The Tennessee Titans will open their 2023 regular-season campaign against the New Orleans Saints this Sunday. One of the more notable storylines worth monitoring will be the official debut of offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Because no, vanilla preseason football didn’t teach us anything about Kelly’s preferred methods.
Kelly is expected to debut an offense that’s significantly different from what Todd Downing put forth last season. At least that’s what Titans fans are hoping for. In fairness, all indications are that Kelly’s offense comes with sweeping changes. Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill referred to Kelly’s system overhaul as “huge” during his first press availability of the new season on May 3rd.
In particular Mike Vrabel tight-lipped fashion, we’ve learned precious little about Kelly’s offense since then. The Titans want to maintain a competitive advantage. I’ve spoken with several people, players included, close to the franchise about the impending changes. Without revealing too much, the word “faster” has been a recurring theme.
Tannehill previously indicated that sweeping changes include new concepts and a verbiage overhaul. The Titans are positioning their playmakers to think less and play faster. That was an issue for Downing. In the interest of fairness, Tannehill’s injury didn’t help, nor did an offensive line that failed to protect its quarterback, or a core of wide receivers that struggled to consistently generate separation. But Downing could have done more to help offset those challenges as opposed to digging his heels in.
Such as installing more three-step-drop designs as opposed to the five-to-seven-step-drop passing plays Downing’s offense featured with too much frequency. Quick-design passing plays are expected to be a staple of Kelly’s offense. And a revamped core of DeAndre Hopkins, sophomore Treylon Burks and Chigoziem Okonkwo, and yes, Tyjae Spears, are better equipped to create instant separation than last year’s unit that featured an over-the-hill Robert Woods and the worst left tackle in football.
Becoming a more well-balanced offense is key to the Titans’ 2023 efforts. Last year, they averaged a 30th-ranked 171.4 passing yards per contest. By comparison, the AFC South winning Jacksonville Jaguars’ passing offense ranked 10th (232.9/game) in the league. The Super Bowl winning champion Kansas City Chiefs fielded the league’s top-ranking passing offense. Again, Tannehill’s injury didn’t help, but he only averaged 27 passing attempts and 211.3 passing yards per appearance. It’s impossible to compete in today’s pass-happy NFL with the lifeless air attack the Titans displayed last season.
The Saints represent a perfect opponent to test Kelly’s alleged new-look approach. They allowed a 24th-ranked 130.5 rushing yards per game last season. That will displease defensive minded head coach Dennis Allen, who will undoubtedly enter Sunday’s contest against an unfamiliar Titans opponent with a defensive game plan that aims to shut Derrick Henry down.
By comparison, the Saints were outstanding against the pass in 2022. Their secondary allowed a second-ranked 184.4 passing yards per contest. Allen may choose to stack the box with eight defenders while daring Tannehill and the Titans offense to beat man coverage on the boundary. That would be an unsurprising approach. Hopkins and Burks versus Marshon Lattimore and Paulson Adebo qualify as matchups to watch. Safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye are plus-level starters, too.
The Saints can also apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They recorded a fifth-ranked 48.0 sacks last season. Last year’s sack leader was the ageless Cameron Jordan, who returns for a 13th season in New Orleans. General manager Mickey Loomis also rounded out the group by selecting Bryan Breese and Isaiah Foskey in the 2023 NFL Draft. Ascending talents like Payton Turner are expected to take a step forward.
That’s where a new-look Titans offensive line comes into play. The Titans have two new starters at the offensive tackle positions. Andre Dillard and Chris Hubbard will have their hands full with the Saints’ gauntlet of rushers. And this is where Kelly, unlike Downing, can prove capable of offsetting an opposing defensive line that may be more talented than his offensive line.
The Titans hope to surprise opposing defenses in 2023. Quick-hitting passing plays could help offset a leaky offensive line which hopes to show improvement, but is currently an unknown commodity until legitimate football is played. It would also be designed to place the likes of Hopkins, Burks, and Spears in quick positions to defeat coverage. Or will the Titans remain a Henry-centric offense that lacks explosive passing plays, ultimately capping their performance ceiling? Vrabel has previously aimed to play the clock-control game with Henry in the backfield.
The Saints are the perfect debut opponent to test how different Kelly’s Titans will be. Can the Titans find passing-game success against a stingy secondary? Can they design enough creative passing plays to offset a deep-and-talented group of pass rushers? We’ll learn a lot about Kelly’s offense versus the Saints.