It's game week, and there's legit concern about the Tennessee Titans ... on offense | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

OK, it’s finally game week, and there’s something bothering me. I’m afraid it’s time to discuss it with y’all.

About this supposedly can’t-miss Tennessee Titans offense?

I’m concerned about it.

I know, I know. That’d have sounded absurd about a month ago. It might be absurd now. I can be a worrywart. Best to ask around a bit:

How big a deal is it that the Titans’ offense has barely practiced together this preseason?

“I think it is a big deal,” Eddie George told me.

Yes, that Eddie George.

The Titans legend who is now coaching Tennessee State’s team, he’s worried, too.

“That draws some concern for me,” he said, “the fact that the offense hasn't had a chance to gel in a competitive setting in the preseason.”

Former Titans star Eddie George speaks during halftime ceremonies at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

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Indeed, it’s difficult to feel confident in what the Titans’ 2021 offense is going to look like when no one has been able to watch it in its entirety, and that includes its own players and new coordinator Todd Downing.

The majority of the Titans' offensive starters – including Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Julio Jones and A.J. Brown – didn’t play in three preseason games, and they've all missed extended practice time lately for different reasons.

The absence of reps for Tannehill and Jones is of particular concern. As a comparison, George referenced Carl Pickens’ late addition to the Titans just before the 2000 season: “It didn't work out for us. The timing wasn't there.”

It's not just Jones, though. Availability has been a widespread issue this preseason, limiting a banged-up offensive line, too. Depth at running back, wide receiver and tight end is already being stretched, and to top it off, Tannehill is just now returning from the COVID-19 list.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) talks with wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) during a training camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

“I wouldn't be surprised if the offense looks a little sluggish coming out,” George said. “Hope it doesn't happen, but it could look a little sluggish, because now you have to factor in a new play-caller as well.”

Who’d have ever expected to enter the season’s first game week with more pressing alarm about the Titans’ offense than its defense or special teams?

Yet here we are.

With special teams, don’t bet your mortgage payment on kickin’ Sam Ficken, but he’s got a strong leg and has been solid enough to keep the Titans from summoning Stephen Gostkowski in a last-minute panic.

Meanwhile, the defense needed to improve this preseason. By all accounts, it did.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) talks with wide receiver Julio Jones (2) during a training camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Thursday, July 29, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

An upgrade has been noticeable. More depth. More plays being made at all levels. More urgency and cohesion, especially on third down. Shane Bowen is acting and sounding much more like a defensive coordinator (go figure that's what would happen once Mike Vrabel finally awarded him the title).

More than that, though, is a comfort that comes with having important players on the field together. Most defensive starters practiced most days, including linchpins like Kevin Byard and Jeffery Simmons. Even those working their way back from injury – like new edge rusher Bud Dupree – were in uniform and doing as much as possible.

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That allowed the Titans’ defense – as opposed to the offense – to get something out of those joint practices in Tampa. And the first-string defense saw a possession or two in all three preseason games.

The first-string offense collectively did none of that.

“There’s a level to preparation that probably needs to happen,” said Vrabel when I asked him how much he valued preseason games as a player, “as far as just a mindset that it’s not just a practice and you’re going out there to try to accomplish something, whether that be 15 plays, 20 plays. …

“Without knowing who that you’re referencing, I still think it’s important. There’s a lot of factors that go into guys that we’ve played here in the past or even this year during the preseason.”

I get what Vrabel is saying. Derrick Henry, for example, is a special case. He wasn't hurt, though his sitting out most of this preseason made sense. Henry had nothing to prove and a long, punishing season ahead of him.

But seven of the Titans' 11 potential offensive starters didn’t play in a preseason game: In addition to Henry, Tannehill, Jones and Brown were center Ben Jones, guard Nate Davis and tight end Geoff Swaim.

They aren’t all special cases, right?

Was the Titans’ offense – one of the NFL’s best last season – always going to be so outstanding in 2021 as to not require any preseason practice?

I mean … maybe.

If these Titans ran out and carved up the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, it wouldn’t be shocking. In fact, it’s what most have been expecting since the trade for Jones.

What has happened – or hasn’t – since then is a legitimate concern entering the season opener. And I’m not the only one thinking it.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.