JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2018 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Titansonline.com senior writer and editor Jim Wyatt on the Titans' matchup with the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville …
Question: The Titans (1-1) made the playoffs as a wild-card entrant last season, then hired Mike Vrabel as head coach to replace Mike Mularkey. The first two weeks of the '18 season have been marked by injuries with a loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 followed by an AFC South victory over the Houston Texans in Week 2. Where do the Titans stand entering Week 3? How do they feel about themselves?
The [Week 1] loss at Miami was tough for a number of reasons. The team felt like it let one slip away, but also you lose your tight end – Delanie Walker – for the season and you have [quarterback] Marcus Mariota injured in that game and that kept him out of Week 2. You had Taylor Lewan, your starting left tackle, injured in that game and that kept him out of Week 2. You had to deal with the effects of that loss heading into Week 2, but I think the team feels like it responded well by toughing out a game against the Texans that showed a lot of character. It was perhaps a defining moment in Vrabel's early tenure as a head coach. He preached to his guys about sticking together, not making excuses, not taking the woe-is-me approach because you have so many guys out; instead, rise up and play. The Titans found a way to win against the Texans. You would like to be at 2-0, but I think people like how the team responded and hope it's a sign of good things to come.
Q: With so many injuries, is it possible yet to know where the Titans stand and where they're going offensively?
A: It's hard to tell because we've only seen Mariota really for a half. [New offensive coordinator] Matt LaFleur came in with a lot of great ideas and is certainly going to change things in the way the offense looks. He had great success with Jared Goff with the Rams. He had great success with Matt Ryan in Atlanta. He worked with [Robert Griffin III] RGIII with the Redskins, and he has been great with all of those quarterbacks. He finally gets Mariota and has a chance to work with him, and now he has been without him for a game and a half. They kind of reverted back to doing some power football on Sunday with [former Jaguars quarterback and current Titans backup] Blaine Gabbert at the helm. I think when Mariota comes back you'll see them expand things a little bit more. It's going to look different and I think it will be a success in the long run, even though I expect it to go through some growing pains. It's hard to make a judgment at this point because some key pieces have not been in place. That's not just Mariota. That's your starting tackles, and your three-time Pro Bowl tight end (Walker) that your offense has sort of fed off of the last several years.
Q: Will this be a fluid quarterback situation until Sunday?
A: It all depends on Marcus and his health. Last week early in the week it looked like he would bounce back and play. He was a full participant in the Wednesday practice, then because of some lingering issues with the elbow – and because the coaching staff and training staff just didn't feel like he was ready; not just based on health, but what they saw in practice – the decision was made to scale him back and go with Gabbert. I think this week is going to be another waiting game – just see how he recovers, see how effective he is in practices and let the coaches decide if they think he gives them the best chance to win. If he can, he'll be back out there. If not, they'll go with Gabbert again and just wait for Marcus to get better.
Q: Vrabel's a defensive guy. The perception is this team will play good defense. Is it playing good defense, and can the defense carry the team until the offense gets going?
A: It certainly played a big role in their win against the Texans. They held [Texans quarterback] Deshaun Watson and the Texans to 17 points; the Texans put up 57 points [against Tennessee] with Watson as quarterback last October. They kept him in check and didn't let him do a whole lot of damage. They were able to generate some pressure – especially with [defensive tackle] Jurrell Casey, who had a couple of sacks. They showed some creativity getting Watson uncomfortable as well. They're still not perfect; they gave up a deep ball and have given up a couple of deep balls in the first two games, so they still have to clamp down on things. But the defense played a really good game against the Texans and a lot of people here feel like it's a sign of things to come.
Q: With so many injuries, what has been the key to this team staying afloat? Has it been the defense?
A: Not only the defense, but having other guys step up. They were down to their fourth and fifth offensive tackle against the Texans. It wasn't just Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin who were out. All three of their top guys were out [including reserve Dennis Kelly], so you had to call up Tyler Marz from the practice squad and [guard] Kevin Pamphile. You had depth step up and rise to the occasion. It has been a team effort. Vrabel comes from the [New England] Patriots' philosophy where you don't make excuses and it's "Next Man Up." He preached that all week: "You're in the NFL; you have to step up and do your job." It was kind of a collective effort and you had a lot of guys that rose to the occasion to offset the quarterback being out and offset a lot of other guys being out.
Q: Regarding Sunday's game, do you get a sense that this Jaguars-Titans rivalry is being renewed a little?
A: I do. We remember what it was like in 1999 and the early 2000s. It was incredible then to see these squads duke it out. While the two teams were pretty equal and split a lot of season series, for a while you just didn't have the same fire and energy and hatred that you have in a rivalry. I think now that has come back. Both teams have gotten better, the games have been physical, the stakes are higher when they play now and certainly the fallout from some of these games leaves both sides stewing a little. I definitely think the rivalry is back and getting close to the way it was in '99. As these two teams continue to stay competitive and fight for the top of the division, I think that's going to amp it up even more.