While it’s still early in the season, we can look back at the first three games to get a handle on how this Titans team compares to those of the past few seasons.
After the jump, I break down the positional groupings (BGA-style!) to try and highlight what the Jets need to look out for.
Everything you’ve heard about Jake Locker in the lead-up to this game is true. Jake Locker does look pretty good and has been avoiding mistakes, but hasn’t been accurate when throwing deep. Some Jets fans are suggesting that the Titans haven’t faced a defense like that of the Jets yet, but it’s worth noting that the Texans currently have the number two defense in the NFL right now and the Steelers are fifth. The part about not having much success throwing deep is noteworthy though, because daring the quarterback to beat them deep was a successful game plan for the Jets against the Bills. Locker is 3-for-16 on throws beyond 20 yards on the season per PFF, but did win the last game against the Chargers by throwing a jump ball up to rookie Justin Hunter with 15 seconds left.
Something else to be wary of is Locker’s running ability. Once again, that was something they had to prepare for with EJ Manuel last week. Locker broke away for a 39-yard gain on a scramble last week and ended up with 82 yards on the ground. The Jets are more than familiar with this threat too, after he scored the winning touchdown against them on a keeper last December.
Tennessee’s backup is a familiar foe with a similar skill set, former Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Titans offensive line, decimated by injuries last year, has remained intact so far this season and boasts some good depth. The best player is Michael Roos, an upper echelon blindside pass protector. He’s yet to give up a sack yet this season, but Quinton Coples did blow by him for a hit during last year’s meeting. The other tackle is 31-year old David Stewart, who has been with the Titans since they drafted him in 2005, starting 107 games. He was a second-team all-pro in 2008, but missed the last four games of last season with a broken leg. He is on the injury report with a calf issue, but listed as probable.
The Titans spent big money to bolster this unit in the offseason when they signed another ex-Bill Andy Levitre to a $46.8m, six year contract. I’m on record as saying that was much too high and that he was made to look better than he actually is by playing on a well-organized unit that makes life easier for their linemen, but he does look like a solid veteran presence in the early going. The other guard is their first round pick, Chance Warmack, who has looked pretty good so far. JJ Watt made some noise against him, but there’s no shame in that (even though he controversially called Watt “Just another guy”).
In between them is old friend Robert Turner. After starting most of last year for the Rams, Turner won the starting job at center, but has been grading out poorly so far. He had a good game against the Jets last year though, so he has some experience of going up against the likes of Wilkerson and Coples. Ellis played just three snaps in that game though, Harrison did not play and, of course, Richardson and Douzable were not yet with the team.
On the bench, the Titans have Chris Spencer – who has 89 career starts – Mike Otto and Byron Stingily – who each started a few games at the end of last season – and fourth round pick Brian Schwenke.
Chris Johnson has been the key component to the Titans running game for several years now and is a true three-down back. With ex-Jet Shonn Greene out, he’s played 79% of the snaps in the first three games and leads the AFC in rushing, just one place above Bilal Powell. Johnson can be bottled up and is only averaging 3.7 yards per carry, but last year the Jets bottled him up all game only for him to race for a 94-yard score the one time they made a mistake. He otherwise gained 28 yards on 20 carries. As David Harris said this week, the Jets will have to try to “keep him in front of [them]” because they don’t like their chances of chasing him down in the open field.
The current backup is Jackie Battle with Greene out and speedster Darius Reynaud relegated to kick return duties. Battle is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry this season and that’s the same output he managed on 19 carries against the Jets in week 16 (with the Chargers) last year.
At fullback, Collin Mooney currently boasts the best run blocking grade in the NFL through three games according to PFF, but only averages 15-20 snaps per game. They run it 85% of the time when he is in the game.
At wide receiver, veterans Kenny Britt and Nate Washington get the majority of the reps. They lead the team with 15 catches each. Britt has been banged up and is listed as questionable, but Washington had a great game last week. He can get deep and make yards after the catch. Most of the slot reps go to Kendall Wright, who emerged towards the end of his rookie season last year.
The Titans have actually been going six deep at receiver and the other three guys have been getting some reps. Damian Williams seemed to be the one who moved up when Britt got hurt, but Mike Preston has also seen a handful of snaps in the last few games, as had Hunter who responded with the winning score last week.
