Call it the Julio Jones effect if you want, but the national media attention given to the Tennessee Titans this offseason hasn’t peaked like this since possibly 2008.
That buzz will reach a fever pitch with Sunday’s season opener against the Arizona Cardinals at Nissan Stadium, representing a return to (somewhat) normalcy as life shifts away from pandemic-era football played in empty stadiums with the echoes of piped in crowd noise ringing in the background.
“I expect there to be plenty of fans,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “It looks like people are dying to get back. This game and this sport, you just kind of notice come the end of August and beginning of September people are just dying to watch football no matter who was playing.
“The people that come out, the students at college that didn’t have that experience, hopefully that same thing will happen with us. People will be in the parking lots, they will be tailgating, and they will be enjoying everything they knew before we didn’t have fans at games.”
This Titans team is drastically different than the one that bowed out of the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 10.
General Manager Jon Robinson overhauled perhaps the most disappointing defense in franchise history, brought in a generational talent at wide receiver, stole a top-10 talent at pick No. 22 in April’s draft, and promoted from within new offensive and defensive coordinators.
The main attraction on Sunday will be Tennessee’s shiny new weapon. Although he’s 32 and coming off an injury-shortened season, the Titans have never had a receiver the caliber of Jones.
Despite playing just nine games last year, Jones still totaled 51 receptions, 771 yards and three touchdowns. If he’s even 75 percent of what he was in Atlanta, the Titans offense could be scary good.
“I think [Jones] has a good ability to understand what is going on,” Tannehill said. “…To understand concepts we are trying to do, how defenses have tried to play him in the past and he will probably see again in the future, and then just as I studied him on tape he transitions a lot better than I thought a big guy of his stature and speed would transition.
“Some of the routes that he ran down in Atlanta the last few years, the cutup that I watched, it was pretty incredible to see his transitions just at his size and his speed. Excited to get to work with him this year.”
Here’s a further look at Sunday’s matchup:
Why the Titans can win
Every team in the NFL except for the Kansas City Chiefs would likely trade places with the Titans offense given how loaded with talent it is from top to bottom.
Ryan Tannehill already has it pretty good handing the ball off to Derrick Henry and throwing to A.J. Brown. And now, he’s got a future Hall of Famer in Jones on the opposite side of Brown with Josh Reynolds working the slot. The addition of Jones should transcend the Titans passing offense to one of the NFL’s elite.
“The more weapons you have across the field, teams can’t zone in on any one person or group,” Tannehill said. “You pair A.J. with Julio and (tight end Anthony) Firkser and (Chester Rogers) and then you have Derrick in the back, they can’t lock in on, ‘OK, if we take away this guy then they are going to struggle.’ It definitely makes your offense more dynamic if you can stress teams in multiple areas of the field.”
New offensive coordinator Todd Downing has a track record of helping quarterbacks produce career ears — see Matthew Stafford, Kyle Orton and Derek Carr — and this time around he has been handed more talent than he’s worked with before.
While the Cardinals had a solid pass defense in 2020, they did allow 26 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 91.5. They also didn’t have to stop Tannehill, Henry, Brown and Jones all in the same game.
Why the Cardinals can win
Yes, Tennessee has one of the more loaded offenses in the NFL. But the Cardinals are no slouch on that side of the ball either.
Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray is a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. He ranked second among quarterbacks in rushing yards (819), was tied for the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in the NFL (11), ranked 13th in passing yards (3,971) and was tied for 12th in passing touchdowns.
“He is fast, he is explosive, he is athletic, he is quick, great short-area quickness,” Vrabel said. “Makes a bunch of guys miss, knows where the first down marker is every time he runs, very aware of that. I mentioned the other day the strength of his arm. I thought it was something that, not having studied him, really stood out. He never seems too rattled. He has very good composure and demeanor.”
If Murray’s raw ability as a playmaker weren’t enough, he also has the added benefit of throwing to Deandre Hopkins and A.J. Green. And the Cardinals drafted rookie speedster Rondale Moore to round out a solid receiver group.
Murray can beat teams with his arm and his legs, and if new defensive coordinator Shane Bowen wants to make a statement in his first game, shutting down Murray would be a good way to do so.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_