The Tennessee Titans are 5-27 in their past two seasons, haven’t had a winning record since 2011, haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008 and haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 3, 2003. Sunday, they play host to the Vikings in the season opener. The teams haven’t met since 2012, when Christian Ponder threw two touchdown passes (yes, that Christian Ponder) to lead the Vikings to a 30-7 win at the Metrodome. Let’s take a closer look at this year’s Titans …
Overview: Owner Amy Adams Strunk has been given kudos for upgrading the facilities and hiring as general manager 40-year-old Jon Robinson, a rising star who comes from New England with a stamp of approval from Bill Belichick. But the decision to keep Mike Mularkey as head coach by simply removing his interim title suggests that the long-running rumors of a possible sale might not be unfounded. Mularkey went 2-7 last year after Ken Whisenhunt went 1-6. But the Titans are still paying Whisenhunt, now the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. Chances are extremely good that Robinson, like any general manager, would have preferred hand-picking his own coach.
Mike Zimmer on their strengths: The Titans are somewhat similar to the Vikings in philosophy. Offensively, Mularkey wants to play a run-oriented style that was labeled “exotic smashmouth” football when he was coaching in Pittsburgh. Robinson focused on that side of the ball this offseason when he beefed up the offensive line with first-round draft pick Jack Conklin and former Texans center Ben Jones; and the running back position with free agent DeMarco Murray and second-round draft pick Derrick Henry. Defensively, coordinator Dick LeBeau, now in his 58th straight NFL season as a player or coach, is a key founding father of the zone blitz. After one season of assisting Ray Horton, LeBeau is now calling plays with Horton having left for Cleveland.
Said Zimmer: “Offensively, the two backs are excellent – (Derrick) Henry and DeMarco Murray. They’re very strong at the tight end position. (Anthony) Fasano was in Dallas when I was there a long time ago. (Marcus) Mariota is a very accurate thrower with the ability to run. They've got two top-11 tackles (Conklin at right tackle and Taylor Lewan at left tackle) on the offensive line. The offense is different than what it was a year ago. As far as personnel, it's completely different.
“Defensively, they’re stout up front. Coach (Dick) LeBeau has really taken over the play calling now. So, if he goes by what he has done in the past, he is going to be a heavy-pressure guy. The corners (Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox) are both good. They added a safety from Arizona (Rashad Johnson), but they’re going to be a physical front seven, and then they'll be a physical front offensive line, too, with their tight ends and the movements and the things they’ll do.”
Zimmer on the dangers of Week 1 opponents: “(You’re not as comfortable) as you would be in Week 6 or 7. But first games are always – especially with basically new staffs – they're always a little bit concerning, because what you've seen on tape may not necessarily be what you see in the game.”
Keep an eye on: Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle
Yes, everyone will be watching how Mariota and Murray work together. But perhaps the best player on Tennessee’s roster is Casey. Now in his sixth season, the former third-round draft pick was second-team All-Pro in 2013 and a first-time Pro Bowler with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. Casey also has had a full season under LeBeau. With LeBeau now calling plays, look for the 6-1, 305-pound Casey to take on an even larger role. A role that already was pretty diverse for a tackle in a 3-4 scheme. Despite his frame, Casey has shown that he’s not limited to just lining up inside. He also can rush off the edge and can be one of those maddening LeBeau weapons that roams the line of scrimmage before rushing as part of the zone blitz package.
Key stat: 18-39.
Mike Mularkey’s career coaching record. He went 14-18 in two years in Buffalo (2004-05), 2-14 in one year in Jacksonville (2-14) and now 2-7 in Tennessee. A former tight end, he played for the Vikings from 1983-88. After being drafted by the 49ers in the ninth round, he was released as a rookie and signed by the Vikings. He played in 75 games, catching 42 passes for 464 yards and five touchdowns. He’s 0-1 as a coach against his former team.
It doesn’t mean a darn thing now, but this is Tennessee’s record in its past three season openers. They’re 9-36 in all their other games over the past three years.