The Titans might be excused for having a rough time of it for the last few years. Being in the same division as the Colts and Texans would have been a tough task for many. That said, they have struggled to put up a strong challenge to these teams, and when both teams had off years recently, the Titans were not able to capitalise. Last year the Titans managed to get 7 wins in a real mixed bag of a season that saw them regularly get blown out by good teams like the 49ers and the Broncos, but then pull out the odd surprising win. So let's find out who the real Tennessee Titans are and what we will face when they come to town.
Firstly the Redskins face a new head coach, and a new system, which seems to be a regular occurrence in Tennessee (Jake Locker is trying to learn a new offense for the third time in his 4 year pro career). Ken Whisenhunt will be bringing his QB friendly Erhardt-Perkins offense to Tennessee after proving what it can do with San Diego and Philip Rivers last year. This means the Redskins will be facing a quick, timing passing game mixed with power running, although the running back is often used as a catching threat in the Whisenhunt game plan. Whisenhunt will be calling the offensive plays in Tennessee despite his role as Head Coach, and this is his first head coaching role since leaving the Cardinals in 2012.
For a more in depth look at how the Titans offense will change with Whisenhunt in charge read this.
Of course the Redskins had a chance to refresh their memories on Whisenhunt after playing (and closely beating) the Chargers last year. In that game the Redskins defense made a great goal line stand after some questionable offensive play calls from Whisenhunt. Although Amerson is remembered for picking off one pass, and a great TD saving tackle on Woodhead, he was actually targeted and beaten often by Rivers. Keenan Allen had a superb game when matched up against Amerson, who bit hard on double moves and lost his man in coverage a few times leading to points and a lot of yards. It will be interesting to see if Whisenhunt remembers this and looks to target him again in this game.
As well as changing their HC, the Titans made a solid move in adding Ray Horton as their defensive coordinator. Horton rejoins Whisenhunt after the two briefly served together in Arizona. Horton had relative success with the Browns last year running his hybrid 3-4 scheme, but is coming into a team built for the 4-3 and will have some work to do to make his scheme translate. There is some optimism (as always at this time of year) that it could work sooner rather than later however.
So those are the main coaching changes, which will obviously impact the schemes, but what changes have they made on the roster, and more importantly, what are the key matchups for the Redskins?
As mentioned above Jake Locker is about to start his 4th year in the NFL after being drafted with the 8th pick by the Titans in 2011. It took him a year to start to nail down the starting role in Tennessee, but more recently the Titans refused to pick up the option on his 2015 contract, so his future is still far from certain. What may be driving this hesitancy from the Titans is some uncertainty around Locker's fit with Whisenhunt's offensive system. Locker has a reputation for breaking the pocket and freestyling. A less hyped version of Manziel perhaps? Or a more relevant example is Ben Roethlisberger who served under Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh. Either way this goes against the principles that Whisenhunt wants in his QB. He likes the QB to drop back, make a decision based on the defense and make the pass. Think Kurt Warner. Interestingly, Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger often clashed in Pittsburgh and were rumoured to have their moments, which could have been caused by Big Ben's style of play not fitting well with Whisenhunt's system. Reports out of Titans camps are all positive as they would be this time of year, but that refusal to pick up the option could be a warning shot for Locker, and who knows it could impact his confidence.
In terms of ability Locker is a pretty average to good QB with some potential, but injuries have cost him a lot of playing time. He is prone to mistakes and as mentioned above doesn't always stick to the script, but he also has his good days. He hasn't been helped by a poor range of weapons in Tennessee, so this new quick fire system may actually be a blessing for him. This is a make or break year for Locker. If he fails under Whisenhunt (who has a great reputation working with QBs) or gets another season ending injury he may be relegated to life as an NFL backup at best. Locker also may be looking over his shoulder as the Titans drafted Zach Mettenberger in the 6th round of the draft. There was some noise about him (mainly from the media) and his great arm. He may be an intriguing option for Whisenhunt if he thinks Locker is just not the player for him, but until that day comes Locker is the man. He has enough talent to win a game if the Redskins take him for granted.
The Titans have used a couple of huge draft picks on the offensive line in two years. Guard, Chance Warmack was picked up with their first round pick in 2013 and this year Taylor Lewan has been brought in at tackle (most likely right tackle). This is obviously a priority for them despite being graded around the middle of the pack. PFF said the following about this group's performance last year:
17. Tennessee Titans (14th)
PB: 26th, RB: 13th, PEN: 9th
Stud: Despite the new additions, it was Michael Roos (+22.0) who led the team. A good all-around year even if he did give up more hurries than we're accustomed to seeing from him.
Dud: To think the Titans let Fernando Velasco walk and replaced him with Robert Turner (-13.1). I get that Velasco wasn't deemed a scheme fit, but surely you've got to have a better option at the spot if you're going to cut ties.
Analysis: The Titans went big, they went bold and ultimately they went bad. It took overpaid offseason acquisition Andy Levitre (+12.3) too long to get going as he never justified the price tag. Then the can't-miss NFL prospect that was Chance Warmack found out that playing in the pros is a whole new world to playing at the collegiate level. Levitre is a good player, but given what this team put into their line, they have to be extremely disappointed with the results.
