The Vikings return home this week and remain on the hunt for their first victory of 2020. Their opponent is a team which has had the exact opposite experience so far this season. The Vikings have been on the wrong end of two blowouts, while the Tennessee Titans have found ways to be on the right end of two nail-biters.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said something that, at first blush, caused many to slam their palm against their forehead. But then after letting the statement sink in, many should’ve actually found it more profound than confounding.
“We can’t start winning until we stop losing,” Zimmer told his team after their Week 2 debacle in Indianapolis.
That quote remains relevant for this Week 3 contest because as you analyze the Titans body of work through two games, you can’t help but see a team that has done exactly what Zimmer wants his team to do: they aren’t playing losing football.
As a result, they’ve had great opportunities to win games. And they’ve cashed in on those opportunities.
What does it mean to not play losing football? Here are a few examples of the type of play – the brand – the Titans have authored so far in 2020:
o No turnovers
o Few penalties – 9 in 2 games and have allowed only two 1st downs via penalty
o Balanced play calling (67 passes, 68 rushes)
o Offensive red zone (6/7) and goal line (3/3) TD efficiency
o Minimal return yardage allowed (16 PR, 0 KR)
o Stephen Gostkowski has game-winning field goals in both games
The Titans are not beating themselves. They’re playing a brand of football that makes them difficult to defeat. They are balanced, tough-minded and confident.
They are doing what Mike Zimmer is preaching.
Titans Head Coach Mike Vrabel is a defensive-minded coach who played in the NFL and was a coordinator in Houston before taking his current job. He employs a 3-4 defensive front and he’s enlisted the help of some veterans from his days with the Texans – namely DE Jadeveon Clowney and CB Johnathan Joseph – to help instill his ideas in Tennessee.
Some mainstays for the Titans, such as DT Jurrell Casey, have given way to a younger core of players on defense. Casey was traded to Denver, and now the group is led by an exciting nucleus of young players, including ILB Rashaan Evans, who led the team with 139 tackles last season, and OLB Harold Landry III, who led the team in sacks with 9.0 a year ago. Up front, it’s the veteran Clowney and 2019 `1st-round pick Jeffrey Simmons who lead the way. Tennessee’s secondary is paced by a crafty pair of safeties in Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro.
The offense is coordinated by Arthur Smith, who is now in his 10th season on the Titans staff. Tennessee’s offense is balanced and versatile, which makes sense because Smith, the group’s architect, has worked under four different Titans head coaches and began his career as a defensive assistant before climbing the ranks on offense all the way up to coordinator.
The best skill position player on Tennessee’s offense is mammoth RB Derrick Henry, who led the NFL in rushing yards a season ago. Henry is the identity of the Titans offense and he’s produced two workmanlike outings in 2020 with 84 yards rushing on 25 carries last week against Jacksonville preceded by a 31-carry, 116-yard effort in Week 1 against Denver. But the group’s triggerman is Ryan Tannehill. So far in 2020, Tannehill has been sharp, completing 70.1% of his passes for an average of 244 yards per game with six TDs and no INTs for a passer rating of 120.7.
A big and physical offensive line sets the stage for Smith’s offense to be well-rounded. LT Taylor Lewan is the best of the bunch, and he leads a group that has allowed only two sacks through two games and has consistently worn down opposing defenses by virtue of running the ball more often than not – 68 rushing attempts compared to 67 passing attempts.
Players to Watch: Jonnu Smith and Kirk Cousins
Who leads the Titans in TDs? Oh, it must be Henry, you say? No. Well then, it’s either former 1st-round WR Corey Davis or 2nd-round WR AJ Brown. Nope. It’s TE Jonnu Smith. He’s in his fourth season out of Florida International and he might be one of the best TEs you’ve never heard of. Smith has eight catches for 120 yards and three touchdowns on 12 targets so far this season, and it’s safe to say he poses a potentially serious problem for a Vikings defense that will be without LB Anthony Barr in this game (and for the rest of the season).
On the Vikings side of things, there’s no way around it that Kirk Cousins is the player to watch in this game. Dalvin Cook should be getting more touches. The onus is on Erik Kendricks to lead the charge on defense with Barr out and King Henry in town. But this is a QB-driven league and the Vikings QB has been slow to go in 2020. All eyes will be on No. 8 when the Vikings offense takes the field.
Storyline of the Game: Can the Vikings stop Henry and the Titans rushing offense?
Only four teams have allowed more rushing yards than the Vikings so far this season. Only two teams have rushed the ball more than Tennessee this season. The Vikings don’t have their best run defender – free agent DT Michael Pierce used the Covid opt-out clause in 2020. The Titans have the reigning rushing champion and he’s champing at the bit to break out.
This is a matchup that clearly favors Tennessee, but sometimes in this league the group who performs best is the group whose backs are up against the wall. In this case, that’s the Vikings defense.
If you look at momentum, or matchups or overall talent on the field, it’s hard to see this going any other way than a Titans win. But when you start a season 0-2 and you lose the way the Vikings have, and then you return for a home game in which you are an underdog…well now it’s not about matchups or talent or even much about scheme. Now it’s about grit. It’s about fighting back. It’s about pride.
Do the Vikings have grit, fight and pride? Their head coach does, most certainly. Will the head coach’s players respond? That is the question. If they don’t, it’ll be more of the same. If they do, then football fans are in for a treat on Sunday because an A effort from this Vikings bunch will likely lead to a knock-down, drag-out fight with a physical Titans team.