Week 1 Spotlight: ARI @ TEN

The Situation

Two playoff-hopeful teams in drastically different circumstances meet in Tennessee for a Week 1 matchup with big implications. The Cardinals play in the NFL’s toughest division and need every win they can get to have a chance at a playoff berth. An offense that struggled down the stretch last season will try to get back on track against one of the weaker defenses in the NFL. On the other side, the Titans play in what might be the NFL’s softest division and can put themselves in a strong position by winning against an NFC West opponent, particularly if the Colts lose to the Seahawks.

In Week 1, with extra time to prepare, better coaching can make a difference. In this case, that’s Mike Vrabel. But the Titans have also been dealing with Covid issues, including practicing without Ryan Tannehill until this week. Given that the Titans are breaking in a new offensive coordinator, that time off without Tannehill could impact their preparation for this game. On balance, this is a neutral situation for both teams.

The Numbers

Projecting teams based on numbers early in the season is difficult. I use last year’s Ratings and Adjusted Ratings as a baseline, balancing out injury luck to the extent possible, and modifying them to reflect the anticipated impact of off-season developments. But this is far from an exact science. With that caveat, the pure numbers indicate that the Titans are slightly better than the Cardinals and should win this game, at home, by an average of 3.5 points. Both teams project to have an advantage on offense, but the Titans project to have a slightly stronger offensive advantage.

Baseline: TEN by 3.5

The TEN Offense

There is some uncertainty here given that the Titans have a new offensive coordinator and former OC Arthur Smith is widely credited with orchestrating an incredible two year run by this Titans offense. But Smith has been replaced by former tight ends coach Todd Downing, who has promised to keep building the offense around Derrick Henry. I find it hard to believe he would veer too far from last year’s scheme, so I project continuity despite the coaching change.

If they do roll with a similar scheme, the Titans should dominate this game offensively. When Henry is able to consistently get through the line, he becomes a tank that is difficult to take down. The Cardinals were not a great tackling team and struggled last year with methodical offenses that consistently gained yards. The defensive line is not strong enough to simply overpower the Titans and get to Henry before he picks up steam. If the Cardinals want to stop Henry consistently, they will need to stack the box and this means winning one-on-one in coverage.

That is a major problem. The Cardinals have some of the weakest cornerbacks in the NFL, with Peterson’s departure and Malcolm Butler’s unexpected retirement. If they try to play man coverage against A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, the Titans will be able to throw all day. The defenses that performed the best against Tennessee last year had strong cornerbacks who could negate the outside weapons while stacking the box to stop Henry. The Cardinals will not be able to do this. And with a successful run game, they’ll implement play-action and put Tannehill in comfortable situations throughout the game. They will not take a lot of risks and are very unlikely to commit turnovers and negative plays.

When the Titans are able to move the ball, they are an extremely efficient scoring offense in the red zone. They have several big targets in the passing game, a dominant run game, and a quarterback who can effectively scramble when given a lane. The Cardinals simply lack the firepower to get ahead of this offense, which absolutely thrives when it has an advantage. I think the Titans will move the ball at will and get it in the end zone, with very few drives that end in a punt or turnover.

Projection: TEN offense will outperform.

The ARI Offense

I also expect continuity from the Cardinals offense in 2021, given that not much has changed. We have seen nothing from Kliff Kingsbury in his two years as head coach to suggest he has any new tricks up his sleeve. This offense involves a lot of predictable runs and short passes behind the line of scrimmage. Kyler Murray has not shown he is capable of sitting in the pocket, reading coverages, and throwing to receivers on time. It could be poor play design or Murray’s limitations, or both. But they consistently fail to take advantage of bad passing defenses, as evidenced most prominently by their 26-23 loss to the Lions last year in which Murray threw 3 interceptions (and could have thrown 2 more).

Murray is at his best when the play breaks down. Only Lamar Jackson scrambles better than Murray and his exceptional quickness escaping linemen and linebackers leads to a lot of positive plays, eking out third downs in tough situations. But the Titans typically play very well against mobile QBs, particularly compared to how bad their defense is in general. They have stymied Lamar in two consecutive playoff games because they have the speed and discipline to stay on him and limit his ability to escape. I think they will do a relatively good job slowing this offense down, which has some of the same limitations as the Ravens offense.

Kyler Murray is always live with his legs. He will be able to move the ball slowly with some short throws and effective scrambling, but this edge is likely to vanish in the red zone. I think the Cardinals will be relying on a lot of third down conversions and red zone conversions, and will need to maintain a very high percentage on these plays to be able to keep pace with an offense on the other side that could move the ball at will. More likely than not, this will not happen.

Projection: ARI offense will underperform.

The Game Flow

Given how I see both sides of the ball playing out, the Titans should be playing with the lead here. If so, they become stronger as Henry accumulates carries and punishes defenders late in the game. But if I’m wrong in the early game, the Titans have shown the ability to score in chunks against bad defenses. With a strong advantage on the outside, they can come from behind. The Cardinals will be unlikely to press a lead as they do not run the ball particularly well. If the Cardinals take an early lead, I still like the Titans to win in the clutch. But if the Titans take an early lead, they could win by double digits.

The Prediction

The Titans roll, 31-20. They move the ball easily and convert touchdowns in the red zone. The Cardinals have some inconsistency on offense and cannot keep up. Murray can score points in bunches so a backdoor cover looms if the line is -3.5, but at -3 or -2.5 the Titans are a very strong play.

Despite both teams having an offensive edge, I don’t recommend betting the Over (52) because I think the game will be a little slower than people think. It’s a huge number, and I don’t have enough faith in the Cardinals offense to do its part. But there is no way I would go Under.

For props, I would consider going Over on Henry’s rushing yards and Over on Hopkins’ receiving yards. Both should benefit from game script if the game plays out how I envision.

The Bet

TEN -2.5 (-110) for 2 Units

I locked this bet in on FanDuel on June 6, the day the Julio trade was announced. I knew I would like the Titans here assuming no major injury or Covid issues in the interim. SharpClarke Members got the alert that day and we all should end up with excellent closing line value. But TEN -3 (+100) is currently available on DraftKings, which is another very strong bet.

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