1. How have you seen Marcus Mariota grow as an NFL passer and what areas do you expect to see improvement from him this season?
After his rookie year, the big knock on Mariota was his accuracy on the deep ball. Last offseason he worked to improve that part of his game and came back to have a very good season in 2016 with the long ball, ranking in the top half of NFL passers despite having a pretty poor cast of receivers to throw them too besides Rishard Matthews -- who really was miscast as a deep threat anyway. Having new weapons on the outside should help him get even better in this part of the game this year.
The really incredible thing about Mariota's development to me has been the use of his eyes. He's now regularly moving defenders out of throwing lanes by looking where he wants them to run and then throwing right behind them in the spot they just left open. It's one of the major reasons that he's so deadly in the red zone.
However, he's still got a couple weaknesses to his game. He has a tendency to get lazy with his feet when he throws to the right side of the field under pressure. You can see him trying to hurry up his delivery without resetting his feet to the target and that often leads to high throws to the right sideline. Early last year he struggled with fumbles, but that seemed to get cleaned up as the year wore on. That's one of the things we love about Mariota. His flaws don't remain flaws for long. The guy works hard to improve all the time. We are incredibly excited about his future here.
2. The Titans had among the most sacks in the league last season while the Raiders were dead last but have DPOY Khalil Mack. The Raiders have a great Oline but their weakest link is still right tackle. With all that in mind, how much pressure do you expect each team to get?
The Titans pass rush is pretty underrated nationally in my opinion. Jurrell Casey is an absolute menace as an interior rusher and has gone to the Pro Bowl the last two years. He's a very odd guy to watch. He's got a short and stumpy build but he's lightning quick and outstanding with his hands. He finished 7th in PFF's Pass Rush Productivity metric among interior defenders last year.
Both the edge rushers, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, finished very high in several pass rush metrics last year. PFF's Pass Rush Productivity metric had Morgan 11th and Orakpo 14th at generating pressure among edge rushers last year (Mack was a clear #1 in that same metric). Orakpo is your classic speed-to-power type 3-4 rusher and he's the guy most likely to put up bigger sack totals (he had 10.5 last year). He will be lined up against Penn most of the game. Morgan lines up on the opposite side over right tackle and plays more of a straight power game. He finished with 9 sacks last year which shows how balanced the Titans were in their pass rush last year.
The team has pretty good depth as well behind the starters. Karl Klug is an undersized defensive tackle who serves as a pass rush specialist and the team also added Erik Walden this offseason who had 11 sacks for the Colts last year (even though I don't think he is anywhere near as good as that number suggests). Both those guys will see some action on passing downs.
The Raiders have a great offensive line and Carr loves to get the ball out quick so I'm not expecting a banner day for the pass rush, but if right tackle is a real liability, Derrick Morgan is going to be a problem. The Titans don't have a game wrecker like Mack, but they do have a very balanced attack up front with a couple Pro Bowl level players.
3. The Raiders have an airtight offense and a sieve for a defense. Would you say the Titans have a similar type of team and if so, what are the primary issues the defense is having?
I think the Titans are somewhat similar to the Raiders. There is no doubt that they are led by the offense, but I wouldn't put Tennessee's offense quite at the level of Oakland's yet either. On defense, the Titans were very unbalanced last year. They were mostly excellent against the run, but were absolutely atrocious against the pass.
The front 7 returns mostly intact. Everyone who played significant snaps is back from that 2016 group with the exceptions of former nose tackle Al Woods and former nickel linebacker Sean Spence. Woods was actually released by the team and Spence was allowed to sign with the Colts in free agency (though he later got cut). The Titans feel like they upgraded both spots replacing those two with free agent nose tackle Sly Williams and 5th round rookie linebacker Jayon Brown. Brown in particular has been extremely impressive in OTAs, camp, and preseason. The front 7 should be rock solid again this year.
