The long-awaited return of Vince Young to his hometown will come in Week 14 as Young's Tennessee Titans (5-7) come to
to visit the Texans (4-8). Young took over after a three-game failed experiment with Kerry Collins at the helm.
Although, it may not be reflected in his numbers, Young has shown the Titans thus far that they made the right decision in selecting him third overall. Head coach Jeff Fisher has seen renewed promise, not just from Young, but from other members of a youthful Titans nucleus that could make them contenders soon in the ever-changing, parity-filled NFL.
In the last meeting between these two divisional foes, the Texans racked up 427 yards of total offense to only 197 for the Titans. But five Texans turnovers spelled disaster. Despite a late Sage Rosenfels led comeback, the Texans fell short, losing 28-22. If the Titans' recent play is any indication, the Texans will need a much improved effort to beat
, who is on a roll after winning two straight dramatic games against playoff-bound opponents, and a third against the Eagles in which they knocked Donovan McNabb out for the year.
In Week 12,
**Offensive coordinator Norm Chow has done a tremendous job preparing Young for the NFL and tailoring the offense to fit his style. Young has been able to beat opponents with his arm and his legs, making him a dangerous weapon to prepare for. The passing game of the Titans is still lacking, ranking 31st in the NFL in passing yardage, but they have been able to lean on their successful fifth-ranked running game to wear teams down late in the game.
Young has a plethora of tools: a strong arm, outstanding mobility, poise, and as evidenced at the
, unbelievable leadership abilities. Thus far, he has struggled with his accuracy, completing just over 50 percent of his passes. Young's passing stats read like those of an inexperienced performer (10 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, 50.2 completion percentage equating to a 64.8 quarterback rating). But the key thing for Young has been his ability to perform in the clutch. While his level of play may falter at certain points of the game, Young seems to make whatever play is necessary when the contest is in jeopardy.
Running back Travis Henry has come on to gain 849 yards on 4.4 yards per carry, good enough for sixth in the AFC. Though small in stature (5-9, 215), Henry keeps a low center of gravity and is equally adept at running between the tackles and to the outside. At 28, Henry still has some years in front of him, but the Titans already have a possible replacement in rookie Lendale White. Despite not finding the end zone recently and being hampered by nagging injuries early in the season, White spells Henry and is better at using his body to bulldoze through the line in short-yardage situations.
The receiver position has been devastated by injuries this season, forcing many young and unproven players into prominent roles. Key free agent acquisition David Givens is out for the season after he tore a knee ligament in a Week 10 game against
teammate tight end Bo Scaife. Scaife, a sixth-round selection in 2005, has 27 catches, 362 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The offensive line for the Titans is extremely green with three starters 24 years old or younger, but they have improved drastically as the season has progressed. The anchor is 13-year veteran Kevin Mawae. Let go by the Jets in the offseason to clear cap room, the former All-Pro has led the way for the NFL's fifth-ranked run offense. On the outside are left tackle Michael Roos and right tackle David Stewart - both players share the same height (6-7), age (24), and years in the league (two). Inside, veteran guard Benji Olson and youngster Jacob Bell have complimented each other better than anticipated this season. The
Titans have allowed only 14 sacks this season and seem to be playing well beyond expectations.
Attacking the Titans means making Young beat you with his arm. He has yet to prove he can find his receivers on a consistent basis, meaning getting pressure on him should be a high priority. With the youth at tackle for the Titans, attacking them from off the edge would seem to make the most sense. Until Young proves he can beat someone with his arm, preventing him and Henry from running the ball is the best way to stop the Titans.
**Although they have a defense with some very talented performers, the Titans have struggled on that side of the ball, ranking last in the league in total yards allowed and 29th in points allowed. There's no clear way opponents are choosing to attack the Titans, but with players like linebacker Keith Bulluck, safety Chris Hope, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, linebacker David Thornton and cornerback Pacman Jones, the Titans do have players capable of making plays.
The leader of the defense is Bulluck. The seven-year pro again leads the Titans in tackles through 12 games with 109, just as he has the four years previously. Bulluck has everything a team could ask for out of a linebacker: leadership, size (6-3, 235), and he defends equally well in both run and pass coverage. Although he has only made one Pro Bowl, Bulluck is widely recognized around the league as one of the best outside linebackers.
Teaming up with Bulluck are outside linebacker David Thornton, acquired from
the Colts in the offseason, and middle linebacker Peter Sirmon.
