This coming Saturday, August 27, the Tennessee Titans hit the road to face the Oakland Raiders at 7:00 PM CST.
Since starters are expected to play into the third quarter, this matchup will preview the game plan, depth chart, and scheme for the Titans’ upcoming NFL season.
Watch out for the following as the game unfolds.
Handoff Splits Between Murray and Henry
When the Titans selected Derrick Henry, former Alabama running back and Heisman Trophy winner, in the second round of the most recent Draft, general manager Jon Robinson immediately called DeMarco Murray to assure the free agent acquisition that he, not Henry, was the top rusher in Tennessee.
Robinson’s promise has remained true to date.
In the Titans’ first two preseason matchups, Murray has started at tailback with Henry as backup. Both have impressed. On 11 carries Murray has totaled 113 yards and one touchdown; on 15 carries Henry has totaled 105 yards and one touchdown.
As the Titans begin to unveil their ‘smashmouth’ offense on Saturday, watch for splits between Murray and Henry, a unit Robinson has nicknamed Thunder and Thunder. One thing appears certain: Coach Mularkey does not plan to over monitor touches between the two.
In his first game as offensive coordinator with the Pittsburg Steelers, Mularkey closely monitored touches between team players. Afterwards, he vowed to not make that mistake again because “it didn’t work.” Mularkey now recognizes that splits balance naturally through the course of a game.
Nonetheless it will be interesting to consider the following during the preseason matchup on Saturday. Will Murray play first and second downs as Henry plays third downs? Which tailback will be favored in goalline and third-and-short situations? And which tailback will be utilized more as a pass blocker?
Mariota’s Preferred Target
When injury and inexperience riddled the Titans’ receiving core last season, Delanie Walker emerged as a top target for Marcus Mariota, and he finished the year with career-best and record-breaking marks: 94 receptions for 1,088 yards and six touchdowns.
This narrative may change next season due to the arrival of Tajae Shape, fifth-round pick out of the University of Massachusetts, who during the offseason earned a starting role at wide receiver because of his consistency, route running and ball skills.
During the Titans’ first two preseason games Sharpe, not Walker, has been Mariota’s top target. The UMass rookie has caught 8-of-8 targets for 103 yards, while Walker has caught 1-of-1 targets for 9 yards.
We must acknowledge that these games favored Sharpe, since he received more playing time than Walker in order to acclimated to the NFL as a rookie. Nonetheless, Sharpe has proven to be reliable — last week he caught two third-and-long passes — and the trust between him and Mariota may rival the trust between Walker and Mariota next season.
“What you’re seeing is what he basically does in practice,” Mularkey said after the Titans’ preseason loss to the Panthers. “[Tajae] made some bigger catches today — some big catches that we haven’t had here in a while … It’s a trust factor. [Mariota] believes and knows [Tajae] is going to be at the right place at the right time. To this point, since he’s been here, he has.”
On Saturday been mindful of whether Mariota targets Walker or Sharpe in pivotal game time situations such as the red zone, third-and-longs, or blitzes from a stout Oakland defense.
Performance of the First-Team Defense
Two weeks in a row the Titans’ first-team defense has surrendered a touchdown on the opponent’s first offensive drive.
The San Diego Chargers moved 75-yards on seven plays, the last of which was a 44-yard pass from Phillip Rivers to Melvin Gordon. The following week the Panthers moved 93-yards on five plays, the last of which was a 61-yard pass from Cam Newton to Ted Ginn Jr.
Although the Titans’ defense improved significantly under the guidance of Dick LeBeau last season — rush defense jumped from 31st to 18th, pass defense jumped from 15th to 12th, and overall defense jumped from 27th to 12th — the unit repeatedly struggled to contain long drives and big plays from the opposing offense.
As this narrative from the 2015 season has carried into the 2016 preseason, LeBeau sets to resolve the issue versus the Raiders, who are primed to make big plays with quarterback Derek Carr and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
“We can’t allow those big plays to get in there…” LeBeau said. “Am I concerned? I don’t want it to happen, but sometimes it does happen and we certainly don’t want it to happen this week.”