The Tennessee Titans are finally returning to the field on Tuesday night. The Titans were the first NFL team to experience an in-season COVID-19 outbreak, and it resulted in their Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers being postponed and this game being pushed back by two days. They were able to get in a short practice on Saturday, finally, and got the green light to play Tuesday morning after no new positive COVID-19 tests.
Their opponent will be the Buffalo Bills, currently holding first place in the AFC East behind the much-improved play of Josh Allen. The Bills look like a contender in the conference with their 4-0 record, and while the Titans enter this game at 3-0, their start has been much less impressive, with each victory coming by three points or fewer.
Let's break things down.
How to watch
When the Bills have the ball
We covered the Buffalo offense in some detail in our big Josh Allen story last week. Here's an excerpt:
I think we need to start here, because it's important: The Bills have done a wonderful job putting Allen in position to succeed. When other teams draft a quarterback in the first round, they should look to this team-building job as a model to recreate.
Buffalo moved up to snag Allen with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft, but during his rookie season, they did not have a good infrastructure around him. He was put in position to fail, and he failed pretty miserably, completing only 53 percent of his passes at an average of 6.5 yards per attempt, throwing more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10), and taking a sack on 8 percent of his dropbacks.
In the 2019 offseason, the Bills moved aggressively to upgrade both Allen's protection and his weaponry. They signed offensive linemen Mitch Morse, Quinton Spain, Ty Nsekhe, Spencer Long, and Jon Feliciano, plus wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, and tight end Tyler Kroft. They used a second-round draft pick on tackle Cody Ford, as well as third-round selections on versatile running back Devin Singletary and tight end Dawson Knox.
The Bills were carried by their defense throughout the year, but especially early on. Allen seemingly had not improved much as a decision-maker, throwing seven interceptions in their first five games. After their Week 6 bye, Allen simply... stopped turning the ball over, and the Bills' offense at least approached average the rest of the way. Allen appeared to be a clearly improved player, but it wasn't the type of second-year leap that other quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, for example) have taken.
His completion rate improved modestly, to 59 percent. His yards per attempt average bumped up two ticks to 6.7, and his sack rate dropped slightly to only 7.6 percent. In those areas and more, Allen was still a below-average passer. The most important thing, though, was that he dramatically slashed those turnovers. After throwing an interception 23 percent more often than the league-average passer as rookie, he threw a pick six percent less often than the field as a sophomore.
There are plenty of teams that would have gotten complacent and thought their offensive makeover was done, their quarterback was improving, and that was that. But the Bills did not take that route. They aggressively sought improvements yet again, trading their first-round pick for star wideout Stefon Diggs, signing offensive linemen Daryl Williams and Brian Winters to replace some of the snaps they didn't feel as confident about up front, and drafting running back Zack Moss and wide receiver Gabriel Davis.
And boy, has Allen put the talent around him to good use. His completion percentage has spiked to 71 percent. He's averaging an even 9 yards per attempt. His sack rate has dipped nearly two full percentage points, down to 5.7 percent overall. His touchdown rate is a sky-high 8.1 percent, and he's thrown only one interception on 148 pass attempts.
The Titans, entering this game having not played in two weeks, sporting a 7.7 yards per attempt allowed average, and a bottom-five sack rate, seem ripe for Allen's picking. Diggs, Brown (questionable), Beasley, and Davis are all likely to have plus matchups. Adoree' Jackson remains on injured reserve and Kristian Fulton is on the COVID-19 list, so Tennessee is working with Malcolm Butler, Jonathan Joseph, and Chris Jackson at corner. It's not a great group. Combined, they have allowed opponents to complete 29 of 45 passes for 399 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception -- equivalent to a 105.7 passer rating.
The Tennessee defense has been worse against the run (22nd in DVOA) than the pass (13th), but the way the Bills are spreading the field and staying aggressive on early downs, I wouldn't expect that they'll suddenly revert to a more conservative offense. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss will get their opportunities, but this is Allen's show for now.
When the Titans have the ball
We last saw the Titans back in Week 3, when Derrick Henry ran right through the Vikings for 119 yards and two touchdowns. After dealing with an unexpected bye week and and a coronavirus outbreak, you'd think the Titans would prefer to keep things simple on Tuesday night, controlling the ball and the clock with a Henry-focused game plan.
They might find that easier against this year's Bills than some of their teams of the recent past. Buffalo ranks a surprising 22nd in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA, with the league's 20th-ranked unit against the run and the 17th-ranked group against the pass. The Bills have stopped only 18 percent of opponent runs behind the line of scrimmage, down from 25 percent last year (fourth in the NFL) and 26 percent the year before (first). They've also allowed opponents to convert 69 percent of third and fourth-down runs with two or fewer yards to go, up from 62 percent in 2018 and 59 percent in 2019.
The Titans have not quite been clearing as big a holes for Henry as they did for much of last season, though, and he actually struggled quite a bit in Weeks 1 and 2 (56 carries for 200 yards, or 3.6 per carry) before breaking out in that victory over the Vikes. The Titans will have their whole offensive line intact for the game, which should help in their efforts to clear the road, but you'd also imagine that transitioning back to game speed might be a challenge after the past couple weeks they've had.
It's easy to forget because of everything that's gone on, but Ryan Tannehill is actually off to a pretty nice start to the year, despite working without A.J. Brown, for the most part: 67 percent completion rate, 7.8 yards per attempt, six touchdowns, and one interception in three games. Brown should make his return on Tuesday night, but Corey Davis will be out after getting placed on the COVID list.
Brown could and should see a whole lot of Tre'Davious White throughout the evening, which would force Tannehill to beat Buffalo with the likes of Adam Humphries and Khalif Raymond instead. If White's back injury holds him out, though, that presents an obvious advantage for the Titans on the perimeter. The Bills already won't have linebacker Matt Milano for this game, which is a loss for their pass defense and could open some things up over the middle for athletic tight end Jonnu Smith, who has at least four catches and/or a touchdown in every game this season.
Prediction: Bills 30, Titans 20