GREEN BAY - If the Green Bay Packers think they’re the only team playing for something Sunday in Nashville, maybe they should think again.
The Tennessee Titans, forecast for a 3-13 season by Sports Illustrated, carry a 4-5 record and postseason hopes into their game against the Packers.
“If I’m Green Bay I’d be worried about that defensive line,” an executive in personnel said. “Tennessee will pound you with the run and play-action you.”
That scout predicted the Packers (4-4) would prevail, 24-17, partly because quarterback Marcus Mariota in his second season isn’t ready to beat Aaron Rodgers in his 12th.
“It can’t be on his shoulders,” he said. “It would have to be a total team victory. He’s just touching the tip of the iceberg … just beginning to flourish as an NFL quarterback.”
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The Titans, who went 5-27 the past two seasons, are a 2½-point underdog. They’re one game behind Houston in the AFC South.
“Tennessee is more balanced (than the Packers) and can run the ball down your throat,” an AFC personnel man said. “If their usually efficient quarterback doesn’t throw an uncharacteristic pick-6 they would have beaten San Diego (Sunday).
“But Tennessee has not played very good defense and I don’t see them shutting down Green Bay’s passing game.”
He called it for the Packers, 31-27, just as another executive picked the Packers, 21-14.
“I don’t know what to think about the Packers,” said the third scout. “Who knows with them? But their backs are against the wall and they still have the talent.
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“They’ve got to figure this out. Only thing I wonder about is the dynamics in the locker room. Something’s not right. The film I watched, that (Indianapolis) game should have been an easy game.
“They still have talent on the outside. The secondary for Tennessee against the skill (positions) for Green Bay. The Packers get the edge there, and definitely at quarterback. Obviously, Tennessee isn’t quite there yet.”
First-year coordinator Terry Robiskie, a 34-year assistant for six NFL teams, calls the plays in conjunction with coach Mike Mularkey. The run rate of 47% is among the league’s highest. They feature extra tight ends, even a sixth lineman in a power-geared ground game that ranks third (144.2). The formations are funky. The Titans rank eighth in yards (379.4), 12th in points (24.1) and tied for 22nd in giveaways (13).
A bit player for seven years in San Francisco, TE Delanie Walker (6-1, 248) has caught 252 passes since joining Tennessee in 2013. At 31, he still probably runs 4.65 and is a difficult matchup for LBs and slower safeties. He plays hard and might qualify as the go-to receiver. Anthony Fasano (6-4, 255), another 11-year veteran, still can make a big catch or two but comes up short as a blocker. At WR, the pecking order is Rishard Matthews (6-0½, 217), rookie Tajae Sharpe (6-2, 194) and slot Kendall Wright (5-10, 191), the 20th pick in ’12. Matthews, a seventh-round pick in ’12 who became a starter in Miami last year, uses his toughness to do the dirty work inside. He has strong hands, runs crisp routes and blocks well. He just isn’t going to stretch the field. Sharpe, a fifth-round pick, is more of a possession type as well. He’s quick, sure-handed and reliable. He gets knocked around at the line and can’t get vertical, either. Wright doesn’t separate deep and isn’t aggressive inside. However, he is quick, and Marcus Mariota likes him in key situations.
In LT Taylor Lewan (6-7, 309) and rookie RT Jack Conklin (6-6, 308), the Titans have bookends to be envied. Lewan, the 11th pick in ’14, doesn’t have the prototypical arms (33 7/8 inches) or hands (9¼) of most franchise left tackles. However, he has been outstanding in protection and solid in the run game. Lewan runs 4.85, goes hard and is doing a better job keeping his emotions in check. Conklin, the eighth pick, has long arms (35), big hands (10 3/8) and a mauler’s mentality. When he blocks down on a counter, they stay blocked. It remains to be seen if he has the balance and athleticism to protect against elite rushers. RG Chance Warmack, the best player inside, was lost for the year in Game 2 (hand). Another capable starter, LG Quinton Spain (6-4, 330), is expected to miss a third straight game (knee). It means ex-center Brian Schwenke (6-3, 318) replaces Spain, former Patriot Josh Kline (6-2½, 300) starts for Warmack and the glue of the unit remains C Ben Jones (6-2½, 308). Schwenke, Jones and Kline all are short-armed (32) and limited athletically, but with their toughness can mush adequately in the run game. Schwenke, a 27-game starter, has a bad body but gets after people and doesn’t make foolish mistakes. Jones, a three-year starter in Houston, can’t run and isn’t overly strong but just does the job. Kline was claimed on waivers from New England, where he spot-started from 2013-’15. He’s the weak link with limitations galore.
