NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
Here's a look at six things to watch in the contest:
Keep the Run Game Going
Derrick Henry and the Titans running game got back on track vs. the Jaguars, at least for a half. Against the Chargers, the Titans need to be able to stick with it from beginning to end. Henry has averaged 111.3 rushing yards per game in his career on the road in December/January, the highest average of any player since the 1970 merger. The Chargers have allowed 147.0 rushing yards per game this season, the fifth-worst total in the NFL. How about this for an interesting nugget: Since 2019, Henry has played nine other games against teams with a bottom-five rush defense, based on their ranking heading into the game. Henry has averaged 180.1 rush yards per game and scored 16 rushing touchdowns in those nine games, eight of which the Titans won.
Here's a development no one wants to be a part of: The last two quarterbacks the Titans faced (Jalen Hurts of the Eagles and Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars) won Player of the Week honors for that week. Now, a gunslinger is up next in Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. The Titans haven't had much luck getting to the quarterback in recent weeks (four sacks in the last four games), and that needs to change on Sunday. If Herbert gets comfortable, it could be a long day for Tennessee's secondary, which will be without cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Tre Avery, along with safety Amani Hooker. The Chargers have a ton of weapons on offense, from receivers Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Joshua Palmer to tight end Gerald Everett, and a running back I'll devote a section to coming up. The Chargers are banged up on the offensive line, as Herbert has been sacked four times in each of the last four games. Herbert has been pressured 188 times in 2022, the second-most in the NFL. The Titans need to get after him on Sunday, but they'll have to do it without defensive lineman Denico Autry, who has been ruled out for the game.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has ridiculous stats as a pass catcher – he has 93 receptions for 623 yards and five touchdowns, on top of his 634 rushing yards. On Sunday against the Titans, he'll be aiming for his third game in a row – and fourth in a row at home – with 100-plus scrimmage yards. Ekeler has scored 33 scrimmage touchdowns since 2021, which is the most in the NFL. The Chargers have a lot of weapons, but it's important for the Titans to keep him in check. Ekeler ranks second in the NFL with 13 touchdowns (8 rush, 5 receiving) and he can become the 2nd Charger ever (HOFer LaDainian Tomlinson) with 15-plus touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
Titans receiver Robert Woods returns home on Sunday. The Los Angeles native, who starred at Serra High School, USC, and previously with the Los Angeles Rams, is one of the players the Titans are counting on to make plays in the passing game. With rookie receiver Treylon Burks still sidelined with a concussion and ruled out for Sunday's game, the Titans need playmakers to emerge. While Nick Westbrook-Ikhine has had his moments, and Racey McMath is getting more in the flow in practices, in recent weeks the team has gotten some nice production from its tight ends – Chig Okonkwo and Austin Hooper – and that needs to continue on Sunday. The Chargers rank in the bottom-10 in scoring defense and total defense in 2022.
The frustration in head coach Mike Vrabel's voice was clear at the start of the week. "It has been a long time since we've created a turnover, hit anybody hard enough to knock the ball loose, intercepted or tipped it up in the air and caught it," Vrabel said. It's true: The Titans haven't forced a turnover since the Broncos game on November 13, and that needs to change. Herbert has not thrown an interception in the past three games after throwing at least one interception in seven of the first 10 games in 2022. (He's never gone four straight games without throwing an interception, btw). The Titans need to start making plays here – fumbles or interceptions will do – because their takeaway/giveaway number has now slipped to minus-two.
Importance of Week 15
The Titans are roughly a three-point underdog on Sunday at the Chargers. By now, you know I love to roll out the playoff percentages with a win, or loss. Well, I couldn't locate those numbers this week, so I'm going down a different path to close this out. Per FiveThirtyEight.com, the Titans have an 86 percent chance to make the playoffs, an 85 percent chance to win the division, but just a one percent chance to win the Super Bowl based on recent developments. But we all know these numbers can change dramatically with a win, or a loss. Simply put, the Titans need to find a way to win a game. The team hasn't lost four consecutive games under Vrabel – or since 2015 for that matter.