The Tennessee Titans (6-2) travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams (7-1) on Sunday night football. Both teams have been impressive as of late, each winning their last four games.
There’s a lot of intriguing storylines in this one but let’s go over which five we should be paying attention to as Sunday gets closer.
Replacing an MVP caliber running back with a previous MVP running back
The Titans were hit with a bittersweet victory Monday when we all learned that Derrick Henry suffered a significant foot injury. The Alabama product is expected to miss a minimum of six weeks, but according to NFL Networks, Ian Rapoport, eight weeks is the likeliest scenario in which Henry returns.
If that’s the case, Henry will be on track to return somewhere around Week 16-18. There’s no denying that the Titans are going to have some massive shoes to fill. Henry was arguably the front runner for league MVP and was on pace to be the first-ever player to eclipse 2000 rushing yards in two separate seasons.
Naturally, the first person the Titans had in mind to help ease the wound was the last running back to win league MVP. Adrian Peterson has been the running back that a lot of people have compared to Henry ever since the King began his reign at the end of 2018.
Peterson is physically superior than the majority of his opponents and has a resume that isn’t rivaled by many. Even at the age of 36, he still looks as good from a physique standpoint as he did when he was 26. Unfortunately, Peterson has spent the last couple of years playing irrelevant football down in New Orleans (left after five games) Arizona, Washington, and Detroit.
The former league MVP was productive at each stop anytime he was on the field. Peterson accounted for 3,073 rushing yards and 22 total touchdowns over those four years.
Most recently, Peterson spent the 2020 season on the Lions where he produced 604 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 156 carries (3.9 yards per carry).
The Oklahoma product showed that he still has some gas in the tank if you put him in the right situation. Peterson will need to get acclimated quickly because he is going against a vicious defense down in Los Angeles for his debut. For once, he’s on a contender and won’t have to do it all as he will have legitimate help out wide, a more than capable quarterback, and a steadily improving defense on the other side of the ball as well.
This is undoubtedly the perfect situation that the future Hall of Fame running back has been looking for to end that final chapter of his legendary career. No one is expecting to see prime All-Day or expecting him to be Derrick Henry 2.0 or anything.
However, if Peterson can just consistently replicate the four yards per carry average that he had in Detroit, Tennessee should be able to stay afloat until King Henry returns.
Is it time for A.J. Brown & Julio Jones to carry the torch?
With the loss of Henry for the foreseeable future, Tennessee is going to need everyone to step their game up in some capacity. Fortunately for this offense, this is hardly a one-trick pony. The Titans have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, steadily improving pass protection, and two legitimate stars out wide when they are healthy in A.J. Brown and Julio Jones.
Head coach, Mike Vrabel, emphasized that they aren’t going to change who they are completely, nor should they. The running back by committee approach spearheaded by Peterson should keep the ground attack potent enough to keep their threat of play-action alive.
However, with Henry out, if there was ever a time to start consistently feeding your star wide receivers, this is probably it. Believe it or not, Brown has only seen 10+ targets in three career regular-season games (one per season).
Most recently was last Sunday when he received 11 targets, catching 10 of those for 155 yards and one touchdown. The previous year, Brown’s sole game with double-digit targets came in the season finale against Houston. The Ole Miss product received 11 targets, catching 10 of those for 151 yards, one touchdown.
His career-high in targets came in 2019 when he saw 13 balls thrown his way and caught eight of them for 114 yards, one touchdown.
To put all this into layman’s terms, good things happen when A.J. Brown consistently gets the ball thrown to him as a feature piece rather than a complementary asset. Brown averages over 126 yards and one touchdown anytime he sees a minimum of 10 targets.
Jones on the other hand has been seeing over 10 targets regularly since he’s entered the league. That type of target consistency allowed Jones to maximize his talents to the fullest potential and is part of why he will be getting a gold jacket someday. Unfortunately, His biggest issue right now is just trying to stay on the field. If that starts to change over the next couple of weeks, the sky could become the limit for this passing attack.
No one is asking for the Titans to change their entire philosophy and become a drop-back passing offense or anything. With that said, this offense has two alphas on the outside who are capable of dominating any game. It’s time to find ways to start feeding them like it.
Be on the lookout to see how Tennessee decides to feature their star wideouts on Sunday night in their first game without Derrick Henry.
Can Titans protect Ryan Tannehill against vicious Rams defense
It’s no secret that one of this offense’s biggest weaknesses for most of the year has been their inability to protect the quarterback. Ryan Tannehill has been sacked a league-leading 24 times through eight games — matching the number of times he was sacked all of last year.
Fortunately for everyone involved, there have been signs that things are trending in the right direction. After allowing 20 sacks in the first five games, Tennessee has only allowed four over their last three outings.
This week, Tennessee is playing a ferocious and star-studded defense that has already totaled 25 sacks on the year. This will be a great opportunity for Tennessee’s pass protection to see how they stack up against a talented defensive front like the Rams’.
Keep your eyes peeled for how Tennessee’s offensive line does against Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and the rest of that incredible Rams front-seven.
Can someone stop Cooper Kupp?
This is arguably the biggest question mark of the day considering how thin Tennessee is at cornerback. Cooper Kupp has been playing at an All-Pro level this season and has legitimately placed himself in the conversation for best in the league.
Kupp has caught 63 passes for 924 yards and 10 touchdowns through eight weeks. In each of these games, he has seen a minimum of nine targets. In fact, in seven of those eight games, Kupp eclipsed double-digit targets.
Compare that to A.J. Brown only having three CAREER games with 10+ targets. To add more context, Brown’s career-high of 13 targets happened back when he was a rookie and he hasn’t even seen 12 targets since.
The Rams’ receiver has already seen 13 targets on two separate occasions just this season. Including two separate games in which he saw 12 targets, one game with 11 targets, and another two with 10.
Kupp is on an absolute heater right now and someone in Tennessee’s thin cornerback group is going to have to do their best to not get cooked by the Eastern Washington product. There is a slim chance that Titans’ cornerback Kristian Fulton could come off the injured reserve list in time to play. If so, that would be a massive boost for a secondary group that desperately needs one right now.
Otherwise, Tennessee might have their hands full on Sunday night with the Rams’ former third-round pick. Be on the lookout to see who matches up with the Eastern Washington product and how they hold up against the eventual All-Pro receiver
Can Tennessee’s surging pass rush take over Sunday nights game?
Last week, one of the more memorable plays was Elijah Molden’s late interception in the end zone to take a late fourth-quarter lead. That play goes in the stat sheet as a pick-6 for the defensive back, but that play doesn’t happen without Tennessee’s pass rush.
The Titans have found their niche as of late when getting after the quarterback. Along the edge, Harold Landry looks every bit like a superstar while Bud Dupree is getting healthier and more explosive with each passing week.
Interiorly, they have Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry who seem to take turns dominating games and making splash plays in crucial moments.
Those four have accounted for 10 sacks over their last four games. If Tennessee is going to shock the world on Sunday night, they’re going to need a monster outing from those four as they try and make Matthew Stafford as uncomfortable as possible.