Sunday’s season opener in Miami features the return of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the debut of Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel.
The Titans are coming off a 9-7 season. They made the playoffs for the first time in nine years and defeated the host Kansas City Chiefs for their first postseason win in 14 years.
After losing to the New England Patriots in the divisional round, however, Tennessee parted ways with head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie. The Titans replaced them with Vrabel, who has never been a head coach before this season, and Matt LaFleur, who has never been a play-caller before.
Vrabel, a former Pro Bowl linebacker, played for two of the best coaches in NFL history: Bill Cowher with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bill Belichick with the Patriots, winning three Super Bowls with New England.
Vrabel, 43, is three years older than Adam Gase, the Dolphins’ third-year coach.
In 2016, Gase guided the Dolphins to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Dolphins regressed last season, finishing 6-10 as Tannehill missed the entire season after knee surgery.
The Dolphins hope Tannehill can regain his 2016 form and perhaps take it up a notch or two.
“I feel more ready for this year than I’ve ever felt before,” Tannehill said. “I feel more confident in the guys we have and the path we’re on.”
That’s an interesting comment considering Miami lost some top talent from last year’s team, including three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry, five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and three-time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey. Landry was traded, while Suh and Pouncey were released. Cody Parkey, who tied the Dolphins’ single-season record for field-goal accuracy last year, is also gone.
In addition, wide receiver and former first-round pick DeVante Parker is expected to miss Sunday’s game with a broken finger. Starting tight end MarQueis Gray was placed on injured reserve Thursday with a torn Achilles.
Tannehill has confidence in his lineup. He listed Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, running back Kenyan Drake and rookie tight end Mike Gesicki as “five guys who can create matchup problems for defenses.” Veteran slot receiver Danny Amendola is also in the mix.
The Titans counter with a defense that includes Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard, who had eight interceptions last year, and outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo, who combined for 14.5 sacks.
Tennessee added cornerback Malcolm Butler from the Patriots, pass-rushing linebacker Harold Landry in the second round of the draft, and first-round middle linebacker Rashaan Evans. Evans, who starred at Alabama, is set to start as a rookie.
Morgan (knee), Evans (hamstring) and Landry (ankle) were all limited in practice this week, casting doubt on their availability for Sunday.
The Titans’ biggest concern on offense is right tackle Jack Conklin’s knee injury. He tore his ACL in the loss to the Patriots last season and has been limited in practice this week, with his return likely to come after a few regular-season games.
The good news for Tennessee is that quarterback Marcus Mariota is healthy. LaFleur, the new offensive coordinator, has been tasked with opening up the offense to take advantage of Mariota’s pass-run, dual-threat ability.
Mariota’s top returning weapons are running back Derrick Henry (team-high 744 rushing yards in 2017) and three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker (team-high 74 catches for 807 yards).
“What’s unique is that (Henry) is fast and as big as you can get,” Gase said. “He’s a powerful man, and it takes multiple guys to get him down.”
—Field Level Media