In many ways, the Vikings and their opponent, the Tennessee Titans, are in a similar position heading into the 2014 season. Both of them are being predicted to struggle and have a changing face, both teams have new coaching staffs after their respective teams collapsed, and both are representing that the fresh look of their team will translate into wins.
As expected, tonight’s game won’t be an objective look at what the starting lineups will look like a week from now when the regular season begins. Both teams will be benching the majority of the top veteran players so as not to risk injury, but there will be plenty of players to keep an eye on with the Titans as they meet up with the Vikings.
At quarterback, Jake Locker is facing a watershed year as one of the question marks from the QB draft class of 2011, but the quarterback who has seen the most action in the preseason is rookie Zach Mettenberger. He has thrown more passes than Locker and veteran backup Charlie Whitehurst. Mettenberger has completed 35 of 51 passes for 505 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 97.3. As impressive as Mettenberger’s passer rating is, it’s the lowest of the three quarterbacks that have seen action. Whitehurst has a passer rating of 106.0 and Locker has been a sparkling 119.8. The Vikings defense is going to have its hands full if the Titans passing offense continues to post those kind of gaudy quarterback numbers.
Just as the passing game has seen a resurgence, the running game in Tennessee has a completely different look. Chris Johnson is gone and the reigns of the running game are expected to be handed to rookie Bishop Sankey. Of the 70 rushing attempts for the Titans this preseason, Sankey has had half of them. He hasn’t been overly impressive, rushing for just 112 yards on 35 carries, but he is the new back in town. With veterans Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle and Dexter McCluster alongside him, Sankey likely won’t be the workhorse CJ2K was for the last several years, but he’s expected to be the primary back in Tennessee’s evolving run game.
The pass offense will have a different look as well. The team is grooming the future in high recent draft picks Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter, along with savvy veterans like Nate Washington, Derek Hagan and Brian Robiske. With just eight wide receivers remaining on the roster, the competition between the vets and youngsters like Marc Mariani, Michael Preston and Rico Richardson for spots of the final 53-man roster with be fierce in the final game.
The offensive line remains a work in progress, but when healthy and working as a unit it’s hard to argue that the Titans don’t have one of the best O-lines in the game with Michael Roos and Michael Oher at tackle, Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack at guard and Brian Schwenke and Chris Spencer competing for the center spot. While they likely won’t see the field much Thursday, those players fighting for backup spots will likely rarely see the light of day once the regular season begins, because, if the offensive line is the foundation of an offense, the Titans have a good group to build around.
While the Tennessee offense has been impressive early, its defense has struggled badly in the preseason, whether through its starters, second-teamers or back-of-the-roster guys. They have allowed opposing passers to compile a passer rating of 108.1 while throwing six touchdowns with no interceptions. The problems have run from the front to the back of the defense and it appears to still be a work in progress.
The Titans’ 3-4 is morphing into something new with players moving around and being asked to do more than they have in the past. Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey signed a long-term extension this week, but this is a defense in flux. Back during the OTAs, the plan was to have Derrick Morgan, Casey and Al Woods as the starting defensive linemen. Woods has spent most of the preseason playing with the second team and Morgan has been moved to outside linebacker. Fifth-year pro Ropati Pitoitua and sixth-year man Sammie Hill have been spending the preseason as the starting unit, with veterans like Woods, Karl Klug and Antonio Johnson looking to fight for their professional lives.
The strength of the defense, as it often is in a 3-4 scheme, is at linebacker. Morgan has moved to an already impressive group that includes Wesley Woodyard, Kamerion Wimbley, Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown and Zavier Gooden. The Vikings will be facing some 3-4 defenses during the 2014 season, so, even if it is simply for film study, facing an aggressive group of linebackers will be valuable to them in the big picture of things – even if the Vikings first-team offense won’t be seeing much of them.
The Titans have a veteran group of defensive backs, especially at safety, a group that includes ninth-year men Bernard Pollard and George Wilson and eight-year vet Michael Griffin. They are much younger at cornerback, but with so much age at the safety position, those corners will be left on an island because the safeties have lost a step.
For most fans, the final preseason game is merely palate-cleansing hors d’eouvres before the start of the regular season, but for a team with a lot of new faces from the head coach on down, there will be a lot of decisions being made over the weekend that may well hinge in some cases on how well or poorly players perform in tonight’s game.
With 22 jobs on the line, expect to see every Titan who isn’t assured of a spot because, for almost two dozen of them, it will be their last chance.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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