After letting the talented Jared Cook leave via free-agency, the Titans signed versatile ex-49er Delaine Walker to be their starting tight end. Walker had uncharacteristic issues with dropping passes in his contract year, but has taken the starting role away from Craig Stevens, who has good all-round skills. Walker does have a toe injury, so could be limited this week. Taylor Thompson, the third tight end, is more of a blocker.
The Titans have an underrated pass rush, led by defensive end Derrick Morgan, who was one of the most productive pass rushers in the league last year. On the other end, they did have former Raider Kamerion Wimbley starting, but he’s been beaten out by another familiar face, Ropati Pitoitua, and seen his reps falling since last year. Jets fans know all about Pitoitua’s run stuffing, but he hasn’t really developed into much of a pass rush threat.
Inside, Jurrell Casey is fast becoming one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Last week, against the Chargers, he missed just two snaps and was a constant disruptive force. They have a couple of options to pair with him, even with Sammie Lee Hill listed as out. Veteran Antonio Johnson started last week, Mike Martin played over 400 snaps last year and Karl Klug showed pass rushing promise as a rookie in 2011 with seven sacks, but his career seems to have stagnated since then.
While they can generate pressure, the Titans haven’t been that successful against the run so far. Opposing teams are averaging 4.4 yards per carry, 10th highest in the NFL.
The Titans have some playmaking talent in their linebacking corps, led by Zach Brown who had six passes defensed, three interceptions, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and two touchdowns last year. However, it’s been former Eagle Moise Fokou who has surprisingly been the one getting the most reps. He’s being used as a three-down linebacker for the first time in his career, but hasn’t responded that well so far, with seven missed tackles, the same amount as he had in the past two seasons combined. He missed some practice time with a neck injury this week and missed a few snaps in the last game with former starter Colin McCarthy filling in. McCarthy, a fourth round pick in 2011, started 14 games over the past two seasons but has been mostly used as a special teamer this year. The other starter is another 2011 draft pick, second rounder Akeem Ayers, who had six sacks last year, but has just one so far this year.
Ayers also gets some reps as a defensive end on some plays, but other than that, the Titans don’t blitz very much with their linebackers.
The Titans don’t bother to match their cornerbacks up. Jason McCourty (Patriot Devin McCourty’s older brother) plays on the left and Alterraun Verner plays on the right. That’s important because of the success Geno Smith has had throwing deep and to the right. Look for the Jets to test McCourty deep – he was beaten for seven touchdowns last year. Verner is off to a great start, allowing just eight catches on 19 targets with two interceptions and a touchdown. McCourty has given up 16 catches on 22 targets, but with a respectable 9.3 yards per catch average, much lower than Verner’s 14.8.
The Titans slot corner is Coty Sensabaugh and could be a potential weakness. The Titans will also mix in former Bills safety George Wilson as a slot corner or extra linebacker. They also drafted a cornerback – Blidi Wreh-Wilson – in the third round, but he’s been dealing with a hamstring injury and has yet to play.
At safety, you never know what to expect from Michael Griffin, but he’s off to a solid start this season. Last year, he was poor but then feasted on Mark Sanchez’s errors with two picks in easily his best game of the year. The Titans added Bernard Pollard in the offseason and he’s been starting alongside Griffin. He comes into the box about 50% of the time. Pollard is a very physical player and, although he only has one so far this year, he is a guy that can get penalized. He had eight penalties in 2012.
The Titans’ kicking game is pretty good. Punter Brett Kern has the second best net average in the NFL and kicker Rob Bironas is always reliable, although he has missed two this year from beyond 40 yards. In the return game, Reynaud is a threat, but he’s off to a poor start, highlighted by his blunder that gave the Steelers a safety one second into the new season. In coverage, they have some nice players, led by Tommie Campbell, who has six special teams tackles already to lead the league.
I wouldn’t be shocked to see ex-Titan Scott Solomon to be active this week for the Jets and perhaps one of the captains. Hopefully his signing will have helped the Jets get some useful intel on the Titans and their special teams unit in particular.
I’ll be back on Monday to recap the game!
Stats from PFF were used in the completion of this article.