Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ground Game: Tennessee Titans Season Preview

2008 Record: 13-3

Tennessee, coming off their third 13-3 season in franchise history, is looking to take that next step. Tennessee is the model that "rebuilding" franchises should look to for success. After going 5-11 and 4-12 in 2004 and 2005, Tennessee has steadily improved, going 8-8, 10-6, and last year's 13-3. The Titans won their first 10 games of the regular season and carried the #1 seed into the playoffs.

To be honest, Baltimore did us a huge favor by beating Tennessee last year. If Chris Johnson didn't get hurt in the first half of that game, one has to wonder if the result would have been the same. In his rookie year, Johnson showed he not only has the speed, but he also has the elusiveness, to be a star. Johnson ran for 1228 yards, averaging almost 5 yards per carry (good for the 4th best YPC in the league behind Derrick Ward, DeAngelo Williams and Brandon Jacobs). Johnson shared carries with LenDale White, who some may say is approaching "bust" status, but most sensible people knew he was a short-yardage back, not an every-down back. White's numbers reflect that, averaging a whole yard per carry less than Johnson, but putting up 15 TDs. Tennessee has reportedly been discontent with LenDale White's attitude and weight issues for the past few years, and Javon Ringer from Michigan State has looked very good in the preseason. Ringer may push White for the #2 spot, but ultimately, White's size and strength will give him the edge. Ringer may develop into a solid 3rd down back for this team, if they are willing to take the speedy Johnson off the field.

At quarterback, Tennessee has found their answer...for now. Kerry Collins is the starter, and will be for the foreseeable future, and given that Tennessee has a very good offensive line, it's not likely that he'll be sacked much. However, just ask Tom Brady or Carson Palmer, it only takes one hit. In the preseason, Vince Young has looked like a shell of his former self, being indecisive with the ball, slow to release, and mentally unprepared for the games. When he was drafted, VY seemed like an ideal fit for this Titans offense, but now he just can't get out of his own way. Tennessee is in trouble if Collins goes down.

Collins isn't the greatest quarterback in the world (in spite of what some Penn State fans might think), but he is capable of getting the job done. Justin Gage is a solid receiver, but Tennessee lacks a true #1 target. They brought in Nate Washington in the offseason so he could show LenDale White what a Super Bowl ring looks like. The Titans also spent their first round pick on Kenny Britt (WR-Rutgers) who provides a sizeable target for Collins. Tennessee uses their tight ends incredibly well, both in blocking and as receivers. Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler won't put up huge numbers, but they are the keys to the offense.

On Defense, the biggest factor will be the loss of Albert Haynesworth at defensive tackle. However, as the Titans showed in their beat-down of the Steelers last season, they have plenty of depth along the interior D-line. On the outside, Jevon Kearse had his first fully healthy season since 2005, but only recorded 3 1/2 sacks. Kearse has failed to break the 3.5 plateau for the last 3 seasons (though he only started 2 and 8 games in 06 and 07). On the other side, Kyle Vanden Bosch had a disappointing 4.5 sack season after putting up over 12 in 2 of the prior 3 seasons. Backup DEs Jacob Ford and Dave Ball had more productive season than the starters last year, amassing 7 and 4.5 sacks respectively.

Tennessee brings back one of the best 4-3 linebacking units in the league with Keith Bulluck, Stephen Tulloch, and David Thornton. All three put up over 75 tackles last season and were in the top 5 in the team in tackles. In the secondary, All-Pro corner Cortland Finnegan is the anchor after a stellar year last season. However, as corners such as Antonio Cromartie in San Diego have discovered, following up an "elite" season is quite difficult. Nick Harper, most famous for being tackled by Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Divisional Game, holds down the other side. Harper, in the mold of most corners who have played for the Colts in the past, is fast and hard-hitting and helps out in the run game, but is liable to get burned. Former Steeler Chris Hope mans the strong safety spot, and his Pro-Bowl selection last season was not a mistake. Michael Griffin has fulfilled the Titans expectations of him when they drafted him from Texas, and is a very capable safety beside Hope.

The Titans also have one of the best kickers in the league in Rob Bironas. You wouldn't think this would make a huge difference, but without much of a passing game, Tennessee kicked a lot of field goals last season. Bironas was perfect from inside of 40 yards, however he attempted more 40-49 yarders (19) than any other kicker in the league.

On the whole, Tennessee should be a solid team once again this season. Their run defense, which was #6 in the league may suffer a little with the loss of Haynesworth, but they will still be just fine. Their pass defense was 9th in the league and Haynesworth was their leading sacker last season, so they may also see a dropoff there. However, with 2 Pro Bowlers in the secondary and a solid linebacking corps, it's not likely that Tennessee's defense will see much loss in production. The offense is solid as long as they can run the ball, and they will be able to do that have one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Ian's Prediction: 12-4

Honestly, I can't decide between Tennessee and Indy for this division. It's definitely a toss up. Tennessee is strong in places where Indy is weak (defense, running game) and Indy is strong where Tennessee is weak (passing game). The way to beat Tennessee is to make them throw the ball, but the only way to make that happen is to make them play from behind, and good luck getting up 2 scores on that defense. With the AFC East and NFC West on their schedule, I would be shocked if Tennessee lost more than 5 games this season. They do have to travel to New England, but they get Arizona at home and should be able to have another very good year behind their great offensive line and the legs of Chris Johnson.

John's Prediction:

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