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What to know about the Tennessee Titans ahead of preseason Week 1

You probably know quite a bit of this already.

Chicago Bears v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

No team has had an offseason more closely entwined with Atlanta’s than the Tennessee Titans, who just happened to line up as the first Falcons preseason opponent. These two teams have, by way of hiring and trades and signings, transformed one another’s fortunes in a way that is sort of remarkable.

That’s what happens when one of your key coaches leaves your team to become the head coach in the other conference, and when that same team trades you their superstar wide receiver. For a long time now, it has seemed like Tennessee is a place where former Falcons just tend to land—Harry Douglas, Ty Sambrailo and Vic Beasley all spring to mind—but these moves were more seismic and will unquestionably change the direction of both teams.

That makes our dive into this matchup perhaps a bit more compelling than your usual preseason preview of an AFC team. Let’s line up what the Falcons are facing when they square off against the Titans in Week 1 of this shortened, three game preseason.

2020 rankings

Falcons vs. Titans

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 4-12 16 18 5 27 19 29 32 6 18 9
Titans 11-5 4 2 23 2 24 28 29 19 7 2

The 2020 Titans were, in some important ways, strikingly like the very best Falcons teams of the Mike Smith era. The defense was lousy statistically but quite good at creating turnovers, and the offense used a strong ground game and efficient passing game to punish opposing defenses. The Titans have a much better rushing attack than, say, the 2012 Falcons did, and they were even more proficient at creating turnovers. But

It’ll be interesting to see how Arthur Smith’s fine work in Tennessee translates to Atlanta, where he’ll be hoping to elevate a run game that was largely ineffective a year ago outside of a couple of good stretches from Todd Gurley and Ito Smith. It’ll be equally interesting to see how Todd Downing translates a wealth of talent into results without Smith there, and whether there’ll be any significant dropoff as a result.

Neither team has anywhere to go but up defensively, at least on balance. The Falcons were noticeably more with it once Raheem Morris took over the defense last year but still have significant question marks in terms of talent, while the Titans would presumably like to be less dependent on turnovers to stall teams from marching downfield. There is plenty to work on for both teams, though the Titans should still be good in 2021 even if they regress a bit offensively.

How the Titans have changed this offseason

The big thing, of course, is that the Titans lost Arthur Smith. The other big thing, of course, is that they gained Julio Jones. We sort of alluded to this above.

The loss of Smith is, depending on your perspective, either a very big deal or not a huge one. The change to Todd Downing is a shift to a man who has held Smith’s old tight ends coach position for the Titans both year Smith was the offensive coordinator, and Downing is an experienced coach who has previous coordinator experience from a one-year stint in 2017. That year was a forgettable one for Downing despite the presence of a few quality playmakers, including a still useful Marshawn Lynch, Amari Cooper and Jared Cook, but Downing is inheriting a much better situation in Tennessee. My guess is that this Titans offense won’t be quite as effective as it was this past season, but it’ll still be very good.

Part of that is just the existing talent on hand—Ryan Tannehill has blossomed into a very good quarterback in Tennessee, Derrick Henry is a rolling Moai head with spikes on him and A.J. Brown is one of the best young receivers in football—and part is the addition of Julio Jones. He’s already dealing with some minor injury issues that’ll likely ensure he won’t take a single snap in preseason, but we all know how good Julio is when he’s healthy, and how much he can elevate this Titans offense at his best.

The Titans are hoping their 2021 draft class will be far more impactful than their 2020 version, which was an absolute disaster that saw them cut their first round pick (Isaiah Wilson) and not get a whole lot from anyone else. Caleb Farley was a darling of many Falcons fans at the cornerback position, promising tackle Dillon Radunz hopes to figure into the right tackle position at some point later this year and the team added several players who should be depth contributors this year.

In free agency, the team lost key contributors Jadeveon Clowney, Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith and Malcolm Butler, as well as useful reserves/part-time starters like Dennis Kelly at tackle and MyCole Pruitt at tight end. The tight end position is notably weaker than it was when Smith and Pruitt were there last year, but the team will hope Geoff Swaim and Anthony Firkser in particular can elevate their respective games in their absence. With those losses came some significant additions, including pass rushers Bud Dupree and Denico Autry, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and of course Jones. Whether they’re a stronger team now than they were last year likely depends a lot on how Jones and and Dupree fare, as well as whether new addition Kendall Lamm at tackle can be an upgrade over Kelly. He’s currently locked in a battle with Ty Sambrailo, which would make me nervous.

Overall, though, these Titans still have their strong core on offense and some useful pieces on defense, and I’d fully expect them to be in the mix for the AFC South title. That’s especially true with the Colts facing a deeply unfortunate injury maelstrom at the quarterback position, the Texans being basically dead in the water minus Deshaun Watson and the Jaguars entering the promising but uncertain first year of the Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer era.

What to expect on Friday

For all the intrigue around the Julio trade, he’s unlikely to touch the field. Instead, what we’ll get a much better look at is the depth for both teams, which is a major question mark for both sidelines.

Atlanta’s biggest questions revolve around the offensive line and...well, almost across the board on defense. We don’t have a determined starter at right tackle, center or left guard yet, and there’s only a proven true favorite at one of those positions. The Falcons need to figure out who’s starting and then figure out how they’re going to assemble quality depth with Matt Gono out for an indeterminate amount of time, which means plenty of time for rookies Drew Dalman and Jalen Mayfield (who are competing for jobs but may wind up backups Week 1), plus veterans like Willie Beavers and Jason Spriggs. Defensively, they need to sort out their rotation at outside linebacker in the coming weeks, determine the pecking order along a very unsettled defensive line and sort out their cornerback corps beyond A.J. Terrell and probably Fabian Moreau. Getting that right—plus settling the punt returner battle and figuring out who exactly is going to be punting for them this season—is a big job that will take up a lot of the limelight Friday night and beyond.

Oh, and A.J. McCarron and Feleipe Franks are battling at quarterback. If we see Matt Ryan at all, it won’t be for very long.

Tennessee, meanwhile, will be looking to start settling a few key position battles. Chief among them is probably that right tackle spot, which appears to be between Lamm and Sambrailo at the moment, but cornerback is also interesting with Jenkins, Kristian Fulton, Farley and others contending for spots. Like the Falcons, the Titans also have a pretty scary backup quarterback battle that has yet to play out, this one between Logan Woodside and Matt Barkley.

The outcome of this game doesn’t matter in the slightest. What we should look for—and what Titans fans will be looking for in turn—is how reserves, rookies and roster hopefuls fare against another football team. Here’s hoping Atlanta manages to look good against a capable Tennessee squad, and that we’re closer to figuring out how some of the team’s many position battles are going to shake out by the time the game is over.