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First Impressions; Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans will start their home schedule for 2010 against one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL in 2009, the Oakland Raiders. Chris Johnson is trying to achieve the impossible, a 2,500-yard rushing season. The Titans first strategy for Sunday’s game will be to make the Raiders wear their dark jerseys in what is supposed to be an 85-degree and humid day according to early weather predictions. The following article is my assessment of the Tennessee Titans and my conclusion of what the Raiders must do to come out of the first game of the year with a victory.

Chris Johnson, the Titans’ halfback, is one heck of a ball handler. Whether rushing in the Tennessee ground attack or catching passes out of the backfield, he has proven himself to be a dangerous weapon. The daunting task in front of the Raiders defense is stopping a guy that could be the most difficult individual performer they will face this year.

Johnson is quick, shifty, and very patient when he gets carries out of the backfield. However he is not exceptional in the middle, in fact he is below average. But if you let Johnson bounce it outside, he will take off like a jet and before you know it, he’s up the field for 25 yards. The most important thing the Raiders rushing defense needs to do is contain him. If they can keep him inside the numbers, he will be much less productive.

If the Raiders do manage to get Johnson under control in the run game, the Titans will definitely be trying to get him the ball on screen passes and swing passes out of the backfield. They have an assortment of different screen passes they run using Johnson and they like to run them on the early downs, 1st-and-10—2nd-and-9, etc. I expect to see the Titans trying to get the ball in the hands of Johnson on about 70 percent of their offensive plays and especially in the beginning of the game. I also have a hunch that the Titans will anticipate the Raiders’ desire to stop their run and therefore will not run Johnson up the middle much, but they will use pitches, screens, swings, stretch runs, and the like to try and get him outside and one-on-one with the Michael Huff and Stanford Routt who are perhaps the Raiders worst tacklers on defense.

If the Raiders somehow manage to do what no team has been able to do in the Titans’ last 11 contests, then they will have to deal with Vince Young. There was a point in time when I would’ve liked seeing Young in a Raiders uniform and who can say for sure what the Raiders would’ve done with that 3rd draft pick that year had it belonged to them? One thing I know looking back at that point in time is that I wouldn’t want Vince Young on my team right now.

It’s not that Young is a terrible player or he can’t win; it’s just that he throws one of the ugliest passes in the NFL. He puts a lot of air under throws; when my brother and I were younger, we used to call them “rainbow passes”. Rainbow passes are good in some situations, like when you are throwing a fade to a tall receiver in the end zone, but not for all situations, like when you are throwing a quick out to a wide receiver for a first down. In watching some film from the Titans 8-2 win-loss record during the last ten games of the year, I noticed that the only balls Young puts a lot of zip on are the short gainers over the middle. The Titans throw a lot of outs patterns and Vince Young completes a lot of them, but if one of the better cornerbacks in the league, like Nnamdi Asomugha sees it coming, look out, because that extra half second of air Young puts under that ball is all the reaction time Asomugha would need for it to wind up being six-points in the other direction. You’ll probably see Vince Young patting his chest a lot as if to say, “may fault, my bad” on throws that are overthrown or out of the reach of receivers because of that extra air under his throws.

And some of those balls he throws will hit his receivers in the hands and they will drop them. The Titans wide receivers, possibly with the exception of 2nd-year player Kenny Britt, are not reliable. In addition, their offensive line looked much worse in preseason play than it did at the end of last season, which could have a little bit to do with captain/center Kevin Mawae not being a part of their team anymore.

 Moving over to the defensive side of the ball; one thing that definitely stood out to me was that their scheme is pretty basic. If they think you are going to try to run the ball against them, like the Buffalo Bills did last year, they will blitz all day long, sending linebackers and nickel cornerbacks into the backfield to eat up the blockers. However, if they think you are going to throw the ball well against them, they will drop the back seven players into coverage for most of the game.

The first scenario creates a problem for not only the running game of their opponents, but also puts heavy pressure on the quarterback when they line up to throw a pass. The second scenario puts heavy pressure on the passing game through coverage, but leaves gaping rushing lanes in the middle of the field. This was evidenced when they were playing the Colts in Week 13 of 2009 and they were letting Joseph Addai rip off huge gains up the middle because they were worried about Peyton Manning throwing against them. They also let L.T. run loose when playing against the Chargers and Phillip Rivers in week 16. They lost both of these games, their only two losses in their last ten games of 2009.

The Titans have a rag-tag group of D-Lineman from small schools. They are driven players looking to prove themselves capable of playing at this level. Last season, they were suspect to penalties on hard counts by quarterbacks. Their safeties are not great in coverage and the fast Raiders receivers should be able to run right by them. If they are responsible for a deep zone and Jason Campbell can get balls out in front of the receivers then there is potential for big pass plays, especially off of play-action passes where their safeties will bite hard.

They will leave the tight ends one-on-one with linebackers. This will work to the Raiders advantage because they have a great tight end in Zach Miller. He’s a great route runner with really good hands, but the fact that the Titans left linebackers alone to cover Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates in the aforementioned games tells me they won’t be intimidated by Miller. Campbell should look for Miller early and often if that is the case.

Cortland Finnegan may be their best defensive player with the release of LB Keith Bullocks.  However, he is a little slow to react on quick hit passes. The Raiders will see a lot of Finnegan one-on-one against the combination of DHB and Louis Murphy. Finnegan will be responsible for trying to shut down the Raiders top two receiving threats. He likes to get a little too aggressive sometimes and may get called for pass interference from time to time, but overall he is pretty good at what he does in their defense.

Game Plan

On defense, the Raiders should to keep a spy on Chris Johnson to stay with him out of the backfield on passes and be as patient as Johnson is while running the football. Preferably the person I would try to do it with is Tyvon Branch; or another guy that can tackle and isn’t named Michael Huff. They should also consider letting Nnamdi Asomugha roam around the secondary like they said they would to confuse Vince Young and give him the jitters.

On offense, they should pass the ball a lot on the opening series or two. If they can get the passing game going early on, the run will open up. If they run a lot early on, the Titans will bring heavy pressure and anticipate that. They will end up getting to the quarterback a lot on passing downs with Oakland’s suspect pass blocking by their offensive line.

Prediction: Titans 28, Raiders 24. The Raiders have the talent and good coaching to keep this game close, but the victory really goes to the twelfth man, the Tennessee fans.

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