That brings me to the problem area though: the secondary. The Titans starting secondary on Sunday will feature exactly zero players who started Week 1 last year which is probably a good thing. Last year's group was among the worst in the NFL. Former cornerback Perrish Cox was the worst of the bunch becoming the rare starter on a playoff contender to get outright cut midseason last year. The others were all allowed to walk in free agency or released early in the offseason.
The starters this year will feature two free agent additions in Johnathan Cyprien at strong safety and Logan Ryan at one of the corner spots. 2nd year safety Kevin Byard will start at free safety and is a guy that both the team and Titans fans are really high on. Byard could turn in to a star in the next year or two.
The last starting spot will probably go to 1st round rookie Adoree Jackson (they haven't announced who will start and won't until Sunday from the sounds of it). He was battling 2nd year corner LeShaun Sims for that spot -- and Sims probably had the edge -- but he will be out with a groin injury for Week 1 so we will get to see what the rookie can do. Jackson is an exciting player, but he's also very raw and it shows. Whoever starts at this corner spot will be the weak link on the defense most likely.
I would say most Titans fans are cautiously optimistic that the secondary will be better this year. It is certainly more talented, but when you have that many new parts it seems more likely that we see a bigger difference later in the year once they've had some time to gel. We are bracing for an Amari Cooper career day here.
4. With these two teams playing for the third straight season, how do you expect the Titans to perform differently than in the past couple seasons? Who do they have now they didn't have in this meeting last season?
I mentioned the complete overhaul in the secondary above, but the biggest difference from last season for the Titans will be the quality of their pass catchers. Last year in Week 3 the Titans had Tajae Sharpe, Rishard Matthews, and Andre Johnson as their top 3 receivers and Jace Amaro as their top pass catching tight end since Delanie Walker was injured for that game. Two of those guys are currently out of the NFL (Amaro and Johnson) and one is on IR (Sharpe). Matthews hit another gear in the 2nd half of 2016. His numbers from Week 9 through Week 17 put him on a 1,200 yard pace and he will enter 2017 as one of the starters.
The rest of the receivers are new. 5th overall pick Corey Davis missed all of preseason with a hamstring injury, but is now healthy and will play what the Titans are calling a "limited role" on Sunday. He has put on a show in practices so everyone here is excited to see what he can do. He has the potential to be the guy that takes this offense to the next level. The Titans also brought in Eric Decker after he was released by the Jets before training camp. He's healthy now as well and I would expect to see a lot of him on Sunday. He will likely operate as a jumbo slot receiver most plays.
Last, but certainly not least, is Delanie Walker. He is a major difference maker for this offense and the Titans sorely missed him in last year's game. Despite all the additions, he's still our go-to-guy in the passing game.
5. Where might the Titans see some contributions that might surprise us?
On offense the biggest surprise will probably be rookie wide receiver Taywan Taylor -- although fellow 3rd rounder tight end Jonnu Smith has a shot as well. . He was a 3rd round pick that the Titans traded up to get. Most outside of Nashville don't know his name yet, but they will soon.
Taylor has drawn rave reviews in camp as well and was the team's leading receiver in preseason. The Titans are going to use him in a lot of the more "exotic" parts of the Exotic Smashmouth offense. During preseason Taylor lined up as an outside receiver, slot receiver, and in the backfield as a running back. He's going to get some touches on Sunday and he has the speed and run after catch ability to turn some short plays on to long ones.
On defense I could go a few different ways. Rookie linebacker Jayon Brown or rookie corner Adoree Jackson would be good options, but I'm going to go with the safety Kevin Byard. As I mentioned above, he is on a track towards becoming a real star in this league. He can come down in the box and defend the run. He can cover tight ends and wide receivers man to man (he could probably be the Titans 2nd best corner today if he wanted to). In college he was a ballhawking free safety who finished his career 4th on the all time NCAA interceptions leaderboard with 19. The Titans are expecting to see more of that this year. They'll need him to come up with big plays to win tough games like this in 2017.
To see my answers to his questions, click here.