NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Atlanta coach Arthur Smith acknowledges returning to coach against the Tennessee Titans after 10 years with the franchise will be weird.
He'll walk into the visitors' locker room Sunday instead of the familiar Titans side. With this an alumni weekend for former Houston Oilers and Titans, Smith will see even more familiar faces than usual. That group includes six coaches, a former Tennessee GM who's now Atlanta's senior personnel executive and five Falcons.
So, yes, this game means more.
“You try to pretend that it doesn’t, but you know obviously it does,” Smith said.
The son of FedEx founder Fred Smith was part of four head coaching regimes in Tennessee as he worked his way from a defensive quality control assistant in 2011 to offensive coordinator under current Titans coach Mike Vrabel.
Vrabel is on his second offensive coordinator since Smith was hired as the Falcons' head coach in 2021. The Titans have lost 11 of their last 13. They are coming off their bye at 2-4, losers of two straight after a 24-16 loss to Baltimore in London on Oct. 15.
Rookie Will Levis could make his NFL debut as a starter after being the No. 33 overall pick out of Kentucky. That would mark the most rookie quarterbacks at seven to start in the first eight weeks since the NFL merger, excluding the 1987 strike season. Six rookies started in that span in both 1971 and 2021.
Vrabel keeps saying Malik Willis, 1-2 as a starter, also will play without naming a starter.
“We’ll need both of them to help us win,” Vrabel said. “The Falcons are doing some really good things.”
The Titans, 5-0 after a bye under Vrabel, need a win with this their lone home game in a seven-week span before going back on the road for a three-game swing. The NFL trade deadline also is Tuesday, and Tennessee already shipped out two-time All-Pro safety Kevin Byard to Philadelphia.
Vrabel made clear the Titans are trying to pile up more draft picks to help with Tennessee projected to have the NFL's second-most salary cap space in 2024, according to Spotrac.com. Vrabel's immediate focus is Sunday.
“We’ve got to find a way to win a game,” Vrabel said. "That’s what it is.
With the trade deadline Tuesday, the AP NFL 2020 Offensive Player of the Year and three-time Pro Bowl running back could be playing his final game with Tennessee. Henry has had his best games in Nashville this season getting at least 22 carries, and he ran for 122 yards in a win over Cincinnati on Oct. 1.
Henry leads the NFL with 8,760 yards rushing and 81 touchdown runs since being drafted 45th overall in 2016. He also has 1,361 yards receiving with three TD catches. Henry has four TD passes out of the wildcat.
Making the 29-year-old Henry attractive as a trade prospect is he's in the final year of his contract.
RIDDER ON TURNOVER WATCH
One week after throwing three second-half interceptions in a 24-16 loss to the Washington Commanders, Ridder lost three fumbles against Tampa Bay last week, including one when stripped of the ball near the goal line.
In his first full season as Atlanta’s starter, Ridder has three turnovers in three of the last four games. He has six touchdown passes and six interceptions this season. He's also thrown for at least 250 yards in three straight games.
“I’m just trying to show up to work every day and get better,” Ridder said. “At the end of the day, I feel like I’m playing really good football, other than obviously the turnovers. You’ve got to get rid of those costly turnovers, those costly errors.”
Not only did Smith work for the Titans, he's a native of Memphis. His assistant head coach Jerry Gray joined him in Atlanta. He not only coached defensive backs during the Titans' lone Super Bowl season and was a defensive coordinator for three seasons, Gray also played for the then-Oilers in 1992.
The Titans expect their largest attendance for this alumni weekend. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson is their “legend of the game.”
“You’re going back home, but you’re going to win the game,” Gray said. “It’s like a homecoming, but your job is you coach the Atlanta Falcons.”
Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielson and Gray have helped lead an impressive overhaul of Atlanta’s defense.
The Falcons rank seventh in total defense and have allowed only one rushing touchdown to lead the league. Atlanta has not allowed a touchdown on the ground in four consecutive games. Henry has three of the Titans' five rushing TDs this season.
___ AP Sports Writer Charles Odum contributed to this report.
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