Five storylines to watch in Titans’ preseason finale

The Tennessee Titans host the Chicago Bears in the final tune-up before things get real on September 12th. Once again, many of the household hames for both teams won’t be on the field. For the Titans, this has been a week full of adversity but the game must be played regardless.

With all that said, let’s take a deeper dive into the five most intriguing storylines for Tennessee’s Preseason matchup with the Chicago Bears.

Covid outbreak 2.0

Last season, the Titans were one of the teams hit the hardest by COVID. They were the first team with a real outbreak and were eventually forced to move their schedule around just to make their season work.

This year, the first and hopefully last outbreak in Tennessee is happening with under three weeks left until the regular season starts. You obviously don’t want an outbreak at any point, but if the Titans can contain this, learn from it, and be more cautious going forward, then it may just be a small bump in the road in the grand scheme of things.

Currently, nine coaches and players have either tested positive or been in close contact with a positive case. Tight end Geoff Swaim and linebacker Justin March-Lillard were placed on the reserve list Thursday along with star quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The other Titans players on the reserve list are defensive tackle Anthony Rush, running back Jeremy McNichols, and linebackers Nick Dzunbar and Harold Landry.

Titans’ head coach Mike Vrabel, who said Thursday that he is feeling well but has not had a negative COVID-19 test, told reporters that special teams coach Craig Aukerman is also in the COVID-19 protocol. Aukerman missed practice Wednesday and Thursday and won’t be available for Saturday’s preseason finale against the Chicago Bears.

With it not even being September yet, there is no real reason to panic as of yet, but it’s definitely not ideal either. The Titans as a whole are reportedly around 97-98 percent vaccinated therefore mostly everyone just needs two negative tests to be allowed to return. Now the attention turns to whether or not more names will be added to the list in the coming days.

Backup quarterback battle is heating up

The Titans’ backup quarterback battle is heating up. At the start of camp, the team seemed to be leaning heavily towards Logan Woodside due to his familiarity with the scheme and personnel.

Yet with each passing week, it feels like Matt Barkley is making up ground on the former Toledo product. The former USC quarterback put on a show against the Buccaneers. Barkley was 12-for-16 passing for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Barkley looked poised and unshakable out there, going through progressions, trusting what he saw, and letting it rip with anticipation.

Woodside had a solid night in his own right, He completed 7-of-8 passes for 64 yards and one touchdown. The difference seemed to be the confidence in which Barkley trusted himself. Outside of the one 23-yard touchdown to Dez Fitzpatrick, a lot of Woodside’s throws were safe and uninspiring while Barkley was out there ripping it any chance he got.

Both quarterbacks have one more shot to show the coaching staff and their teammates that they are the man for the job. Similar to last week, each quarterback will rotate every two series so they both get reps with the same personnel. This method also allows the Titans to properly evaluate how both quarterbacks do in a real-life game situation when they’re thrown in after sitting for a while.

It’s going to be extremely interesting to see who capitalizes on this final opportunity before the team must get down to 53 players on August 31st.

Interim head coach?

As I touched on earlier, head coach Mike Vrabel is going to be one of several players and coaches that are out for the preseason finale due to a recent COVID outbreak within the Titans’ facilities.

With Vrabel officially being forced to rest on Saturday, the question now at hand becomes: who is going to be the team’s interim head coach for the time being?

Fortunately for the Titans, their coaching staff has a plethora of experience and should be able to survive this unexpected curveball.  Inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett, and senior defensive assistant Jim Schwartz, both have over a decade of combined head coaching experience. They are likely the leading candidates to lead the group for the preseason finale since they both have the most experience in managing and preparing an entire team from the head of the table.

In fact, Haslett is a former Associated Press  ‘Coach of the Year’ award winner back when he made his head coaching debut for the New Orleans Saints in the year 2000. He took over the Saints and they instantly went from worst to first. The Saints went 3-13 in 1999 and finished with a 10-6 record and the NFC South title following Haslett’s arrival. The Saints’ 31-28 wild card victory that season over St. Louis was the first postseason victory in New Orleans franchise history.

Haslett also has the honor of being the only person recognized as a College Football Hall of Fame member (as a player), an Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and an AP NFL Coach of the Year. 

Schwartz on the other hand is best known by Titans fans for his run as defensive coordinator in which he oversaw one of the most dominant defenses in the Tennessee Titans era.

In his final season with the Titans (2008), the defense ranked third in points allowed (14.2), second in passing yards allowed (161 YPG), and fifth in sacks (44). During his eight years as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, his defenses ranked fifth in rushing yards allowed (103.5) and sixth in third-down defense (36.1%) over the eight years.

The success Schwartz had in Tennessee led to him becoming the head coach at Detroit for the next five seasons. His biggest accomplishment came when he helped guide a team that was winless in the season before his arrival to a playoff berth by the end of year three.

If the Titans don’t want to go with the previously experienced route, they could also allow either Todd Downing, Shane Bowen, or Keith Carter to take the reigns for the day. However, I’d expect the Titans to allow one of their experienced coaches to run the show to get a practice run in should this situation arise later in the year.

Six man race for WR6

Arguably one of the most debatable storylines of camp has been who should get that final wide receiver spot. One would imagine that wide receivers Julio Jones, A.J. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Chester Rogers, and Marcus Johnson are all going to be on the opening day roster. The real question is trying to figure out who is going to get that final spot.

