Time to Pay Attention to Tennessee
With the start of the regular season, The MMQB is separating Peter King’s Tuesday content into two columns—On Further Review, which usually will look at a understated but important factor or team from the weekend’s games, and the Tuesday Mailbag, where reader emails will be answered.
This week's Mailbag can be found here. Read on for On Further Review. This week, a look at the team that had an impressive road win and generated absolutely zero chatter in the wake of it: Tennessee.
Of all the impressive results on Sunday, the one generating the least buzz nationally was Tennessee’s 26-10 victory at Kansas City. (The Chiefs, recall, made the AFC playoffs last year.) Did anyone notice that win Sunday? The Titans are such an anonymous group, and they might be headed for the netherworld of 7-9 again this year. But it sure didn’t look like that at Arrowhead.
“We notice we get no attention," said cornerback Jason McCourty. “But we don’t mind. We believe in us, no matter whether anyone else does. Overrated, underrated, when you play us, you know we come to play every Sunday. We play hard.”
When I sat with new Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt midway through training camp in Nashville, it was clear he didn’t know what he had yet. He wasn’t sure if Jake Locker was his quarterback of the future, or whether he’d have to make it through this year and then find one in the 2015 draft—or, in a miracle Hail Mary, discover a sixth-round gem in Zach Mettenberger. Though the Titans lost standout cornerback Alterraun Verner in free agency to Tampa Bay, they retained four difference-makers on defense—tackle Jurrell Casey, rush linebacker Derrick Morgan, cornerback Jason McCourty and free safety Michael Griffin. Whisenhunt was still learning the best and the worst about his key guys.
Whisenhunt’s staff has made quick work of the new playbook, on both sides of the ball. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton called a great game Sunday, maneuvering Casey and Morgan into position for 14—count 'em, 14—quarterback hits or pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. McCourty had two interceptions of Alex Smith, baiting him by playing soft coverage on Donnie Avery on a late-first-half bomb up the left side. Those two picks led to two short-field field goals. And Griffin, as usual, was the physical tone-setter in the back.
“We kind of dominated the game," McCourty said. “As players, we liked what we saw out of Ray early. We bought in. It’s an aggressive defense, and I can tell you the guys like that.”
On offense, the best sign for Locker on Sunday was this: He completed 67 percent of his passes (22 of 33, 266 yards, two touchdowns, no picks, 111.4 rating), and completions are what Whisenhunt has harped on all summer. In seven years of college and pro football, Locker never completed 61 percent of his throws in any one season. In this game, he was perfectly symmetrical, completing exactly two-thirds of his throws in both halves.
Locker is the key to this team. He said in camp when he feels confident in the offense, he throws the ball better. And he threw with conviction Sunday. “I don’t want to sound arrogant," he said after the game, “… but one of our expectations was that we were going to be able to execute and be efficient on offense."
“It’s just one game," Whisenhunt said.
The Titans have to protect Locker better, to be sure; they allowed four sacks and four significant pressures. But one thing Whisenhunt brought to Tennessee was the realization his offense was going to commit to running, even if it was at times a struggle. On Sunday, Tennessee had 28 rushes for 162 yards, and Whisenhunt would take that every week.
Tennessee’s got an interesting road to contention. Just four of the last 15 games are against teams that made the playoffs last year. That’s the benefit of playing in the AFC South right now—and of having the NFC East (just one playoff team last year) on the cross-conference schedule. It’s one game, but the Titans were good Sunday. The Week 4 game in Indianapolis could be very interesting.