It's been six months since the 2006 NFL Draft when the Texans and Titans had two of the first three picks, hoping to secure the next cornerstone of their respective franchises, but the two teams finally meet in Week 8 of the NFL season in
hero Vince Young. That only increases the animosity between these two teams and makes this year's games even more attention grabbing.
A tough start during the initial four games seemed to be the precursor for a very long season in
While the playoffs may not be in store this season, coach Fisher should feel comfortable that they are pointed in the right direction and no opponent will take them lightly.
**A Titans offense without Steve McNair just doesn't seem like a Titans offense, but with Young at the helm, the Titans are beginning a new era. After a failed three-game experiment with journeyman Kerry Collins as the starting quarterback and a group of inconsistent, injury-prone running backs carrying the load, offensive coordinator Norm Chow had trouble finding a niche for his unit. The Titans, currently ranked 28 th in total yardage and 29 th in points scored, have been anything but the model of offensive efficiency. But during the last two weeks, the picture has become clearer as Young and running back Travis Henry have decided to step to the forefront and become the leaders of the Titans' offense.
Young, although his statistics may not show it, has played well for a rookie quarterback, providing a steadying influence on the team during his three starts and showing the leadership abilities he had in college. His passing skills still need some refining, but with world class arm strength and athleticism, Young could be one of the deadliest weapons in the league for many years to come. Before the draft rumors abounded that Chow would have rather had his former quarterback at USC, Matt Leinart, because of his familiarity with his system and his pro-style passing skills, but it became clear that the entire organization from owner Bud Adams to Fisher were intrigued by the intangibles that Young brought to the table. Despite what he's shown, Young has only completed 47.5% of his passes and thrown four interceptions in limited duty leaving the best defensive option against him to let him beat you through the air.
On the ground, Travis Henry has answered the question as to who will be the primary ball carrier for the Titans. After rushing for 1,356 yards in 2003 with the Buffalo Bills, Henry lost his starting job to first round pick Willis McGahee in 2004 because the organization felt they had to justify using a first round pick on him. Mired in a bad situation in
, where he was kept from the field again early last season for four weeks for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
But with all of that behind him, and Chris Brown and Lendale White not staying healthy enough to see major time, Henry has elevated himself back to the form of his early years in Buffalo. At only 5'9'', Henry isn't what teams consider the size of an ideal back, but his solid build, ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and fearlessness in running the ball inside, make his size inconsequential. Despite not playing in two games this season, the 27 year-old has rushed for 383 yards and three touchdowns. Also seeing carries are Brown, who has all the measureables and ability of a number one back, but always seems to be suffering from injury, and White, the talented, rookie, bulldozer of a back who has yet to get his feet off the ground in his career.
With a young quarterback heading up the offense, Chow has focused most of his attention on establishing the run, leaving production from his wide receivers lower than average among NFL teams. But when Young does look downfield, he should feel comfortable in getting the ball to his primary target, Drew Bennett. The 6-5, six-year veteran runs good routes and uses his large frame to beat smaller defensive backs for the ball. On the other side is free agent acquisition David Givens, the
Other receivers seeing time are the speedy slot receiver Bobby Wade, Brandon Jones and Roydell Williams.
Most of the time with a young quarterback, a tight end can be the best security blanket. In the Titans case, they are blessed with three players at the position who are reliable targets. Third-year player Ben Troupe is the most talented of the trio. Even at 6-4, 270, Troupe has the ability to get downfield in the passing game and make plays after the catch. Erron Kinney, the best blocker of the three and another former
Drafted in the sixth round in 2005, Scaife has made the most of his opportunity hauling in 11 passes, good enough for third on the team.
Up front, the offensive line for the Titans is extremely green with three starters 24 years old or younger, but the anchor is thirteen-year veteran Kevin Mawae. Let go by the Jets in the off-season to clear cap room, the former All-Pro has come in and led the way for the NFL's 14 th ranked run offense. Mawae may have lost a step since his six Pro Bowl appearances in
Despite the youth and injuries, the Titans offensive line have allowed only 9 sacks while their running game has picked up in the last couple of weeks.
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, coming at 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 Travis Henry from running the ball is the best way to stop the Titans. Because the Titans don't really have any receivers you specifically game plan for, gambling by blitzing and leaving defensive backs in single man coverage won't hurt as much as it would against other teams.
