We’re just under 24 hours away from the official start of the 2016 Minnesota Vikings season. Their Week 1 opponent, the Tennessee Titans, is far from an arch rival since the teams meet only once every four seasons. So in order to better understand who the Vikings are facing on Sunday, we chatted with Jimmy Morris, head blogger at Music City Miracles. Jimmy had some excellent insight on a young team that’s looking to take a big step forward in 2016. Here’s what he had to say:
Daily Norseman: The Vikings like to run. The Titans like to run. If everything goes how most suspect it to go, this game could be over in about 2 1/2 hours. Tennessee has quite the 1-2 punch in their backfield with DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry. Murray will be the starter, but how do you see the carries being distributed on Sunday? Will their carries be more situational or will it simply be Henry giving Murray a breather when he needs one? Is this your classic "thunder and lightning" running back pairing or are their strengths more nuanced?
Music City Miracles: Well this is actually a Thunder and Thunder running back pairing (that is how they are being branded—clever, I know). Mike Mularkey has said that DeMarco Murray is the team's feature back. He will get the majority of the carries. Mularkey has also led us to believe that they will rotate series, not necessarily situational. If I had to guess, and that is all it is right now, Murray gets 2 series for every series that Henry gets. They have both looked great in the preseason and should have nice years in the scheme that the Titans are going to run.
DN: What are you looking for out of Marcus Mariota in his second NFL season? Obviously you're hoping he'll remain healthy for all 16 games after missing four last year. What about his game has looked better in the preseason? Where does he still need to improve in order to eventually become one of the league's better quarterbacks?
MCM: We are looking for Mariota to take that leap into the conversation of franchise quarterbacks. He showed so many good signs last year, but unfortunately wasn't healthy for the whole year. The line is better, so he should have a better chance of playing in all 16 games. You can tell from the preseason that he really understands the offense and his role in it.
The biggest thing he needs to work on is his deep ball. That is really the only area he struggled in last year.
I really believe that if he plays in all 16 games he will be mentioned among the league's better quarterbacks.
DN: Mike Mularkey has an 18-39 career record as a head coach, including going 2-7 down the stretch after taking over for Ken Whisenhunt last season. What was the reaction like at MCM when the Titans removed his interim tag and made Mularkey the permanent head coach? What does the team have to accomplish in 2016 to make sure he's still around in 2017 and beyond?
MCM: We had a tough time at MCM when Mularkey was named the coach. His track record, as you mentioned, is terrible, and the Titans did a sham of a coaching job. They have this young, talented quarterback and they didn't even talk to the best offensive minds out there. People were not very happy.
Here's the thing though, Titans controlling owner, Amy Adams Strunk, loves Mike Mularkey. She fired Ken Whisenhunt because he refused to change what he does in order to better protect Mariota. Everything Mularkey does is in order to protect Mariota. I think he would still be the coach in 2017 even if the team went 0-16.
DN: The Titans were a middle of the road to below average defense last year by most analytics and metrics. Which pieces have been added to the defense to help Dick LeBeau and his staff improve on that side of the ball?
MCM: Well they added some guys at corner, but to be honest, they have been pretty terrible. So that's really no help. They also added OLB Kevin Dodd in the 2nd round of the draft. He missed a lot of camp after having surgery on his foot, but he should give them some much needed depth in the pass rushing department. That will allow LeBeau to dial up some of those blitzes that he loves so much.
They also added Rashad Johnson as a free safety. The secondary is the biggest hole on this team, but Johnson should provide some help back there.
DN: Tajae Sharpe looks like he could be this year's Stefon Diggs--a 5th round rookie from an east coast college that makes some noise right away. Is Sharpe the starter because he was so impressive in camp or is it more because Andre Johnson doesn't have much left in the tank? What kind of numbers do you think Sharpe is capable of putting up this season?
MCM: Sharpe is a starter because of the good work he has put this offseason. He runs great routes and has great hands. That is something the Titans have desperately needed since the Eisenhower administration.
As for the numbers he can put up this season, they won't be eye-popping because of the offense. They are going to run the ball a ton and Delanie Walker is going to have a bunch of catches. That limits the numbers Sharpe can have, but I do think he leads the wide receivers in targets, catches and yards.
DN: Give us one player on offense and one player on defense that most Vikings fans might not know much about but could have a big impact on the outcome of the game.
MCM: There really aren't any surprise guys on offense. I will say this though, people left DeMarco Murray for dead after last year. He has looked great in the preseason. Don't be surprised if he has a big game in this one and people realize that his numbers last season were a product of being a bad fit for what Chip Kelly was trying to do in Philadelphia last season.
ILB Avery Williamson is a guy that should shine in a game like this. He's not great in coverage, but he is really solid against the run. If the Titans are going to slow Adrian Peterson, Williamson is going to have a big game. He should record double-digit tackles in this one.
DN: Finally, the scores count again on Sunday! Who will emerge from Week 1 with a 1-0 record?
MCM: I've got Titans 20 Vikings 17 in this one. It is going to be smashmouth football at it's finest, and as you said, the game could be over in well under 3 hours. It should be a game that comes down the wire!