8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Titans -4, Over/Under: 37.5
Division Rivals in very different places battle it out in Nashville tonight, as the Tennessee Titans look to stay in the Playoff hunt as they host the Jacksonville Jaguars from Nissan Stadium. Needless to say, this is NOT how the Jaguars (4-8, 4th in AFC South) had envisioned their 2018 campaign, particularly after coming so close to advancing to what would have been the franchise’s first Super Bowl. In many ways, you could make a strong argument that Jacksonville is nothing but a victim of their own sudden stardom, and as a result have come crashing back down to Earth. Of course, the elephant in the room has long been the status of one Blake Bortles (60.4%, 2,572 YDS, 6.12 NY/A, 13 TD, 10 INT, 46.8 QBR), the former No. 3 Overall Pick, who after years of ineptitude, finally began to show moderate improvement last season, shackled in the confines of Doug Marrone’s Offense. Well, it was more like he was covered in bubble wrap if we’re being honest with ourselves, but the point was that the only way the kid could turn the corner was if their Coaching Staff somehow devised a gameplan to overly simplify things while also for all intents and purposes taking the ball out of his hands. Granted, that notion can work with a punishing Rushing Attack and ferocious Defense, but in most cases it’s doomed to fail. Which brings us to present. After owning the league’s top Ground Game in 2017 (141.4 Y/G), the Jaguars have slumped to Eighteenth this term (111.3 Y/G), mostly due to injuries along the Offensive Line, and most notably to Sophomore Tailback Leonard Fournette (90 CAR, 314 YDS, 3.5 Y/C, 4 TD), who missed five games with a sore hamstring, and their most recent outing thanks to a suspension. And without that comfortable support system behind him, is it any wonder that Bortles reverted back into the basket case he was throughout the first three years of his career? Seriously, how could Marrone and Tom Coughlin not see this coming? Clearly they thought that he was one the up and up in handing him a three-year extension, while literally nobody else n the league was willing to throw the guy an offer in Free Agency. Just look at the numbers, folks, for affirmation of their lunacy; Bortles has regressed across the board, particularly in Touchdown Percentage (3.5%), Interception Percentage (2.7%), Net Yards per Attempt (6.12), Sack Percentage (6.8%), Passer Rating (81.9), and QBR (46.8), finally earning a full-blown benching after Offensive Coordinator Nathanial Hackett was fired due to his Quarterback’s poor showings. With their former Franchise Quarterback benched, Marrone & Co. have turned to none other than Cody Kessler (72.2%, 306 YDS, 4.26 NY/A, 1 TD, 1 INT, 25.7 QBR), who in one start has been hardly inspiring, though Jacksonville did manage to pull the upset of the red-hot Indianapolis Colts last weekend. With their Division Rival bringing a five-game winning streak into TIAA Bank Stadium, it was the Defense that finally said “enough is enough” and pitched a shutout of the explosive Colts, a 6-0 affair that featured just 476 Total Yards of Offense, with the visiting side going a miserable 5-of-18 on Third Down and 0-of-3 on Fourth Down. Kessler’s task was clearly to manage the game and nothing else, particularly with Fournette suspended due to a fight from the previous weekend, completing 18-of-24 Attempts for 150 Yards, many of which were short dump-offs to Tailback T.J. Yeldon (7 REC, 49 YDS). The hosts got after Andrew Luck, sacking him three times, and intercepting him once, while relegating the former Pro Bowler to 258 Yards on a whopping Fifty-Five Attempts. As poor as the Offense has been this year, the Defense remains elite, ranking in the Top-5 in Pints Allowed (20.3), Total Defense (315.6), First Downs Allowed (18.1), Passing Defense (207.2), Passing Touchdowns Allowed (15), Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (6.0), and Third Down Defense (36.3%). The biggest difference between this season and the one that preceded it have been the lack of Sacks (24, 27th Overall) and Takeaways (13, 21st Overall), which ultimately go hand in hand, though with the regression of the Offense, this unit has rarely been afforded the luxury of playing with a lead.
