This article is part of our Game Spotlight series.
Tennessee (6-6) vs. Jacksonville (4-8)
Open: 38 O/U, TEN -3.5
Live: 37.5 O/U, TEN -5
This certainly is one of the least glamorous single-game slates of the year. These are two of the more dysfunctional offenses in the league, while the defenses rank among the best, especially Jacksonville. The Jaguars have allowed points on 33.1 percent of their drives, tied for fourth-fewest in the league, while the Titans register at 35.4 (13th). The Jaguars allow 5.2 yards per play, again tied for fourth-fewest, while Tennessee's 5.5 is tied for tenth-fewest. Nonetheless, we must persist with our grim task.
Thanks to Marcus Mariota's improved play in the last two weeks, the Titans passing game probably has to project the better of these two. But that's not so much in praise of the Tennessee passing game as it is in skepticism of Cody Kessler on the other side. Mariota's value is mostly in his upside as a standout rushing threat, because his floor is not good in this setting. The extent of rot with the Tennessee offensive line might be underappreciated, as Mariota's taken 38 sacks versus 274 pass attempts, or one sack to every 7.2 pass attempts. Mariota took a sack once to every 16.8 pass attempts last year, and 19.6 the year before that. Between that line and his injuries, Mariota's struggles this year seem more than forgivable. Unfortunately for him, that detail doesn't buy him any slack against a defense that just shut out the Colts, holding Andrew Luck to 248 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception on 52 pass attempts last week.
Part of why Mariota's passing projection is so unstable is because the route runner matchups don't seem favorable. Mariota generally isn't the quickest operator after the snap, so a terrible line compounded by idling receivers could be a problematic combination. Corey Davis is the best receiver for Tennessee, but he figures to see Jalen Ramsey most of the time, maybe even almost all of the time. Ramsey is still a bit nicked up with a knee ailment, but he ran fine enough with T.Y. Hilton last week, and Davis is a much easier cover for a bigger corner like Ramsey. I think the Titans waste a lot of snaps on Tajae Sharpe, outside in two-wide sets and on most slot snaps the Titans run, but even after Taywan Taylor's 100-yard game last week I would expect Sharpe to run the second-most snaps and routes among Titans receivers. I don't know if that necessarily means he should have the higher projection than Taylor, though, because Taylor is better and particularly more explosive, and Taylor is type of receiver you probably want against a press-heavy defense like this one.
Taylor has dealt with some drops issues this year as well as injury, but he's Tennessee's only hope for a big play if Davis is covered, and Taylor still has an obviously strong prospect profile despite his struggles this year. Sharpe is in any case a reasonable pick in single-game slates despite my suspicions, because the snaps should be there and he saw six targets last week. Cameron Batson (23) saw nearly as many snaps as Taylor (29), but that might tilt in Taylor's favor a bit more yet. Batson is a reliable underneath target who can do some damage after the catch, but he has only 11 targets on 162 snaps this year. Even Jonnu Smith gets a problematic matchup against Jacksonville's blazing-fast linebackers, but I probably like him in his matchup more than any of the receivers. One thing I don't like about the Tennessee offense is that it generally lacks a quick-strike or copout route, especially underneath and over the middle, which makes it easy for teams to blitz without worrying about the middle of the field. Some disguised screens to Jonnu would be a good idea, I think. Anthony Firkser is another option for Tennessee, as he's seen a heavy target rate the last three weeks (10) despite playing only 46 snaps. Luke Stocker shouldn't play but he will, more than Firkser.
If you think the Titans are competitive in this game, then at least one of the two notable Tennessee running backs will probably get some substantial amount of usage from scrimmage. Whether they do much with that usage is a separate question with its own concerns, so both Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry could be total duds in a variety of scenarios. The bad Tennessee offensive line is their problem too, and that both the volume and timing of their usage is unpredictable adds a second axis of calamity. Still, if only for my pessimism with the Tennessee passing game, I think at least one of the two Tennessee runners does something useful or maybe even crucial on single-game slates. Lewis is who you conventionally would consider the slight favorite over Henry since he both plays more snaps and contributes much more as a pass catcher than Henry, but Henry has touches on 52 percent of his snaps versus 36.6 for Lewis, and they've both seen 21 red-zone carries. I think for both Henry and Lewis to tank is for the entire Titans offense to tank, which would make a full Tennessee fade reasonable if you get neither Titans runner. It's the exact scenario the Jaguars subjected the Colts to last week, after all.
