NFL

Are Either the Jags Or Titans Ready For Primetime?

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As the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars enter the national spotlight for Thursday Night Football, it’s a chance for America to judge if either team can challenge for the AFC South championship come the end of December.

Sure, Houston sits atop the division with a pedestrian record of 4-3. But after watching Brock Osweiler’s miserable Monday night performance in Denver, coupled with clunkers against any teams that even quasi-resemble a contender, do you have any faith in the Texans?

The door is wide open. Unfortunately, the Titans and Jaguars can’t help but trip over themselves.

Let’s start with Tennessee, perhaps a bit of a better squad than projected before the start of the preseason. The Titans resemble a throwback, smash-mouth football team.  They rank No. 3 in the NFL in rushing (143.4 yards per game), thanks in large part to a rejuvenated DeMarco Murray.

Tennessee stole Murray for pennies on the dollar, needing only to swap first-round picks to obtain one of the game’s premier tailbacks.

But the biggest improvements for the Titans have come in the trenches.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Titans’ offensive line of Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Josh Kline and rookie Jack Conklin as the No. 1 unit in the league entering Week 5. Unfortunately, Spain is set to miss up to 4 weeks with a bruised bone in his right knee, coach Mike Mularkey said earlier this week.

The Titans have also been among the league’s best teams at pressuring opposing passers. Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan have combined for 14.5 of the Titans’ 20 sacks, a mark tied for third in the NFL. Considering the relatively unstable offensive lines across the rest of the division, Tennessee’s pass rush should feast on quarterbacks in the final four head-to-head meetings.

So, why hasn’t a team with a dominant offensive line, a promising young quarterback (former No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota) and a versatile group of pass rushers taken command of the league’s worst division?

For starters, Mariota has not progressed as quickly as anticipated. On the surface, his numbers are not significantly worse than his 2015 rookie campaign – an identical interception rate (2.7 percent), a 2-to-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions and slight ticks downward in completion percentage (61.5) and yards per attempt (7.1).

But Tennessee, with an almost entirely new receiving corps, still ranks 27th in the league in passing offense and 20th in scoring. Even with a much-improved defense, the Titans possess a minus-4 turnover differential.

Then, there’s the issue which could come into focus on Thursday night. No one fears a road trip to Tennessee.

Since the start of the 2014 season, the Titans possess the worst home record in the NFL – a paltry 3 wins and 17 losses. Coincidentally, two of those victories came at the expense of Jacksonville. Yes, the Titans have obviously struggled to win anywhere the previous two seasons, but their average margin of defeat is 9.2 points per game. They’re getting beat by two scores every time they take the field at Nissan Stadium.

That simply cannot happen.

As for the Jags, let’s cut to the chase. It’s been an extremely disappointing start.

On paper, this appeared to be an exciting offense poised to take the next step along with a talented, young defense which invested heavily in free agency and high draft picks. None of that has truly materialized as of yet.

Head coach Gus Bradley finds himself in the center of the firestorm. Since taking the job in 2012, Bradley has posted a record of 14-40. Worse than the wins and losses, the Jags appear to be taking steps backward in almost every facet of the game.

Blake Bortles, who set franchise passing records for yards and touchdowns in 2015, turned the ball over 11 times in the team’s first six games. Completing 59.7 percent of his throws, Bortles’ mechanics have gone haywire, with an elongated windup and inconsistent footwork plaguing his deeper throws.

Against Oakland last Sunday, Bortles completed only 2 of 9 throws targeted between 10-19 yards downfield.

Yet, it’s not all on Bortles. Certainly, he deserves his share of the blame; such is the life of a starting quarterback in the NFL. But making a change under center would be incredibly short-sighted. Chad Henne offers nothing at this stage of his career, and rookie Brandon Allen is a sixth-round project out of Arkansas.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson has been absent coming off a 1,400-yard sophomore campaign and a trip to the Pro Bowl. He’s caught only 26 passes on 55 targets as the undisputed No. 1 option in the Jags’ attack.

Making matters worse, Jacksonville is on pace to set a new record for futility on the ground. Despite adding Chris Ivory from the New York Jets to second-year starter T.J. Yeldon, the Jags average just 76.7 rushing yards per game.

Defensively, while better, the Jags haven’t come far enough to save Bradley’s job either. First-round pick Jalen Ramsey has shown flashes, Telvin Smith oozes athleticism as a versatile coverage linebacker and the pass rush produced 13 sacks thus far to improve to the middle of the pack.

But the Jags struggle to get off the field and keep opponents out of the end zone. Jacksonville ranks 27th in third-down defense (44.6 percent conversion rate) and 26th in scoring (26.7 points per game).

Throw in the fact that the Jags lead the league in penalty yardage, and it’s no wonder why Bradley finds himself on thin ice. The Associated Press reported owner Shad Khan met with coaches and players this week, although ESPN’s Michael DiRocco described the tone as “not confrontational.”

But at the end of the day, it’s all about wins. Khan’s patience must be running thin, matching the level of frustration of his fan base. Jacksonville hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007.

After all, the man has reportedly invested upwards of $70 million to improve EverBank Field and allowed general manager David Caldwell to engage in a $127.6 million splurge in free agency.

As of yet, it hasn’t been money well spent.


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