Titans must force Chargers to play physical brand of football

The Tennessee Titans (0-1) will play the Los Angeles Chargers (0-1) in Sunday’s regular-season home opener at Nissan Stadium. Both the Titans and Chargers are desperate for a win following their collective disappointment in Week 1. The Chargers are rightful road favorites. The Titans must make the Chargers play their brand of physical football in order to possess a chance at executing the upset.

The Chargers put forth an extremely impressive offensive performance against the Miami Dolphins throughout their 36-34 loss. The Chargers gained 30 first downs, converted 60 percent of their third-down attempts (9-of-15), and gained 433 total yards of net offense. By comparison, they scored 19 more points than the Titans (15), converted 43.4 percent more of their third downs (The Titans went 2-of-12 for a 16.6% conversion rate), and gained 148 more yards of offense (285).

It’s safe to assume the Titans can’t win a shootout with the Chargers.

Keeping Justin Herbert and the Chargers’ explosive offense on the sidelines is the No. 1 key to victory. The Titans must showcase a willingness to lean on superstar running back Derrick Henry, something they curiously failed to do in Sunday’s one-point loss to the New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill dropped back on 40 occasions compared to Henry’s 15 rushing attempts despite the game being closely contested all the way through.

Titans head coach Mike Vrabel proclaimed that riding Henry will be an emphasis for the offense moving forward during Monday’s press conference with the media. The Week 2 matchup versus the Chargers calls for a heavy dose of Henry. The Titans must attempt to ride Henry to victory.

“We’re trying to get everybody involved,” Vrabel said earlier this week. “We’re going to need Derrick involved. We need to figure out things that we can do consistently. Derrick will be a huge part of that, I assure you,” Vrabel concluded.

There’s no time like the present. Henry totaled 119 yards via 17 touches, or 7.0 yards per opportunity versus the Saints. Despite the effectiveness, he was curiously out-snapped 34-30 by rookie running back Tyjae Spears.

The Dolphins didn’t necessarily expose the Chargers’ run defense. Because they didn’t have to. Starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw for a league-leading 466 yards. The Dolphins racked up an astounding 536 total yards of net offense. Tagovailoa averaged more than 10 yards per attempt and nearly 17 yards per completion.

Unsurprisingly, the Chargers rank near the bottom of the league in every defensive statistical category. The 536 yards allowed ranks 32nd. The 36.0 points allowed ranks 30th, behind just the New York Giants (40) and Chicago Bears (38), who allowed multiple defensive/special teams touchdowns. The Chargers did not. Their defense was solely responsible for Sunday’s 36-point performance.

Here’s a stat that properly captures how horrid the Chargers’ defensive performance was. Since 2000, teams that rushed for 200-plus yards, held their opponent under 100 rushing yards, did not commit a turnover, and won turnover margin by at least two were 110-0, per TruMedia. It’s now 110-1.

The Chargers played man coverage on a league-leading 80% of their defensive snaps against the Dolphins, per ESPN Stats & Information. It sounds like a bad idea against Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, two of the speediest receivers in the NFL. Spoiler alert: It was a terrible idea as Hill racked up 11 receptions for 215 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

The Titans should take a different offensive approach despite Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert only averaging 3.7 yards per carry (37 yards and a touchdown via 10 carries). The Dolphins largely abandoned the run because making plays in the passing game against the Chargers came so easily to them. The Titans should force the Chargers to prove they’ve improved last year’s 28th-ranked run defense that allowed 145.8 ground yards per contest. I’m not convinced they have.

Chargers starting linebacker Kenneth Murray feels like a player the Titans can expose in the run game. The undersized Murray earned a run-stopping grade of 43.3 in Week 1, according to Pro Football Focus. Murray was a liability in coverage as well against the Dolphins (30.0), but run defense has always been a weak spot of Murray’s game. Last season, Pro Football Focus slapped Murray with a run-stopping grade of 27.8.

Steven Haglund of the official Chargers Podcast Network recently made an appearance on our Music City Audible Podcast to preview Titans-Chargers. Haglund proclaimed that Murray especially struggled on outside zone runs against the Dolphins. Outside zone has long been a staple of the Titans offense. The Titans gained 59 yards on eight carries running outside the tackles against the Saints, per PFF. Historically speaking, the Chargers have routinely struggled to defend outside zone runs.

The Titans may be tempted to test the Chargers through the air. No. 1 cornerback J.C. Jackson continues to struggle mightily for the Chargers, having allowed three receptions, 33 yards per catch, and a touchdown versus the Dolphins, via PFF. A well-balanced attack is fine. It’ll be concerning if the Titans passing offense looks as bad versus the Chargers as it did against the Saints, but Henry needs to be at the forefront of Tim Kelly’s focus.

Controlling the time of possession battle is necessary. The Chargers defense is the weakest of their two units, so taking an approach that forces them to remain on the field for long spells represents a straightforward approach. The Titans shouldn’t overcomplicate manners. Keeping Herbert on the sidelines by running Henry with regularity is crucial.

Author: Justin MeloSenior Writer, Interviewer and Podcaster for Broadway Sports covering the Tennessee Titans and NFL draft. For more than five years, Justin Melo has professionally covered all things NFL draft and Titans for The Draft Network, SB Nation and USA Today. Best known for his Interview Series with NFL draft prospects, Justin has interviewed more than 500 NFL players. Co-host of the Music City Audible podcast alongside Justin Graver (@titansfilmroom).

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