NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Playing in the AFC South, where teams such as Jacksonville and Houston boast devastating duos on the defensive line, the Tennessee Titans have invested heavily in their offensive tackles. Left tackle Taylor Lewan signed a five-year contract worth $80 million in August -- the largest deal ever signed by an offensive lineman -- and right tackle Jack Conklin was the eighth overall pick in the 2016 draft.
The pair are charged with protecting quarterback Marcus Mariota, and this week's matchup against the Jaguars (4-8) on Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) presents a colossal test, so Tennessee (6-6) will need a balanced attack.
Finding balance on offense means the running game has to get going. That won't be easy against a Jaguars defensive front that quickly gets penetration into the backfield. Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur's rushing attack relies more on a zone blocking scheme as opposed to the smashmouth offense it replaced.
Conklin admits the change from a power running scheme to the zone scheme was a big adjustment but says he feels he is starting to settle in and get the technique down.
"It's a lot more running," he said. "You're running out of your stance. There are less timed steps. It's been an adjustment, but I feel like I fit in and it's going well."
Jacksonville defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson push the pocket from the interior in hopes of flushing the quarterback into the arms of defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and All-Pro Calais Campbell. Ngakoue and Campbell each have seven sacks through 12 games.
While Lewan tangles with the smaller, speedy outside rusher Ngokoue (6-foot-2, 246 pounds) on the left side, Conklin has to hold his own against the imposing Campbell (6-8, 300).
"Ngakoue lines up more on [Lewan's] side, so it will be a good battle," Conklin said. "They are great players, both of them. You play them both a little differently. For Campbell it's difficult, but it's all about technique and comes down to fundamentals. You get your hands inside and beat his hands. Get your feet moving well. With a guy like that, you can't mess around. You better have your technique right or he's going to beat you."
Added Lewan: "We have a great challenge this week with an awesome defense coming. I have a great test in Yannick Ngakoue. He's very explosive and has elite speed. He's a very athletic guy and does a good job of hanging in there against the run game, too. Their front is solid. Their linebackers can fly, and their corners can cover. We'll have our hands full for sure."
Ngakoue has seven sacks so far this season, but only one in five games against the Titans. But his ability to explode off the ball can disrupt plays even when he doesn't get the sack. Simply getting pressure on the quarterback causes rushed throws that could become turnovers.
The Titans have to stretch the field better to open up other parts of the offense. Wide receiver Taywan Taylor had two plays of 40 yards or more against the Jets in Week 13. Mariota has only five passes of 40 yards or more this season, but four came in the past two games.
Tight end Jonnu Smith's 61-yard touchdown against the Texans in Week 12 was the only quick pass and catch that led to an explosive play. The other plays saw Mariota launch the ball deep to Taylor and Corey Davis. Though Mariota and the pass-catchers get all of the credit, none of it is possible without the guys up front giving the quarterback a chance to wait for the longer routes to develop.
The Titans are 31st in the NFL, giving up 3.5 sacks per game. The offensive line isn't to blame for every sack, but Lewan stressed the unit has to get better. Conklin looks at Thursday's game against the Jaguars as a chance to display the Titans' ability on a national stage.
"It's a Thursday night game, a quick turnaround, so we want to come out tough and play hard to show everybody how well we can play."