NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Chicago Bears on Saturday night in the preseason finale at Nissan Stadium.
Here's a look at six things to watch:
Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is on the team's Reserve/COVID-19 list, and unavailable for the preseason finale. Chances are he wasn't going to play anyway, as the team has one last opportunity to take a long look at their options behind him. Matt Barkley will start against the Bears. The plan is to rotate the quarterbacks – Barkley and Logan Woodside – every two series. There's no question Barkley has pushed Woodside for the back-up spot, largely because of his accuracy and ability to throw the ball downfield. Another impressive showing by Barkley against the Bears could make the conversations at this position even more interesting early next week.
Without Coach Vrabel
It's hard to imagine a football game without Titans coach Mike Vrabel on the sideline, but brace yourself, because that's where things are headed. Vrabel remains in quarantine after positive COVID-19 tests this week, and he said he plans to watch the game – and listen to the Titans Radio broadcast – while evaluating players and performances. Vrabel's coaching staff, including OC Todd Downing to DC Shane Bowen, plan to run a clean operation without the boss in the locker room, and on the sideline. This is a unique situation, and certainly one worth keeping an eye on.
Justin Fields vs the Titans Defense
The Bears plan to trot out former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, the team's first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, as their starter against the Titans. Bears coach Matt Nagy said this week some, but not all, of the team's starters will see time with Fields, particularly along the offensive line. It's a big chance for Fields to show improvement, and it's a great chance for the Titans to make another statement on their own strides as a defense. So far this season the Titans have allowed just a pair of field goals while outscoring their two preseason opponents by a 57-6 score. While Tennessee's defensive starters won't play long, back-ups will get another chance to shine.
It makes no sense to play running back Derrick Henry in the preseason finale, and his back-up, Darrynton Evans, won't see the field as he continues to recover from an injury. Throw in Jeremy McNichols, who is on the team's Reserve/COVID-19 list, and that's three running backs not in the mix. What that means is more carries for the back-up Mekhi Sargent, and more opportunities to convince coaches he deserves a roster spot. Sargent, an undrafted free agent from Iowa, leads the Titans with 136 rushing yards in two preseason games. The Titans have some other options at the position – Brian Hill and Javian Hawkins, who was signed on Thursday – but I'm expecting Sargent to carry the load.
At this point, kicker Sam Ficken appears to have won the kicking job. He's 3-of-3 in field goals in games, 6-of-6 on PATs in games, and 60-of-67 in practices. He booted a 58-yard kick, and he's shown a strong leg on kickoffs as well. Ficken probably needs to pass at least one more test, however, against the Bears. This week, left tackle Taylor Lewan razzed Ficken as he kicked in practices. Ficken handled it pretty well, but what's on the horizon – the regular season – is what matters most. Ficken doesn't need to do anything in the preseason finale to give coaches and the GM a moment to pause.
Last Ditch Effort
The Titans trimmed their roster from 90 to 85 players, and then from 85 to 80. By this time next week, all NFL teams must be down to 53 players – cut down day is Tuesday. At this point, I suspect the Titans have a pretty good idea on which 49 or 50 players will be on the 53. So roughly 3-4 players have one final chance to convince the decision-makers they belong. Others, of course, have a chance to earn a spot on the team's practice squad. What makes this final game important for those battling for roster spots is the opportunity to put some good play on tape for the other 31 teams as well. This is the final audition for a lot of guys.