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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 Opponent Preview: Tennessee Titans, Week 10

The Titans' second-half swoon in 2022 cost them a fourth straight playoff appearance, but they have added talent in both sides of the trenches and will soon have a quarterback decision on their hands


As the NFL enters its fallow period between the end the teams' offseason programs and the start of training camp, we are taking a closer look at each of the opponents the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face during the 2023 regular season. From how those teams fared last year to what they've done with the roster since to some as-yet-unanswered questions, we want to get a better feel for what the Buccaneers will be up against this fall. Today we look at another AFC South team that took a quarterback early in this year's draft.

2022 Results

Eleven weeks into the 2022 season, the Titans appeared to be in total control of the AFC South, with their 7-3 record giving them a three-game lead over Indianapolis and a four-game clearance from Jacksonville. As it turned out, Tennessee wouldn't win another game, and the Jaguars captured the division crown in Week 18 when Josh Allen scooped up a fumble by Titans quarterback Josh Dobbs and returned it for the game-winning score late in the fourth quarter of a 20-16 final. Tennessee finished 7-10, its first losing campaign since 2015, and saw its streak of three straight postseason visits broken.

The Titans' season began with a pair of losses to the Giants and Bills, the last one by a 34-point margin. However, the team then ripped ff seven wins over its eight outings, a run capped by a 27-17 downing of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Unfortunately, that the Titans' highest single-game point total in 2023, and only once over the next seven weeks would it top 20 points. Two of Tennessee's seven straight losses to the end the season came at the hands of the Jaguars, signaling a changing of the guard in the division.

Injuries were a big part of the Titans' demise, particularly ones that cost quarterback Ryan Tannehill five games, cut pass-rusher Denico Autry's season short and left the secondary short-handed in the second half of the season. The bigger issue, though, was imbalances on both offense and defense that saw them struggle in the passing game on both sides.

On offense, Derrick Henry led the team to the league's 13th-ranked rushing attack, as the power back led the league with 349 carries and racked up 1,538 yards and 13 touchdowns in 16 games. Henry also caught a career-high 33 passes after never snagging more than 20 in any previous season. However, the Titans' passing game, which ranked 30th in the NFL, only produced 16 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.

Tannehill's injury issues led to a drop of more than 1,000 passing yards from his previous two seasons and the team did not stick with rookie third-rounder Malik Willis as his replacement for long. Instead, the Titans signed former Steeler Josh Dobbs in mid-December and gave him the last two regular-season starts with the division title hanging in the balance. After trading star receiver A.J. Brown to Philadelphia and using the resulting first-round pick to draft his intended replacement, Treylon Burks, the Titans ended up without a true number-one option in the passing game. Burks caught 33 passes in 11 games; well-traveled veteran Robert Woods led the way with 53 catches for 527 yards, followed by tight end Austin Hooper with 41.

On defense, the Titans had an even more start contrast between their success on the ground and through the air, ranking first in rushing yards allowed (76.9 per game) and last in passing yards allowed (274.8 per game). Thanks to good work on third downs (third) and the red zone (15th), the Titans did manage to finish in the top half of the league (15th) in scoring defense. A year after earning first-team All-Pro honors, safety Kevin Byard had another strong season, leading the team in both tackles (106) and interceptions (four). Rising star defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons did got to a second straight Pro Bowl after ranking second on the team with 7.5 sacks. Autry led the club in that category with 8.0 sacks and also had a team-high 19 quarterback hits in just 12 games.

2023 Arrivals

Shortly after the end of the 2022 season, the Titans brought in new leadership in the form of first-time General Manager Ran Carthon. The team had an open at the top of its personnel department after G.M. Jon Robinson was let go in early December.

After ranking 29th in sacks allowed per pass play in 2022, the Titans largely reworked their offensive line this offseason. After releasing three-time Pro Bowl left tackle, whose last four years in Tennessee were increasingly plagued by injury, the Titans signed former Eagles first-round pick Andre Dillard to man that spot. Carthon went to his former team, the 49ers, to land another potential O-Line starter in Daniel Brunskill, who could slot in at right guard. The draft brought a new answer at the other guard spot when the 11th-overall pick yielded Northwestern's Peter Skoronski. Skoronski could also switch spots with Dillard or challenge Nicholas Petit-Frere at right tackle.

The Titans didn't do much to bolster their pass-catching corps, which also is now without Woods, in free agency, only signing Chris Moore, who had a career-high 48 receptions last year in Houston. In the draft, the only receiver the team snared was Tennessee-Martin's Cotton Dowell in the seventh round. However, they did use a third-round pick on Tulane running back Tyjae Spears, who could provide a slashing complement to the bulldozing Henry.

Tennessee did find some help for all three levels of its defense in free agency, beginning up front with edge rusher Arden key. The former third-round pick did little in three seasons with the Raiders but had a productive season in San Francisco in 2021 and again last year in Jacksonville, with 11.0 total sacks in that span. Azeez Al-Shaair, who started 31 games over four seasons in San Francisco amid a loaded linebacking corps, rejoined Carthon in Tennessee and will likely grab one of the inside starting spots. And the secondary got a likely starter in former Buccaneer Sean Murphy-Bunting, who could help out either outside or in the slot.

