On paper, the Tennessee Titans should have little problem beating the New York Giants in Sunday’s season opener at Nissan Stadium.
After all, the Titans are five-and-a-half point favorites with a fully healthy Derrick Henry and a highly motivated Ryan Tannehill.
But working against Tennessee is the unpredictability that comes with first-year head coach Brian Daboll and the new team identity he’s looking to establish.
Sure, the Titans are familiar with Daboll-coached offenses having played against him three straight years when he was the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills (winning two of those three games), but Daniel Jones is not Josh Allen, Saquon Barkley is not Devin Singletary, and Kadarius Toney is not Stefon Diggs.
While not much can be extrapolated from the preseason, the Giants offense led the NFL in total yards per game (382.7) and passing yards per game (279), while leading the NFC in passing attempts (143), and completion percentage (71.3 percent).
“There is a base; I'm sure there are things that Brian will want to do that has been brought with him from different places — Alabama, Buffalo, New England,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “The influence that (Giants offensive coordinator) Mike (Kafka)'s had being in Kansas City. These guys have been around good offenses and we'll have to be ready for everything. It's opening week.”
Here's a further look at Saturday’s matchup:
Why the Titans can win
The Titans go as Henry goes. And for the first time since Oct. 31 of last year, Henry is fully healthy.
Before breaking his foot in Week 8 of last year, Henry was on-pace for another 2,000-yard season. He averaged 117.1 yards rushing per game with a league-high 10 rushing touchdowns, and he came within one reception of tying his career high of 19 in half as many games. If he’s 100 percent healthy, a similar workload isn’t out of the question.
The Titans are a run-first team, rushing on first down an NFL-high 61.5 percent of the time last year. Conversely, the Giants were one of the worst teams at stopping the run in 2021, allowing 129 yards per game. Only six teams were worse.
If Henry is back to his pre-injury form, it could be a long day for the Giants front seven. The Titans are 22-3 when Henry rushes for 100 or more yards in the regular season.
"He's like our modern-day Jim Brown, I think," Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale told reporters on Thursday. "He's just that much different when he has the ball in his hands, so it's a challenge every time he touches it."
Added Daboll: “We're going to have to have all hands-on deck and do the best job we can of running to the football and gang tackling. You even see [Henry] on plays, he might have three or four guys on him, and somehow, he squirts through. He's just a unique player. He's very, very good."
Why the Giants can win
If there’s one question mark the Titans have, it’s their offensive line. Aaron Brewer and Nicholas Petit-Frere are stepping into starting roles vacated by Rodger Saffold and David Quessenberry, respectively, with nothing more than their preseason bodies of work and training camp performances to try and gauge how effective either will be when the games count.
The Giants best shot at pulling an upset in Nashville lies with their pass rush. Both second-year edge rusher Azeez Ojulari and rookie defensive end Kayvon Thibodeux will be game-time decisions. But if one or both play, expect to see Petit-Frere tested early and often.
Ojulari was New York’s best pass rusher last season, totaling eight sacks with 27 QB pressures, 14 QB hurries, 13 QB hits and eight tackles for loss. And Thibodeux wreaked havoc on PAC-12 QBs for three seasons, accounting for 19 sacks, 35.5 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles. He also totaled 21 QB pressures, 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in three Pac-12 Championship games.
Throw in defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who wasn’t too far Ojulari with 22 pressures and 6.5 sacks in 2021, plus Dexter Lawrence (2.5 sacks, 17 QB pressures), and the Giants may be able to generate enough pressure to take advantage of potentially unstable offensive line.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_