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Lawlor: Eagles-Titans Game Preview

The Eagles are in Nashville to take on the Titans on Sunday. The Titans are 30th in points scored and have the 29th-ranked passing attack in the league. That sounds like an easy game, huh?

Well, it won't be.

The Titans are third in points allowed. They have the best red zone defense in the league. They are 2-1 and coming off a tough win over the Jaguars, who look to be one of the best teams in the league. In a year when some teams are setting scoring records and doing amazing things on offense, Tennessee is winning with good defense. They could care less about style points. They just want to win.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles took on the explosive Bucs in a shootout. Last week was an awkward game due to constant rain and both quarterbacks coming back from injuries. Now the Eagles go on the road to play in a game where points will be at a premium. This will be a tough test for Carson Wentz and his teammates.

The focus this week has been on who will play. Alshon Jeffery is all the way back from his shoulder injury, but he's been battling an illness. He is questionable. Jay Ajayi will return and should give the offense a boost. The defense lost Rodney McLeod, possibly for the season.

The Eagles' offense has been a work in progress. Getting Carson Wentz back last week made a big difference. He was far from perfect in his return, but he brought playmaking ability to a unit that desperately needed it.

Now that the rust is gone, Wentz can focus on improving his timing and getting in sync with his receivers. He'll get a big boost if Jeffery is able to return. Jeffery is the Eagles' best receiver. He can make contested catches. He can stretch the field. Jeffery can use his size and strength to turn a short catch into a big play.

As good as Wentz is, he needs weapons. We started to see some players emerge last week. Rookie Dallas Goedert caught seven passes, including his first NFL touchdown. Wendell Smallwood got open down the field and hauled in a 34-yard pass that set up a field goal. Nelson Agholor converted a couple of key third downs.

If Ajayi can boost the run game and Jeffery can jump-start the passing game and Wentz plays even better, the Eagles' offense can take a big step forward. There were some good signs in the second half against Tampa. There were some really good moments last week. We still haven't seen the offense play well for a whole game.

One of the keys to this game will be the play of the offensive line. Wentz was sacked five times last week. That's too much. There were a variety of reasons so I'm not blaming the guys up front for all those sacks. Still, Wentz was under too much pressure.

Tennessee runs a 3-4 defense that does a lot of creative blitzing. That means the linemen will need to be smart in their pre-snap reads and post-snap adjustments. The same goes for Wentz. He won't always know exactly what is coming, but he needs to read the fronts and alignments to have a feel for what could be coming.

Beyond scheme, the Titans have talent. Jurrell Casey is an excellent interior rusher. He leads the team with three sacks this year. Veteran Brian Orakpo doesn't have any sacks so far, but he knows how to pressure the passer. Wesley Woodyard gives them an inside linebacker who can blitz or cover. He's really good.

The Eagles used three-TE sets effectively last week. They have options because Goedert, Zach Ertz, and Joshua Perkins are all athletic enough to play in-line, in the slot, or out wide. Most teams only use three tight ends in short-yardage sets. When you have athletes, you can be creative.

It will be interesting to see if Pederson uses that personnel grouping a lot or if prefers to go more with three-receiver sets. I'm sure a lot of this will have to do with the status of Jeffery. If he's good to go, you want him on the field.

Sunday will also be interesting for the Eagles' defense. They will be playing a struggling Titans offense, but one that should be improving. Quarterback Marcus Mariota will be making his second straight start. Stability at that position makes a huge difference, not to mention Mariota is a very talented player.

Tennessee gets back offensive tackle Jack Conklin from injury. That will give the Titans a pair of talented tackles to protect the star quarterback and open holes in the run game. The Titans have the 10th-ranked running attack in the league. The Eagles have the No. 1 run defense so this feels like it could be a game really decided at the line of scrimmage.

Derrick Henry is the big back for the Titans. Former Eagle Dion Lewis is the smaller, more athletic back. Then you mix in Mariota, who averages almost 7 yards a carry. That is a talented trio of runners so the Eagles need to be ready to stop the run. Defenders must play with gap discipline and they must tackle well.

Jordan Hicks is having an outstanding year in his return from injury, but he really excels as a pass defender. This game will give him a chance to show what he can do when a team runs at him, over and over. Hicks could have a very busy afternoon.

The defensive line won't have as many chances to get after the quarterback, but they can make still make impact plays. Tackles for loss will put the Titans off schedule and make things tough on that offense. Haloti Ngata played 27 snaps last week. I could see him playing even more than that in Tennessee. Ngata remains a very good run defender with his size and strength.

You might think Tennessee would try to attack Corey Graham, the man who will be replacing Rodney McLeod as the Eagles primary deep safety, but Graham is a veteran player. He's also a smart, disciplined player so I wouldn't see him as a guy to go after.

One reason the Eagles are so good against the run is that everyone tackles. Some defensive backs around the league do not want to play the run. They don't want to tackle. Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, and Ronald Darby all come up to defend the run aggressively. Those guys make a difference.

If one player is going to be an X-factor on defense, it could be Malcolm Jenkins. He could play in the box a lot and that's where he can thrive. Jenkins should have plenty of chances to make plays.

The Titans have some talented young receivers, but their passing game needs a lot of work. At some point, things will start to click for that group and they will make plays. I don't expect that to be Sunday, but you never know.

New coach Mike Vrabel is trying to build the Titans into title contenders. They were a playoff team last year so there is talent in place. They've gone 9-7 each of the past two seasons. The problem is that they weren't taking that next step. So far Vrabel has them playing good defense and winning games. He still has to fix that offense. The return of Mariota and Conklin should help.

The Eagles are in for a tough challenge down in Tennessee. Nothing has come easy so far this year so another tough battle won't bother them. The key, as always, is finding a way to win. Strong defense and solid offense should do the trick.

Of course, I won't complain if this is the week that Wentz has a great game and the Eagles' offense makes all kinds of big plays.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Eagles Message Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the editor of

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