8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Rams -7.5, Over/Under: 53.5
Week Nine reaches it’s penultimate contest in the City of Angels as the Tennessee Titans look to march forward without their biggest weapon, as the Los Angeles Rams look to continue their ascension in the NFC tonight from SoFi Stadium, in Los Angeles, California. Prior to Monday’s heartbreaking revelation (which we’ll get into shortly), you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that enjoyed a better three-week stretch than the Titans (6-2, 1st in AFC South), who bested in succession the Buffalo Bills (34-31), Kansas City Chiefs (27-3), and Indianapolis Colts (34-31), establishing themselves as a major power in the AFC hierarchy. That victory over Indianapolis was particularly significant, for it essentially granted Tennessee a commanding four-game lead within the division, which became even more important when they received the harrowing news that they will be without (All-Pro Tailback) Derrick Henry (219 CAR, 937 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 10 TD) for the remainder of the season. Needless to say, this is a tremendous loss for the Titans for a variety of reasons; after leading the National Football League in rushing in each of the last two seasons, Henry was pacing the NFL in that category once again by a wide margin, and with 219 carries through eight games trailed only Terrell Davis (1998) for the most rushing attempts at this point of any campaign. Given his volume of touches over the past few years, maybe it was always just a matter of time before the 27-year old succumbed to injury, which is what happened last weekend when he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, undergoing corrective surgery on Monday afternoon. So for a team that has ran the football more than any other in 2021, where does Tennessee go from here? Well, in regards to replacing Henry, (Head Coach) Mike Vrabel and (General Manager) Jon Robinson signed (veteran Free Agent) Adrian Peterson off the street, with the hope that the former three-time Rushing Champion has enough left in the tank to keep the ground game afloat. Now 36-years of age, Peterson finds himself on his sixth different team in as many years, though is no doubt keen on advancing his position up the league’s all-time rushing list, where he currently ranks fifth, sitting an attainable 449 yards behind (Hall of Famer) Barry Sanders for fourth. While nobody expects Peterson to replicate the production of Henry, he will be counted upon to create just enough of a threat on the ground for the Titans to continue to utilize play-action, which has become a MAJOR component of their Offense over the past few seasons; (veteran Quarterback) Ryan Tannehill (65.6%, 2,002 YDS, 6.38 NY/A, 10 TD, 7 INT, 61.3 QBR) has thrived in this regard since arriving in Nashville back in 2019, with roughly 38.7% of his passing yardage coming via play-action (most in the NFL), including twenty-three of his sixty-five passing touchdowns. However, don’t be surprised to see the Offense become more pass-oriented with Henry sidelined for the foreseeable future, for the Titans foreshadowed this transition in the offseason when they acquired (All-Pro Receiver) Julio Jones (17 REC, 301 YDS, 17.7 Y/R, 0 TD) in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons. You don’t bring in Jones, the NFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards per game (94.3), if you don’t intend on chucking the football downfield, and if they can in fact get him back on the gridiron, you can expect Tannehill to be looking his way; the 32-year old has missed three games thus far with a tender hamstring, and has yet to really develop much of a rapport with his Quarterback as he continues to find his way within this new system. With that said, if the Titans can get he and (Pro-Bowler) A.J. Brown on the field together at the same time, then Tannehill will have one of the most threatening tandems in the NFL at his disposal, making life much more palatable sans Henry. Brown struggled with a nagging hamstring injury of his own during the early stages of the campaign, though has really come on strong of late with twenty-five receptions on twenty-nine targets for 379 yards and a pair of touchdowns over the last three contests. Another reason to believe that Tennessee won’t be crumbling without Henry is the growth of the Defense, which has seen a resurgence after a miserable 2020; the Titans ranked twenty-fourth in points allowed (27.4) and twenty-eighth