Mariota (6-3½, 222), the second pick in ’15, has increased his passer rating as a rookie (88.6) to 94.1, which ranks 15th. He’s a fantastic athlete with 4.45 speed, 6.87-second short shuttle and vertical jump of 36. His Wonderlic score was 33. He has a powerful arm, good accuracy and nice touch. The Titans work hard to protect him. His No. 1 failing has been fumbling (seven, lost four). Since Oregon, he has been loose with the ball in the pocket and on the move. Backup Matt Cassel (6-4½, 228) has career marks of 79.4 and 35-44.
DeMarco Murray (5-11½, 220), acquired in trade from the Eagles in March, has been exceptional. An upright runner, he’s still best between the tackles. He doesn’t punish tacklers but runs hard, can avoid and once had 4.40 speed. He does damage splitting wide as a receiver, too. Rookie Derrick Henry, a great complement to Murray, isn’t expected to play (calf). There’s a big dropoff to pedestrian Antonio Andrews (5-10, 225). FB Jalston Fowler (5-11, 254), a fourth-round pick in ’15, blocks and catches well.
Second-year coordinator Dick LeBeau, 79, directs his quirky, unpredictable fire-zone defense out of a base 3-4. He would prefer to play man coverage but has mixed it up more this year. According to Sportradar, his blitz rate of 35.5% ranks fourth. Anything goes on third and long, including 300-pounders standing up. The Titans rank 16th in yards (356.9), 22nd in points (25.1) and tied for 28th in takeaways (seven).
The best player on defense, and one of the NFL’s leading 3-techniques, is Jurrell Casey (6-0½, 305). A third-round pick in 2011, he can be a difference-maker against run and pass. He’s on the dumpy side with small hands (8 7/8) and average arms (32). However, he has tremendous balance, leverage, strength, quickness and instinct. DaQuan Jones (6-4, 322), a fourth-round pick in ’14, is the consummate 5-technique. He’s hard to budge, can take up two gaps and provides steady pocket push on the rush. NT Al Woods (6-3½, 307), with his fourth team since ’10, has huge arms (36) and hands (11). He doesn’t play much, but when he does the end result is OK. DE Angelo Blackson (6-4½, 318), a fourth-round pick in ’15, is a big athlete who can be disruptive on passing downs. DT Karl Klug (6-3, 278), a fifth-round pick in ’11, has lasted because of tenacity, fast hands and a no-nonsense attitude.
LOLB Derrick Morgan (6-3, 261), the 16th pick in ’10, and ROLB Brian Orakpo (6-3, 257), the Redskins’ 13th pick in ’09, form one of the NFL’s better outside tandems. Morgan only runs in the 4.8s and isn’t explosive. However, he is athletic, a determined bull rusher, flexible and an all-out charger. He has inside-outside rush versatility but can’t cover a lick. Orakpo, with 4.7 speed, still can turn the corner because of his swift get-off and length. He takes care of the run and gives excellent effort as well. Of the backups, ex-Bear David Bass (6-4, 256) has been more productive than rookie Kevin Dodd (6-5, 277), a second-round pick who continues feeling his way back from a spring foot fracture. On the inside, Avery Williamson (6-1, 246) and ex-Bronco Wesley Woodyard (6-0½, 233) start but ex-Steeler Sean Spence (5-11½, 231) often enters in sub. Williamson, a three-year starter, makes a ton of tackles because of superior feel. Woodyard is even smaller but has better speed and finds the ball, too. Spence is supposed to be the best of the three in coverage. In truth, none of them plays pass well, a weakness foes exploit.
With LC Perrish Cox (5-11½, 190), RC Jason McCourty (6-0, 193) and nickel back Brice McCain (5-9, 190), the Titans are vulnerable. Cox, an ex-49er, is a 43-game starter since entering as a fifth-round pick in ’10. He has the speed, ball skills and size, although his tackling is shaky. However, he gambles too much hunting picks and compromises the defense. McCourty, a six-year starter, is the exact opposite. He’s too cautious, plays scared and doesn’t challenge receivers even though he has sufficient speed and skill. McCain, basically a career slot since ’09, has a degree of quickness but has lost speed and is heavily penalized. His tackling is suspect, too. If ex-Cardinals FS Rashad Johnson (5-11, 204) returns from a two-game absence (neck), he’ll join rookie FS Kevin Byard (5-11, 212), SS Daimion Stafford (5-11½, 218) and SS De’Norris Searcy (5-10½, 207) in a rotation. Byard, a third-round pick, has played the least but might be the best. He’s easily the fastest (4.46) and attacks the ball. Johnson, 30, is smart but can’t run. Stafford is a liability in coverage, too. Searcy, a 43-game starter, is solid.
