Cardinals head coach Cliff Kingsbury isn't starting the season on the hot seat, per se, but let's just say that tangible progress is expected, and soon. After missing out on the playoffs by one game last year, thanks to losing five of their last seven, the Cards are essentially in playoffs-or-bust mode. With a tweaked offense, Arizona should be in the thick of the playoff hunt come December. Sunday will be a great measuring stick for Kingsbury and Co.
The Titans' expectations for 2021 are higher than that of their opponent on Sunday, but not necessarily all-or-nothing in terms of a Super Bowl title. I don't think anyone is picking them to top the Chiefs or Bills in the AFC — yet. But general manager Jon Robinson certainly made moves to pull his squad further out of the middle of the pack and perhaps turning the AFC into a three-team race. This season could be the year Tennessee goes from "promising" to conference contender, and Sunday's game against Arizona should be a decent barometer.
Arizona at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -3
1. Receiver's delight
The Titans have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL since Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota as starting quarterback in Week 6 of the 2019 season. With the addition of wide receiver Julio Jones, Tennessee's offense can be more than efficient — it can be explosive.
Jones is one of the best receivers of his generation (848 catches, 12,896 yards, 60 TDs), and pairing him with budding star A.J. Brown could give the Titans the best receiving duo in the game. At the very least, Jones will give the Titans another weapon to ease the burden on Derrick Henry and turn an economical passing game into a force. Last year, the Titans ranked 30th in pass attempts, 23rd in passing yards, but eighth in touchdown passes. Tannehill was 18th in pass attempts (481) but fifth in passer rating. Jones should help the Tennessee air attack take that next step towards elite — if he can stay healthy.
Jones is 32 and perpetually listed as questionable. He missed seven games last season with a nagging hamstring issue and has missed 25 games in the last 10 seasons. Even when he's banged up, as long as he is on the field, he's a game-breaker. It will be fascinating to watch how first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing utilizes the future Hall of Fame wideout against a weary Arizona secondary.
2. Arizona's defensive question marks
The biggest changes to the Arizona roster this offseason came on the defensive side of the ball. All-Pro safety Budda Baker is back, as is reliable starting corner Byron Murphy Jr. But fellow starting cornerbacks from last season, Dre Kirkpatrick and eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson, were allowed to walk in free agency, leaving gaps in Cardinals' secondary. One of those gaps was supposed to be filled by veteran corner Malcolm Butler, who signed a one-year contract in the spring. But Butler announced his retirement at the end of August, leaving either fourth-round draft pick Marco Wilson or veteran Robert Alford, who hasn't played in two years, to fill his spot and cover either Brown or Jones. Good luck with that, fellas.
One of the biggest NFL offseason deals was the signing of defensive end J.J. Watt by Arizona. Watt's career accomplishments need no explanation; he's one of the best to ever strap on a helmet. In theory, Watt's pairing with outside edge rusher Chandler Jones gives Arizona one of the most ferocious front lines in football, as Jones (97 sacks) and Watt (95.5 sacks) have had more sacks than anyone else since 2012. In practice, however, the health status for each of them remains a question mark — especially that of Watt, who has played in 48 total games over the past five seasons and only posted five sacks in 16 games last year.
Jones returned to practice last week for the first time since tearing his biceps in Week 5 of 2020 and a contract dispute with Arizona's front office. While Jones seems ready to roll, Watt was just taken off the PUP list two weeks ago and is expected to take a reduced workload this season, which makes sense. But if… and this a big if… if Jones and Watt can combine their superpowers, the Arizona pass rush could be fun to watch all season long.
3. New-look Titans D
Adding a legend like Jones to the offense was a luxury, but Robinson didn't have a choice on the other side of the ball. The Titans' defense needed major changes if the team was to win their first AFC title since 2000. The defense was nothing short of bad in 2020, especially against opposing passing attacks. They ranked 25th in yards per play (5.9), 29th in passing yards allowed, 30th in first downs allowed and sacks (18), and 31st in passing touchdowns given up (36). So, yeah, changes were needed.
Robinson broke out the checkbook and used the draft to rebuild his weary Titans D. In comes veteran cornerback Jano … wait … Jackrabbit Jenkins and this year's first-round pick, cornerback Caleb Farley, to aid his wobbly-at-best secondary. He signed pass-rushing specialist defensive end Denico Autry to pair with stud second-year tackle Jeffery Simmons, and edge-rushing linebacker Bud Dupree to play opposite Harold Landry and to solidify the front seven.
Attacking your typical NFL quarterback is hard enough, but Kyler Murray is far from typical when it comes to avoiding oncoming defenders. He's as elusive as any quarterback to ever play, especially outside of the pocket. Where he gets into trouble is by holding the ball too long in-between the tackles. This is where it helps to have edge rushers like Dupree and even Landry to an extent. If the Titans can contain Murray and pressure him while he's in the pocket, you've got to like their chances on Sunday.
While both teams have high expectations for 2021, the Titans have a chance to be one of the AFC's most well-rounded teams — if the defense steps up. Sunday will be an early test for a unit under a lot of scrutiny. I'm taking the two-tone blue by a field goal in a Week 1 shootout.
Prediction: Titans 38, Cardinals 35
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.