The Silver and Black’s quest for a Super Bowl starts with no easy task in the Tennessee Titans
The season opens for the Oakland Raiders on the road in Nissan Stadium against the Tennessee Titans. A test of two teams on the rise and perhaps a glimpse at the war to establish the new quarterback hierarchy.
Last season it seemed that Santa Claus filled the Raiders and Titans’ stockings with thick black coal as Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota both endured season-ending fibula fractures on Christmas Eve, respectively.
Let’s take a closer look at this upcoming game as we fast forward to this season’s upcoming “Opening Week” matchup.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the driving force, and last season his dual-threat capabilities continued his ascension into stardom. Mariota did more than flash the potential which made him the number two pick overall.
The former Heisman Trophy winner was on pace to lead the Titans to the playoffs before breaking his leg. In his second year he began throwing for over 3,426 yards with 26 touchdowns against nine interceptions with a QB rating of (95.6) in 15 games. What continues to impress everyone’s the way he takes care of the football. He has only thrown double-digit interceptions once in his entire football career dating back to Oregon, and that was in 2015, his rookie season. If year three is supposed to be when players are able to put it all together, then 2017 is going to be something to behold from young Mariota.
Tight end Delanie Walker has been “the guy” for Mariota. Before the Titans landed DeMarco Murray and drafted Derrick Henry, Rishard Matthews, or Tajae Sharpe, it was Walker that was Mariota’s first second and best option. Walker offers the Raiders their first test to see if the tight end issue has finally been resolved, or if it will plague Raider Nation and this team yet again. Added receiving options won’t diminish his value but rather should maximize it as opposing defenses will no longer be able to key in on him. A quarterback’s best friend is his tight end.
The Titans feature a menacing offensive line capable of challenging the Raiders and the Cowboys for offensive line supremacy, bookended by Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin both are well on their way to becoming elite. These stiff pocket protectors have helped Mariota settle down in the pocket, and it has translated to more use of his cannon-like arm. To a man, the Titans offensive line is a big and mean bunch, capable of grinding the meat and punishing defenses with rush after rush.
Most fairy tale running back combinations are always “thunder and lightning”, but Henry and Murray are more like a 12-pound sledgehammer and a 16 pounder in the arms of five Paul Bunyan look-a-likes on its accomplished offensive line.
Murray finished third in the league in rushing with 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns, while Henry would add another 490 yards and five touchdowns with both backs averaging an impressive 4.4 or more yards per carry. While every quarterback needs a good run game to bring balance to the offense, what they really want are big guys with speed out wide to throw the ball too.
With the fifth pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Titans selected Corey Davis from Western Michigan. Davis is the Titans commitment to making sure Mariota has every possible chance to succeed with another premier pass catcher with a mountain of athleticism.
Recently adding Eric Decker into the fold is a great move for all parties involved. Coming out of a disastrous situation with the Jets a fresh start with a capable quarterback may be exactly what Decker needs to jumpstart his career. At 6’3″, he would be the biggest receiver on the roster and a reliable target. Decker is a savvy veteran who brings championship-level experience to the wide receiver room. Matthews and Sharpe are a couple of young stallions primed and ready to run. Matthews had a phenomenal rookie season catching 65 passes for 945 yards and nine touchdowns while Sharpe would contribute 41 catches for 522 yards and two touchdowns
The Titan “D”
Defensively, the Titans are phenomenal at providing pressure and in 2016 were the sixth-ranked pass rush in the league. However, they were middle of the pack concerning scoring defense (#16) allowing an average of 5.5 yards per play ranking them (#18), but thru the air the Titans were near the bottom. Surrendering 269.2 yards thru the air is the second most in the league.
In search of help, drafting defensive back Adoree Jackson out of USC along with the signing of UFA Logan Ryan has given the Titans a ball-hawking set of corners. A superior box-safety, John Cyprien earned a well-nigh perfect 98.8 rating against the run, yet was a bit of a coverage liability, paired with free safety Kevin Byard it rounds out the Titans projected starting defensive backfield.
The monsters in the middle of the Titans defense are Wesley Woodyard, Avery Williamson and impressive rookies Jayon Brown and Johnny Ragin III. Avery Williamson is the leader and the best tackler of the bunch piling up a whopping 104 tackles in 2016. Woodyard is a solid linebacker and ferocious blitzer with a knack for getting to the quarterback. Brown is one of the new hybrid safety/linebacker type players the league is demanding more and more of. He has the range of a safety and the tackling efficiency of a linebacker. Raggin was the University of Oregon’s leading tackler before a leg injury sidelined him for the season. All in all, a solid bunch in need of a little more seasoning but they don’t have to be great because the defensive line is a cut above.
Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are relentless pass rushers from their edge defender positions. Sacking the quarterback a combined 19.5 times these two come screaming off the edges and must be accounted for at all times. Morgan is the better run defender of the two, but neither of the two excels against the run.
Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug are two big behemoths up the middle who are both rated as some of the top defensive linemen in the league. Casey’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare, a big bear of a man coming straight up the gut every play. Klug is a much better run defender and a perfect complement to Casey as he limits other teams ability to double Casey. DaQuan Jones is the third member of this defensive line, and he’s the best run defender on the line. As a unit, these three contributed eight sacks to the Titan’s total of 40.
Honestly, the Titans weren’t very good at any particular aspect of special teams outside of the kicking game and were outgained and outscored in every aspect of this particular part of the game.
Adoree Jackson is widely expected to be the “end all be all” to the Titans special teams unit much the same way Adam “Pacman” Jones was. At USC, Jackson was a dynamic return man capable of taking both punts and kickoffs to the house without a moment’s notice. The boost in the field position game can and will only continue to benefit this team as it moves forward and attempts to climb above its competition. Ryan Succop is the lone bright spot for this special teams unit as he was a perfect 19 for 19 on field goals inside of 50 yards, he would be a respectable three of five from beyond 50 yards and surprisingly missed two PAT’s.
The Titans are in a perfect position heading into 2017, not quite a major player on anybody’s radar as of yet with Houston having won the division last year. Yet that exact reason is what makes them even more dangerous because they’re lurking in the bushes ready to ambush all unsuspecting prey who fail to take them seriously.
In many ways, this team is reminiscent of last year’s Raiders team, in year three armed with weapons and a line capable of providing him with time, look for Mariota to breakout in a major way.