This week I caught up with Tom Gower of Total Titans, the Tennessee Titans blog right here on the Bloguin Network. Tom also asked me some questions that he posted on his blog – you can check that Q&A out here on Total Titans. Many thanks to Tom for taking the time and please enjoy his insights going into Sunday’s game below.
Saints Nation: Chris Johnson was wrecked so many people’s fantasy leagues with his disappointing season. For those that survived to make the playoffs, is he going to reward their patience? Has he turned a corner this year with this recent rash of good games?
Total Titans: It certainly seems so. Through the Titans’ first ten games, Johnson was only having good success when the blocking and play design put him in particularly good situations, where there was green grass in front of him and either no defender or a defender off to the side. He was running with exceptionally poor vision and seemingly going down quickly to avoid the big hit. Even when he put up big numbers against the Panthers in Week 10, it was primarily a result of the offense putting him in good situations.
The past two weeks, though, he’s been running like Chris Johnson c. 2010 if not 2009. He’s been running with the right mix of patience and aggressiveness, attacking holes as they develop and hesitating to buy time and make defenders miss, and not just weakly going to the ground at the first threat of a hit. I’m not sure that he has the same “running away from the cops” speed he had in 2009 (as Gus Johnson dubbed it on a long touchdown run), but he’s once again really, really good.
One thing that has helped Johnson is the two games he’s run effectively have been against the Buccaneers, who aren’t very good against the run either at defensive line (D-tackle in particular) or at linebacker, and the Bills, who aren’t very good against the run on the defensive line either. I’m not sure how effective Johnson would be against a team like the Falcons, who I thought were very good at penetration and being disciplined, but I think the Saints are a lot closer to the Bucs and Bills on defense.
Saints Nation: Matt Hasselbeck torched the Saints in the playoffs last year with the Seahawks, so for some reason I’m incredibly nervous about facing him again. Should I be?
Total Titans: Well, the Saints still employ Roman Harper in the secondary, so I’d be worried if I were a Saints fan…
The Titans’ passing game has struggled to move the ball with consistent success, for a couple reasons. For the first time in a few years, the Titans are running a lot of option routes, and the receivers are having a difficult time getting on the same page with Hasselbeck. Even at this time of the season, there will be a few passes that go incomplete because of that.
Even beyond the communication issues, the Titans’ receivers aren’t very impressive. Kenny Britt was the star, kind of a poor man’s Andre Johnson at this point in his career, but he went out for the year a couple months ago. Nate Washington is now the top wideout, and he suffered an ankle injury against the Bills and may not play this week. The other receivers are mostly unimpressive shrimps who have trouble beating man coverage and consistently finding the right place against zone. Worry about the occasional right adjustment and coverage busts.
SN: This has been such a weird season for the Titans. They’re 7-5 but they’ve had some awful losses like Jacksonville and Houston by 34. Is this team good or not? I can’t make up my mind.
TT: I don’t think they’re very good. Rather, they’re part of the vast muddled middle of the league, capable of beating the worst teams in the league regularly, splitting games against more evenly-matched foes, and struggling against the league’s best teams.
SN: Is it fair to say that the Titans, based on the stats I’m looking at, are decent to mediocre at pretty much everything? I don’t feel like they are elite anywhere but they also have no glaring weaknesses. So in a way they’re pretty well balanced. Fair?
TT: I think it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. The pass defense is excellent against bad quarterbacks, good against mediocre quarterbacks, and bad against good quarterbacks. The run defense is always mediocre. The passing offense was actually pretty good when Britt was in there, but now somewhere between mediocre and poor. The running offense was among the league’s worst when Johnson was playing poorly and is now at least good.
SN: What’s the ceiling for your team? Realistically what are you hoping for this season.
TT: Before the season, I thought the Titans were a five-win team, plus or minus two, but the defense has been a lot less exploitable than I thought they’d be. Right now in my mind they’re playing with house money, but I really have no expectations for the rest of this year. Could they go 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs? Sure. Could they do what last year’s Saints did, and beat a better team that has a bad day? Maybe against the right team. They could also lose out, which I’d find disappointing because I think they’re clearly better than the Jaguars and Colts but not shocking.
SN: In his only spot play, I thought Jake Locker looked pretty good and made things happen. Are fans lobbying for him to get PT or are they satisfied for now with him learning behind Hasselbeck?
TT: Some other people were calling for Locker to play after he gave the team a spark against the Falcons, but I’m not one of them and I’m pretty sure the Titans are happy for him to sit the rest of this year. One thing against the Falcons that has me really concerned is he looked uncomfortable within the pocket, didn’t complete any passes when he was in there, and looked to vacate it early; all of his plays came when he was rolling out or scrambling. Five years ago, the Titans had a surprising amount of success with a rookie quarterback who did that, but I believe that success actually set back VY’s development and don’t want them to risk Locker’s long-term development by taking the same risk.
SN: If you’re a Saints coach, where do you attack the Titans? What’s the key to beating your team?
TT: If I’m the Saints, I take a look at the Steelers’ gameplan from Week 5 when Ben Roethlisberger picked apart the Titans’ coverage units off a three- and five-step quick passing game mostly spreading the field with their receivers and letting Ben find the seams and leverage. Frankly, though, if I’m the Saints, nothing the Titans do on defense particularly concerns me. They’ve barely slowed down the two best offenses they’ve faced (Pittsburgh and Houston).
SN: How is fan support in Nashville these days? Should the Saints expect a pretty hostile crowd?
TT: The sellout streak dating back to LP Field’s opening in 1999 is intact, but crowd enthusiasm has been a little hit and miss. The Bucs’ game was the first cool game of the year and rainy, and you saw a good number of fans disguised as empty seats. The weather will be cool again Sunday, but no precipitation is in the forecasts I’ve seen (I’m in the Chicago area) so you should see a pretty full house.
SN: What’s your opinion on the Saints? Have they earned your respect as an elite franchise now, or do you feel like they’re a one hit wonder?
TT: The Saints to me look like a passing machine with a marginal front seven and a secondary that can be exploited by a good passing team with no difference-makers on the defensive line and a mostly unimpressive collection of linebackers. They’ll be an elite team as long as Drew Brees is an elite quarterback and he has at least a couple pieces around him, so they should be an elite team for at least a couple more seasons.
SN: Give me your score prediction.
TT: Saints 34 – Titans 17.