Tennessee vs. Kansas City: Week 1 Game Preview
Well, after an up and down preseason, the Tennessee Titans are ready for their first game.
Under new quarterback Alex Smith and new head coach Andy Reid, the team bounced back in 2013, winning 11 games and making the playoffs. Entering last season, the Chiefs already had an aggressive pass rush, a dangerous running game led by Jamaal Charles. But getting decent play from the quarterback position along with the experience of a head coach with a track record of regular-season success resulted in K.C.'s remarkable turnaround.
2014 is a new year, though, and every season, about half the teams that made the playoffs one year fail to do so the following season. The Chiefs have lost a lot of valuable players, including cornerback Brandon Flowers, and had a somewhat questionable draft.
The 2013 Titans were a mixed bag. While the defense became a top-10 unit, the offense sputtered once Jake Locker was no longer at the helm. Despite a 3-1 start, the Titans fell to 7-9 and head coach Mike Munchak was fired.
The Chiefs and Titans actually met in Week 5, where an injured Locker watched the Titans lose 26-17.
This season, the Titans will be hoping a healthy Locker will reverse their fortunes.
It's hard to tell what is actually safe to take away from the preseason, as it can often be misleading. That said, the Titans appear to need a lot of work on defense. Every team they faced in the preseason scored on the opening drive.
With a defense changing schemes and losing one of its best players in cornerback Alterraun Verner, struggles are expected. However, if the Titans can't rectify some of those problems, it's going to be a very long season.
On offense, things looked better. Locker looked like his 2013 self (prior to his injury), the running game seems very balanced and Justin Hunter looks poised for a breakout campaign.
Hunter had limited playing time in the preseason, but caused mismatches every time he played. Kendall Wright and Nate Washington both looked as sharp as ever, so the Titans may have a very strong starting group of receivers to help Locker out.
With the defense playing poorly and needing time to adjust to new coordinator Ray Horton's system, Locker and Co. will need to score a lot of points to come away with wins.
News and Notes
The 53-man roster is final, and there were some surprises. Among the bigger ones were Marc Mariani not making the final cut and the Titans booting both of their kickers.
The Titans were deep at kick returner, so Mariani wasn't a critical player. That said, he was a fan favorite, and a consistently solid, young return man. Derek Hagan had a quality preseason, and T.J. Graham was a highly touted prospect in 2012, so it's understandable that both beat out Mariani.
Ryan Succop, a former Chief, was signed to take over the place-kicking duties after the release of kickers Travis Coons and Maikon Bonani, neither of whom were particularly impressive in the preseason. Succop will be well motivated, since his spot on the roster is far from secure, and he'll be facing his former team.
A surprising roster decision (via Titansonline) is seeing defensive back Blidi Wreh-Wilson starting over Coty Sensabaugh. Sensabaugh was a quality nickel corner in 2013 and had been with the starters all preseason, so seeing Wreh-Wilson overtake him is a bit of a shock.
Both players will get time on the field, so that lineup is far from set in stone.
The only two injuries the Titans have going into Week 1 are Jackie Battle and Charlie Whitehurst. If Whitehurst is playing at all, that means problems with Locker, which means bad news anyway, so if Whitehurst doesn't play, it's not a big deal.
Battle wouldn't be a huge loss either. He's the starting fullback, but fullbacks are only on the field some of the time, so even if he doesn't play, it doesn't put a huge crutch on the offense.
All injury information via ESPN's injury report page.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Jurrell Casey vs. Chiefs Offensive Line
Despite not making the Pro Bowl, Jurrell Casey was the best player on the Titans' entire roster in 2013. However, now that he's moved to defensive end, he'll see a lot more action against offensive tackles—and he may not be as effective as a result.
It'll be interesting to see how Casey adjusts to his new position in the Titans' first game. If Casey isn't as effective as he was in 2013, it will be a tremendous blow to the defense.
Corners vs. Receivers
On all fronts, it will be enlightening to see how the referees handle the new rules about pass interference. In the preseason, the new rules resulted in a lot more penalties. The New Orleans Saints racked up more than 30 in their preseason game against the Titans.
Now it's the regular season, so the players will be testing the boundaries to see how strictly the refs will be calling games going forward. The Titans will have a new starter at corner in place of the departed Alterraun Verner, and the Chiefs replaced Brandon Flowers themselves, so things will look a lot different for both teams in the defensive backfield.
X-Factor: Bishop Sankey
Running back Bishop Sankey took no snaps with the starters this preseason, so he's more or less an unknown factor. He was also the first running back to be drafted in 2014, so he may be a big part of the offense by the season's end.
If he plays like he did against the Minnesota Vikings, the Titans shouldn't have too much trouble putting points on the board. If he isn't impressive, they could struggle.
The Chiefs were the better team in 2013, but even against a Locker-less Titans, it was a close game. With a new and improved coaching staff on the Titans and a healthy starting quarterback, it's certainly a winnable game.
That said, the Chiefs feature a stout defense that is stacked with talented pass-rushers, along with an offense featuring an elite running back. The Titans will be fighting an uphill battle.
Add to that the Titans' expected growing pains on defense, substantial changes on offense and playing on the road in a very loud stadium, and it's hard to imagine the Titans winning this one without some really special performances.
I expect a hard fought, high-scoring game, with the Titans coming up just short.
Prediction: Chiefs 31, Titans 27