The team selected both Dez Fitzpatrick and Racey McMath on day three of the draft and common sense would indicate that one of them should get those spots. Unfortunately for those two, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Mason Kinsey, Cam Batson, and Fred Brown, don’t care about that common sense logic.

To an extent, a case can be made for all six of them. In reality, it’s probably a three-man race right now between Westbrook-Ikhine, Kinsey, and Fitzpatrick based solely on draft status.

Many will argue that Kinsey’s main competition is with Rogers due to being a slot receiver/punt returner, but I don’t think there’s a realistic way that Kinsey is beating out Rogers at this point. The real question IMO is do the Titans want to keep the six most talented pure receivers? Or will their draft investment or special teams ultimately be the tiebreaker?

A very strong argument can be made that Kinsey may bring the most consistent versatility out of the three. Unfortunately for the former Berry college star, he’s extremely limited on special teams and when you’re listed as a WR five or six, you’re not going to play much receiver if everything goes to plan. 

Westbrook-Ikhine was fantastic on special teams last year and even played receiver in plenty of big moments, including last year’s playoff game where he caught two passes for 17 yards.

It seems like an uphill battle for anyone to dethrone Westbrook-Ikhine, but it’s something to watch on Saturday evening. If Kinsey goes and balls out again, it’s going to complicate the decision as the likelihood of keeping him on the practice squad is surely diminishing with each passing performance. Fitzpatrick on the other hand needs a dominant outing to prove that he deserves the benefit of the doubt over the other two likeliest options.

Be on the lookout for how all six of these wideouts make their final case for themselves on Saturday night.

Last dress rehearsal for 2021 draft class

The Titans’ rookie class has had an up and down preseason thus far. Unlike last year’s draft class who didn’t even have that privilege, this class has the opportunity to go through these necessary growing pains.

Tennessee invested a ton of draft capital on the defensive side of the ball and has been reaping the benefits thus far because of it.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but this influx of youth and speed into this defense can be felt on every level. Cornerback Caleb Farley was off to a rough start as he started camp on the sidelines but has slowly been making enough strides to get everyone excited.

Farley has had inconsistent moments in both practice and games, but that’s to be expected after not playing football in over 600 days. The fact that he’s back out there after the two back surgeries are the biggest positive. With every passing rep, Farley is starting to shake off the rust and is showing the flashes that made him such an intriguing prospect in the first place.

The other cornerback taken in April’s draft was Elijah Molden and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact. The former Washington Husky has been showing why he was the highest graded slot cornerback in college football over the last seven years (91.2 coverage grade).

Molden has been a nuisance for offenses whether he’s mirroring the opposing slot receiver in coverage or ferociously attacking the opposition. 

Most notably, he is playing with a confident swagger that Farley hasn’t yet displayed. Molden looks like he’s trusting his instincts and playing freely while Farley is still trying to get his body back up to speed. Nonetheless, the potential that both have is extremely evident and has the potential to transform the backend of Tennessee’s defense in due time.

Meanwhile, on the front seven, the Titans have found themselves a couple of talented contributors as well. Both Rashad Weaver and Monty Rice have shown flashes of what they can be at the next level. In the first preseason game, Weaver dominated from start to finish. He totaled three tackles, two tackles for loss, one pass defense, 1.5 sacks, and two quarterback hits.

These numbers are almost identical to the numbers he consistently produced at the collegiate level. On average, Weaver was good for a half-sack and one tackle for a loss per game during his time in the ACC. In total, Weaver produced 17 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss in 35 collegiate games.

Rice on the other hand hasn’t exactly been lighting up the stat sheet, but he is showing a cognizant understanding of the defense as you always see the No. 56 roaming around the ball anytime he is on the field.

As for the rest of the draft class, they have been far too inconsistent throughout camp/preseason. Each of them has shown flashes in spurts, but these flashes are too few and far apart for anyone’s liking. Radunz has finished with passing grades in both games according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).

Still, It should be noted that those grades are unequivocally skewed as he visibly and objectively struggles anytime he is asked to block a competent pass rusher. 

Last week against the Buccaneers, Radunz finished with a pass-blocking grade of 44.5 after surrendering three pressures and one sack on 62 snaps.

Dez Fitzpatrick on the other hand is arguably his biggest enemy at the moment. All throughout camp, Fitzpatrick has made even the most routine play/drill look anything but routine. The Louisville product has been coming on as of late and is giving himself a puncher’s chance to stick around but he needs a strong finish to a shaky camp.

Meanwhile, McMath caught everyone’s attention on the first day with a jaw-dropping catch and has essentially disappeared ever since.

McMath is the one receiver on Tennessee’s deep room who hardly steps on the field whenever the team is on offense.

Brady Breeze was the last player selected and hasn’t done much to show the team that he is worth sticking around. Breeze’s most memorable moment so far has been him getting kicked out of practice for putting an unnecessarily high hit on Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately for the rookie safety, he suffered an ankle injury in his preseason debut and has been missing in action ever since.

Radunz is obviously a lock to make the team, but the other three are anything but. The two rookie receivers are a victim of being in a talented and deep receiver room. Both Fitzpatrick and McMath need to make the most of their final opportunity on Saturday evening. Breeze on the other hand needs to try and get healthy as soon as possible or he may find his way into a redshirt year or possibly even an injury settlement.

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