Five Titans who need to step up against the undefeated Bills

The Titans will be shorthanded for tonight’s massive matchup between two of the AFC’s three remaining undefeated teams. It’s still possible that we could see a player or two activated prior to kickoff, but for now, Tennessee still has nine players on the reserve/COVID list:

  • OLB Kamalei Correa
  • CB Kristian Fulton
  • DL Jeffery Simmons
  • CB Breon Borders*
  • WR Adam Humphries
  • WR Cameron Batson*
  • WR Corey Davis
  • TE MyCole Pruitt

*practice squad

For what it’s worth, it would see that Jeffery Simmons will be inactive for this game based on the wording of his tweet this morning.

However, there is some good news as well. Both A.J. Brown and Taylor Lewan are good to go, per Paul Kuharsky.

The Bills are going to be a huge challenge. They’re 4-0 with wins over the Jets, Dolphins, Rams, and Raiders. Those last two opponents are currently 4-1 and 3-2, respectively, with the Raiders coming off an impressive win over the defending champion Chiefs. The offense is clicking, averaging just under 31 points per game and Josh Allen is being mentioned as a potential MVP candidate.

However, the Bills are also going to be without at least a couple of their key pieces. Starting corner Levi Wallace went on IR last week and starting linebacker Matt Milano (Buffalo’s version of Jayon Brown) has already been ruled out with a pectoral injury.

In addition to those two, the Bills have another seven players listed as questionable for tonight’s game:

  • WR John Brown (knee)
  • LG Cody Ford (groin)
  • RB Zack Moss (toe)
  • LB Del’Shawn Phillips (quad)
  • WR Andre Roberts (ankle)
  • CB Tre’Davious White (back)
  • RG Brian Winters (knee)

The biggest of those names, of course, is star corner Tre’Davious White. Already down one starter at that position, being without White would be a huge blow to the Bills secondary. He did not practice all week and there is a bit of mystery surrounding the reason. He’s officially listed with a back issue, but he finished the game against the Raiders in Week 4 and showed no signs of injury.

There are rumors that White is not crazy about taking the field against the Titans due to the COVID outbreak in Tennessee. He very nearly opted out before the season due to concerns about whether or not the protocols in place would protect him from potentially bringing COVID home to his family.

If White cannot go, that would leave Josh Norman, Taron Johnson, Siran Neal, and Cam Lewis as the remaining corners.

The other names to watch as inactives are announced will be speedy wide receiver John Brown and starting guards Cody Ford and Brian Winters. Former Titan Quinton Spain would be Ford’s replacement if he can’t go, but the options are far less appealing if Winters can’t go. Ike Boettger is currently his backup, though there is a chance that normal starter Jon Feliciano could be activated off IR before game time.

Back to the Titans… there will be several players who need to step up if Tennessee is going to get to 4-0. Here are the five that I think are most critical.

1. Amani Hooker, S

There are some key differences, but if you squint a little bit, the Bills offense pretty closely mirrors the Ravens attack. They’ve got a lot of speed on the outside in Stefon Diggs and John Brown, a talented runner behind center in Josh Allen, and an athletic pass-catching tight end in Dawson Knox. They will feature a lot of RPO concepts as well.

The biggest difference is that the Bills are far more interested in the vertical passing game and far less interested in running the football. Buffalo’s rushing offense ranks 31st in the league according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA stats so their preference for the passing game is rational coaching.

However, if I was the Titans, I would try to defend Buffalo the same way Tennessee defended Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in January. That means playing a lot of “Big Dime” packages with three corners and three safeties on the field, dropping seven or eight into coverage (very little blitzing), and instructing your pass rushers to be extremely disciplined in their rush lanes.

That could mean a lot of snaps for Amani Hooker, who recorded his first career interception to close out the Titans win over the Vikings the last time we saw this team on the field. He will need to play well to help protect the speed-starved Tennessee corners from Diggs and Brown.

2. Geoff Swaim, TE

One under-discussed angle of the Titans players currently on the reserve/COVID list is the double dip of Khari Blasingame and MyCole Pruitt. Those two are the most critical non-offensive line blockers for Derrick Henry and the Tennessee run game.

In addition to being the best blocking tight end on the team, Pruitt is also Blasingame’s backup at fullback, which means that Arthur Smith may need to get a little creative with some of his favorite run plays. It also means that we will likely see a lot of Geoff Swaim tonight.

Swaim has been inactive in each of the Titans first three games after signing as a free agent during training camp, but he will be the fill-in for Pruitt as the primary inline blocking tight end and might even get a few snaps at fullback. His role will be key on those outside zone runs that Henry has thrived on over the past couple seasons.

The Titans will likely look to pound the rock against the Bills 20th ranked run defense (again, per DVOA) and Swaim’s ability to help create running lanes will be important to their success.

3. A.J. Brown, WR

Swaim and Hooker are both guys that will likely be pressed into action by scheme and/or COVID, but the Titans need their stars to show up big in this game too, and no star is more critical tonight than Brown.

After a breakout rookie season, the 2019 second-round pick has had a rough start to 2020. He didn’t look himself in a 5-catch, 39-yard opener against the Broncos. Then he missed the next two games with a bone bruise in his knee, an injury that he was reportedly dealing with in Denver and possibly aggravated during the game.

Now, he returns to a Tennessee team that could be without Corey Davis and Adam Humphries — their top two receivers over the first three games — as well as backup Cam Batson. Brown is likely going to be joined in the starting lineup by speedster Kalif Raymond and undrafted rookie Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who is yet to make his first career catch.

However, despite the thin receiving corps, the Titans getting their star back is a big deal. He and Jonnu Smith should give Ryan Tannehill plenty to work with through the air. Sprinkle in some Anthony Firkser underneath and some Kalif Raymond over the top you’ve still got some decent options. However, if you can get Brown to perform like the electric playmaker that dominated games late last season, that will go a long way towards making this a win.

4. Malcolm Butler, CB

On the opposite side of the ball, Malcolm Butler finds himself in a similar scenario. Top corner Adoree’ Jackson seems unlikely to be activated from IR for this game and with rookie Kristian Fulton on the COVID list, it could be down to Butler, Johnathan Joseph, and seventh-round rookie Chris Jackson as Tennessee’s top three corners.

Joseph has mostly played well during his short stint in Tennessee despite giving up a big play to rookie Justin Jefferson the last time the Titans took the field, but the Bills lightning fast receivers are a particularly bad matchup for a 36-year old corner who has clearly lost a step or two.

I’d expect Mike Vrabel and Shane Bowen to use more two-high safety looks than usual in tonight’s game, but they’re not always going to be able to protect both corners over the top. That means Butler needs to step up and make some plays in this game.

5. Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE

Following the “stars need to be stars” theme… with Jeffery Simmons expected to miss tonight’s game, the Titans need their other defensive disruptor to make some big plays. This Buffalo offense is — by far — the toughest that the Tennessee defense has faced this year and that will put turnovers at a premium.

Clowney has been effective at creating pressure so far in a Titans uniform — his 12 QB pressures and 5 QB hits both lead the team through three weeks — but he has yet to record his first sack. Tonight would be a good time to get home.

He will likely be matched up with Bills right tackle Daryl Williams frequently on early downs, a good-but-not-great player with a lot of experience. However, on pass downs, expect Clowney to be lined up inside a lot, particularly if one or both of the starting guards for Buffalo end up missing the game.

We all know that Clowney is capable of completely taking over a game. This would be a good one for him to exert his will over.

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