Behind enemy lines, Titans vs. Raiders: Five questions with opposing beat writer

Nashville-based multi-media reporter Paul Kuharsky covers Titans and once got a great quote from Al Davis in 1995

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) calls a play against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
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Today’s “Behind Enemy Lines” features questions posed to Paul Kuharsky, who covered the Tennessee Titans and the AFC South for The Tennessean and ESPN.com for more than 20 years before starting his own Titans-based web site PaulKuharsky.com. He is also a radio host for The Midday 1880 since 2012.

In 1995, Kuharsky covered the Raiders for the Oakland Tribune during the season where they were practicing in El Segundo but playing their games in Oakland. An East Coast native, Kuharsky asked Raiders owner Al Davis about adjusting to living on the West Coast.

Replied Davis: “You don’t adjust. You just dominate.”

All right, then.

On to the questions:

Q: Ryan Tannehill’s numbers since taking over are off the charts in terms of yards per attempt and passer rating. Jon Gruden is fond of saying stats are B.S. but his look pretty good. Given he’s scheduled for unrestricted free agency, do you think the Titans will commit to Tannehill long-term?

Kuharsky: I don’t see how they can’t. There will be a lot of veteran QB movement this offseason, so maybe he’ll want to see what the market has to offer. They could strike a fair deal after the season and before free agency, and still maybe draft a QB. The last year of the CBA allows teams to use both franchise and transition tags, so they have options there if they need. I do see one free-agent to be they could prefer if, by chance, he actually checks out the market. The love fest Tom Brady had during a couple days of Patriots-Titans workouts in Nashville last summer was something to see. If he were to pick a new coach I bet his old teammate, Mike Vrabel would be up there. But in the much higher percentage world, Tannehill and the Titans has been a really good marriage. He’s thriving by any measure and the Titans are playing really well at the right time and scoring nearly 30 points a game since he took over.

Q: Quarterbacks need a good supporting cast to thrive. What are the Titans doing around Tannehill so he can thrive in a way he didn’t in Miami and in a way Marcus Mariota never did?

Kuharsky: Really they have not changed that much for him Tannehill’s changed them back to exactly what they wanted to be with Mariota — a run-first team featuring Derrick Henry and then built off play-action. Mariota was playing extremely carefully and just wouldn’t cut it loose and he held on to the ball way too long way too often. At the end he wasn’t even connecting on short stuff. Tannehill got plugged into the same stuff and was immediately far more decisive, making some tight-window throws and thriving off the sort of things Henry helps open up. Sometime he’s unaware of the rush, but it kind of serves to benefit the offense because he hangs in and sometimes makes a play out of it. The Titans helped break Mariota with all the change and the frequent struggles in pass protection, but he didn’t evolve or adapt enough either.

Q: Derrick Henry . . . it almost seems as if he’s getting stronger if that’s possible. He’s already got more carries than at any time in his career. Any signs of wear and tear, or is he delivering more punishment than he’s taking?

Kuharsky: No signs of wear and tear or him slowing down. He was No. 2 behind DeMarco Murray his first two seasons and last year Dion Lewis wound up ahead of him for a good while early on when Henry was struggling. So he doesn’t have the mileage of most fourth-year backs. Former Titans scout Blake Beddingfield wonders if Henry could lead a resurgence for big backs, because few teams have the kind of linebackers who can get him down as they are loaded with smaller, speedier players now who are used to dealing with backs who match up with that.His stiff arm is something to behold and defenders would be wise to go low.

Q: How would you describe the Tennessee style of defense under Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees and who are the key players?

Kuharsky: Disguise is their No. 1 thing. They will not tip Gruden or Derek Carr to anything in terms of presnap reads. And while Harold Landry is turning into a consistent pass rush threat and the interior rush can be very good with Jurrell Casey and rookie Jeffery Simmons, Vrabel and Pees will bring pressure from anywhere with anyone. They blitzed both safeties — Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro — on a play in Indianapolis last week. The trouble right now is injuries at cornerback. Malcolm Butler is out for the season with a wrist injury. Adoree’ Jackson didn’t finish the Colts’ game with a knee injury. Those are two of the three in the frequent nickel package, with Logan Ryan, the team’s best. No. 4. LeShaun Sims missed last week so they were down to Tye Smith and Kareem Orr, but they were working against equally low-ranking receivers on the Colts.

Q: The Titans have missed eight field goals, but they’ve given some other kickers problems too. It’s been an odd special teams season fore the Titans, hasn’t it?

Kuharsky: It’s been quite weird. The eight misses ties the most they’ve missed in a full season since becoming the Titans, though things may have settled down. Meanwhile, the field goal block unit has gotten to three in the last three games. Joshua Kalu timed up a potential game-tying field goal by Kansas City on the final play of the game and blocked it. Austin Johnson got a hand on a low one off the foot of Adam Vinatieri last week in Indy and then Dane Cruikshank got another that Tye Smith grabbed and took 63 yards for a tie-breaking touchdown that provided the winning margin. It’s group that has a great deal of confidence it can do damage right now.


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