Another rebuild brings the New York Giants to the starting line with Brian Daboll as head coach and lingering questions about how the franchise measures up to contenders.
The Tennessee Titans, perennial playoff participants, welcome the Giants to Nashville as the first meaningful measurements of the 2022 season are recorded on Sunday.
Daboll was a part of the New England Patriots’ coaching staff in 2001 when now-Titans coach Mike Vrabel was an outside linebacker and sometimes-red-zone tight end.
“He was always a step ahead of the offense,” Daboll said of Vrabel.
Vrabel has built the Titans into a juggernaut in the AFC South with back-to-back division titles. Tennessee went 12-5 last season, largely on the back of Derrick Henry, who led the NFL with an average of 117.1 rushing yards per game but was limited to eight games by a foot injury.
“I think we just have to go in with the approach that there’s a game plan and we’re to try to execute it and going to do whatever we can to win,” Vrabel said Wednesday. “Derrick is a large part of what we do.”
Anything but modern, Tennessee thrives on play-action and is wary of asking too much of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He had 21 touchdown passes last season and ran for seven touchdowns, but the Titans had a meager minus-3 takeaway margin and found themselves in plenty of nail-biters.
Tannehill’s weapons on the outside are newcomers Robert Woods (formerly of the Los Angeles Rams) and rookie Treylon Burks, the No. 18 pick in the 2022 draft, as the Titans move forward without top receiver A.J. Brown. Brown was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles on draft day following a brief contract squabble. The Titans also signed tight end Austin Hooper to beef up underneath receiving options.
Vrabel said pass-protection meetings for the offensive line went overtime this week because of the pressure Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale tries to put on blockers.
Daboll hinted that his defense might be more concerned about getting in the way of the steamroller carrying the football for the Titans.
“We’re going to have to have all hands on deck,” Daboll said of Henry. “Even when you have three or four guys on him, he still sneaks through. He’s just a unique player.”
If pressure is a must, the Giants might be perspiring. Daboll might not know the status of his top pass rushers until later in the week. No. 5 overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux (knee) did individual drills this week and Azeez Ojulari (calf) wasn’t a participant in the team portions of practice, either. Thibodeaux, who was injured Aug. 28 on a cut block, said he wants to be on the field for his first NFL game.
“You’ve got to accept however we go,” Thibodeaux said. “We’re a team and Dabs is the person who harps on next play, next man up. So just giving in any way I can, realizing that if I am not able to play, if I’m there, then I have to be engaged and I have to help my team — contribute to the win.”
Daboll inherited a team that went 4-13 in 2021, piloted by quarterback Daniel Jones, who is entering a prove-it-or-move-it contract year created by the Giants resisting his fifth-year contract option. As offensive coordinator of the Bills, Daboll was given credit for the development of quarterback Josh Allen, and he considers Nick Saban and Bill Belichick mentors who taught him the necessity of difficult decisions.
Even so, getting more out of Jones, who ended last season in injured reserve with a neck issue, is an urgent goal for the Giants. Jones said a fresh voice in the building has sparked energy.
“He’s always thinking, always — in the cafeteria, hallways — coming up with new ideas,” Jones said of Daboll.
New ideas and personnel are a start. But the Giants generated only 287 yards and 15.2 points per game last season without the dominant defense to make those below-average numbers hold up.
There is again optimism around running back Saquon Barkley, who had 593 rushing yards while playing in only 13 games last season due to ankle issues after ACL surgery in 2020. Just 25, Barkley said missing the end of every season since he was the second overall pick in 2018 has him hungry to prove he remains worthy of the featured role.
Vrabel said the Titans plan to stack the box and be ready for Barkley’s explosive jump cuts and changes of direction.
“Everybody has to be at the point of attack. If there’s a crease there, he’s going to take it,” Vrabel said.
The Titans ranked second in the NFL in rushing defense (84.6 yards per game) and sixth in third-down defense (36.7 percent) in 2021.
This is the first meeting between the teams since 2018. The Titans have won six of the last seven in the series, which is tied 6-6.