The wins last week for the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans, while both important, had two very different meanings from one another.
The Jaguars' 31-20 win against New England didn’t erase their collapse against the Patriots in last season’s AFC Championship Game, but it very well could have been an early season claim on the conference’s throne. Jacksonville controlled the game in its entirety. The Jags’ secondary completely rendered Rob Gronkowski useless the entire afternoon, narrowing Tom Brady’s already limited playmaking options to Phillip Dorsett and your next door neighbor, James White. The Jacksonville offense picked up 27 first downs and moved the chains 10 times on 14 third-down attempts, keeping the game just out of Brady’s reach in the fourth quarter, and all without running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Marqise Lee.
Without quarterback Marcus Mariota and Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker, and with a decimated offensive line, an enigma of a receiving corps and an eight-year journeyman at quarterback, the odds were not in the Titans’ favor against a star-studded Texans defense that was looking to rebound from a lackluster Week 1 performance. Houston’s defense sputtered for a second straight week as Mike Vrabel’s gutsy coaching performance sparked a 20-17 win over the Titans’ divisional rival, in what was very much a must-win game for the two-tone blue, despite it only being Week Two.
Sunday afternoon, the Jags welcome the Titans to TIAA Bank Stadium for their first of two meetings on the season.
Tennessee at Jacksonville
Kickoff: Sunday Sept. 23 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Jacksonville -6.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Mike Vrabel, the Mike McDermott of play-calling
If Bill O’Brien had been playing the role of Teddy KGB from Rounders during last week’s Titans-Texans game, he might have mumbled in a John Malkovich Russian accent, “... kid’s got alligator blood, can’t get a read of him...” before meticulously twisting open another Oreo and shuffling the deck before his next opponent, Matt Damon... or in this case, Mike Vrabel.
The hand Vrabel was dealt last week felt like a two and a seven off suit — it certainly didn’t feel like a winner as an 0-2 start to the season seemed almost certain. No Marcus Mariota at quarterback. No Taylor Lewan at left tackle. No Jack Conklin at right tackle. And no Delanie Walker catching passes or blocking on the end. Living on the edge had to be the game plan against Houston — and Vrabel played his hand perfectly.
Vrabel gave Pro Bowl free safety Kevin Byard the unchecked authority to audible at the line of scrimmage after the Titans’ opening drive quickly fizzled into a punting situation. As the up-back, Byard took the direct snap and threw a perfect left-handed fade to his own backup (Dane Cruikshank) on a fake punt for a 66-yard touchdown.
Late in the second quarter with a 14-point lead, Vrabel told his 6-4 backup quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) to lower his shoulder and pick up a first down on fourth and inches from the Titans’ own 31-yard line.
Playing without his two best offensive linemen (Lewan, Conklin), the linebacker-turned-coach lined up his 6-3, 247-pound running back (Derrick Henry) in the Wildcat and let him rumble for first downs and even throw a shovel pass, eventually leading to a decisive Tennessee touchdown.
O’Brien certainly couldn’t get a read on Vrabel, his former understudy, as the first-year head coach out-dueled his old mentor with creativity and aggressiveness for four quarters. All O’Brien could do was push away from the table and relent.
“He beat me. Straight up. Pay him. ... Pay that man his money.”
Vrabel continuing his play calling hot streak against a ferocious Jaguars defense, with the Titans offense still ailing, is another long shot. But the alternative is roughly equivalent to getting caught dealing from the bottom of the deck by a horde of angry “municipal workers.” (Please see “Rounders” for further reference.)
2. Offensive lines shuffled
The Titans weren’t the only team suffering from offensive line injury issues. Last week the Jaguars lost starting left tackle Cam Robinson after the second-year starter went down with a torn left ACL. With Robinson placed on injured reserve, head coach Doug Marrone turns to the undrafted free agent from James Madison, Josh Wells, to protect Blake Bortles’ blind side.
Wells plugged in perfectly against the Patriots after Robinson went down in the first quarter. In fact, the entire Jaguars offensive line was fantastic keeping Bortles upright against New England, allowing no sacks and only four quarterback hits. The Titans will offer a more formidable pass rush than the Pats did last week with veteran quarterback tormentors Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey and recently added linebacker Kamalei Correa.
The Titans are optimistic about the returns of Lewan and Conklin to game action this week as both tackles have returned to practice in limited reps. Much like the Jags last week, the Titans' shorthanded O-line held its own against the Texans, keeping running lanes relatively open for Henry and Dion Lewis and only surrendering a single sack. Sunday against Jacksonville will be an even greater test for a Titans offensive line looking for cohesion.
3. Who's who under center
Last week Blake Bortles turned in the best performance of his NFL career without number one receiver Marqise Lee and running back Leonard Fournette, throwing for 377 yards and four touchdowns against the Pats. His numbers last week were certainly attention grabbing, but what was especially eye-popping was actually witnessing the oft-criticized Bortles make game-deciding throws and scrambling for back-breaking first downs with a lead late in the fourth quarter. Whether this new and improved Bortles is here to stay for the next 15 weeks remains to be seen, but through the first two weeks of the season, the quarterback play in Jacksonville seems solid.
While the quarterback situation in Jacksonville is solidifying, the one in Nashville is still too fluid. Blaine Gabbert filled in for the injured Marcus Mariota against Houston, and while Gabbert’s numbers (13-of-20, 177 yards, TD) weren’t as gaudy as Bortles’ last week, he did lead the Titans on a 12-play, 62-yard, fourth-quarter drive capped off with the game-winning field goal.
With numbness in his fingers and a nerve in his throwing elbow reverberating like a misplayed guitar string, Mariota’s status for Sunday is still uncertain and could come down to another game-time decision. If Mariota isn’t able to give it a go, the nomadic signal caller from Mizzou is waiting for another shot.
Last week’s win for the Titans very well could have been a season saver, no matter it only being Week 2. If the offense is healthy — and that is a big “if” — the Titans have the chance to put up two huge division victory pelts on their wall in the first three weeks of the season. It all depends on Marcus Mariota’s weary elbow against the Jags' brutish defense.
Prediction: Jaguars 22, Titans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.