The New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans are both underachieving considerably in relation to their lofty expectations coming into the 2018 campaign, but each team is still fighting for positioning of some sort.
This was supposed to be Year Two of the Jets’ great makeover that began in 2016. Now, head coach Todd Bowles and his staff know that their days in their New Jersey offices are likely numbered. It's all but inevitable that a new regime will be in place next season with yet another rebuild looming for Gang Green. With a current five-game losing streak punctuating the team’s 3-8 mark, the last-place Jets are en route to their third straight losing season under Bowles, and their fifth overall since last making the playoffs in 2010.
With the team on the cusp of an another full-on rebuild and a top-five pick in next spring’s draft almost certain (again), the Jets aren’t playing for any hardware in the 2018 season — just pride. Most of the current players and the totality of the Jets’ coaching staff are certainly vying for their NFL futures, although it’s highly likely to be for a different franchise.
The Titans are perhaps the NFL’s most perplexing team of 2018, and they’re fading quicker than you can say, “Roseanne reboot!” Tennessee’s playoff chances are currently sitting at slim (12.5 percent, ESPN Power Football Index), and none is knocking on the door after back-to-back divisional losses on the road to the Colts and Texans.
After a 34-10 dismantling of New England in Nashville just three weeks ago, the Titans were back above .500 and looking like a legit competitor to Houston in the AFC South. But since knocking off the Pats, the Titans look more like the team that lost to the hapless Bills and were shut out at home by the Ravens in back-to-back games in October.
The Titans now sit at 5-6, third in the AFC South, and on the outside of the AFC playoff picture. With four of their final five games being played at Nissan Stadium, the Titans still have an outside shot of making the dance. But with three games in 11 days and their playoff destiny now out of their control, it’s not going to be easy.
On Sunday afternoon, the Jets and Titans can take out their frustrations on one another as they square off in Nashville.
New York at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 2 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jets' offensive approach
There was no way that Todd Bowles was going to publicly criticize his offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, when he was asked about the lopsided play-calling after losing to New England (again) this past Sunday, 27-13. Of the Jets’ 62 offensive plays, 50 of them were passing attempts — all while the usual starting quarterback, rookie Sam Darnold, missed his second straight game with a strained foot.
Perhaps Bowles whispered to Bates pregame, “We’re 3-8. We’re starting our 39-year-old journeyman backup quarterback, and we’re probably out of a job in a month! Throw it a thousand times!”
Or maybe Bowles and Bates knew that the Pats’ pass defense was 25th in passing yards allowed, and the Jets' 22nd-ranked rushing attack is, well, 22nd in rushing, and throwing the ball was their best bet to win against their division rival. Whatever the reasoning was, it didn’t work. The Jets managed zero second-half points, and their final three drives produced 86 yards of offense, featuring two punts and a turnover on downs.
New York’s offensive output against the Patriots wasn’t anything new, no matter who has been under center for the Jets this season. They rank 31st in first downs per game (15.6), 30th in yards per play (5.0) and converting third downs (30 percent), 29th in yards per game (302.9), 28th in turnover margin (minus-8), 26th in points per game (20.1), and are averaging only 11.2 points in their last five contests.
The best long-term option for everyone involved is to obviously get Darnold as many snaps as possible this season to aid in his development. Just don’t expect Bowles to trot out the Jets’ third overall pick with a bum foot, even though Darnold did practice Wednesday for the first time since his injury. Playing a hobbled Darnold at this point isn’t going to help anyone in 2019, even Darnold.
So it’s likely that Josh McCown will be at quarterback for the third straight on Sunday. McCown will face a Tennessee defense that was thought to be one of the league’s best but has surrendered 72 points against Indianapolis and Houston in the two most critical games of the season.
So with Darnold likely out, McCown probably starting again, starting guard James Carpenter now out for the year, and no real playmakers at any skill positions, how do Bowles and Bates get an offense that hasn’t scored more than 17 points in a game since October to suddenly put up some against a desperate Titans’ defense?
Short of just copy and pasting the shrug emoji, my answer is: Bates has to get creative. Not throw the ball 50 times creative, but think-outside-the-box creative — maybe even have a little fun.
Bates should try putting running back Isaiah Crowell in the wildcat 10 to 15 times and hope he can rush for more than 49 yards for the first time in seven games. I mean, he did have 219 yards against Denver less than two months ago — no way that was a fluke, right?!
