After months of anticipation, the 2021 season is finally here. The Tennessee Titans host the Arizona Cardinals inside Nissan stadium to start the year. Both teams made a ton of noteworthy moves in the offseason in hopes of setting themselves up to take that next step.
With all that said, let’s take a deeper dive into the five most fascinating storylines for Tennessee’s matchup against the Cardinals.
Storyline No. 1: Will the offense experience early rust due to limited practice time together?
It’s been no secret that this talented offense has not been able to get much on-field time together over the last couple of weeks.
The coaching staff gave Derrick Henry a light workload throughout training camp to preserve their star running back from taking unnecessary hits before the season. A.J. Brown missed a few practices out of precaution after slightly tweaking his knee in the middle of camp.
Julio Jones dealt with a nagging injury that caused him to miss multiple weeks of practice. And most recently, Ryan Tannehill tested positive for COVID which led to him missing over a week.
On the offensive line, both Nate Davis and Ben Jones also contracted COVID at the end of August and are due back any day now. Meanwhile, we still don’t know who the starting right tackle is.
Will rust play a factor early on in the season due to all these recent unforeseen circumstances? Or will the time that was put in off the field despite their recent obstacles lead to an explosive and potent offense from the jump?
No one expects rust to be a long-term issue with this much talent on offense, but It’s definitely going to be something to keep an eye on for Sunday.
Storyline No. 2: Shane Bowen’s debut as the official Defensive Coordinator
Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator, Shane Bowen was the man who received a ton of the blame for last year’s defensive nightmare. Rightfully so as there was a ton of confusion within the fanbase when trying to figure out who was in charge of the unit.
At times it was hinted that it was Bowen, and other times it was hinted that it wasn’t. It was very bizarre and an unusual approach that ultimately led to a lot of sloppy play and miscommunication within the defense.
This year, Mike Vrabel eliminated any confusion after officially handing Bowen the title, roles, and responsibilities of being the teams’ defensive coordinator.
For what it’s worth, the Titans’ defense seemed to be communicating much better throughout the preseason and often received glowing reviews out of camp. Tennessee’s defense didn’t allow an opponent to enter the red zone until their final preseason game and finished with the league’s No. 1 defense for the month of August.
It will be interesting to see if Bowen’s defense continues to take a massive step forward now that the games really matter. I mean let’s be honest here, it can’t get much worse than last year.
In 2020, the Titans’ defense finished 28th or worse in: sacks, total yards, passing yards, pass attempts, passes completed, passing touchdowns, total touchdowns, red zone attempts, red zone touchdown percentage, red zone touchdowns allowed, first downs allowed, and third-down percentage.
Needless to say, there’s a ton of room for improvement in 2021 and we will finally get to see how much improvement the defense has or hasn’t made since last year.
Storyline No. 3: Can Tennessee’s secondary step up against the Cardinals’ deep receiving core?
As much fun as it is to think about what Jones and Brown could possibly do to a depleted and young Cardinals secondary, it’s just as scary to think about our secondary going up against their deep receiver room.
Deandre Hopkins and A.J. Green are obviously the headliners of that group, but even the likes of Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, and Andy Isabella could have a massive impact on Sunday if Tennessee isn’t ready.
It’s not exactly a secret that Cardinals head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, has been wanting to run his air raid offense since he’s arrived. When he entered the NFL from Texas Tech, there was a lot of buzz and excitement surrounding the potential of his scheme. Many wondered how a true “air raid” system would function at the pro level.
Was Kingsbury going to suddenly take the league by storm with a ton of 10-personnel (one back, zero tight ends, four wide receivers) and empty sets?
That question was answered very quickly. During Kingsbury’s first season, the Cardinals ran 168 plays over the first four weeks, almost 60 percent of their offensive snaps. For comparison, the average NFL team runs approximately 29 plays from 10-personnel all year long, per PFF.
The Cardinals came out running as close to a college version of the air raid as you’re going to find in the NFL but quickly realized that his offense needed an adjustment because he didn’t exactly have the horses to run his style of offense.
Over the last few years, Arizona has begun to accumulate a ton of receiver talent while seemingly doing the bare minimum to provide a competent ground game outside of Kyler Murray. It will be interesting to see if Kingsbury goes back to running a ton of 10-personnel now that he has a receiver group that legitimately goes about four or five deep. If so, the Titans’ young and mostly inexperienced secondary is going to be tested early and often.
Storyline No. 4: Are kicking woes so 2020?
To the surprise of no one, Sam Ficken won the Titans’ kicking job after an incredible display of consistency that this team has been yearning for. Ficken drilled 60-of-67 field goals (89 percent) in camp and was a perfect 13-of-13 in the preseason (four extra points).
Last year’s season opener was mostly a disaster as far as the kicking went. Tennessee missed three field goals and one extra point attempt. Look to see if Ficken is able to get off to a better start than Stephen Gostkowski did last year.
Storyline No. 5: Can Nissan stadium get the atmosphere back to the Adelphia Coliseum days?
This is something that I, along with many others, are extremely passionate about so I saved this one for last. Growing up well outside of the Tennessee market, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience many Titans games in person during the team’s “glory days”.
I didn’t have to in order to vividly remember that at one point in time, the Adelphia Coliseum, now Nissan Stadium, was one of the most hostile and feared environments in the entire NFL.
Unfortunately, as of recent memory, it has been anything but that more often than not. Don’t get me wrong, the fans that show up are as loud and as passionate as any other. But the crowd is far too often split 70-30 on a good day with some games feeling more like a neutral site rather than a home-field advantage.
That needs to change. In previous years you would hear the argument that the product wasn’t worth the price of admission, it wasn’t worth the time, basically the usual stuff you’ll hear from a casual fan during “down years”.
However, this team hasn’t had any recent down years. In fact, they are aiming towards a sixth straight winning season, second straight division title, and have realistic ambitions of getting back to the AFC title game for the second time in three years. This time with unfinished business.
If there was ever a time for this fanbase to go all in and fully embrace this team, now is that time. Sunday is going to be the first full capacity game that Nissan Stadium has held since the team’s run to the AFC title game.
Since then: the team has gone 11-5, won their division, flipped a historically bad defense on its head, their quarterback has broken almost every single-season franchise record, their running back rushed for over 2000 yards, and their second-year receiver made the Pro Bowl. Oh yeah… they also traded for some Julio Jones dude who I hear is pretty decent.
If this fanbase can’t get hyped for this season and fully embrace the Titans the way they deserve, I’m afraid they probably never will.
For those who will be watching on TV, be on the lookout for what the crowd environment looks like and what type of impact the fans are having on the game.
For those who will be in attendance, it’s time to do our part to be as loud and as raucous as we possibly can to get Nissan Stadium back to what it once was. This team deserves it, this fanbase deserves it, the entire state of Tennessee deserves this.
The Titans have built a behemoth of a product on the field, it’s time for the fans to return the favor by becoming one in the stands as well.