by Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
October 15, 2009
The Tennessee Titans come to Foxboro this weekend, err I mean the Houston Oilers visit the Boston Patriots (this throwback thing is starting to get confusing) this Sunday at 4:15 PM and they’ll be sporting a very unflattering 0-5 record when they take the field. How is that possible? How is it that the Titans had a 13-3 record last year, best in the AFC, and now sit without a win at 0-5 and their season on the verge of being all but over? Were they that good last year or are they that bad this year? There really isn’t one right answer; as is usually the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Right now, no team is is demonstrating the fine line between success and failure as Tennessee is. So, which is it? Are they bad or good?
In answering that question, one must start with the premise they weren’t as good last year as their 13-3 record suggests. Yes, they started out 10-0. But 7 of those wins came against teams that finished without a winning record. The last 7 games, counting playoffs, the Titans went a disappointing 3-4, including two losses to non-playoff teams. In their playoff loss to Baltimore, the Ravens did all they could to try and give the Titans the win and despite being at home and rested, Tennessee simply refused to take it.
Maybe they’re just not that good? They did lose All-Pro Defensive Tackle Albert Haynesworth in free agency to the Redskins and he was perhaps the premium run-stuffing player in the NFL. They have lost their last two games by 20+ points. But that is too simple. The Titans aren’t struggling against the run, despite being 0-5 and losing Haynesworth. They have had tremendous struggles in stopping opposing offenses, but remarkably Tennessee is third in the NFL against the run. Through 5 games they’re only giving up 75.4 yards per game and 2.8 per rushing attempt (which ranks first). So losing Haynesworth hasn’t been the issue. He was far more of a factor in their run defense than pass defense.
The issue on defense has been in the passing game. There, opposing quarterbacks are shredding the Titans for 287.6 yards per game, second worst in the NFL. They have allowed 71.5 percent of passes against them to be completed, also second worst in the NFL. Their TD/INT ratio against is an abysmal 13/4. And their secondary is the one primary area the Patriots will certainly look to exploit.
There are two problems as I see it for Tennessee. First, their backup corners seem extraordinarily weak and inexperienced for an NFL team. They are trotting out guys like Cary Williams, Ryan Mouton and Jason McCourty in critical nickel and dime situations, all of whom are essentially rookies and had not played in the NFL prior to this season. The starters, in theory, are solid. Nick Harper and Cortland Finnigan are both solid, veteran players, and even All-Pro caliber in the case of Finnigan. But Harper is now out for 6 weeks after getting injured against the Colts Sunday night and Finnigan has been hurt as well with a hamstring injury. He did not play against the Colts and is questionable this week as well. Even so, a team such as the Patriots, who love to spread teams out, seem particularly capable of doing damage to this young, inexeperienced, and now injured, secondary. Look for big numbers from Tom Brady Sunday, struggles so far this year or not. Lets call it right now, he’ll throw at least 4 touchdown passes.
On offense, the Titans essentially have one great player, running back Chris Johnson. He is as fast as anyone in the NFL and can hurt you in many different ways. But that is about it. The tight ends are solid, the wide receivers weak as they always seemed to be even in the Titans glory years. This isn’t a team that is going to easily march up and down the field. But they’re thinking of starting Vince Young, the scrambling athlete who could provide another breakaway threat, and I suppose there is always the danger Johnson and Young could keep the game in range with some big plays.
Lets take a look at some of these Titans:
QB Vince Young (#10)
Young is a phenomenal athlete drafted with the third overall pick by the Titans in 2006. He at timeshe can thread the needle in coverage, but when he played early in his career he tended to take to many of those chances when a guy wasn’t clearly open. He also is inconsistent with his accuracy. He is very dangerous with his legs and if he does play Sunday, it’s likely he’ll make at least a play or two. He played against the Patriots in 2006 as a rookie and completed 15 of 36 passes and ran twice for 29 yards, including a 28 yard TD in a 40-23 Pats win that eliminated the Titans from any playoff chance. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have always seemed to play well against this type of athletic quarterbacks who can beat you with their feet. They may give up a play or two, but in the past they have been very disciplined keeping these guys in the pocket and forcing them to be accurate passing. With only very limited play in the last year, its unlikely Young will be able to do that and he’ll have to make some special plays on the move and in broken play situations to put up enough points to win Sunday. Young has, of course, had somewhat of a controversial stint with the Titans. He hasn’t handled criticism well and was rumored to be suffering from serious depression at one point during his career. He contemplated retirement. Those rumors have calmed down and he seems to be patiently waiting his chance this year. That just may come in Foxboro at 4:15 PM Sunday.
RB Chris Johnson (#28)
Johnson is a spectacular player who is among the most breathtakingly fast runners you’ll ever see in the NFL. He can change direction on a dime as well, which makes him even tougher to defend. If the Patriots are to focus on one area to slow down the Titans, it has to be Johnson. There is no other threat comparable on the Titans roster and few even in the NFL. Even as far back as high school Johnson was putting up phenomenal numbers in track, among the fastest in that age group at the time. The Titans find creative ways to get him the ball, either running or in the passing game, and the Patriots will really need to pay attention to him because he is probably the most explosive player they’ll face this year.
Kyle Vanden Bosch (#93)
Patriots left tackle Matt Light could be out for this game with a knee injury and, if so, it’s likely rookie Sebastian Vollmer will get his first NFL starting assignment across from the crafty and solid Vanden Bosch. While not a pure speed rusher, Vanden Bosch does have the ability to get to the quarterback and is an above average pass rusher. He plays the run well also. Vanden Bosch doesn’t excel at anything, but does well in all areas and he is a veteran, smart player who could give Vollmer trouble on Sunday. He is particularly adept at the strip sack, so if he does get near Tom Brady, that will be something all Patriots offensive players need to be aware of.
LB Keith Bulluck (#53)
Bulluck is the emotional leader of the Titans defense who seems to have a chip on his shoulder for the Patriots as well. He is tough against the run, and makes a lot of plays in the passing game as well. In looking at his career, it’s amazing he’s only been to one Pro Bowl (2003) as he has long been among the more active, play making linebackers in the NFL. He has played his entire career with Tennessee and is the face of their defense and always capable of a big forced fumble or interception to turn a close game. He has lost a step, so perhaps the Patriots can exploit him a bit if you get him in one-on-one situations, but in zone coverage he is very alert, covers and catches the ball well and causes tips into the air at times.
Michael Griffin (#33)
Griffin is a supremely talented safety who plays both the pass and run equally well. Last year, he picked off 7 passes and had a total of 192 return yards so he is always capable of big plays. This year, he’s yet to pick off a pass and has had to help out Tennessee’s young corners a lot, which has hindered his ability to make plays in coverage or ability to free lance as a centerfielder a bit more. In just his second year, Griffin has already etsablished himself with a Pro Bowl last year and his slip in play this year is more attributable to the surrounding cast than it is to him. Michael’s twin brother Marcus was a safety with him at Texas, but has not caught on in the NFL.
Cecil is a former Pro Bowl safety who has coached the defensive backs for the Titans since 2004 and has taken over this year at defensive coordinator for Jim Schwartz, who moved on to coach the Lions. The early results indicate the Titans are struggling on defense and Cecil has had a hard time equaling the experienced and respected Schwartz. Whether he can stop an experi