The Saints just arrived into Nashville this early afternoon in preparation to face off against a 7-5 Titans team that for the most part has beaten the teams they were expected to beat and have caved against superior competition. I’d like to believe the Saints represent the latter, so a win should be firmly expected, but the Saints will have to go into hostile territory facing an elite challenge in stopping Chris Johnson if they want to want to come back to New Orleans 10-3. This also represents the final regular season game the Saints will play outdoors this season, with the final three games being in a dome (one at Minnesota, two in New Orleans). Here’s how the Titans measure up:
The Titans’ best special teamer is longtime Titan and veteran kicker Rob Bironas. True to form, Bironas has had yet another very accurate and reliable season. If the Titans get in scoring position but can’t put the ball in the end zone, they can typically count on Bironas to cash in an automatic three. Bironas also has a strong leg which results in numerous touchbacks. Their punter, Brett Kern, is nothing special, and their return man Marc Mariani has 3 touchdowns in 2 seasons returning punts and kickoffs so the Saints will have to watch his explosiveness.
How to take advantage?
I would say that Kern is the weak link on this Titans’ squad, so the Saints can take advantage of good returns by Sproles and poor punts by Kern to set up good field position. Morstead has been Pro Bowl quality all season long, so hopefully he can completely neutralize any threat that Mariani presents. It may be difficult to turn the returns into much on kickoffs with Bironas’ strong leg, so capitalizing on punt return opportunities will be key.
The Titans will be missing their man in the middle, long time Buc Barrett Ruud, not that he’s been any good for years. Youngster replacement Colin McCarthy has played pretty well a replacement for him, though. The Titans largely struggle on defense as they rate 18th against the pass and 21st against the run. Their best player on this unit is likely still cornerback Courtland Finnegan, and while he’s not a shutdown corner by any means, he plays hard and he’s more than serviceable – reminiscent in ways of Jabari Greer. The Titans also have a decent run stopper in Jurrell Casey, though he hasn’t had much help over the course of the season. The Titans struggle massively getting to the quarterback as they rank 26th in sacks.
How to take advantage? With the cold weather, the Saints’ timing and rhythm may be disrupted slightly. For this reason, it’s key the Saints take their time for plays to set up and that they avoid mental mistakes. Drew Brees will have all the time in the world to throw as they have terrific protection and the Titans can’t get to the quarterback. Brees should progress through his reads knowing he may have a little more time than usual getting rid of the football. There is no one explosive or scary on that Titans’ defensive line. Because they struggle so much to stop the run, too, a commitment to Ivory/Pierre Thomas on the ground will likely be rewarded.
The early season struggles of Chris Johnson are well documented, but Johnson has been able to turn it around in recent weeks. He rushed for over 130 yards in 3 of his last 4 games, though Atlanta was able to completely shut him down. Johnson has dominated lately thanks to an extremely talented offensive line that has dominated in the trenches. This will be as big of a physical test for the Saints’ defense as they’ve faced. The Titans are anchored by exceptionally good tackle game as Michael Roos and David Stewart are both excellent players. Both guards are pretty solid as well, though their center Eugene Amano is the weak link and he’s playing banged up. While Matt Hasselbeck has been his usual veteran and reliable self this year, he’ll likely be without top wideout Nate Washington who is still recovering from an ankle injury. Behind Washington the Titans just don’t have much in terms of dangerous threats in the passing game as their other solid receiver Kenny Britt is out for the year. The Titans will try to get Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins and backup tight end Jared Cook involved.
How to take advantage?
If Nate Washington can’t go, the Titans are really going to struggle to make plays in the passing game and the Saints will be well suited to put eight in the box at all times. Commit entirely to stopping the run and force/dare the Titans to beat you in the air with mediocre receivers. Greer, Porter and P-Rob can be left out on an island against these guys and be successful. The focus has to be on stopping Chris Johnson at all cost, but also covering him out of the backfield on passing plays as the Saints have been known to give receiving backs lots of room underneath.