Meanwhile, the Titans (6-6, 3rd in South) still find themselves in the hunt for the final Wild Card in the AFC, though at this juncture of the campaign, it’s become clear that they’re in all likelihood going to need to not only win out, but receive a little bit of help on the way. At the moment, Tennessee currently sits Eighth in the pecking order of the AFC, which means that they’re the third team out of the Playoffs in the conference due to losing a number of tiebreakers with the three teams in front of them, the Baltimore Ravens, who have a comfortable grasp on the Sixth Seed, followed by the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins, with all tree teams having defeated Mike Vrabel’s charges head-to-head. With that said, their remaining schedule is anything but daunting, with the likes of Jaguars, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, and a rematch with the Colts lying ahead, with all but one of those outings played at Nissan Stadium. While it may seem like a long shot, it’s still a shot, which is all this team is likely telling themselves, and with their Defense, why couldn’t they? The Titans have quietly fielded one of the better units in the league this season, ranking in the Top-10 in a number of categories including Points Allowed (20.4), Total Defense (341.0), First Downs Allowed (18.8), Pass Defense (221.2), Passing Touchdowns Allowed (16), Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (6.4), and Rushing Touchdowns Allowed (8), all the while ranking No. One in the NFL in Red Zone Defense (44.1%). Vrabel and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees have crafted a talented young unit that while short on household names is definitely worth taking seriously as they’ve relegated the Dallas Cowboys (297), and New England Patriots (284) each below 300 Yards of Total Offense this season. Furthermore, when they faced Jacksonville earlier in the season, they did much of the same in an ugly 9-6 victory in Northeastern Florida, smothering the home side to the tune of just Twelve First Downs and 232 Total Yards. However, the reason why Tennessee remains mired at .500 is their Offense, which has certainly been a work in progress under the new coaching regime. Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur may have one helluva pedigree working with likes of masterminds such Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, but he’s also calling plays for the first time in his young coaching career, and the Offense as a whole has reflected that, particularly fourth-year Quarterback Marcus Mariota (68.6%, 2,168 YDS, 6.24 NY/A, 11 TD, 7 INT, 50.4 QBR). There have been times this season in which the former Heisman-winner has looked rather lost in LaFleur’s scheme, but at the same time others in which he’s performed brilliantly, making consistency very difficult to obtain. Injuries to his hand, wrist and elbow have dogged him throughout the campaign, while a lack of protection on the interior of the Offensive Line has led to a spike in Sacks, with the former No. Two Overall Pick getting dropped a whopping Thirty-Eight times, eleven more than in 2017. However, he’s still adept at making plays with his feet, rushing for 326 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, with his yardage (29.6 Y/G) and Attempts (5.2 A/G) both representing career-highs. He’s also appeared to have gotten more comfortable with his youthful Receiving Corps, which has grown throughout the course of the term, with sophomores Corey Davis (52 REC, 744 YDS, 14.3 Y/R, 4 TD) and Jonnu Smith (20 REC, 258 YDS, 12.9 Y/R, 3 TD) beginning to make plays more consistently. What this unit really needs though is balance, for the Rushing Attack, which regressed greatly last year, still looks stuck in the mud this season, even with Mariota adding his versatility to this facet of the attack. The Titans have averaged just 4.0 Yards per Carry (29th Overall) despite attempting 27.8 Rushes, the tenth-most in the league. Fellow Heisman-winner Derrick Henry (128 CAR, 474 YDS, 3.7 Y/C, 5 TD) has been underwhelming since his rookie year, overtaken by former Patriot Dion Lewis (135 CAR, 464 YDS, 3.4 Y/C, 1 TD) on the Depth Chart, with the veteran factoring far more heavily in the passing game, hauling in Forty-Five Receptions on Fifty-One Targets for 309 Yards and a Touchdown.