This year, the Texans have their eyes firmly on the Super Bowl. Last year they lost the AFC Championship final to the Chiefs, so the idea is to go two better.
The idea, however, is to try a different path, which is to say not to go on the road as early, as often or at all in the postseason contest. Collective confidence is high after the visiting Titans defeated the defending champions (New England) and the team with the best regular-season record (Baltimore) before their loss at Kansas City, but no one is particularly interested in a repeat performance.
In the last three years, Tennessee has been in five playoff games, all on the road. Nine of the last 10, dating back to the franchise’s last appearance in the conference championship (2002), were played in the other team’s stadium.
Of course, the way to change their playoff path is to win more often in the regular season. The Titans are the first team ever to finish 9-7 in four straight years. A fifth is likely to get them back in the postseason, particularly with this season’s expanded field. However, won’t get them where they want to be, home advantage, and will make it particularly difficult to go where they want to go – the Super Bowl.
Continuity is the key to this unit with 10 of 11 starters returning. The only departure was right tackle Jack Conklin (free agent to Cleveland) but his replacement, Dennis Kelly, was Conklin’s backup for the past four seasons and is well-versed in the scheme and his responsibilities.
The only real questions have to do with whether the Titans can sustain their level of performance from the final 10 games (plus the playoffs) of 2019 after Ryan Tannehill became the starting quarterback.
Tannehill was the 2019 Comeback Player of the Year courtesy of the best numbers of his career in several statistics. Analytics in recent years have introduced the phrase “regression to the norm” into the sports lexicon, and it is that idea that suggests there is no way Tannehill can do it again even with a strong supporting cast.
For example, Derrick Henry was the NFL rushing champion with 303 carries and 1,540 rushing yards. No one has led the league in consecutive years since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007. It’s not just Henry’s production that is important either. Much of the passing game is built on play-action, which becomes less of a factor if Henry is not the threat, he was for most of 2019.
A.J. Brown, Corey Davis and Adam Humphries comprise the most complete set of wide receivers this franchise has had since the Houston Oilers’ run-and-shoot days. Davis and Humphries dealt with injuries last season. If all stay healthy, they could be a formidable group.
Brown, in his second season, is a big body with dynamic run-after-catch potential that makes him a matchup nightmare, and he was, without question, Tannehill’s favourite option last season. Brown averaged 6.1 targets in the games Tannehill started, which was at least two more than any other Titans player over that span.
In direct contrast to the offense, the success of this unit depends on how well it moves forward in the wake of some significant changes.
Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, a five-time Pro Bowler and three times the team leader in sacks, was traded to Denver in a salary dump. Cornerback Logan Ryan, Tennessee’s most versatile defensive back who played well enough to earn some All-Pro votes in 2019, was not re-signed. Inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who transitioned to a valuable backup after having led the Titans in tackles three times (2014, 2017, 2018), also was not offered a new contract.
On top of all that defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired, and no replacement was named. Instead, Vrabel and outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen will work together to direct the defence with plenty of expected input from new inside linerbackers coach Jim Haslett.
Jeffery Simmons, the 19th overall pick in 2019, played well enough as a rookie, despite being months removed from reconstructive knee surgery, to convince coaches that they could live without Casey. The trade allows Simmons to slide into his natural position where he will need to be disruptive.
Adoreé Jackson, a first-round pick in 2017 (18th overall) lost playing time to Ryan over the past two seasons, but now will be asked to do a lot of the things Ryan did, including playing both outside and in the slot, depending on the call and the personnel group.
One thing that must change is the pass rush. Harold Landry had a team-high nine sacks in 2019. Free agent Vic Beasley was signed to either serve as a pass-rush specialist or to attract attention that helps Landry put up bigger numbers in that regard. Beasley, though, reported late for camp and failed his physical once he did, which creates concern about what, if anything, he will add to the defence.
Predicted Record: 9-7
The first half of the season is critical with five of the first eight contests, including three in a row in October, at home. The back half of the schedule includes all three division road games as well as a trip to Baltimore and a prime-time game at Green Bay in Week 16. If the Titans don’t win at least four of six, it will be difficult to get to 10 wins and to break the streak of four straight 9-7 seasons.