GREEN BAY, Wis. - Lambeau Field is one of the most historic stadiums in the NFL, home to the 13-time NFL champion Packers and crammed with 80,000 Cheeseheads for every game.
The Titans make their first visit to the not so frozen tundra since the end of the 2012 season for Thursday night’s preseason opener. The opportunity to play on one of football’s hallowed grounds is something many players are looking forward to.
“I played (there) last year, it was my first time playing there,” said new Titans receiver Michael Campanaro. “Great tradition, the field’s awesome, there’s so much history there. But it was a lot of fun playing in there. The weather will not be as cold this year. Last year it was freezing.”
Campanaro is one of only a few Titans who have played a game in Lambeau. Only Brett Kern, Derrick Morgan and Jurrel Casey were on the roster for the last trip six season ago. For many of the team’s younger players it’s a moment they’ve waited for their entire football life.
“Very cool. This is going to be the first time I’m up there,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Just being a football fan my whole life the opportunity to play in such a historic place will be a lot of fun.”
The night will be particularly special for the 27 rookies than will be making their NFL de it. Players like for Tennessee tight end Ethan Wolf, who will be living out a pair of football dreams Thursday night.
“It’s been brought up numerous times and obviously runs through my mind, it’s a very historic place in this game,” Wolf said. “I couldn’t be more grateful to go out there and suit up for the first time in the NFL in a stadium like that.
The Titans ended last season with their first playoff win in 14 years before a 35-14 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Divisional round.
But that wasn’t good enough.
The team fired head coach Mike Mularkey and brought in 42 year old Mike Vrabel and a new coaching staff. Vrabel played 14 seasons in the NFL, winning three Super Bowls, and has coached for four more. He’s charged with taking the Titans to the next level.
The preseason opener against the Packers will be our first real look at Vrabel’s Titans. No one is more excited to observe than the coach himself.
“Just taking a look at these guys, their fundamentals, their execution and just seeing who can go out there and make plays in a real football game,” Vrabel said. “Who can tackle the guy with the ball, who can catch, who can break tackles, who can make plays in the open field. All the things that we really haven’t gotten to see in training camp just because of the live nature.”
The area likely to get the most scrutiny on night one will be the new Titans offense under coordinator Matt LaFleur. The 38 year old has worked with offensive gurus Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay and helped tutor Matt Ryan during his MVP season with the Falcons as well as Jared Goff during his breakout season last year with the Rams.
LaFleur was hired with the hope he can have a similar impact on Marcus Mariota. But he has never been a full-time NFL play-caller before.
He’s not entirely without play-calling experience. He called the entire fourth preseason game for the Rams last year in Green Bay, and also got a chance to call plays for the second half of a regular season game against Oakland. LaFleur thinks he’ll continue to grow with each new opportunity this preseason.
“I think every time you get a chance to call plays it’s valuable,” LaFleur said. “Whether it’s Friday night lights or in the stadium like (last) Saturday or in a 2:00 period, it’s all valuable. With each game I think I can learn from the situation.”
The Titans feel like they’ve made strides in the new offense during training camp, but Mariota admits it’s still a work in progress.
With so many young players on the roster and a part of the offensive plan, the franchise quarterback is looking for the simple things against the Packers.
“Being efficient. As an offense, if we can go out there, operations are clean, we’re able to move the ball, obviously score points, that’ll be great,” Mariota said. “But just getting in and out of the huddle and getting back into the tempo of a game, just making sure everything is clean and crisp.”
It took longer than he wanted, but Kenny Vaccaro has found a new NFL home. The veteran safety signed with the Titans last Saturday after Johnathan Cyprien went down with a torn ACL.
Five days later, Vacarro is expected to play in the preseason opener against the Packers.
“I’m going to play, I’ll be ready,” Vacarro said after his first full practice Monday. “I’ll learn the entire playbook in the next two days and I’ll be ready to go. I’m not sure if they’ll play me or not, but I’ll be ready.”
It helps that Vacarro was one of the more versatile safeties in the league over the last five seasons with the Saints. He can play both the free and strong safety position, and can even line up in man-to-man coverage. It’s expected that he will be asked to do similar things in Tennessee.
Starters are not expected to play much, if at all, in the preseason opener, and several players with injury concerns will be held out entirely. Leading pass rusher Brian Orakpo and first round draft pick Rahsaan Evans didn’t even make the trip to Green Bay, along with nose tackle Bennie Logan and safety Kendrick Lewis.
The lack of playing time for the regulars in the preseason, means more reps for young players trying to make a name for themselves.
“It’s going to be fun just going into my second preseason,” linebacker Jayon Brown said. “I look forward to displaying my talents and just see how I’ve grown.”
Players are judged each and every day throughout training camp, but there’s no question that a strong performance in the preseason games holds a little extra weight with coaches. Vrabel said it might be a tiebreaker for a guy over someone else if he can show he’s able to perform in a game, so players are well aware of what’s at stake.
“Every year is like an audition,” fourth-year cornerback Leshaun Sims said. “You have to put your best foot forward and go out there and prove that you belong on the field.”
It’s an opportunity to fight for starting jobs, roster spots or maybe just another opportunity. With starters likely to see increased action in games two and three, reps may be limited. And it may be too late by the fourth and final game of the preseason.
Time is of the essence. And there’s no better time to make an impression than in the first game.
“It’s the first opportunity for coaches to see you outside of your comfort zone, whether that’s the practice field or a practice at the stadium,” wide receiver Darius Jennings said. It’s the first time going against somebody else and it’s a chance to show what you can do.”