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Blueprint for a Titans breakthrough in Atlanta

What do the Titans need to do to get their season back on track?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The last two weeks have been terrible for the Titans and their fans. The good vibes from the season opening blowout win over the Browns are long gone at this point. Losing two division games to hated rivals in five days will do that, especially when the offense looks like it has during those games.

However, with ten days to prepare for a struggling Falcons team, there are at least a few reasons for hope that the Titans can go get a road win to stop the bleeding ahead of Taylor Lewan’s Week 5 return. Here’s my blueprint for how can win in Atlanta.

Find a way to get Corey Davis involved early and often

Twelve targets in three games isn’t enough for a receiver of his talent, regardless of what opposing defenses are doing to try and take him away. Davis remains the Titans most talented receiver and showed an ability to go make plays on the ball when given a chance in camp (and during the 2018 season as well). It’s time for Marcus Mariota to start giving Davis a chance to make big plays for this offense.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Falcons pass defense isn’t terrible, but this isn’t a shut down group either. Top corner Desmond Trufant is outstanding, but he doesn’t traditionally travel with the opponent’s top wide out so there should be opportunities to get Davis matched up against Isaiah Oliver and nickel corner Damontae Kazee at times on Sunday. Oliver has allowed receptions on 12 of 21 targets into his coverage for 152 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2019 per PFF charting data. Kazee has seen opposing passers go 10 of 11 for 99 yards and a touchdown when throwing at him. Davis should have an advantage when he draws either of these second year players.

With Falcons losing star safety Keanu Neal to an Achilles injury last week, I’d like to see the Titans test Ricardo Allen, Kemal Ishmael, and Sharrod Neasman on the back end of the Atlanta defense. It’s time to free Corey Davis.

Stop the run on early downs, finish tackles

The Falcons have struggled to get their ground game going early in the season, averaging just 74 rushing yards per game through three weeks, sixth worst in the NFL. The Titans run defense has been up and down to this point with good showings against the Browns and Jaguars bookending a poor performance against the Colts.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans defense has struggled with missed tackles in 2019, missing 24 attempts through three games, tied for 10th most in the NFL. Rashaan Evans uncharacteristically leads the team with 9 missed opportunities to get a ball carrier on the ground so far. He’s still making plays for this defense, but Evans needs to do a better job of finishing some of these tackles.

If they can keep Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith from getting on track on early downs, it’ll give the Titans defense a chance to get off the field on 3rd and long. The Falcons have converted less than 25% of their 3rd and 7 or more attempts this season.

Take advantage of a suspect Falcons offensive line

When the Titans do get the Falcons into 3rd and long situations, they’ll have a chance to rush against an offensive line that sports a few holes right now. Atlanta spent two 2019 first round picks on right guard Chris Lindstrom (14th overall) and right tackle Kaleb McGary (31st overall), but both have dealt with injury issues early in their NFL careers. Lindstrom is currently on injured reserve after suffering a broken foot in Week 1. He’s been replaced by journeyman backup Jamon Brown. McGary is on the injury report as well with a knee sprain, but he’s expected to play. Still, a rookie on a bum wheel against Cameron Wake should be advantage Titans on Sunday.

NFL: SEP 08 Titans at Browns

The Falcons are also somewhat shaky at left guard. Veteran James Carpenter beat Jamon Brown in a camp battle to win the spot heading into the season, but he’s been a below average starter for the last two years with the Jets prior to heading to Atlanta this offseason. Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack are good players, but the rest of this group can be beat.

The Titans failed to take advantage of a questionable Jaguars offensive line last week, but they had a lot of success in Cleveland. Getting pressure on Matt Ryan is going to be absolutely critical in this game. Only five qualifying NFL quarterbacks have a lower passer rating under pressure this season than Ryan’s 52.7 and the veteran passer currently leads the NFL in interceptions with 6. It would be nice to see some signs of life from Harold Landry and Jurrell Casey in the pass rush to force Ryan into some mistakes.

A bounce back game from the Titans offensive line

The Titans offensive line was completely incapable of handling Calais Campbell last week. They’ll draw another top interior pass rusher this week in Grady Jarrett and containing him will be key to getting this offense out of neutral.

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There have been problems across the line for the Titans, but no spot has been more glaring than right guard. Kevin Pamphile was expected to be the Week 1 starter, but a knee injury that popped up prior to the opener in Cleveland has cost him three games and he’s already been ruled out for this game. Jamil Douglas had been starting in Pamphile’s spot, but was pulled from the game in Jacksonville due to ineffectiveness — putting it nicely — and was replaced by Aaron Stinnie. Stinnie wasn’t much better during his limited action. Mike Vrabel has hinted this week that we might see rookie third round pick Nate Davis on Sunday, but it’s unclear whether that might be in some sort of rotation with Douglas and/or Stinnie or as the outright starter at right guard.

I think it’s wise to temper expectations if Davis does get on the field. While his raw talent level is certainly higher than the Titans other options, rookie offensive linemen often struggle early in their careers and Davis was widely considered a bit of a raw prospect coming in. Combine that with a lack of training camp and preseason reps due to an injury and you have a guy that is likely to experience some growing pains.

Growing pains or not, the Titans line as a whole has to perform better than they did in Jacksonville. That starts with the best of this group. Right guard and left tackle are known issues that this team is just going to have to deal with for one more week at least, but Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and Jack Conklin can’t make matters worse by making mistakes themselves. The Falcons defensive line has some talent in Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley, and Adrian Clayborn, but none of those guys are on the level of what Tennessee dealt with last week. It would be nice to see a strong pocket for Marcus Mariota and wide running lanes for Derrick Henry in Atlanta.

A better game plan and better game management from the coaching staff

Mike Vrabel and Arthur Smith deserve some criticism for how this team has performed the last couple weeks. Smith’s offensive game plans have been painfully conservative. In the first half of games — when game scripts tend to be mostly neutral — the Titans have run the ball on 56% of first down snaps, 7th most in the NFL.

On one hand, I can understand why he might favor the ground game — the Titans are 31st in the NFL in first half passing success rate for all downs at just 29% (NFL average is 46%) — but Tennessee is too often finding themselves in 3rd and 7-plus situations. Sharp Football Stats shows that only two teams — the Cardinals and Jets — have faced more 3rd and 7-plus scenarios than the Titans 23 this season. Being more aggressive with the passing attack early in the game might help avoid the sluggish starts we’ve seen from the offense over the first few weeks.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Head coach Mike Vrabel also deserves some criticism for some of his in-game coaching decisions. Him sticking with a shaky Adoree’ Jackson at punt returner directly cost the Titans 7 points last week. He’s missed some opportunities to challenge missed calls that could have been overturned in his favor (though his reasoning that the refs refuse to overturn pass interference calls seems to be gaining credibility). Vrabel has also made some odd game management decisions in both the Colts and Jaguars games that seem to have hurt their chances of winning those games.

The Titans have had a bad habit of coming out flat, particularly on offense. The team’s 19 first half points total over three games is 27th in the NFL — the Falcons rank 31st with just 13 first half points so it’s a problem on the other sideline as well — and the issue stretches back to 2018 as well. Tennessee ranked 29th in first half scoring last season. Mike Vrabel doesn’t strike me as much of a “rah rah” motivational speaker type and I don’t think that’s as important at the NFL level as it might be at lower levels of football — Andy Reid and Bill Belichick aren’t exactly getting guys fired up pre-game either — but for an offense that seems to be plagued by sleepy starts, Vrabel needs to find some way to jumpstart his charges. If that means a little more fire and brimstone, so be it.