This O-Line is not bad, but not great. They now have some depth, and a second year for players like Warmack should help. Also the Whisenhunt scheme is very much based on getting the ball out of the QB's hands quickly (he likes powerful linemen in the middle to avoid that quick pressure and provide his QB with that time) so the pressure on the line to block for more than a few seconds is reduced. As such you would think we should see increased performance at least statistically from them throughout 2014.
At running back, the Titans have been living off CJ2k for a few years with a waning dream that he would return to the player that shined so brightly in 2009. Unfortunately for both parties he never regained that level of form, however he still never gave the Titans a season less than 1,000 yards. The Titans rightly deemed that he was not worth his heavy contract, and cut ties this offseason. The Titans look to have replaced Johnson with their 2nd round draft pick Bishop Sankey. Sankey is a complete running back. He has great balance, speed and could be one to watch in 2014. He can catch the ball coming out of the backfield as well, and as written above, Whisenhunt likes to use this in his offense. Despite his obvious talent it is doubtful that Sankey will be on the field every down. Backing him up is the reliably heavy duty Shonn Greene, who showed last year that he can do a job moving the chains and pounding the defensive. RB appears to be a good position for the Titans, and they have plenty of options when running the ball.
At wide receiver, the Titans have a young and talented group, that some think are primed for a breakout season.
I wouldn't go that far. Free agency meant that Kenny Britt and Damien Williams both left the team, and despite the off field concerns Britt brought to the team, both these players were solid contributors for the Titans. For my money Kendall Wright is the only top caliber player in this group, however I can see positive arguments forming for Justin Hunter and maybe Nate Washington. They certainly aren't as renowned as say the Redskins or Broncos wide receiver corps, but I do agree there is talent there and any team should respect that. Give them a year or two and it will be really interesting to see how this young group of receivers has developed within Whisenhunt's system. On top of these names they also have utility man Dexter McCluster, who they will use as a flexible WR and RB, as well as returning punts and kicks.
At tight end we have an interesting scenario. Whisenhunt is notorious for getting results from this position. Antonio Gates and Heath Miller will testify to that. The Titans, however, are not blessed with this kind of talent. Last year they saw something in Delanie Walker who had a pretty decent year, but can Whisenhunt get more out of him or the other TE's that they have on the roster? Time will tell, but schematically the Redskins need to be aware of this threat in this offense even if the personnel doesn't jump from the page.
Offensively the Titans will have enough to pose a threat to anyone. Whisenhunt's offense is proven and he has some weapons to work with. The Redskins can not go into this game thinking that they will simply turn up and win. Our defense will need a game plan to get quick pressure on and contain Locker to avoid him turning broken plays into positive ones. Our secondary will have to be tight against their men to minimise the quick passes and rub plays.
The Titans have some decisions to make on defense. As mentioned earlier Ray Horton is changing the scheme to a 3-4 with hybrid elements. How their current roster will fit into this is anybody's guess at this stage, but the lovely guys on Music City Miracles have had a go.
The Titans added a DT through the draft (DaQuan Jones) who has played in both a 3-4 and 4-3 at college so he brings the versatility that Horton will like, however he is not guaranteed to start just yet.
Common sense would suggest that it may take this team a while to adjust to this change up front. Last year the Titans were middle of the pack in both pass and run defense, so nothing to write home about, but again there is enough there to challenge our offensive line. Add the experience of Horton and this could develop into a solid defense, but that could take a year or two.
The linebacking crew are potentially the Titans' biggest weakness. Last year they were graded poorly by PFF and a recent analysis of their roster depth highlights this further. They will be hoping that rookie Avery Williamson turns into someone they can rely on, and the change in scheme may benefit one or two of the edge rushers turned OLBs, but aside from that this is certainly an area the Redskins can target.
In the secondary it is much the same. The most obvious loss during the off season was CB Alterraun Verner who left in free agency and will be sorely missed. Strong Safety Bernard Pollard is the only stand out player on the roster here (again according to PFF), with the rest of the secondary made up of average or unknown prospects.
As the Redskins are playing this team in Week 7 it will help them get some information on the Titans going into their game. It is always difficult projecting how a team will play when there are sweeping changes in the coaching staff. With two new and respected coaches taking over the team the future could be brighter for the Titans, but it feels like this could take time to turn around. There are some players that the coaches will be excited to work with, and the Redskins will have to take note of some of these. Playing at home the Redskins should be confident of winning this game, just as long as they don't take it for granted. The Redskins simply have too much on offense for this Titans defense and should pull away by the second half.
Keys to the game are:
Establishing our will on the Titans defense. Run the ball well, minimise turnovers and open up the rest of our weapons
Attacking the Titans weaker LBs and secondary. Could be a good day for our strong receiver core.
Disrupt the Whisenhunt timing and quick passing. Jam the receivers, quick pressure up the middle. Contain Locker so he can't escape and make a play with his legs.
Watch out for their RB, especially coming out of the backfield
Watch if Whisenhunt looks to target Amerson or one of the other rookies. Double moves and zone coverage beaters will be employed.
That is the Tennessee Titans. What do you think? Easy win for the Redskins or a tougher matchup than we might expect? Next week we have everyone's favourite team with our first matchup against the Cowboys.