The 2021 NFL season for the Arizona Cardinals begins in the Music City. The Bird Gang will take on the projected AFC South frontrunners in the Tennessee Titans led by Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill.
Last season began with optimism and a gradual sense that the Cardinals were on the path to better play and potentially a playoff spot. After a 4-2 start, things quickly became an inconsistent affair for head coach Kliff Kingsbury‘s men. Close finishes coupled with an offense that couldn’t come through in several pivotal moments proved fatal.
Particularly against the Rams in Week 17, the defense held the door for as long as it could. However, Arizona’s offense stagnated with quarterback Kyler Murray mostly out. It was frustrating for the Red Sea to accept as a victory at SoFi Stadium was all that Arizona needed to make the playoffs.
It’s a different story for the Tennessee Titans, their success was proven last season, and the expectations are significantly higher. Tennessee enjoyed a stellar 11-5 campaign, which included a blowout win at Buffalo and going 5-1 against the AFC South. Therefore, it makes Tennessee’s Wild Card loss to Baltimore at home all the more frustrating considering their rising stardom under head coach Mike Vrabel.
To ensure Arizona makes the postseason, general manager Steve Keim made several offseason splashes. First was the stunning acquisition of defensive end J.J. Watt from Houston, who, along with Chandler Jones, could be one of the most dangerous edge-rushing tandems in the league. The addition of Malcolm Butler to add depth to the secondary was welcomed until his abrupt retirement before the season. Now, rookie Marco Wilson will have to grow up in a hurry.
Offensively, the Cardinals added an excellent draft pick in receiver Rondale Moore. The Purdue star now joins not only DeAndre Hopkins but also A.J. Green, a long-time former Bengal. The offensive line may experience better stability with new center Rodney Hudson whose consistency on the field is matched by few other linemen.
Coming off a 2,000-yard rushing season (first Titan since Chris Johnson in 2009), Derrick Henry will be the premier threat for the Bird Gang. Ryan Tannehill is living his best life as the Titans quarterback and will have wide receiver A.J. Brown and tight end Geoff Swaim at his disposal. Plus, the Titans now have the still-hungry Julio Jones who looks to thrive in Nashville.
Defense is where the Titans front office realized needs attention if the Titans are to secure the AFC South. Signing linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Janoris “Jackrabbit” Jenkins are moves the team is counting on to work. Jenkins is necessary after Malcolm Butler ironically went to Arizona before retiring. He adds a veteran presence to a secondary that has Kevin Byard at safety and can teach first-round pick, Caleb Farley, a few things as the former Hokie progresses.
The Cardinals are coming off a season where they were in the top fifteen in total defense (thirteenth to be exact, 351.9 yards per game). Tennessee finished 2020 as the league’s fifth-worst, allowing 398.2 YPG.
But the luxury of having Derrick Henry helped mask some of those deficiencies. With men like Dupree leading the linebackers and Jeffery Simmons bringing up the defensive line, how they contain the duo of James Conner and Chase Edmonds will be vital for the rest of their season. Tannehill has a possible chance to stay ahead of the Cardinals defense as their secondary still has depth concerns.
Arizona’s rush defense wasn’t impressive by any means (an eleventh-worst 125.5 YPG allowed). Even with big names like Watt, Jones, and linebackers Isaiah Simmons and rookie Zaven Collins, it’s a matter of delaying Henry; stopping him is out of the question. Plus, the secondary is still a question mark as Robert Alford came to Arizona two seasons ago, yet, only now is he going to have a chance to play due to consecutive season-ending injuries.
On paper, a lot is going for Kyler Murray with the wide receiver corps he can pass to. After averaging 244.8 YPG through the air (seventeenth in the league), Cards fans hope this is the start of something special. Pouncing on the Titans secondary early won’t hurt Arizona, as this is merely the first game of the season; there are 17 other games to tweak the offense.
Ryan Tannehill’s got two key targets in Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. The rest of the corps, however, needs to come through as Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith are gone. Moreover, there was a gap in production between the two ex-Titans. Last year, besides Brown, Davis was the only target to go past 500 yards receiving (984), Smith only had 448.
Between Henry and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook next week, the Cardinals aren’t getting a welcome start to 2021. Both Tannehill and Murray might find ways to get the pass going, however, Henry is still such a devastating force. Therefore, it’s hard to see the Arizona defense enduring for all 60 minutes.
Cardinals @ Titans is on Sunday, September 12 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. The kickoff starts at 4:25 ET on CBS.