Bobby April, a coordinator for eight teams since ’91, was fired Oct. 3 and replaced by assistant Steve Hoffman, a kicking guru. K Ryan Succop is reliable inside 50 and kicks off well. Booting for the Chiefs and Titans since ’09, he has a career mark of 82.3%. He missed two PATs this year. P Brett Kern, a regular since ’08 for the Broncos and Titans, ranks 28th in net average (37.8); his career mark is 39.6. Veteran WR Marc Mariani makes smart decisions as a dual returner but isn’t a real threat.
Saddled with possibly the weakest corps of wide receivers in the league, RB DeMarco Murray fits the description. His nine touchdowns are four more than anyone else, and his 807 rushing yards rank second behind Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott (891). He has been bothered recently by a turf toe injury that figures to plague him for the rest of the season. His rushing total of 51 yards Sunday in San Diego was his lowest since Game 1. As a Cowboy, Murray was extremely impressive in two games against Green Bay. In December 2013, he carried 18 times for 134 yards (7.4), and in the divisional playoffs in 2014 he rushed 25 times for 123 (4.9).
The Titans haven’t had a wide receiver make the Pro Bowl since Derrick Mason in 2003, and they surely won’t have one this year. Not only isn’t there a legitimate No. 1 receiver on the roster, there might not be a legitimate No. 2. Possibly the team’s two most talented wide receivers were Justin Hunter, a second-round draft choice in 2013, and Dorial Green-Beckham, a second-round pick in ’15. However, Mike Mularkey and his coaching staff had no ties to the two players and moved them out. Hunter, who was cut Sept. 4, is with Buffalo. Green-Beckham, who was traded to the Eagles in mid-August, has 18 catches for 194 yards and one TD.
There would be no reason for coach Mike McCarthy to show his players the Packers’ last meeting against the Titans. It was four years ago, two days before Christmas, and the results at Lambeau Field that cold afternoon would make even this Green Bay team fall victim to overconfidence.
The Packers rolled, 55-7, piling up 460 yards even though Jordy Nelson and their three top running backs didn’t play. The Titans gained 180.
“I know,” said one of the Titans, cornerback Alterraun Verner. “Imagine if they played. They would have put 70 against us.”
The 48-point spread stands as the third-largest margin of defeat since the Oilers/Titans franchise began play in 1960.
Tennessee completed a 6-10 season in 2012, then went 7-9 in 2013, 2-14 in ’14 and 3-13 in ’15.
Just 16% of the 106 players eligible to play in the game four years ago remain on the 53-man rosters. The Titans’ six-man contingent includes WR Kendall Wright, defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug, linebacker Derrick Morgan, cornerback Jason McCourty and punter Brett Kern.
Tennessee played Jake Locker (passer rating of 41.0) against the Packers. In 2013, the Titans’ quarterbacks were Ryan Fitzpatrick and Locker. In ’14, they were Charlie Whitehurst, Zach Mettenberger and Locker.
The Titans’ fortunes began to change on April 30, 2015 when they selected quarterback Marcus Mariota with the second pick of the draft after Tampa Bay took Jameis Winston. No judgments can be made, but to this point Mariota looks to be the better player.
“He has been most consistently accurate,” an executive in personnel said. “He has the athleticism, the ability to make plays with his feet. It’s not hands-down, not (Ryan) Leaf vs. (Peyton) Manning. They both need to develop.”
Coach Mike Mularkey has tried to ease Mariota’s transition from the Oregon spread offense to what Mularkey once referred to as “exotic smashmouth.” The Titans have been extremely committed to the running game, and when Mariota throws it’s usually off play-action and with some form of additional blocking.
The changing fortunes in Nashville are reflected by the odds. The Titans (4-5) are a 2½-point underdog Sunday, a far cry from the 13-point spread they encountered in the last meeting between the teams.
After the 2012 game, McCarthy said, “It is important for us to go out and dominate opponents late in the year.”
He’d gladly accept a one-point victory this time.