2. Keeping Mariota clean
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota may have played the best game of his professional career on Monday night in Houston. He certainly had the most efficient night of his career, not to mention one of the most efficient in league history, completing his first 19 passes and finishing the night 22-of-23 with 303 yards and two touchdowns. But as you know, Mariota’s effort wasn’t enough as the Titans fell to the Texans 34-17, splitting the season series.
After the Titans took a 10-0 lead, Houston’s pass rush unloaded, sacking Mariota six times, hitting him eight, and forcing him out of the pocket on six additional dropbacks. The Tennessee offensive line, especially tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan, looked hapless against the Texans’ pass rush with Christian Covington leading the way with 2.5 sacks and J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus adding a sack-and-a-half each.
If you’ve been watching the Titans at all this season, you know protecting Mariota has been a problem. Mariota has been sacked 35 times in 10 games, fourth most in the NFL (all other qualifying QBs have played 11 games) and more than any other season in his career. The Titans thought they had their offensive line needs addressed by signing Lewan to the most lucrative contract extension for an O-lineman in NFL history ($50 million guaranteed), but that is far from the case as Mariota has been sacked in all but one game this season, including eight games in which he has been sacked multiple times.
Of course, Mariota is far from blameless in this matter. His pocket presence is still too tentative, he doesn’t get rid of the ball quickly enough, he struggles reading secondaries consistently, he doesn’t throw his receivers open, his play-action motions are delayed, and he hardly changes protections at the line of scrimmage.
Case in point: Against Houston, Titans tight end Jonnu Smith was lined up opposite Watt on third and long. The play called for Smith to run a route, and he never even so much as tried to chip at Watt. Watt blasted around the edge and forced Mariota to fumble. Mariota should have known that Smith’s assignment didn’t call for him to engage with Watt and audibled to a protection that at least acknowledged that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year existed.
When given time, Mariota is dangerous, and even when the pocket collapses, he’s capable of picking up big gains. But if the Titans have any hope of long-term success, let alone making a late-season run this year, the offensive line needs to keep their franchise quarterback off the turf — and Mariota should be helping his own cause, too.
3. Where did the Titans' defense go?
The Titans are a very respectable sixth in the league in scoring defense (20.3 ppg), but just two weeks ago, they were at the top of the defensive heap, having kept five of their first nine opponents under 20 points and all of them under 30. Getting outscored 72-27 in the last two games will drop you down a peg or five.
Sure, some of that grief falls on a Titans' offensive unit that has scored only three touchdowns in the last two games, can’t run the ball for more than 3.9 yards at a time (22nd in NFL), doesn’t convert third downs at more than a 40 percent clip (14th), and scores on only 34.5-percent of their drives (22nd).
While the Titans' defense is still quite viable, in the last two weeks they’ve been beaten in every way imaginable. Andrew Luck absolutely picked them apart through the air, going 23-of-29 and throwing three touchdown passes as the Colts put up 38 points in a 28-point beatdown. Tennessee’s defense didn’t lay a finger on Luck, literally — zero sacks, zero quarterback hits.
They’re also getting beaten on the ground. On Monday night, the Texans racked up 281 rushing yards and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt as Tennessee allowed a season-high 462 yards of total offense, almost 100 yards more than Houston’s season average.
They’re losing the turnover battle. In the last three games the Titans haven’t forced a single turnover. No fumble recoveries. No interceptions. No fourth-down stops. Nothing.
They’re giving up big plays. Against the Colts, Luck hit a streaking T.Y. Hilton in stride after Hilton blew past $61 million cornerback Malcom Butler on a 68-yard TD pass, breaking the game wide open in the second quarter. Against Houston, the Titans gave up 21 straight points in a matter of 10 plays, including a 97-yard, backbreaking touchdown run by Lamar Miller.
The Jets certainly don’t pose much of an offensive threat, with or without Darnold under center, so this game is a great opportunity for the Titans' defense to impose its will and get back on track — albeit two weeks too late.
For as poorly as the Titans are playing on both sides of the ball in recent weeks, it would be hard to see them coming out and laying a complete egg against a floundering Jets team that has no identity whatsoever. This week, look for the Titans to put as much pressure on Josh McCown (or Sam Darnold) as possible, to try and force him into costly turnovers.
Also, it's time for the Titans to figure out if they have any semblance of a running attack. Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis have shared the load evenly all season, and neither has produced much of anything. Together, they’ve averaged about 11 carries and just 78 yards combined per game. I think it's time to see what that fella with the Heisman Trophy sitting on his mantle can do with 20 to 25 carries. I like the Titans to cover, but it may not be pretty.