On paper, Sunday’s matchup between the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets appears to be a colossal mismatch.
But as Titans head coach Mike Vrabel reminds everyone, games aren’t played on paper.
“It is a difficult task to go on the road and win,” he stated. “Records don’t mean anything, and that is just the way we approach it. We have to resist those temptations to feel like, ‘OK, we have won two games in a row.’ That really isn’t going to mean anything going up to New York.”
Despite various shortcomings, the Jets allow the seventh-fewest yards per rush (3.8) and rank 10th in total defense. Their defensive line is one of the best in the NFL. And given how shaky the Titans offensive line has been through two of the first three weeks, that might be the only area New York holds an advantage.
New York's Quinnen Williams (25 percent) and Sheldon Rankins (24 percent) rank third and fourth, respectively, in pass rush win rate among defensive tackles.
“This will be one of the best, if not the best, defensive fronts we will play this year,” Vrabel said. “Williams, (Folorunso) Fatukasi, Rankins, (John) Franklin-Meyers, (Nate) Shepard, ... they roam one after another. If you don’t block (C.J.) Mosley, he is guaranteed to make the tackle. We will have to be sharp.”
Added Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill: “I am not sure how many hits they have on the year, but they are hitting the quarterback a lot. On drop backs and play actions, they are pushing the pocket. They have size, they have quickness, they have strength. A ton of respect for the way they play.”
While the Jets are sound defensively, the Titans have been working feverishly to improve in that area. Ranked 15th overall, Tennessee had its best defensive outing last week against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Titans held the Colts to 265 yards of total offense and kept a hobbled Carson Wentz in check. Things get easier this week as rookie Zach Wilson has struggled, to put it mildly, and is without left tackle Mekhi Becton protecting his blind side.
Wilson may be running for his life on Sunday, but he has a solid stable of receivers to throw to, including former Titan Corey Davis, Braxton Berrios and second-round pick Elijah Moore.
“[Wilson is] a young quarterback who has a really good arm,” Titans linebacker Rashaan Evan said. “They’re still trying to get their offense going as far as the running game; they’re pretty much going to run a lot. As a defense, we definitely have to just band together and make sure the chemistry is all there as far as cracking on all cylinders, as far as tackling, and winning that turnover margin, which is the biggest thing.”
Here’s a further look at Sunday’s matchup:
Why the Titans can win
The Titans have considerably the better offense. While the Jets have struggled to run the ball, Tennessee is one of the top rushing teams in the NFL.
Derrick Henry leads the league in carries (80), rushing yards (353) and rushing touchdowns (three), and the New York defense ranks in the middle of the pack against the run. Henry is off to the best start of his career. And if he can get through the Jets’ bulldozing defensive line, he could have another 100-yard day.
The Titans have involved Henry more in the passing game — he has 12 receptions for 105 yards through three games (his career-high is 19 receptions in 2020) — and his explosiveness out of the backfield adds another dimension to the offense, which will be without top receiver A.J. Brown and possibly Julio Jones.
“I give (Tannehill) a little nudge on the shoulder; if he doesn’t find anybody downfield, I am there to gain yards and try to make a play out of something,” Henry said. “Just working on it every day, trying to improve, being available, taking advantage of opportunities when I get the opportunity to catch the ball and get up field to make a play. Me and (running back) coach (Tony) Dews usually work on it every day. Then when the game comes and opportunity comes, just go out there and do what I can.”
Why the Jets can win
I’m not a fan of using absolutes in sports, but this game is as close to can’t-lose as you can get for the Titans.
The Jets offense scares absolutely no one. They’re the lowest-scoring team in the NFL (6.7 points per game) and rank 29th in both total offense (250 yards per game) and passing (170 yards per game) while averaging the fifth-fewest rushing yards per game (80).
The aforementioned Zach Wilson leads the NFL in interceptions (seven) and sacks (15), and he currently ranks 28th in passing yards (628), 27th in touchdown passes (two), 33rd in passer rating (51.6) and 31st in QBR (21.9). None of those numbers bode well for Wilson’s chances on Sunday.
Tennessee's Ola Adeniyi came on strong as a pass rusher against Indianapolis and he leads the Titans with 2.5 sacks through one game and three snaps of a second contest. Harold Landry had the best game of his career from a pressure standpoint last week (career best 12 QB pressures), and he currently has the third-best pass rush win rate of any outside linebacker in the NFL (33 percent).
If Bud Dupree remains out and Adeniyi gets an even bigger workload in Week 4, it could be a long day for Wilson.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_