Titans quarterback Jake Locker is set to make his first career start against the Patriots in Sunday’s season opener. The second-year quarterback from Washington has attempted only 66 regular season passes in his professional career.
Top receiver Kenny Britt will be suspended for the opener as well, further casting uncertainty over Tennessee’s passing game. The Titans’ offensive line did excel in pass protection last year though, allowing only 24 sacks, tied for second-fewest in the league.
Sunday will be a good test for the Patriots’ new-look defense. New England will start new faces in at least six positions (including Rob Ninkovich at defensive end) compared to last year’s opener in Miami. Here are three additional areas to watch for during Sunday’s season kickoff:
1. Tom Brady was one of three quarterbacks last year with over 300 completions on throws shorter than 10 yards downfield last season, and Brady’s touchdown-interception differential on those throws is plus-54 since 2009, best of any NFL quarterback. The Titans’ pass defense was strong against short passes last year, allowing opposing offenses only 4.7 yards per attempt on throws fewer than 10 yards. The Titans struggled to defend deeper passes, allowing a 54.0 completion percentage on throws 11 or more yards downfield (third-worst in NFL). The downfield coverage could have been helped by a stronger pass rush. Only the Buccaneers (23) had fewer sacks than the Titans (28). Tennessee added former Raiders and Browns edge rusher Kamerion Wimbley in the offseason, who had 16 sacks over his last two seasons in Oakland.
2. Since his breakout season in 2008, Chris Johnson has been the focal point of the Titans’ offense. Johnson is as explosive a runner as any in the league, tying for third last year with 11 runs of at least 20 yards. Since 2008, Johnson has 55 such rushes, most of any back in the league. Getting to the edge is where Johnson can be especially deadly. He has 1,598 yards outside the tackles since 2009, most in the NFL by a wide margin, and his 24 rushes of at least 20 yards are twice as much than the next-closest back (Matt Forte) over that span. However, tough running is not a strong suit of Johnson’s, who finished last year averaging 1.4 yards after contact per rush, ranked 52nd out of 53 qualified backs. Johnson’s speed against the linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower will be a critical matchup to keep an eye on.
3. The Titans will start the second-youngest defense in the NFL this year after ranking fourth-youngest a year ago, and inexperience showed particularly when stopping the run. The Titans defense had trouble stopping interior rushes in particular last year, ranking as one of the worst units in the league on runs up the middle. However, there is some talent in the Tennessee defensive line rotation. Adding Wimbley will only help Tennessee’s young defensive line perform, as defensive tackles Sen'Derrick Marks, Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey all have the potential to make an impact along the line of scrimmage. However, improvement over last year’s defensive production up front is necessary for the Titans to take the next step from a 9-7 team in 2011 to a playoff team this season.