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Giants vs. Titans: What to expect when the Giants have the ball

What can we expect from the Titans’ defense?

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants 2022 season kicks off Sunday when the Giants travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans have been one of the best and most consistent teams in the AFC over the last couple years. They finished the 2020 season with an 11-5 record, which improved to 12-5 in last year’s 17-game season. The Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and are one of the toughest teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball.

The Titans had an early exit from the 2022 playoffs, losing to the eventual AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals after their Wild Card round bye. But while the Titans lost, their defense held the Bengals to just 19 points, down from their season average of 27 per game and one of their lowest point totals of the whole year.

This will be our first look at the Giants’ new offense under Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka, and we’re not exactly sure what to expect from them. What can we expect to see from the Titans?

Big injury to a formidable front

The Titans featured one of the NFL’s toughest defenses in 2021, largely driven by their defensive front. The titans have a collection of defensive linemen and linebackers that balances youthful athleticism with veteran experience, and features both a dangerous pass rush and a stout run defense.

The Titans field defense that is technically based on a 3-4 front, but in reality is primarily a 2-4-5 front. The Titans usually field a 2-4-5 front on both the passing and running downs, though they’re more likely to play a 3-4-4 “base” alignment on running downs.

The group of edge defenders Harold Landry III and Denico Autry, DT Jeffery Simmons, and ILBs David Long Jr. and Zach Cunningham form the core of the that defensive front. As a whole, they finished 10th in the NFL in sacks (43), second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1,438) and fourth in yards per attempt (3.9 per carry).

That defensive front took a big hit when Landry suffered a torn ACL in practice. Landry finished the 2021 season with 12.0 sacks, which was good for 10th in the NFL. Landry is a dangerous speed rusher, and his explosion and bend around the edge will be missed by the Titans’ defense. That will also make life just a bit easier for the Giants’ young offensive tackles.

But only just a bit. The Titans’ defensive front is more than any one player.

The defense as a whole finishing 10th in sacks in 2021, and they had nine players with at least one sack last year. While Landry lead the way with 12.0 sacks, defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was close behind with 9.0 sacks and DE Danico Autry had 8.5 sacks.

Even without Landry, Simmons and Autry should be a stiff test for the Giants’ rebuilt interior offensive line.

The Titans also only got 3.0 sacks from former Pittsburgh Steelers’ edge defender Bud Dupree last year. They’ll be relying on Dupree to return to his 2019 and 2020 form to make up for the loss of Landry. Dupree played in 11 games, starting six, last year, but he was also suffered a setback as he worked to recover from his own ACL tear. Another year removed from his late 2020-season injury, Dupree should be expected to be a disruptive presence off the edge. He notched 11.5 sacks in 2019 and 8.0 sacks in 2020 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return to that level of production this year.

The Titans also had one of the best run defenses in the NFL last year. As with their pass rush, no single defender stood out over any others — though Simmons is emerging as an excellent defensive tackle. However, their team run Run Stop Win Rate was fourth in the NFL. Not only were they stout at the point of attack, but they had the fifth-fewest number of missed tackles in the NFL.

Young corners with upside

The Titans field a (very) young secondary. The “old man” of their starting DB group is safety Kevin Byard at the ripe old age of 28. The rest of their secondary is comprised of cornerbacks Caleb Farley (2021 first-round pick), Kristian Fulton (2020 second-round pick), Roger McCreary (2022 second-round pick), and Elijah Molden (2021 third-round pick), as well as safety Amani Hooker (2019 fourth-round pick).

Fulton has matured into a true “number one” cornerback who is able to match up on opposing offense’s best receivers. Prior to the 2021 draft, Farley was widely expected to be a “number one” corner as well. McCreary slipped in the 2022 draft due to (very) short arms and a crowded cornerback depth chart, but he was a very good and versatile cover corner for Auburn.

The Titans primarily played Cover 3 shells in 2021, but they could play more aggressive coverages in 2022. Farley dealt with a torn ACL in 2021 and the addition of McCreary (who was an excellent press-man corner in college), should allow the Titans more freedom to call Cover 1 or 2-Man coverages.

Based on what we’ve seen and heard about the Giants’ offense from training camp and the preseason, the Giants will likely want to get the ball out quickly, as well as make heavy use of RPO concepts. While the Giants undoubtedly have plans and schemes in place to deal with man coverage, it is the natural counter to basic RPO concepts. Likewise, tighter coverage could allow more aggressive blitz schemes to help compensate for the loss of Landry.

But while the Titans have a young, athletic, and talented secondary, their youth could mean opportunity for the Giants’ offense. The Giants ran a very vanilla offense through the preseason, which means there’s little useful tape for opponents to study. Their use of RPOs and play-action passes could play havoc with a young and aggressive secondary.

Will continuity be key?

NFL teams tend to have a fair amount of turnover, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. That roster churn is one of the reasons why offensive performance is more predictive from year to year than defensive performance.

The Titans came into 2022 in the rare position of returning 10 of 11 starters from their playoff defense which ranked twelfth in the NFL total yardage and sixth in third down conversion in 2021. Even with the injury to Landry, their overall unit remains pretty much intact. This is also their second year in Shane Bowers’ defense, potentially allowing better communication and more sound play.

That’s something of a stark contrast to the Giants’ offense. The Giants will be playing their first game in a brand new offense and it’ll be their offense’s first match-up against a starting defense in a game situation. The Giants once again feature an (almost) completely rebuilt offensive line and their squad will be relying on three rookies to play major roles in Evan Neal, Wan’Dale Robinson, and Daniel Bellinger. As of this writing, the status of third-round pick Josh Ezeudu is unknown. He dealt with an unknown injury in preseason and is listed as a backup on the unofficial depth chart released on Tuesday. Ben Bredeson has also dealt with an injury through the end of preseason, and (as of this writing, in absence of the official injury report) it’s possible that Ezeudu could be a fourth rookie on whom the Giants need to depend.

There’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Giants’ offense, and we could certainly see them compete with the Titans. However, we should also recognize that the Giants and Titans are in different positions as teams. The Titans have the luxury of veteran continuity on their team, with players who are used to playing together and competing at the highest level. The Giants, meanwhile, are still working toward building that cohesion.

The Titans may not know exactly what to expect from the Giants’ new offense. The Giants, on the other hand, have plenty of tape on the Titans’ defense. That should give the Giants an advantage in game-planning and the element of surprise. However, the Titans’ experience playing together, and together in their scheme, could make the difference in this game.