Tonight, Thursday October 26th, the Tennessee Titans host the Jacksonville Jaguars at Nissan Stadium.
The Titans (3-4) are currently second in the AFC South, tied with the Indianapolis Colts (3-4). The Jaguars (2-4) are last in the division, and the Houston Texans (4-3) are first.
In preparation for this interdivisional showdown, let’s consider four pivotal matchups.
Brian Schwenke versus nose tackle committee
Last week Jaguars’ nose tackle Roy Miller tore his Achilles tendon while Titans’ left guard Quinton Spain suffered a bruised knee. Miller has been placed on IR for the rest of the season. Spain is expected to return to health in three to four weeks.
As a result, Thursday night will display a showdown between backups in the trenches. Brian Schwenke will start at left guard for the Titans, while a committee of players will play nose tackle for the Jaguars: Abry Jones, Sen’Derrick Marks, and perhaps Richard Ash.
“With the guys we have in our room, you see it more by committee,” said Jaguars’ head coach Gus Bradley, “especially on base downs.”
Last week Schwenke gave on the fourth-quarter sack that resulted in Marcus Mariota’s fumble. He will have to be particularly focused in this week’s matchup since Bradley looks to rotate fresh players in and out of the game.
Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns versus Titans’ pass defense
For consecutive games the Titans’ secondary has allowed opposing receivers to boast impressive performances. In Week 6 Browns’ receiver Terrelle Pryor caught nine of thirteen targets for 75 yards and two touchdowns. Then in Week 7 Colts’ receiver T.Y. Hilton caught seven of twelve targets for 133 yards and one touchdown.
The task of pass protection gets no easier for Tennessee this week, as the Jaguars have two of the most physically imposing wideouts in the division, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Both are 6’3’’, 210-pounds and although they have began the 2016 season slowly, they are still well known for high-pointing receptions.
An additional threat to the Titans’ secondary — starting cornerback Perrish Cox is not expected to start Thursday night as he undergoes concussion protocol. Brice McCain and Valentino Blake will likely rotate in Cox’s place.
Jaguars’ defense versus Titans’ red zone offense
The Titans may have several red zone opportunities, since the Jaguars rank near the bottom of the league for third down defense (45 percent allowed) while the Titans rank near the top of the league for third down offense (46 percent converted).
If so, the Jaguars will be pressed to stop a Titans’ offense that is highly efficient near the goal line.
So far this season the Titans have scored a touchdown four out of every five times they enter the red zone, the area of the field between the opponent’s 20-yard line and the goal line.
This percentage — 78.95 to be exact — is the second highest in the league behind only the high-flying offense of the New Orleans Saints.
Moreover, Marcus Mariota has the highest red zone passer rating (115.2) among all active NFL quarterback who have thrown a minimum of 50 pass attempts in that area. The next three players on the list are Kirk Cousins (100.6), Tom Brady (100.5) and Aaron Rodgers (99.9).
Titans versus midseason momentum
It is hard to generalize any game before the midpoint of the NFL season as a ‘must-win.’ However, this matchup versus Jacksonville certainly has that feel.
If the Titans lose this week, they will have lost two games in a row and will sit at the bottom of the division as they enter a tough three week stretch in which they face formidable opponents: at the San Diego Chargers in Week 9, the Green Bay Packers in Week 10, and at the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11.
On the flip side, if the Titans win, they will be 4-4 at the season’s midpoint, in an agreeable position to make a run for the AFC South title through the second half of 2016.
After Tuesday’s practice, Titans’ head coach Mike Mularkey commented on the significance of a win.
“…There’s a lot of teams [in the AFC] that are all sitting here all clumped together. Somebody’s going to come out of it. There’s going to be probably more than one come out of this thing at some point and win a bunch of games. This is important. Every game is important, obviously, but this one’s another one. We’ve got to win a division game and stay in the pack and hopefully come out of it at some point.”
The clumping that Mularkey speaks of is true. Among 16 teams in the AFC, eight have three or four wins. Two of these teams (most-likely) will earn a wild card birth to the postseason.
Therefore, tonight’s game is a significant one if the Titans plan to stay with the group.