The most meaningful addition the Titans made in the offseason, however, may be a player who is not on the field right away. After Kentucky quarterback Will Levis somewhat surprisingly slid out of the first round in April, Carthon traded up eight spots to nab him two picks into the second frame. Levis will likely move ahead of Willis on the depth chart but he may end up watching Tannehill for much of his rookie season. Tannehill, however, is in the last year of his current contract, so a succession plan seems to be in place.

2023 Departures

As noted, the Titans released Lewan in March, and they did the same with starting center Ben Jones, who was last seen playing in the Pro Bowl. Neither Lewan nor Jones has signed with another team to this point. In addition, starting guard Nate Davis left for a three-year deal in Chicago. Tennessee's offense also lost Woods to the Texans and Hooper to the Raiders. Josh Dobbs stay in Tennessee didn't prove to be a long one, as he hit free agency again in March and signed with Cleveland.

Several defensive starters departed via free agency, as well. Off-ball linebacker David Long, who excels in coverage and had two picks and 86 tackles in 12 games last year, signed a two-year pact with the Dolphins. Defensive end Demarcus Walker, coming off a career-high 7.0 sacks in 2022, joined Davis in Chicago on a three-year contract. And outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who had 4.0 sacks in 11 games last fall, got a one-year deal from Atlanta.

Other Noteworthy Developments

As mentioned above, the team parted with long-time Titans OL pillars Taylor Lewan and Ben Jones early in the offseason, but the Titans also have a number of other notable players from their 2022 squad who were either released or hit free agency and so far have not returned or signed elsewhere. That group includes linebacker Zach Cunningham, who started all 10 games in which he played since arriving midway through the 2021 season; kicker Randy Bullock, who handled the Titans' field goal duties for all but three games over the past two years; tight end Geoff Swaim, who was on the field for 60% of the team's offensive snaps over 2021-22 seasons; and cornerback Terrance Mitchell, who started five games in his lone season in Nashville.

Jeffery Simmons, as detailed above, went to his second straight Pro Bowl after the 2022 season and has clearly emerged as one of the NFL's very best interior defensive linemen. Now he is being paid like one. The Titans took care of probably their most pressing roster issue in March when they signed Simmons to a four-year extension worth $94 million. As is often the case with such high-dollar, multi-year extensions, it actually provided the team with a little cap relief in the current year, in this case about $4 million worth.

In April, the Metro Nashville Council voted to issue a final approval on the project to build a new, enclosed stadium for the Titans on the east bank of the Cumberland River. Groundbreaking on the project is expected to occur in 2024 with the goal of the 60,000-seat venue opening in 2027.

Pressing Questions

Who will be the quarterback by season's end and will he have enough weapons to create a productive passing attack?

The Titans used a third-round pick on quarterback Malik Willis in 2022 but their subsequent selection of Will Levis at pick number 33 this spring suggests the latter is the expected long-term answer at the position. As mentioned above, Tannehill, who revived his career after a 2019 trade from Miami and was at the helm for three Titans playoff seasons, is only under contract for the upcoming season.

The Titans could stick with the veteran passer for the entirety of 2023, particularly if they shake off their second-half swoon from last year and return to being prime playoff contenders. If Tannehill is playing well and Tennessee is in the thick of the AFC South race, it could be difficult to justify turning the offense over to an untested rookie. However, if the team gets off to a slow start or Tannehill either has a cold hand or another injury, the Levis era could begin quickly.

No matter who is under center for the Titans, he will be passing to a wideout group that has the second-lowest collective payroll, just under $10 million, in the league behind only Green Bay. Second-year man Treylon Burks still has the elite size and traits that made him the 18th-overall pick in 2022 and could emerge as the team's number-one receiver, but no receiver on the current roster has ever had a 50-catch season in the NFL. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, a former undrafted free agent, projects as the other starter; he had 25 receptions in 17 games last year and has averaged 1.4 catches and 19.3 yards per game in his career. Will the Titans be able to get production out of this group, or will they consider adding another receiver or two before the start of training camp?

Can the Titans' defense get more pressure on the passer than it did a year ago?

If the Titans surprisingly didn't address their receiving corps in free agency or the draft, they did make a concerted effort to get better in both trenches. On defense, they hope those efforts will improve a pass rush that ranked 28th in the league in sacks per pass play last year.

To be fair, they were without Denico Autry for most of the second half of the season and they also saw Jeffery Simmons miss time due to injury. Those two still combined for 15.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits. The Titans kept Simmons happy and at the heart of their defense with his new contract and will hope to have Autry on the field for a full season in 2023, the last year on his three-year deal with the club.

And there are reinforcements on the way. Harold Landry, who made his first Pro Bowl with a breakout 12-sack season in 2021, tore an ACL just days before the start of the 2022 season. A full return for Landry would be a big boost to a defensive front that watched Bud Dupree and Demarcus Walker depart in free agency. The Titans also tried to offset those anticipated losses by signing former Jaguar edge rusher Arden Key, who had 4.5 sacks last season. If it all comes together to form a more relentless pass rush this season, the Titans should be much better against opposing passing games in 2023.

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