SAME STORY, DIFFERENT YEAR? For a team that finished the 2002 regular season tied for the best record in the AFC and whose season ended one game shy of the Super Bowl, an early 3-2 record falls short of expectations.
The Texans got after McNair at home last season, but the Titans were able to prevail 13-3.
Then again, maybe the Tennessee Titans are exactly where they want to be. Last season, they were 1-4 after their first five contests, but ended up catching fire and winning 11 of their final 13 games.
Regardless, the Titans have not hit their stride yet. Their rushing attack is meager at best and they have given up an average of just over 23 points per game. On the bright side, quarterback Steve McNair has looked like the NFL's top quarterback, throwing for 1211 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also has two rushing touchdowns to lead the team.
With division play in the AFC South under way, the Titans are already two games behind the Indianapolis Colts, who beat them 33-7 at the RCA Dome in week two. To keep up with the Colts' pace, as well as gain some distance from other teams within the AFC South, every division home game is a must-win for the Titans.
THERE'S NO RUSH: Besides McNair, the Titans have very few elite playmakers on offense. That hasn't been a major problem yet—the Titans are ranked 15 th in the league in total offense averaging almost 24 points a game—but it could be a problem if injuries arise and their passing attack wanes.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher loves smash-mouth football and running back Eddie George has benefited greatly from that philosophy, accumulating more than 1000 yards rushing in six of his seven years in the NFL. While George has been slowed by injuries in the past, this year he seems to be healthy and he still hasn't gotten on track.
The Titans are ranked 29 th in the NFL in rushing offense and have averaged just 68.8 yards per game on the ground. George has averaged only 2.7 yards per carry, which is one yard below his career average. Fisher has traditionally used the running attack to set up deadly play-action passes, but those aren't as successful without the threat of a big run.
Fortunately for the Titans, they have an overachieving corps of wide receivers that has picked up the slack for the normally reliable running game. Five different Titans have touchdown catches this season, including Derrick Mason, Justin McCareins, Drew Bennett, Erron Kinney and rookie Tyrone Calico.
With one touchdown catch and 16 receptions, Kinney has filled in nicely at tight end for Frank Wychek, who has been sidelined by a series of concussions.
McNair is undoubtedly the catalyst of the Titans offense. When a play breaks down, he can open up passing lanes with his scrambling ability or just tuck the ball in and improvise on the run. With his speed and size (6-2, 235), the odds are usually in his favor when he is in any open-field situation.
HOT PURSUIT: When the Titans acquired defensive end Kevin Carter before the start of the 2002 football season, visions of sacks danced through Titans fans' heads. With Carter at one end and Jevon Kearse, a.k.a. The Freak, at the other defensive end slot, fans expected to see some serious fireworks.
Due to an injury to Kearse, fans' dreams were not entirely realized last year. However, Carter still managed to tally 10 sacks and Carlos Hall filled in for Kearse with eight sacks of his own. This year, all the pieces are in place and Carter and Kearse already have a combined 7.5 sacks. With 14 total sacks, the Titans are tied for the third-highest total in the NFL.
The Titans' relentless pass rush is the centerpiece of their defense because it allows them to apply pressure to the quarterback without blitzing. In turn, more players are available to drop back into pass coverage. As a result, the Titans have allowed only 13 passes of over 20 yards through their first five games.
The Texans defense will have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage to limit McNair's ability to scramble.
A more obvious reason for the Titans' strong pass coverage is the leadership that they have in their secondary. Safety Lance Schulters has one Pro Bowl to his credit and is second on the team with 27 tackles. Cornerback Samari Rolle also has had one trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately, he dislocated his elbow and will miss the next few games. Second-year corner Tony Beckham will likely take Rolle's place, which should help the Texans' aerial attack.
Against the run, the Titans have a solid, albeit unspectacular, group of linebackers and defensive linemen that do yeoman's work in the trenches. Right side linebacker Keith Bulluck leads the Titans with 48 tackles, while his counterpart on the left, Peter Sirmon, has 20 tackles.
Along with 6-6, 320-pound Albert Haynesworth, who will likely play at defensive tackle for the first time since Sept. 14 due to injury, the Titans defense has allowed just one run of over 20 yards this season. Their opponents have averaged just 82.8 yards per game rushing, which is the fifth lowest total in the NFL.
**TOUGH BREAK:** It is not a sight often seen: a place kicker leaving a game with a season-ending injury. However, Titans place kicker Joe Nedney managed to do just that in the first game of the season during kickoff coverage against the Oakland Raiders.
While Pittsburgh Steelers' fans probably thought that Nedney got what he deserved after his self-admitted acting job against them in the 2002 playoffs, the Titans were left scrambling. With no other place kicker available for the Raiders' game, the Titans
were forced to use punter Craig Hentrich, who faired surprisingly well, scoring three field goals and one extra point.
Since then, the Titans have signed the definition of a "veteran kicker" in Gary Andersen, who has 21 years of NFL experience. He has done a solid job so far, converting six of seven field goals.
Returning punts is the team's second-leading wide receiver Justin McCareins, who has averaged 9.2 yards on 10 returns. Second-year wide receiver Jake Schifino handles most of the kickoff return duties.
**A LOT ON THE LINE:** It's no surprise that the Titans spent 36 years as the Houston Oilers before moving to Tennessee in 1997. While the arrival of the Texans has quelled the anger of Houston fans, they will never forget the loss of the Oilers. To further remind Texans fans of the past, there are still a few Titans players that spent time with the Oilers before the move. It all makes for a great subplot come Sunday afternoon.
In addition to the Texans, the Titans will face a tough array
of opponents the rest of the season including the undefeated Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts as well as the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. They finish off their season at home against the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With 11 games remaining in their regular season, including this Sunday's contest, the defending AFC South Champions will need to win at least six more games to have a chance at the playoffs. With such a tough schedule, there is little room for error.