Two of the game's best young quarterbacks square off in Music City
The Philadelphia Eagles travel from the City of Brotherly love to the City of Bro Country in what could be a very fun matchup with the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon. This game is a tale of two quarterbacks: the Eagles’ Carson Wentz and the Titans’ Marcus Mariota.
Wentz’s return last week against Indianapolis was... fine. Not great, but certainly not terrible. There was a lot to like seeing him scramble for first downs on third and long and throwing an opening-drive touchdown, but the rust of missing the last nine months of football was certainly evident with missed throws and turnovers. How Wentz progresses in his second start of the season against a tough Titans pass rush will certainly be a focal point.
For the Titans, they can live on the edge for only so long. Their long-term future, for the remainder of this season and beyond, rests on the arm and health of Marcus Mariota. The question is, how healthy is Mariota’s arm? Apparently the feeling in his throwing hand is progressing back to normal after feeling a sense of numbness after a blow to his ulnar nerve against Miami two weeks ago (think of it like hitting your funny bone really hard for two weeks straight). How impactful Mariota will be throwing the football is still to be determined, but more firepower will certainly be needed compared to last week's 100-yard performance against Jacksonville.
Quarterbacks aside, this matchup features two coaching staffs unafraid to push the envelope and take risks to put up points, as well as aggressive defenses designed to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
Sunday in Nashville should be fun.
Philadelphia at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Philadelphia -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Keepin’ ’em on their toes
Considering the current state of the Titans’ offense — unhealthy, quarterback uncertainty, averaging a measly 258 yards in their two wins (4.5 yards/play) — head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur have been doing their best Greg Maddux impression. They’ve been crafty, throwing offensive changeups, relying on defense, adapting on the fly, and still getting wins.
Two weeks ago, with a depleted offensive line and a backup quarterback, it was Vrabel and LaFleur’s trickery and creativity that doomed Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans. Last week against Jacksonville, with backup-turned-starter Blaine Gabbert sidelined with a first-quarter concussion and an ailing starter-turned-backup Mariota taking his place, Vrabel and LaFleur were able to utilize what they could from their numb-armed, backup-who-normally-starts-but-didn’t-start quarterback. It wasn’t pretty, but the mobility of Mariota teamed with an outstanding performance from the Titans defense and a perfect outing from kicker Ryan Succop gave Tennessee the winning edge.
The Titans are going to need actual touchdowns to keep up this week — field goals aren’t going to cut it. Assuming Mariota’s throwing paw is still semi-numb, I’m not expecting LaFleur to be telling his receivers to go long against an experienced albeit banged-up Eagles secondary. Last week, LaFleur kept throws relatively easy for his ailing QB. The average Mariota throw against Jacksonville went for just 5.5 yards per attempt, and only three completed passes gained more than 10 yards. So how does the Titans coaching staff, with Mariota still not 100 percent and no real skill player emerging as a game breaker, adapt to face an aggressive Eagles defense and a healthy Carson Wentz on offense?
Time for Vrabel and Co. to start throwing knuckleballs, I guess. Or...
2. ... find a way to run the ball
When the Titans drafted Derrick Henry in the second round of the 2016 draft, the selection was universally lauded as a steal. The Titans had found their cornerstone running back to go along with their franchise quarterback and emerging offensive line. After starting just four games as Demarco Murray’s backup during his first two seasons, Henry has now taken over as the Titans’ primary back, even with the addition of the versatile veteran Dion Lewis.
Last week the Titans racked up 150 yards rushing as a team against the Jaguars; however, only 83 of those yards came from Henry and Lewis on 27 combined carries, good for only three yards a pop. While Mariota can change the game with his legs, as he did last week in Jacksonville (7 carries, 51 yards), the Titans can’t live forever having their oft-injured quarterback taking hits in the open field.
The Tennessee running backs have to be better, starting with the dude that’s getting almost half of the team’s carries. Through the first three games of 2018, Henry is averaging a whole yard less per carry (3.0) while averaging six more carries per game (15.3 att./game) than he did in his first two seasons (4.35 ypc, 9.1 att./game). Sure, the offensive line's injury woes are certainly a factor in those dipping numbers, but as the O-line heals with the return of Jack Conklin, the time is now for Henry to show that he’s the man in the Titans’ backfield and give Vrabel at least one reliable weapon for an offense that desperately needs it.
3. Wentz is back
It was no surprise that Carson Wentz was rusty in his return to game action last week against Indianapolis after missing the last nine months while recovering from two torn knee ligaments. It certainly wasn’t the MVP-type performance we saw from Wentz before being hurt last December. He acknowledged that he misread Indy’s coverages and mistimed his throws. He had two costly red zone turnovers and was sacked five times.
That being said, there is no reason to panic if you’re an Eagles fan. Wentz wasn’t great, but he was certainly good enough to win against an improved Colts defense. He led a fast-break opening drive for 12 plays and 79 yards, capped off with a cathartic touchdown pass to Dallas Goedert for an early 6-0 lead. He finished the day 25-of-37 for 255 yards with a touchdown and an interception, using seven different receivers (three of whom were tight ends), all without his two starting running backs (Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi) and starting wide out Alshon Jeffrey. Both Sproles and Ajayi were limited this week in practice, but Jeffrey has been given the green light from doctors following offseason rotator cuff surgery, possibly giving Wentz a viable downfield threat.
After being sacked five times last week, Wentz faces another formidable pass rush in the Titans front seven, especially if Kamalei Correa is healthy enough to give it a go.
This game’s underlying story is kind of simple: Can Marcus Mariota throw the ball? Should Mariota be healthy enough to make throws more than five yards downfield, I think this could be Week 4's most exciting matchup. If not, it could be a long afternoon in Music City for the two-tone blue.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Titans 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.