Scouting the Opponent is a weekly preview series looking ahead to the Titans upcoming matchup.
There is an impostor among us…
So might be the thoughts of an NFL fan looking at the list of 5+ win teams, which includes the Tennessee Titans (5-2) and Chicago Bears (5-3), who square off this weekend in Nashville.
The Titans may be an impostor after dropping back-to-back games, including to the previously 1-5-1 Bengals last weekend. While Tennessee’s offense has been mostly good, it has sputtered a bit the past two weeks while the defense has been a complete abomination.
The Bears are also coming off a loss, but they’ve struggled in the opposite way. Chicago cannot move the ball on offense, sustain drives, or score points while fielding one of the league’s tougher defenses.
This game could be a chance for one of these two teams to prove themselves as an upper tier contender with a statement win.
The stats resemble my points above: the Titans are good on offense but bad on defense. The Bears are bad on offense and good on defense.
|25th||Total Yards Allowed/G||12th|
|27th||Pass Yards Allowed/G||12th|
|22nd||Rush Yards Allowed/G||16th|
|2nd (+8)||Turnover Differential||T-17th (-1)|
|7th (47.6%)||3rd D Conversions||31st (31.9%)|
|32nd (61.9%)||3rd D Defense||1st (29.8%)|
|7th||Rush DVOA – Offense||30th|
|2nd||Pass DVOA – Offense||25th|
|17th||Rush DVOA – Defense||11th|
|24th||Pass DVOA – Defense||5th|
*DVOA is a Football Outsiders metric that stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA accounts for a team’s opponents.
There is a strength-on-strength matchup with the Titans’ efficient third-down offense against the Bears league-best third-down defense. Similarly, the Titans’ league-worst third-down defense catches the Bears’ 31st-ranked third-down offense.
How well each team performs on third downs might decide the outcome of this contest.
Key Matchups and Personnel
- Midway through head coach Matt Nagy’s third season, Bears fans have to be wondering what happened to the former Coach of the Year. After leading the Bears to a 12-4 season and a playoff berth in 2018 (where we saw the infamous double doink), it’s been all downhill since. The Andy Reid disciple hasn’t figured out how to run an offense like Reid’s, as the Bears defense has carried the team throughout Nagy’s tenure. Nagy continues to call plays as the offense continues to struggle.
- Replacing offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich in Chicago this year is Bill Lazor. Lazor no doubt has a say in the offense, but Nagy is the playcaller and the ultimate decision maker. This isn’t “Lazor’s offense” by any means, despite his title.
- Titans fans should be familiar with Bears’ defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano after his six years in charge of the Indianapolis Colts. Pagano is a much more accomplished coordinator than head coach, and his defense in Chicago is playing at a high level this season. Pagano runs a traditional 3-4 base defense, using lots of zone coverage with a heavy dose of man-blitzes.
Some key matchups that could shape the outcome of this game include:
- RT Dennis Kelly vs OLB Khalil Mack:
This is the toughest individual matchup any Titans player will have this weekend. Kelly struggled a bit against Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt, and Chicago’s Mack will provide a challenge just as difficult if not more. While the young Watt leads the NFL in pressures with 39 to Mack’s 5th-best 33, Mack has more sacks (7 to 6) and more QB hurries (23 to 18) than Watt. Expect the Titans to send help in Kelly’s direction for most of the game.
- LT Ty Sambrailo vs OLB Robert Quinn:
The 30-year-old Quinn signed with Chicago over the offseason on a five-year/$70M contract, giving Chicago a dynamic pass-rushing duo. This matchup will be important because with Kelly likely needing all the help he can get against Mack, Sambrailo may be left to deal with Quinn on his own more often than not.
Quinn hasn’t been quite the same player this year after leading the NFL in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric by a whopping 5% margin in 2019. He’s only accounted for 13 pressures on the season with just 1 sack (and more than a third of those pressures came against Tampa Bay). If Sambrailo can hold his own in this matchup, the Titans offensive line should be okay.
