The Titans will look to revive their offense Sunday in San Francisco, when they play their second straight away game against an NFC West opponent. It’s the last road game of the season for the Titans, who will finish up with home contests against the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Heading into the final three games of the season, the Titans control their destiny in regards to winning the AFC South.
It’s a good position to be in, but the Titans can ill afford another stumble down the stretch if they want to reach their goal.
Here are five key questions for the Titans as they ready for San Francisco:
How are the Titans’ rookie wide receivers progressing? – Both Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor have had ups and downs this season, which is to be expected of rookies.
In his eight games, Davis, the fifth overall pick of the draft, has totaled 25 catches for 256 yards. His best game was his first, when he caught six passes for 69 yards.
Davis has the most receptions of the three wide receivers chosen in the first round this season. But the NFL’s two most productive rookie wide receivers have actually been a pair of third-round picks: the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp has 56 catches (in 13 games) for 783 yards and four touchdowns, while Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster has 37 catches (in 11 games) for 585 yards and five touchdowns.
What has to be kept in mind regarding Davis is the large amount of time he missed during both the offseason and preseason because of injuries. Missing all those practice reps is especially difficult for a rookie to overcome.
Overall, Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Davis is progressing at about the level expected.
“I’d say, especially for Corey, (this is) probably where he’s going to be based on all the time he missed, which was a significant amount of time,” Mularkey said. “He’s definitely gotten better each week with the time he’s playing.”
Taylor, a third-round pick has caught 16 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown. In Sunday’s loss to Arizona, Taylor appeared to be open on a deep pass over the middle against the Cardinals – his only target of the game – but didn’t adjust to the ball.
“The coverage dictated to throw the ball to Taywan down the middle of the field,” Mularkey said. “Taywan did not look early enough. He might have scored if he had. Just a young player’s mistake, hopefully he’s going to learn from it.”
Mularkey said Taylor, like Davis, is about where the Titans expected him to be given the amount of playing time he’s received.
“Taywan is another young player that’s not getting the number of snaps that Corey is, and he’s learning from each one of them,” Mularkey said. “But they’re (both) kind of where we thought they were going to be.”
How has cornerback Logan Ryan contributed to the Titans’ defensive surge? – The Titans haven’t done a lot of matching – assigning a specific cornerback to shadow a specific receiver for most of the game – in recent years .
But they’ve changed that strategy at times this season, using free-agent acquisition Logan Ryan in a “shadow” role. In the last two games, for instance, Ryan has spent much of his time covering two of the NFL’s top receivers – Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald.
When Ryan was matched against Hopkins, he contained the Texans receiver, allowing him five catches – on nine targets – for just 44 yards, per Pro Football Focus. Houston’s Tom Savage had a quarterback rating of just 68.8 when throwing into Ryan’s coverage area.
When Ryan was matched against Fitzgerald, he allowed him just three catches for 20 yards, per PFF. Arizona’s Blaine Gabbert posted a low quarterback rating of 68.8 when throwing into Ryan’s coverage area during the game.
“He’s been amazing,” Mularkey said of Logan. “That was a tough, tough duty to put him on with (Fitzgerald). Larry is just – the size and physicality is one thing, but his route running, his precision is another. I mean, you have to stick to him like glue, it’s hard … I think he’s done really well for us, for what we’ve asked him to do against all these receivers we’ve faced lately.”
What’s slowing the Titans’ offense? — Among the issues the Titans are working on is improving their third-down success rate.
They were the fourth-best team in the league last year with a third-down success rate of 46.1 percent, but are currently 24th at 36.4 percent.
Sunday’s loss to Arizona was a good example of what’s been troubling the Titans this year: They’ve too often found themselves in third-and-long situations.
There were five instances against the Cardinals in which the Titans faced third-and-10 or more. The Titans didn’t convert any of those third downs, which was a big reason Tennessee went four-for-12 overall on third down.
This season, the Titans have converted at least 40 percent of their third downs in five games. They’re 4-1 in those contests.
What’s behind the Titans’ stunning sack totals? – Over the last four weeks, the Titans have recorded 23 sacks, the most of any NFL team. That sack total is a whopping nine higher than the second-place team, Baltimore (14), during that stretch.
It’s a drastic change from the Titans’ first nine games when Tennessee recorded only 14 sacks, which left the Titans 28th in the league.
The Titans also have a league-best 34 quarterback hits over the past four games, compared to 42 in the first nine games (28th-best).
“I think coach (Dick) LeBeau has done a great job of getting these guys prepared with the scheme, understanding what offenses are doing and how their protection scheme works, and just the overall execution,” Mularkey said. “It’s not just the pressure, the sacks. The coverage that goes with it has been very good. Everybody doing their part has a lot to do with why we have 23 sacks the last four games.”
The Titans have also faced less mobile targets in the pocket over the past month, as they’ve teed off against Gabbert, Houston’s Tom Savage, Indianapolis’ Jacoby Brissett and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
Some of the more elusive quarterbacks the Titans faced earlier in the year included Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer.
How different are the 49ers with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo? – Garoppolo is 2-0 as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, quite a turnaround for a team that was 1-10 before he entered the lineup.
Breaking things down a little further, here’s a good comparison:
Through their first 11 games pre-Garoppolo, the 49ers ranked 21st overall in offense, 17th in passing offense and 28th points. Over the last two weeks with Garoppolo playing, the 49ers have ranked seventh in total offense (402 yards per game), seventh in passing offense (296 yards per game) and 15th in points (20.5 points per game).
Garoppolo has only started four NFL games in his career, so there’s not a lot of scouting one can do on him.
“It’s going to have to be enough,” Mularkey said. “We really don’t have much of a choice there. We know that statistically everything is up (with Garoppolo) including the run game. The passing game, the yards per game, everything just has gone up in the games he’s started … They’re gaining a lot of confidence with him as their quarterback.”
— Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.