in total defense (398.2), along with dead-last on third down (51.9%) and thirtieth in the red zone (69.2%), thanks in large part to an anemic pass-rush that managed a scant nineteen sacks (30th Overall) parlaying to the worst sack percentage in the NFL (2.9%). While sacks don’t necessarily tell the whole story, Vrabel (who served as primary play-caller) blitzed on a middling 28.7% of their snaps (17th Overall) and couldn’t get any heat on opposing Quarterbacks with a meager pressure percentage of 17.6% (31st Overall). Now with overhauled personnel at the disposal of (new Defensive Coordinator) Shane Bowen, this unit has improved greatly in a number of areas, particularly against the run (100.8 Y/G), on third down (40.6%) and in the red zone (54.5%), while relinquishing a middling 6.4 net yards per attempt (15th Overall). Again, it comes back to the pass-rush, which has shown considerable growth with eighteen sacks (15th Overall) and a pressure percentage of 26.9% (8th Overall) despite blitzing less (21.5%). (Outside Linebacker) Harold Landry (42 TKL, 9 TFL, 15 QBH, 8.5 SK, 1 FF) has been the bell-cow of this unit with eight and a half sacks and fifteen hits of the Quarterback, and as (fellow Edge-Rusher) Bud Dupree (7 TKL, 0 TFL, 5 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF) continues to get healthy following a torn ACL suffered towards the end of the previous campaign, the rush should only become more effective. As you can imagine, these teams don’t meet very often, for tonight’s affair marks their first since Christmas Eve of 2017, a 23-27 loss in Nashville. With that said, primetime has been good to the Titans of late, with Vrabel’s charges posting a 7-5 record (.583) under the bright lights since his arrival in 2018, including their only such appearance this season, that aforementioned thriller against the Bills, in which Henry utterly demolished them with 143 yards and three touchdowns on twenty carries.
Meanwhile, as their opponent tonight prepares for life without the biggest weapon within their arsenal, the Rams (7-1, 2nd in NFC West) have added yet another to theirs, as they look to cement themselves among the elite in the NFC. Has there been a franchise in recent memory that has been more active on the trade front than Los Angeles? Indeed, (Head Coach) Sean McVay and (General Manager) Les Snead are arguably the most active tandem in the league in that regard adding sizable pieces in each of the last few seasons. Two years ago, they moved for (All-Pro Cornerback) Jalen Ramsey (43 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 2 INT, 7 PD) at the Trade Deadline, and this past Spring they sent (former No. One Overall Pick) Jared Goff (along with a number of premium draft picks) packing to Motown in exchange for (another former No. One Overall Pick) Matthew Stafford (68.9%, 2,477 YDS, 8.63 NY/A, 22 TD, 4 INT, 77.6 QBR). Now after eight games the Rams have struck again, acquiring the services of (former All-Pro Edge-Rusher) Von Miller (19 TKL, 7 TFL, 9 QBH, 4.5 SK) in a deal with the Denver Broncos. In the last year of his contract, the 32-year old had made his feelings about the direction of his former franchise perfectly clear, and now moves to a team that has even clearer championship aspirations. Miller, who is second among active players in terms of career sacks (110.5) joins a Defense that despite taking a step back from ranking first in the NFL in both points allowed (18.5) and total defense (282.0), nonetheless possesses serious star power in the form of (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) Aaron Donald (33 TKL, 6 TFL, 12 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 3 PD) and the aforementioned Ramsey. Collectively, those three players have accounted for a whopping 201 sacks, NINETEEN Pro-Bowls, and ELEVEN All-Pro selections, with Miller bringing a Super Bowl MVP trophy to the table as well. While he in all likelihood will miss tonight’s affair with Tennessee due to an ailing ankle, Miller’s presence is expected to bolster a unit that has some room for improvement under (Defensive Coordinator) Raheem Morris, who in his first year calling plays with the club has seen them allow 21.0 points per game (10th Overall) on 367.5 total yards (21st Overall), including 265.1 yards against the pass (21st Overall) on 6.1 net yards per attempt (7th Overall), and another 103.4 yards versus the run (11th Overall) on 4.4 yards per carry (18th Overall), while yielding a 42.0% success rate on third down (21st Overall) and 