It is well-known by this point that the Tennessee Titans will be without Jake Locker for likely the next three games because of his hip injury. That means backup Ryan Fitzpatrick will be pressed into duties as the starter, with Rusty Smith the new backup as the Titans finally made that roster move.
In Fitzpatrick, the Titans have one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league. A taxonomy of the best backups in the league is more than I want to get into in this post, but he's somewhere in the top eight, perhaps higher. As I've chronicled here, he has his strengths and his weaknesses. He doesn't have Locker's deep arm or his speed, but he is reasonably mobile, not a complete statue, and has nice accuracy on his short passes. The key to his success will be playing under control, as his risk calculator seems to sometimes go haywire.
What the Titans are losing with Locker out is hard to say exactly. His games against the Jets and the Chargers is probably the best five or six quarter stretch of his career. That is not exactly a high bar, though, as his career to date had notably been missing significant high points. N.B. one of those games was a 20-point scoring performance against what looks like a pretty below-average defense. That underrates what the Titans did a bit, as they had good consistent success, but points are the name of the game.
I noted this earlier in the week on Twitter, but in some ways Locker's stats this year are kind of similar to what he did in last year. He had a fair number of successful completions against the Jets. He's been sacked at a roughly league-average rate, up from the very low rate he was sacked last year. The recent narrativity seems to be driving much of the praise he's received, but they key things he's been doing are (a) not making the killer mistakes, like the fumble on the sack against the Patriots and the awful early interception against the Chargers and (b) making better throws in the red zone. I've noted Fizpatrick's ability in the former area, while his accuracy on those quick passes, like Hasselbeck, means he can be successful in the red zone.
The Chiefs present an interesting challenge for the Titans. As my Q&A questions indicate, I think they are a similar team. Their front seven is playing terrific football, and Rob Turner will be under a lot of pressure from Dontari Poe in particular. Like the Titans, they'll bring pressure from creative places. Fitzpatrick was rarely sacked in Buffalo, but like Hasselbeck that may have been a mix of his traits and the offensive scheme. I'd guess given Fitzpatrick's traits, Dowell Loggains will look to have him get the ball out quickly.
One thing that helped the Titans have success throwing the ball against the Jets was New York had a couple liabilities in coverage, especially at outside corner opposite Antonio Cromartie. The key injury for today's game is thus cornerback Brandon Flowers, listed as questionable. If he's out, the Titans have a clear place to attack and believe they can win matchups in man coverage-Justin Hunter's TD catches both came against pigeons in Crezdon Butler, a player so new to the Chargers the radio PBP man hadn't met him, and last week against Walls, a player playing as the Jets shuffled players to find a better option opposite Cromartie. Dunta Robinson would be that guy. If he's active, there's not that guy, especially with strong safety Eric Berry having the sort of season in his third year you'd expect from a player picked that high.
Offensively, the Chiefs outside of Jamaal Charles are non-scary. Alex Smith attempts something like three-quarters of his throws less than ten yards downfield, many of them in a box in the short middle of the field. He's capable of hitting those passes, but the Titans should flood that short middle and force Smith to beat them throwing elsewhere. I expected Dwayne Bowe to be Smith's favorite target, catching a lot of those West Coast slants and other in-breaking routes, but Bowe has been a perimeter player while a guy like Donnie Avery has been catching WR middle screens with room to run. One thing to watch for is Smith's mobility. While he's not as fast as Locker, he has been opportunistically efficient as a scrambler.
I said last week the game would be determined by whichever team got the big plays. It was, and the Titans won because about all of them were to their benefit. This game should be similar, except I think the Chiefs have somewhat better overall defensive talent than I think the Titans do. Once again, big plays and particularly turnovers will be the key. Both teams have done a great job there this season, but remember the Titans have recovered eight of nine total fumbles in their games, while normal luck would have given them more like five. They'll need to continue that luck today, or else the Chiefs will likely live up to their favored status and give the Titans their second loss.