**It's been a tale of two defenses on the other side of the ball for the Titans. While they have defended the pass well enough to be ranked 11 th in the league, their run defense is allowing an astounding 164.5 yards per game on the ground, worst in the NFL. Like the offense, the defense is very young, particularly at cornerback and on the defensive line so 2006 will have its share of growing pains and the Texans will have a chance to pile up some yards on
The leader of the defense is outside linebacker Keith Bulluck. The seven-year pro again leads the Titans in tackles through six games with 55, 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), defends equally well in both run and pass coverage, plays with reckless abandon, sound tackling, and the ability to chase a play all over the field. Although he has only made one Pro Bowl, Bulluck is widely recognized around the league as one of, if not the best, outside linebacker. Teaming up with Bulluck are outside linebacker David Thornton, acquired from the Colts in the offseason, and middle linebacker Peter Sirmon.
Also seeing time at linebacker for the Titans are young players Robert Reynolds and Stephen Tulloch.
On the defensive line, the Titans are building a corps of solid young players including ends Kyle Vanden Bosch, Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom along with tackles Randy Starks and Jesse Mahelona, but the most talented of the bunch, fifth year man Albert Haynesworth, will be out due to a suspension rendered by the league. At the end of their week 4, 45-14 loss to Dallas, Haynesworth stepped on the face of opposing offensive guard Andre Gurode with his cleat, causing damage to Gurode's face and to Hayneswoth's reputation. Already viewed as an enigma, a talent that could never consistently show his abilitiy, Haynesworth received a five-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell, the longest for on-field behavior in NFL history.
Without Haynesworth, Vanden Bosch will be looked at to provide energy on the defensive line. Coming out of nowhere with 13 sacks last season after four injury plagued seasons in Arizona, Vanden Bosch is starting to realize the potential he had as a second round pick out of Nebraska. While he won't wow you with his measurables and athletic ability, Vanden Bosch gets by with his non-stop motor and tremendous strength. LaBoy and 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.
Former Texan Robaire Smith has stepped in to fill Haynesworth's shoes at tackle. 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). Starks is a load to handle inside with tremendous strength that allows him to push around interior lineman and penetrate the opposing backfield. He leads the team with 4 tackles for loss and has shown continued improvement in every year he's played. 2006 draft pick Mahelona has also seen significant action bringing more of a pass-rushing element to the interior of the line. Many of the problems associated with the Titans porous rush defense has not been a lack of talent, but rather a combination of the Titans offensive inability to control the ball and the lack of time the defensive line unit has been able to play together.
Through the air, the Titans have had much more success. Currently ranking eleventh in the NFL in pass yardage defense despite only pressuring quarterbacks into eight sacks and three interceptions, a pair of young cornerbacks and veteran safeties have come together to form an effective unit. The most important player has proven to be free safety Chris Hope. Acquired from the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers via free agency this offseason, Hope is beginning to show the Steelers they made a big mistake in letting him go. He has two interceptions through the first six games and has also shown the ability to make plays at the line ranking second on the team with 51 tackles from his strong safety position. 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 and his hard hitting ability to make sure receivers are aware he's in the area. With Hope and Thompson, the Titans can lay claim to having one of the better safety tandems in the league, a good reason opposing teams don't like to throw the ball downfield against them.
The biggest name in the Titans defensive backfield belongs to Adam "Pac-Man" 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 while also using his physicality to be an active run defender, unlike many corners who shy away from contact. Reynaldo Hill plays the other cornerback position and has been a pleasant surprise thus far in his career. Somehow falling to the seventh round in the 2004 draft, Hill has stepped right in and shown a knack for finding the ball in the air, which he did last year by registering three interceptions and is improving his tackling numbers with 29 so far. In passing situations, Andre Woolfolk and Cortland Finnegan, who was a candidate for Rookie of the Week honors in Week 1 after recording a sack and forced fumble, contribute to this unit.
As the numbers show, the Titans are susceptible to the ground attack, which should be a good way for the Texans to build upon their good running performance last week. While
In the passing game, throwing down the middle will be hard to do because of Hope and Thompson, but using the size of the Texan receivers (Andre Johnson 6-3, Eric Moulds 6-2) against the size of the Titans cornerbacks (both starters under six feet) will be a matchup to watch
**Leading the way on special teams is veteran punter Craig Hentrich. The thirteen-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 (36.1% this season). Kicker Rod Bironas came out of nowhere last season to nail 23 of 29 field goal attempts including a 53-yarder. Leg strength is not a question for Bironas, but consistency is as he missed two extra points last seasons. Thus far in 2006, he is well on his way to that as he has hit 8 of 9 field goals and 100 percent of his extra points.
Unlike many other teams, the Titans have two capable returned that can break the game open at any moment. Jones handles punt returns and although he is averaging only 7.9 yards per return, his performance last year in returning a punt for a touchdown and just falling short on an 85-yard kickoff return, make him a weapon the opposing kick coverage needs to watch out for. Former Bears return man Bobby 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 has been moved to the kick return team which should allow him more time to catch the ball and more space to use his open-field explosiveness.