46.4% within the red zone (4th Overall). With that said, falling back to the pack a bit on defense hasn’t been an issue in the City of Angels because their teammates on the opposite side of the football have been ROLLING in 2021, as the presence of Stafford has clearly ignited a unit that had begun to seriously stall under his predecessor. In the aftermath that brought the 33-year old to Los Angeles, just about every analyst predicted that this new marriage between Coach and Quarterback would pay huge dividends, and with half of the campaign in the books they’ve been proven correct; after spending twelve years in Detroit, Stafford has been revitalized under McVay’s guidance, posting career-bests in a slew of categories including completion percentage (68.9%), yards per attempt (9.1), net yards per attempt (8.63), sack percentage (2.5%), touchdown percentage (8.1%), passer rating (118.0) and QBR (77.6). To put things into perspective, the Pro-Bowler has already thrown more touchdowns through eight games (22) than Goff managed to throw in the fifteen that he started last season, with the Offense ascending exponentially; Los Angeles averaged 23.3 points per game (22nd Overall) on 387.5 total yards (11th Overall), including 261.4 through the air (13th Overall) on 6.53 net yards per attempt (16th Overall) with Goff at the controls in 2020, only to turn right around and flourish under Stafford to the tune of 30.6 points per contest (5th Overall) on 414.4 total yards (5th Overall), including 310.3 via the pass (4th Overall) on a much healthier 8.07 net yards per attempt (10th Overall). No disrespect to Goff, but he was heavily reliant on McVay’s scheming and play-calling, and when things broke down for the 27-year old they often did so horribly. Stafford on the other hand, isn’t dependent on the running game or a system to make plays, which is evident in the way that McVay has granted him control of the Offense. Furthermore, he’s really hit it off with his Receiving Corps, particularly Cooper Kupp (63 REC, 924 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 10 TD), who is enjoying a career campaign in leading the NFL in both receiving yards (924) and touchdowns (10). And as fate would have it, the Rams and Lions met two weeks ago in a reunion between McVay, Stafford, and Goff that went about smoothly as anyone could have predicted. With the winless hosts pulling out every stop to limit the amount of possessions for Los Angeles, including a surprise onside kick and a fake punt early in the affair, the visitors still managed to claim a relatively comfortable 28-19 victory. In his return to Motwon, Stafford completed 28-of-41 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns, hooking up with the aforementioned Kupp on ten occasions for 156 yards and a pair of scores. Goff on the other hand had a decisively-worse day on the job, totaling 268 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions on 22-of-36 passing, extending his dubious winless streak to a remarkable fourteen games without the helping hand of McVay. Needless to say, the Rams have been proven correct in parting ways with the former signal-caller, even if took TWO first round picks to land Stafford. Much has been made of that fact that this franchise has essentially mortgaged their future to win now; McVay and Snead haven’t made a pick in the first round since trading up to select Goff back in 2016 and after years of wheeling and dealing don’t own another one until 2024, which if it stands will be the longest that any team in the NFL has ever gone without doing so. In fact, they only have three picks in this coming NFL Draft (a fifth and a pair of sevenths), but if they do in fact manage to win a Super Bowl this season (or in the near future) then it will be well worth it, for at the end of the day this is very much a win NOW league. And speaking of Super Bowls, the last time that the Rams hoisted a Lombardi trophy they were still located in St. Louis, with that triumph coming at the expense of none other than the Titans, in a thrilling 23-16 affair in which Tennessee was famously halted one yard short of potentially tying the game and sending Super Bowl XXXIV into overtime. While much has changed in the twenty-three years since then, Los Angeles continues to enjoy the bright lights of primetime, where they’ve amassed a 14-7 record under McVay, winning five straight contests dating back to last season, including victories over both the Chicago Bears (34-14) and Seattle Seahawks (26-17) earlier this year.