All that stuff about Mariota from earlier probably sounded pretty bad. It probably sounded like the sort of stuff that would spell certain doom. The reason it doesn't is because for whatever problems Mariota might deal with, the Jaguars' quarterback is Cody Kessler, whose only real selling point relative to Blake Bortles is 'Sometimes He Doesn't Turn It Over.' The exchange rate from Bortles' turnover-prone buffoonery to Kessler's turtle shell approach might not be a great one, though, as Kessler might mostly just replace Bortles' turnovers with punt certainty, all while offering none of the firework potential Bortles occasionally showed. The approach works fine for the Jaguars when the defense is crushing it like last week, and with Leonard Fournette back from suspension they'll certainly have the rushing personnel to test the premise. I guess you could fade Fournette to speculate on the chance of injury or, apparently, ejection, but he's the clear star of this game and the script should keep him centrally involved for as much work as he can handle. There could be room yet for T.J. Yeldon to do something useful as a pass catcher, but I don't think we can assume Carlos Hyde sees even ten snaps.
Finding a useful Jaguars receiver may be diifficult. The Jacksonville pass catchers are constrained by Kessler's projection, as he's not a risk taker and the Titans defense is a bend-but-don't-break group that probably won't leave Kessler anything easy. Kessler might shrink the field even further if the pass rush becomes a problem, which it very well could given that Kessler has seven sacks to just 54 pass attempts. That's only slightly better than Mariota's rate from earlier.
If Adoree Jackson follows anyone I'd guess it would be Donte Moncrief as the team's air yardage leader with 30.9 percent. Jackson might be Tennessee's best corner, but I don't think that's a concerning matchup for Moncrief. Jackson is a little faster and a lot quicker than Moncrief, but Moncrief also has probably 30 pounds on Jackson. Dede Westbrook almost always runs from the slot, so he'll probably run against the beatable Logan Ryan. Westbrook has been bad this year but I'd probably give him the highest projection among Jaguars receivers Thursday. Westbrook has at least four targets in every game this year, and with six drops already on the year I think you can expect some improvement in per-target efficiency to close out the season. Keelan Cole should play outside and perhaps against the burnable Malcolm Butler specifically, making Cole an interesting if annoying third tournament consideration among the Jags' receivers. I'll probably resist the temptation. Rashad Greene is the fourth receiver, but since he primarily plays the slot he generally won't play unless Westbrook is off the field. He has zero targets on his last 30 snaps and should see around 15 in this one. James O'Shaughnessy is playing a lot of snaps and is therefore worth some tournament consideration at tight end, but he lost a slight share of his snaps last week to Blake Bell. Bell could stumble into some usage playing around 20 snaps per game, but even he has only one target on his last 59 snaps. Ben Koyack is primarily a blocker for about 15 snaps per game.
Because the forecast for our quarterbacks and skill position players are so terribly dreary, the kickers and defenses are in play even more than usual. The game was literally a field-goal fest when these teams played in Week 3, with Ryan Succop making 3-of-4 field goals while Josh Lambo went 2-of-2. Each team totaled three sacks otherwise, while the Titans recovered a fumble. I'd bet on more turnovers this time.
I'd have to lean toward the Titans to win this, if only because they're at home, but I'm terrified for Mariota with that offensive line compounding the brutal WR-CB matchups. For my own cursed lineups I will have Fournette everywhere, perhaps splitting the lineups with one of but probably not both of Henry or Lewis otherwise for running backs. I'll fade both quarterbacks. The only Tennessee pass catchers I'll consider are Taylor and Smith. I'll consider both of Moncrief and Westbrook, but only one in any lineup. Each defense is of similar interest to me, and I'm interested in both in a single lineup too.