For the first time in a long time, fans are getting excited to watch the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers play football — even if it is against one another. It is amazing how drafting a first-round quarterback can re-energize an NFL franchise unlike any other sport on earth. Both the Titans and Bucs have drafted their quarterbacks of the future in Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, and both franchises are looking to take the first steps back towards relevance and out of the basement of their respective divisions.
The development of both Mariota and Winston are going to be the key storylines for both teams in 2015, and the first page of that story starts right here in Week 1.
Tennessee at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: 3:25 p.m.ET
Spread: Tampa Bay -3.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Winston and Mariota Debuts
The obvious storyline is the co-debut of the last two Heisman Trophy winners and this year’s No. 1 and No. 2 overall draft picks. Winston is more of a pro-style quarterback compared to Mariota, but he might not be as NFL-ready. Winston had an up-and-down camp and preseason. There is no doubting his arm ability, but the decision making is Winston’s biggest learning curve. Buccaneer coaches have been preaching “one day at a time” with Winston, but with a shaky-at-best offensive line and star wide receiver Mike Evans’ health in question, Winston may be forced to grow up faster than he is ready for.
Reports on Mariota this summer have been nothing but positive. The term “poised” has been thrown around a lot at Titans’ camp, as Mariota improved with every preseason game. Like Winston, protection up front could be an issue, but unlike Winston, Mariota will have his full complement of weapons available to him. Mariota will certainly have a learning curve as the season progresses, especially transitioning to a more pro-style offense, but surely the heady rookie can improve on the Titans’ dismal offensive numbers of 2014 in which they only scored 15.8 points per game and succeeded only 30.1 percent of the time on third down.
2. Improving Both Teams’ Defenses
Lovie Smith has been widely known in the NFL for a long time as a defensive mastermind. Last year that wasn’t the case, however, as the Bucs ranked 25th in yards allowed per game. The Bucs spent the offseason bringing in players familiar with Smith’s Tampa Cover 2 defense (CB Tim Jennings, DL Bruce Carter, LB Henry Melton), but did not add the edge pass rusher they desperately needed. While none of the new additions are going to be game-breakers, they should at least help the Bucs become a more respectable unit.
As bad as the Bucs’ defense was in 2014, the Titans’ might have been worse. Tennessee ranked 31st against the run last season, an issue the front office tried to address by adding LB Brian Orakpo and S Da’Norris Searcy, in addition to the return of LB Zach Brown. The Titans also added CB Parrish Cox to help a secondary that had its fair share of issues in 2014. But the biggest defensive addition is on the sideline in assistant head coach Dick LeBeau. LeBeau is a Hall of Fame coach and a defensive innovator who will be able to offer his unique blitz packages and add an edge to Titans unit that desperately needs one.
3. Coaches Feeling the Heat
Smith and Ken Whisenhunt are no strangers to the NFL hot seat. Both find themselves in similar situations at their current respective head coaching jobs. Both coaches enter their second season at the helm of their teams, both are coming off 2-14 showings, and both have their futures invested in rookie quarterbacks. Both Smith and Whisenhunt inherited teams that were in shambles and in desperate need of revamping, but last season’s failures have put pressure on both coaches in 2015 — rookie quarterbacks or not. Whisenhunt and the Titans appear to have a better chance of improving this season thanks to added depth on both sides of the ball and a weak AFC South. On the other hand, the Bucs don’t seem to be much improved from the 2014 debacle on offense or defense.
The difference between these two squads is small, but big enough that the Titans should win. Mariota has better stable of talent to spread the ball around to. Unless the Bucs can control the clock with RB Doug Martin on the ground, the Titans improved defense could prove to be a problem that the inexperienced Winston might not be able to handle.
Prediction: Titans 20, Buccaneers 10
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.