It’s unbelievable that we’re so close to the regular season starting for the Arizona Cardinals. It feels like just yesterday when we saw the Cardinals win against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 of last season.
For the 2021 season, the Cardinals play at Tennessee on Sunday and will be one of the most highly anticipated games on the NFL slate. The Titans in most sportsbooks are three-point favorites, which means handicappers consider the two teams fairly even.
I’m sure there are some reasons why the Titans are catching the Cardinals at a great time. Arizona’s first offense never truly meshed in the preseason and they lost a preseason game against the Saints due to Hurricane Ida. The Cards’ starting defensive line didn’t play and they lost a starting cornerback in Malcolm Butler.
But the Titans haven’t exactly clicked on all cylinders either. There’s logic as to why the Cardinals are playing Tennessee at an ideal time.
Rustiness, Injuries & COVID
Ryan Tannehill was placed on the Reserve/COVID list on August 26, but came back to the team on September 4. He did miss valuable time away, so the Titans could look rusty on Sunday. You also should consider very few starters played on offense in the preseason. Julio Jones was out of practice for the majority of training camp and the preseason and had a back issue.
“There is a lot of work to do still with Julio Jones,” Tannehill said. “We have talked through a lot of looks, and seen on tape other guys take the reps and talk through the spacing and the timing. Now it is just a matter of getting out there and doing it in person and making that connection.”
It’s the first year with the 32-year-old coming from the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason, so the first week could be a learning curve. While he should be ready for anything in Week 1, the reps might not be as ramped up considering Jones hasn’t played a full 16 game season since 2018.
The Titans just got back two starters on September 8 with center Ben Jones and right guard Nate Davis who returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Just like in Tannehill, they’ve lost valuable time before the season.
The Titans’ leading wide receiver A.J. Brown missed practice on September 8 due to an injured knee but was active in practice the next day. Brown underwent surgery on both knees in January. Adding Jones along with Brown should still be tough for any opponent.
Mike Vrabel on September 10 ruled out important third-down ILB David Long for Sunday’s game.
While the Titans aren’t hurting drastically at the moment in the injury department, it’s not like the team, mostly on offense, hasn’t experienced some bumps and bruises leading up to Week one. There is another aspect to the offense that could take time.
New Offensive Coordinator
After having a top offense in 2020 with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, Todd Downing now has the keys to the Titans’ offense. With Smith taking the Falcons’ head coaching job, Downing will now have to figure out different ways to make the team impactful. The team lost Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith in free agency who combined for 106 catches, 1432 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
Of course, the team acquired Jones to pair with Brown along with Derrick Henry, but he’ll have to find out others who can contribute. Geoff Swaim and Anthony Firkser will have to step up at tight end and Downing will look to see who can be the wide receiver third-wheel. Josh Reynolds has been limited with a foot injury, so it appears Chester Rogers will be in line.
Right tackle is also a question mark, but the Titans are starting David Quessenberry on Sunday. The Titans could have their hands full with a defensive line that could have new addition J.J. Watt lined up anywhere.
This is Downing’s second year as an offensive coordinator so it might take time for the team to look like they did in 2020. Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has experience getting in offense’s heads with his blitz-heavy scheme, so this will be a good test for the 41-year-old.
Titans’ Corner Situation
The defense also has a new defensive coordinator in Shane Bowen. Bo Brack, a host of the Locked On Arizona Cardinals Podcast, mentioned teams with new play-callers on both sides of the ball in the first week didn’t fare too well in 2020.
If the game on Sunday is high-scoring like most predict, it’ll be due to the cornerback groups on both sides. Similar to Arizona’s situation, the Titans’ lack of cornerback talent is evident. The Titans did draft Caleb Farley in the first round and Elijah Molden in the third round.
But neither will start on Sunday. Second-year Kristian Fulton and new addition 32-year-old Janoris Jenkins are on both sides for Sunday’s matchup. While Jenkins brings in a ton of experience, Fulton was hurt last year and had a so-so year with just two starts.
Over the course of the year, Fulton or Farley can get better. But the Cardinals wide receivers are very talented starting with DeAndre Hopkins and the veteran presence in A.J. Green.