Off 2 straight wins, Titans get early test from Philadelphia
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Titans safety Kevin Byard knows if any Philly green shows up in the Tennessee family section, his relatives likely will be to blame.
That’s the challenge for someone born in Philadelphia who grew up watching the Eagles alongside most of his family. Shoot, Byard even had a Lito Sheppard jersey growing up and remembers going to a Super Bowl party watching Philadelphia even as his father and uncle criticized Donovan McNabb for never winning a title.
Now Byard is an All-Pro safety and will have a lot of family on hand Sunday when Tennessee plays the Eagles (2-1) in a chance for the Titans (2-1) to test themselves against the defending champs.
“It’s not a must-win game, but it’s a game that’s going to be definitely a good measuring stick to see where we are right now,” Byard said. “A team that was just in the Super Bowl, just won the Super Bowl, you’re always going to want to put your best foot forward against those guys. I think that they know every single game this year they’re going to get that best effort from every single team, and it’s no doubt with this team right here.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson has been impressed by how the Titans have found ways to finish games the past two weeks under first-year coach Mike Vrabel.
“I look back to my first year, two years ago, and one of the things that we didn’t do a very good job of was learning how to finish games, and a way to coach games,” Pederson said. “That’s something that Mike has been able to do with his team. Just seeing his influence on defense, obviously, the impact that he has brought has these guys flying around and making plays. They’re learning how to finish games. That’s important with a new head coach.”
Some things to watch between the Eagles and Titans:
Both teams are hoping to get at least a couple players back from injuries. Titans right tackle Jack Conklin could be back after tearing his left ACL in the playoffs last January, and Mariota has improved enough he practiced fully this week. Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery might make his season debut after fixing a torn rotator cuff , while running back Jay Ajayi practiced fully after missing the Colts game with an injured back.
Injuries to Jeffery, Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins have forced Philadelphia to rely even more on tight ends in the passing game. Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert and Josh Perkins combined for 13 catches for 156 yards and one TD vs. the Colts last week. Ertz is a Pro Bowl pick who caught the go-ahead TD in the Super Bowl. Goedert, a second-round pick, only had one catch in the first two matches before his breakout game.
“Obviously he’s a big target down the field,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “He’s easy to find and he can elevate and make plays above the rim, too. He’s got really strong hands. He’s just three games in, so we’ll continue to put more and more on his plate, but he’s done a nice job with what we have asked him to do.”
YOUTHFUL RECEIVING CORPS
The Titans cut veteran wide receiver Rishard Matthews on Thursday after he asked to be cut or traded, upset at a lack of playing time. That leaves Corey Davis, the fifth pick overall in 2017, leading a very young group. How young? The Titans’ five receivers have a combined 156 career catches.
The Eagles won’t have safety Rodney McLeod because of a knee injury, and Corey Graham will replace him.
NO RUN ZONE
The Eagles had the best run defense in the NFL last season and are first again, allowing 61.7 yards per game. But the Titans are averaging 122 yards per game on the ground, and they’re built to run the ball. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tennessee has invested heavily in everything from the offensive line, a Heisman Trophy winner at running back in Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis as a free agent, to a running quarterback in Mariota.
The Titans have yet to allow a point in the first quarter and rank fourth in the NFL giving up 16.7 points per game. Asked why Tennessee is starting games so well, defensive coordinator Dean Pees had a short answer: “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi contributed to this report.
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