Tennessee Titans vs. Arizona Cardinals: Scouting report, prediction for Week 1 game

Ben Arthur
Nashville Tennessean

Will the Tennessee Titans start their regular season on the right note? 

The Titans on Sunday (noon CT, CBS) host the Arizona Cardinals at Nissan Stadium.

Breaking down the Titans-Cardinals matchup:

Titans’ offense vs. Cardinals’ defense

Who has the edge? Titans

The lack of practice time for the Titans’ first-team offense entering Week 1 is a concern, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it produce a slow start to the season (similar to last year, when the Titans’ offense, which finished the year ranked No. 4 in scoring offense, mustered just 16 points in the season opener against the Broncos). It’s been the biggest storyline for Tennessee approaching the game Sunday. 

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wide receiver Julio Jones have had just a few practices together, while A.J. Brown was in and out of practices throughout training camp and preseason, and the offensive line just this week has gotten back to full strength, with center Ben Jones and right Nate Davis off the Reserve/COVID-19 list. 

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But the Titans returned most of their starters from the league's No. 2 offense. They have some favorable matchups against Arizona, most clearly at wide receiver. The Cardinals are overmatched at cornerback on paper, looking at a combination of third-year pro Byron Murphy Jr., fourth-round rookie Marco Wilson and veteran Robert Alford – who hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2018 – to slow down Jones and Brown. The sudden retirement of ex-Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler, who signed a one-year deal this offseason with the Cardinals, was a blow to Arizona’s secondary. 

The Cardinals up front have a pair of star veteran pass rushers in 31-year-old Chandler Jones and 32-year-old J.J. Watt, who faced the Titans 15 times in his decade with the Houston Texans. Familiarity with Watt should help Tennessee when there’s no film from the previous week to analyze. 

Arizona ranked 12th in scoring defense and 13th in total defense last season. It has an All-Pro in the back end in free safety Budda Baker and two young, athletic inside linebackers in second-year pro Isaiah Simmons and first-round rookie Zaven Collins. 

Titans’ defense vs. Cardinals’ offense

Who has the edge? Cardinals

The Titans’ new-look defense flashed promise in the preseason, ranking No. 1 in total defense and holding opponents to a 19.4% conversion rate on third down, where it was historically woeful in 2020. But going up against the Cardinals’ offense right off the bat could pose a challenge for Tennessee, which will have six new defensive starters.

It starts with quarterback Kyler Murray, who was Arizona’s second leading rusher last year (819 yards). He’s a constant threat to the edges of a defense with his shiftiness and quickness. His ability to extend plays, too, will test the Titans’ secondary.

Titans coaches and defenders have stressed how containing Murray, not gambling for sacks, will be key to keeping him in check.  

“‘Like (coach Mike Vrabel) always says, ‘you’re not trying to kill him,’ ” defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said this week of Murray. “ ‘We’re just trying to capture him.’ ”

Under coach Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals have sported an up-tempo offense. That speed will test the Titans’ communication on defense, which by all accounts has been stronger this year. 

“It has to happen a little quicker and it has to happen cleaner,” Vrabel said of communication against the Cardinals. “You can’t have a big discussion about it because they are getting lined up, so I think just the recognition of that. Being able to echo the call and communicate quickly and making sure everybody is on the same page. We don’t have time for a team meeting out there if they are making calls going at the line of scrimmage.”

Score prediction

Cardinals 28, Titans 24: With chemistry concerns on offense to start the season, the Titans may need to depend Sunday on their revamped defense, which will have its hands full with the Murray-led Cardinals’ offense. 

The Titans should get a nice boost from their first full capacity home crowd since the 2019 season.

Ben Arthur covers the Tennessee Titans for The USA TODAY Network. Contact him at barthur@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @benyarthur.