Saturday before football Sunday: What to watch for in Cardinals-Titans

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Cardinals-Titans matchup should be a very high scoring game

What a way to start the 2021 NFL regular season with a thrilling 31-29 victory by Tom Brady and the defending Super Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers over Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys.

With the Thursday night game wrapped up, all eyes are set on Sunday when 28 teams will gear up for their respective Week 1 matchups.

Just as the Cowboys-Buccaneers game ended up being a shootout, the Cardinals-Titans game should be no different.

Here are five Arizona Cardinals things to watch Sunday when they travel to Nissan Stadium in Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans:

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1. A quarterback shootout between Kyler Murray and Ryan Tannehill

Murray played in three drives during the preseason, all against the Kansas City Chiefs. He went 1-of-4 for two passing yards and his three drives were three and outs. Even then, there should not be much to worry about. It was only the preseason. Look at Dak Prescott. He threw for 403 passing yards and three touchdowns against a top-ranked Buccaneers defense having not played football since his gruesome ankle injury last October.

The Titans allowed the fourth-most passing yards (277.4 yards per game) last season where as the Cardinals had the 10th best unit (226.4). The starting cornerback unit for both teams have changed since last year. Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick departed the Cardinals in free agency just as Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson did with the Titans. Byron Murphy, Robert Alford, and Marco Wilson will be tested by a stacked Titans’ receiver unit led by A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Kristian Fulton will not have it easy covering DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Rondale Moore.

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2. Derrick Henry vs Cardinals’ revamped front seven

The last time these two teams met (2017), the Cardinals limited Derrick Henry to eight carries, 20 rushing yards, and a touchdown. Of course back then, he was sharing the ball with then-starter DeMarco Murray. A lot has changed since then for both teams as Henry led the league in rushing yards the last two seasons and the Cardinals have changed their coaching staff and roster drastically.

Will the Cardinals be able to shutdown the rushing king? That will be a tall order and to be honest, we do not know what to expect out of the Cardinals’ front seven. They have revamped their inside linebacker unit with rookie first-round pick Zaven Collins and 2020 No. 8 overall pick promoted as a starter. With a full offseason, last year’s fourth-round picks in Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu should be much improved. 2019 third-round pick Zach Allen has supposedly impressed the Cardinals greatly during the offseason training with the team’s top free agent signing in J.J. Watt. Let’s see how Henry fares against this new front seven of the Cardinals.

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3. How will second-round pick Rondale Moore be used?

Rondale Moore figures to be given many of the slot duties and more that were previously held by Larry Fitzgerald, who remains a free agent. Bubble screens, end arounds, trick plays, and return duties on special teams are likely what is to come for the rookie. He may or may not see too much playing time in Week 1 but Moore will be a difference maker in expected many opportunities he will be given.

He is an ideal slot receiver for Kliff Kingsbury with elite foot quickness and elusiveness as arguably the best after-the-catch guy from this year’s draft. Christian Kirk is the starting slot receiver but considering the fact the Cardinals are king of 10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WRs, 0 TEs) formations, Moore will have plenty of playing time on the offense. Moore vs Titans’ promising rookie slot CB Elijah Molden will be fun to watch.

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4. J.J. Watt, Chandler Jones, and the Cardinals’ potentially improved pass rush

Titans’ star left tackle Taylor Lewan is coming off an ACL tear he suffered last October. At right tackle, they are starting former Texans’ sixth-round pick David Quessenberry. Quessenberry spent has had quite a journey from being a draft selection, sitting out football to overcome cancer, and eventually returning to the NFL to win the starting right tackle job for the Titans.

Despite the story and the promising performance he had last year filling in for Lewan, Quessenberry will have difficult matchups against J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones. Watt has 18 career sacks against the Tennessee Titans since entering the NFL in 2011. Jones has four sacks in three games against Tennessee but is coming off a season where he suffered a season-ending bicep injury. Pass rush will make the biggest difference in the outcome of this game. The Cardinals were tied for the fourth-most sacks (48) last season but they lost Haason Reddick and his 12.5 sacks with him but gained Watt where as the Titans had the third-fewest (19) but gained Bud Dupree. I would take the Cardinals’ pass rush over the Titans easily.

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5. Key stats from 2020 to consider for both teams as we watch

Cardinals

Offense: Total offense: 384.6 (6), Passing: 244.8 (17), Rushing: 139.8 (7), Points: 25.6 (13), Sacked: 29 (T-11), 3rd Down %: 39.6 (T-21)
Defense: Total defense: 351.9 (13), Pass defense: 226.4 (10), Rush defense: 125.5 (22), Points allowed: 22.9 (12), Interceptions: 11 (T-18), Sacks: 48 (T-4)

Key FA Adds: DE J.J. Watt (5 sacks, 45 pressures), C Rodney Hudson (Allowed 1 sack since ‘17), WR A.J. Green (523 receiving yards, 2 TDs)
Key FA Losses: OLB Haason Reddick (12.5 sacks), CB Patrick Peterson (3 INTs), WR Larry Fitzgerald (409 receiving yards), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (3 INTs), WR Trent Sherfield (ST ace)
Key Rookie Adds: ILB Zaven Collins, WR Rondale Moore, CB Marco Wilson

Overall: High sack totals in 2020 with the breakout campaign of Haason Reddick and rejuvenation/trade for Markus Golden masked some of their cornerback deficiencies. We will have to wait and see how Byron Murphy, Robert Alford, and Marco Wilson do as the Cardinals’ top cornerbacks. In my honest opinion, this trio will be better than the Peterson/Kirkpatrick duo last season. J.J. Watt provides the Cardinals a game changer on the defensive line, which they have not had since Calais Campbell’s departure. The offense should be better this season, assuming Hudson continues his high level of play, A.J. Green returns to top form, and Chase Edmonds proves he can carry the load as the top running back.

Titans

Offense: Total offense: 396.4 (3), Passing: 228.3 (23), Rushing: 168.1 (2), Points: 30.7 (4), Sacked: 25 (T-6), 3rd Down %: 46.2 (T-5)

Defense: Total defense: 398.3 (28), Pass defense: 277.4 (29), Rush defense: 120.8 (19), Points allowed: 27.4 (24), Interceptions: 15 (T-7), Sacks: 19 (30)
Key FA Adds: WR Julio Jones (771 receiving yards, 3 TDs through nine games in ‘20), OLB Bud Dupree (8 sacks, 43 pressures), DE Denico Autry (7.5 sacks, 35 pressures), CB Janoris Jenkins (3 INTs)
Key FA Losses: WR Corey Davis (984 receiving yards, 5 TDs), TE Jonnu Smith (448 receiving yards, 8 TDs), OT Dennis Kelly (allowed 0 sacks as starting RT in ‘20), CB Malcolm Butler (4 INTs), OC Arthur Smith

Key Rookie Adds: CB Caleb Farley, OT Dillon Radunz, LB Monty Rice, CB Elijah Molden

Overall: Titans’ pass rush in 2020 was among the worst in the NFL but they added some quality veterans in Bud Dupree and Denico Autry to solve this issue. A serious knee injury cut Dupree’s season short last season so whether their pass rush is truly improved is anyone’s guess. They lost a lot of top talent including wide receiver Corey Davis but replaced him with an even better receiver in All-Pro Julio Jones. Just like the Cardinals, the Titans’ offense should also be better this season.

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