvious, but I feel like some fans were trying to talk themselves into the idea that this wouldn’t be that big a deal because of how well Kelly played towards the end of last season.
It is going to be a big deal though. Kelly is about as good a swing tackle as you could ask for in the NFL, but Taylor Lewan is elite. Watching the difference between those two when the first team comes out and the second team comes makes the three time Pro Bowler’s impact clear. His athleticism allows him to make blocks that other tackles can only dream of and he plays with a mean streak that only amplifies what he can do physically.
Kelly is likely going to require some help to get through the first four games from a pass protection standpoint. The good news is that Conklin is playing well enough that sliding protection away from him and letting him block on an island with edge rushers is a viable option.
Once Lewan returns in Week 5, the Titans will have an enviable pair of bookends on the offensive line.
Right guard is going to be a problem
This is the spot on the roster that was most up for grabs heading into camp and nothing about the competition for the starting spot has made me feel any better that the Titans will get more out of their right guard than they got out of Josh Kline last year. Based on rep distribution, the battle has seemingly boiled down to Kevin Pamphile and Jamil Douglas after rookie Nate Davis had his early camp momentum halted by an injury. Davis is being eased back in now, but it is likely too late for the third round pick to convince his coaches that he’s ready to start against the Browns in Week 1.
Pamphile has been better than Douglas in my eyes and seems likely to be the Week 1 starter, but it’s not like he’s run away with the job due to outstanding play. To quote the movie Argo, “this is the best bad idea we have, sir... by far.”
I’m a little surprised that we haven’t seen more of Corey Levin with the first team offense. The Titans like him more as a center than a guard so inserting him into the starting lineup would require bumping Ben Jones to right guard, but based on preseason action, I think that group might be their best five available right now.
Ultimately, the Titans will want to see Nate Davis claim this spot and that may be the only chance they have to get above average play at the position in 2019. I’d be surprised if it happens before Week 1, but my guess is we see him at some point before the season is over.
The first team defense looks good, even without much of a pass rush
Now is not the time to crown the Titans defense as world beaters, but they’re living up to the hype so far. In six drives with the starting unit in, Tennessee has allowed just four first downs and zero points. To be fair, Nate Sudfeld and Brian Hoyer were the opposing quarterbacks in two of those games while that group was out there, but they’ve looked good as unit.
The secondary and off ball linebackers have particularly stood out with Logan Ryan, Kenny Vaccaro, Jayon Brown, and Rashaan Evans seemingly living around the ball when they’ve been in the game. The pass rush remains a concern, but we’ve seen a total of 20 snaps combined out of the three best pass rushers on the defense — Jurrell Casey, Cameron Wake, and Harold Landry — and Mike Vrabel admitted yesterday that the Titans have intentionally run fewer “games” — stunts, twists, and picks — during the preseason because they want to get some evaluation on how guys do in straight up pass rush situations.
I’ll need to see it to fully believe it, but it’s hard to imagine the pass rush being any worse than it was in 2018. If it has improved to even slightly above average, that could be enough to vault the Titans defense into the elite category.
The team is healthy
This remains the most critical result of preseason play. Barring a starter or high level contributor getting hurt in practice, it looks like the Titans will enter 2019 with essentially their full deck. Depth wide receiver/kick returner Cameron Batson was lost for the year with a broken collarbone and fifth round pick D’Andre Walker will miss his entire rookie season with an unknown injury, but besides those two — who were almost certainly going to be depth/special teamers on the fringe of the roster — there have been no serious long term injuries to players who will be on the 53-man roster when September rolls around.
With Nate Davis, Ryan Succop, Jonnu Smith, and Derrick Henry back at practice last week, Harold Landry expected to return this week, and David Fluellen reportedly eyeing a possible return before Week 1, the roster is suddenly healthier than it has been all offseason at just the right time.
Marcus Mariota seems to be past the nerve issue that bothered him all of last season. While you never want your quarterback to get hit, it was at least semi-reassuring to see Mariota take a couple big shots during preseason action and get up with no problem. Having a high quality backup like Ryan Tannehill is great, but it’s in everyone’s best interest for Mariota to play 16 games and answer the franchise quarterback question once and for all.
Ryan Tannehill is easily the best backup QB Marcus Mariota has had, but there is no controversy
Tannehill has gone 25 of 36 for 276 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions working almost exclusively with the second team offense — and against second defenses. He’s looked like what you’d hope a guy with 88 career starts would look like playing against backups.
If Mariota gets hurt, Tannehill is good enough to keep this team competitive. Given the fact that backup quarterback play cost them a shot at the playoffs last year, that’s a big deal.
That being said, this isn’t a quarterback controversy. Mariota will start Week 1 and nothing he’s done in preseason should jeopardize that.