Playing the strongside position,
Thornton excels. During his seven-year career, Sirmon has proved to be a steady, albeit unspectacular, performer that is constantly fighting for his position at the start of the season. Missing all of 2004 with an ACL injury, along with a few games here and there in 2003 and 2005, Sirmon has stayed healthy thus far and has proved his worth by making 68 tackles.
One big disappointment this season has been Vanden Bosch. Coming out of nowhere with 13 sacks last season after four injury plagued years in Arizona, he has registered only four sacks so far. He won't wow you with his measurables and athletic ability, but Vanden Bosch gets by with his non-stop motor and tremendous strength. Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom both see time on the other end of the line, with LaBoy making the most impact thus far with 3.5 tackles for loss. LaBoy sees most of his action against the pass, while Odom is seen mainly in run situations. Both have produced below expectations this season, possibly forcing the team to look at the position in the offseason.
The middle of the line is anchored by former Texans tackle Robaire Smith, Randy Starks and Albert Haynesworth. Strong, tough and competitive, Smith brings experience and leadership to a line lacking in both departments. Smith is complimented by third-year man Randy Starks (6-3, 312), who is a load to handle inside with tremendous strength that allows him to push around interior lineman and penetrate the opposing backfield. Haynesworth, following his highly publicized five-game suspension, has rotated in on the line contributing 20 tackles. Another former Volunteer, 2006 draft pick Jesse Mahelona, also has seen significant action bringing more of a pass-rushing element to the interior of the line. The line has only 15 sacks this season and ranks 27th in the league in rush defense.
Through the air, the Titans had some success early in the season, but have dropped back to 28th in the league after some big performances by opponents like Baltimore's Steve McNair (373 yards in Week 10) and Peyton Manning (351 yards in Week 13). A large part of the defensive backfield's struggles can be attributed to the lack of a pass rush generated by the front seven, but there is no question they need to play better.
The most important player has proven to be Hope. Acquired from the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers via free agency this offseason, Hope has three interceptions through 12 games and also has shown the ability to make plays at the line, ranking second on the team with 97 tackles. Free safety Lamont Thompson is the perfect compliment to Hope. While Hope is making plays near the line, Thompson is using his range to cover the deep part of the field.
The biggest name in the Titans' defensive backfield belongs to Jones. Caught in Jeff Fisher's doghouse for the large part of last season due to off-field incidents and his propensity to not work hard in practice, Jones, the sixth pick overall in the 2005 draft, has responded by letting his play do the talking this season. A gifted athlete who plays much bigger than his 5-10 frame, Jones can lock down the opposition's number-one receiver and be an active run defender (46 tackles). After showing promise early in his career, the player opposite Jones, Reynaldo Hill, has failed to record an interception this year.
The Texans should be able to both run and pass the ball against the Titans, but the key will be not turning it over. While the statistics may not indicate it, the Titans have a number of ball hawks in their secondary, which should make establishing the run a priority to get some pressure off of David Carr and the receivers.
has some hard workers on the line, but the blockers for the Texans should focus on containing Bulluck and Thornton to create the necessary holes. In the passing game, throwing down the middle will be hard to do because of Hope and Thompson, but using the size of the Texans receivers (Andre Johnson 6-3, Eric Moulds 6-2) against the size of the Titans cornerbacks (both starters under 6-0) will be a matchup to watch.
**Leading the way on special teams is veteran punter Craig Hentrich. The 13-year veteran may not have the strongest leg in the league, but he is consistent and does a great job at dropping opponents inside the 20-yard line (35.7 percent this season). Kicker Rob Bironas is the resident hero in
right now after nailing a 60-yarder to win the game last week. Leg strength is not a question for Bironas, but consistency is as he missed two extra points last season. Thus far in 2006, he is working toward establishing that consistency as he has hit 13 of 17 field goals and 100 percent of his extra points.
Unlike many other teams, the Titans have two capable returners that can break the game open at any moment. Jones handles punt returns and is currently sixth in the league with a 12.2-yard per return average and two touchdowns to his credit.
Former Bears return man Wade, who returned a punt for a touchdown in 2005, had some fumbling troubles on punts forcing the Bears to release him. Picked up by the Titans, Wade moved to the kick return team, which has allowed him more time to catch the ball and more space to use his open-field explosiveness. He has averaged a respectable 23.5 yards per return this season.