8:25 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Titans -3, Over/Under: 44
The AFC South may be the weakest division in the NFL for yet another season, but you can’t say that it’s not competitive as the Tennessee Titans host the Jacksonville Jaguars from Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Thursday Night Football. That’s right, folks, for despite combining for a grand total of seven victories thus far, these teams are only one and two games behind Houston for first place in the South. For the first time in quite a while, expectations were hanging over the heads of the Jaguars (2-4, 4th in AFC South), who with a number of (perceived) foundational pieces in place spent a ton of money in the Offseason in an attempt to bolster both sides of the ball. It’s no mystery, people, for anytime a team spends big, expectations are bound to follow. It’s simply, business. Well, as we reach the midway point of the campaign, it’s become very clear that Jacksonville is NOT living up to said expectations. For all intents and purposes, this team has regressed mightily from last year’s incarnation, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where they rank towards the bottom of the league across the board; the Jags have scored just 19.5 points (24th Overall) on 337.9 total yards (27th Overall) including 261.2 yards through the air (17th Overall) on 5.9 net yards per attempt (26th Overall), along with 76.7 yards on the ground (30th Overall) on just 3.7 yards per carry (26th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been very careless with the football, committing a dozen turnovers (27th Overall) through six games, while failing to force very many themselves with a mere five takeaways, ranking dead-last in the league. So what’s the problem in Northeastern Florida, you ask? Well, in all honesty, it appears that the Front Office has grossly misevaluated their roster, starting with Blake Bortles. The third-year Quarterback taken Third Overall in the 2014 NFL Draft was expected to make the big leap this season, particularly given the fact that he tossed a franchise record thirty-five touchdowns as a Sophomore. However, that simply hasn’t been the case, as Bortles continues to exhibit poor decision-making, throwing as many interceptions this season as scores (nine). Keep in mind that he threw a league-high eighteen last year, and is currently on pace to shatter that mark. There just hasn’t been the necessary growth to warrant such optimism. Sure he looks the part, but he has rarely come close to playing like it. Then again, the supporting cast around him is sketchy at best. The Offensive Line has seemingly gotten worse each year, as Bortles has taken a staggering 121 sacks in thirty-six games. Former Second Overall Pick Luke Joeckel has done nothing but prove he’s NOT a franchise Left Tackle, instead spending his game days meandering at Guard before landing on Injured Reserve tearing both his ACL and MCL. As a result, the Running Game has been one of the league’s worst, with Tailbacks TJ Yeldon (60 carries, 200 yards) and one of those expensive buys, Chris Ivory (36 carries for 123 yards), failing to bring any semblance of balance to this unit. Even against the Oakland Raiders’ porous defense last weekend (which has allowed the most yards in the league), they couldn’t get anything going, mustering 344 total yards and three turnovers in the 33-16 embarrassment. Gus Bradley and his Staff have failed to develop a lot of high Draft Picks, which will in all likelihood cost him his job if he can’t manage to turn things around soon. Unfortunately, this has all had a harrowing effect on the Defense, which he’s been slowly cultivating in his four years on the job. The Jaguars invested heavily on this side of the ball, but their only reward has been seeing these guys spend the fourth-most time on the field, that is when they’re not defending a short one after their cohorts on Offense have turned it over again. How else can you explain a unit that has relinquished 26.7 points (26th Overall) despite ranking ninth overall in Total Defense (325.1)? Young Defensive Linemen Dante Fowler (15 Tackles, 2.0 Sacks) and Yannick Ngakoue (4.0 Sacks, 3 Forced Fumbles) are slowly coming along, while their first two picks in this year’s Draft (Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack) are beginning to get more comfortable after overcoming respective Offseason surgeries. Bradley has clearly assembled a talented young nucleus here, but the question remains as to whether or not he’ll be around to see them become a finished product.
Meanwhile, expectations aren’t something that the Titans (3-4, 3rd in AFC South) are familiar with this season, though they appear to be all the better for it. As Ownership overhauled the Front Office, Mike Mularkey was surprisingly retained after taking over for Ken Whisenhunt for the final nine games of the previous term, a miserable one which saw Tennessee go a league-worst 2-14. With that said, new General Manager Jon Robinson deftly maneuvered throughout the Draft, bolstering the Offensive Line while adding some young pieces in the passing game, all in an effort to ensure that Sophomore Quarterback Marcus Mariota receive the necessary support to develop at a favorable rate. Many around the league figure that was the logic behind keeping Mularkey on board, so that their young Quarterback would benefit from some semblance of stability. And who would have thought that it’s actually working? Tennessee has been very competitive this season, with their four defeats coming by an average of 7.7 points per game. So how are they doing it, you ask? By running the hell out of the ball, and controlling time of possession. The Titans have rushed for a healthy 143.4 yards (3rd Overall) on 4.9 yards per carry (4th Overall), all the while attempting the fourth-most carries in the league at 29.6 per game. After a lost season in Philadelphia, 2014 Rushing Champion DeMarco Murray (633 yards, 5 TD) has enjoyed a career renaissance in Nashville, staving off Heisman winner Derrick Henry in the process. It became painfully evident that he was a poor fit for Chip Kelly’s rapid-fire spread attack, but nevertheless looks right at home in Mularkey’s classic power running game, as antiquated as it may be. Then again, it’s not antiquated if it’s working. Mariota factors heavily into the ground game too, using his considerable talents to rush for 210 yards and a score on twenty-nine carries. In wins over Miami and Cleveland, the Quarterback rushed for a total of 124 yards, which has really opened things up in the passing game, particularly in the Red Zone, throwing eight touchdowns over the last three weeks. And here’s something that he could impart to his counterpart tonight: Mariota has thrown six interceptions compared to twelve touchdowns, including only two over the past four games. This is a sign of young player seeing the game slow down. In the defense of Bortles, quality protection can go a long way, which is something that this kid has been reaping the benefits of throughout the campaign. Management invested wisely in the Offensive Line over the past two seasons, drafting bookend Tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin in back-to-back Drafts. Mariota was sacked thirty-eight times in 2015 on 9.3% of his dropbacks, but has seen both numbers improve considerably in 2016, taking a loss on just 5.0% of his dropbacks, yet another sign of a maturing Quarterback. But you know who else this Old School approach has benefitted? The Defense. Defenses always play better when they’re fresh, and the Titans have been exactly that. While they’re far from the most-talented of units, they’ve done their part; helmed by the legendary Dick LeBeau, Tennessee has allowed 23.0 points (17th Overall) on 338.0 total yards (10th Overall), including 250.6 through the air (18th Overall) on 6.6 net yards per attempt (19th Overall), and another 87.4 on the ground (6th Overall) on 3.9 yards per carry (12th Overall). With LeBeau at the controls, you bet they get after the Quarterback, racking up a whopping twenty sacks in seven games thus far, led by Brian Orakpo’s seven. However, all that pressure hasn’t really translated to takeaways, as the Defense has amassed just six, fifth-fewest in the NFL.
Predicted Outcome: Titans 27, Jaguars 23