- CB Malcolm Butler vs WR Allen Robinson:
Over the past two weeks, the Titans have used Butler to shadow the opposing team’s “top” wide receiver. Since returning from their COVID-induced break, Butler has been by far the Titans best cover corner, allowing just a 63.3 passer rating into his coverage over that span.
Meanwhile, Robinson continues to play like one of the best receivers in the league despite enduring shaky quarterback play. He’s second in the league behind Stefon Diggs in total targets with 77. Chicago’s best playmaker on offense will see the ball plenty. What worries me about this potential matchup is while Butler has been great, he’s had a weak spot at defending contested catches, allowing receivers to outmuscle him at the catch point and fight through his tight coverage. Robinson is one of the league’s best contested catchers, especially deep down the field. This could be something the Bears are able to exploit.
If the Titans choose to shadow Robinson with Butler, the winner of that matchup will be pivotal in deciding this game.
- Titans DL vs Bears OL:
It’s not often you get a mulligan in life, but for the second straight week, the Titans will face a patchwork offensive line made up mostly of backups. Last week, they could not take advantage, recording 0 sacks and 0 QB hits.
This week, they get a do-over of sorts against a Chicago group that will be missing three starters — James Daniels at left guard, Cody Whitehair at center, and Bobby Massie at right tackle — as well as backup center Scott Mustipher and backup right tackle Jason Spriggs.
Alex Bars, a reserve who’s played left guard since Daniels’ went down, will slide over to center. Rashaad Coward — who entered the NFL as a defensive end in 2017 and switched to OL after his rookie season — will play either left guard or right tackle. The other spot will presumably be filled by one of Chicago’s two rookie seventh-rounders, Arlington Hambright or Lachavious Simmons.
Even with Vic Beasley gone and Jadeveon Clowney questionable for this game, the Titans defensive line has to get pressure against this group. Harold Landry, Jeffery Simmons, and hopefully Derick Roberson and/or Tuzar Skipper will have the advantage in this matchup even with their disgustingly low sack production this season.
- RB Derrick Henry vs Chicago Bears run defense
The Bears defense has been pretty good against running backs this year on a per-play basis with the 4th-best success rate allowed, just 33.8%. However, they are only 11th-best in run defense DVOA and allow 4.3 yards per carry, good for 15th in the NFL. According to Sharp Football Stats, while Chicago frequently stops runs for little or no gain, the few runs they don’t stop go for large chunk plays. Chicago has allowed the highest number of explosive runs (38) at the most frequent rate (17%) of any team in the NFL.
It will be up to Derrick Henry and Tennessee’s offensive line to take advantage of the explosive play potential. The Bears are most susceptible to explosive runs on the left side at most areas on the field. This plays well into Derrick Henry’s strength using his right-hand stiff arm, even with Ty Sambrailo in for the injured Taylor Lewan.
The Bears’ high success rate against the run is likely contributing to their top-ranked third-down defense — opponents are often behind the chains and forced into third-and-long situations. Henry and the line will face a tough grind to keep the offense ahead of the sticks. It could be tough sledding until the run game eventually “pops” for the Titans.
Due to the NFL’s strict copyright policy which they have chosen to enforce against our website, I unfortunately will not be including any GIFs here. However, we’ve received clearance to use still images, which should help illustrate the concepts.
I will try to embed the plays I’m referencing where able or include links to view them on Twitter or YouTube. Alternatively, you could potentially look up the plays if you have a subscription to NFL Gamepass.
Titans Offense vs Bears Defense
This is the strength-on-strength element of this game. The Titans have the fourth-best offense according to DVOA while the Bears have the sixth-best defense.
Lucky for us, the Bears played the Rams two weeks ago, which gives us a great look schematically at how the Titans offense might fare against this defense. There are of course many similarities between Arthur Smith’s playbook and its parent (or perhaps grandparent), authored by Sean McVay.
These rushing charts above track with the stats I wrote about: negative runs and short gains mixed with big chunks. Between Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown, the Bears allowed 5 carries of 10 or more yards and 10 carries of 5 or more yards. In total, the Rams rushed for 160 yards on 34 carries. So let’s get into some film observations.