Time to admit it: everything about this team is absolutely legit right now. Traditional or advanced, it doesn't matter, almost every unit on the team is playing at an elite level right now. I will always have questions about the sustainability of this unexpected run of success. Until they wrap up a playoff spot down the stretch in December sometime, I'll be walking on eggshells when trying to rationalize what we're seeing here.
It's been a remarkable first quarter to the season already. Hard to believe it almost didn't happen.
Matt Hasselbeck (the only quarterback worth mentioning): I mean, wow. Best free agent pickup in franchise history? Could be that way if he keeps playing like this. No one has been better, and when I say no one, I mean no one. Hasselbeck has been experiencing a career renaissance of sorts here in Tennessee. Is it change of scenery? Maybe improved offensive line play? Is it perhaps more weapons to play with? Yes.
Running Backs: I mean, wow. Worst start by a running back in NFL history? Actually, not anymore. CJ eclipsed the 100 yard mark last week. All is well, right? Negative. I can't just erase from my memory the lousy showing from weeks 1-3 this year. Show me something that makes me a believer again. A strong showing against Pittsburgh will be a good place to start. The 48% success rate from last game is awesome. If CJ runs the ball successfully nearly 50% of the time, he's in good shape for a strong season. Javon Ringer has been good for one nice run this year against Baltimore, but he's shown basically nothing, as has Jamie Harper in limited snaps.
The Offensive Line: How's this for a shocker: Football Outsiders has the Titans' offensive line ranked dead last in run blocking this year and it's not particularly close. Of the hundreds of run plays the team has run this year, 27% have been "stuffed", meaning the running back has been tackled either at or behind the line of scrimmage. That's an ugly stat no matter who's running the ball. But then, sticking with the theme of surprising statistics, the Titans rank fourth in pass blocking. Hasselbeck is sacked in exactly three percent of the plays he drops back on. Keeping him healthy is a must, so this is really nice to see.
The Receivers: No Kenny Britt? No problem! Seems like every game, at least ten guys touch the ball. This is as much on Hasselbeck as it is on the receivers, but I digress, they have played well in the absence of their extremely talented colleague. Nate Washington is actually making the irony of his nickname ironic, so there's that. I'll lump the tight ends in here with receivers too. Craig Stevens is looking like the best tight end on the team right now. Really didn't think I'd be saying that at this point in the season, but I get the feeling that Jared Cook is going to have a big game this weekend, Pittsburgh's linebackers are starting to show their age. Daniel Graham has been quietly getting his reps, not much in the way of production though. He did come up big against his former team a couple of weeks ago, that's got to count for something.
Defensive Line: These guys are making me swoon. Seriously, Derrick Morgan and Jason Jones on the ends? You can count on pressure on the quarterback all day long. Dave Ball as the rotational player? I'll have some of that. Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug applying pressure up the middle as rookies? Yup. Shaun Smith not grabbing anyone's junk? Can't decide if this is a win or a loss yet.
Linebackers: Much to my chagrin, nobody in this unit has really shone like I thought they would. Akeem Ayers started off strong and after fizzling out in the last two games, really brought his level of play back up against Cleveland, earning his first sack as a pro. Will Witherspoon came up huge in the Denver game, and his play has actually been something just north of satisfactory this year, a pleasant surprise for me. Gerald McRath is invisible and Barrett Ruud is the root of all evil, SuperHorn told me so. Overall, probably the weakest link in the defensive chain.
Secondary: Gotta give credit where credit is due, Mike Reinfeldt may have found a gem in Jordan Babineaux. The guy just seems to find the ball. In a Hasselbeckian career revival, Babineaux has capitalized on Chris Hope's broken arm and found his niche in what just so happens to be one of the league's best defenses. The trio of corner backs competing for snaps have all played fabulously so far. Finnegan, McCourty, and Verner are all evidence that good secondary help is never too hard to find. What's great about this is that that group of players has no player drafted higher than the fourth round. Special props to Cortland Finnegan who, in a year of redemption stories, is going absolutely bananas on opposing receivers while also cutting down on his penalties. He's basically assumed a position as one of the top five corners in the AFC again. When your weak link in the secondary is Michael Griffin, you know things are going well.
Special Teams: Nothing too special here. The Titans special teams unit has really let me down this year and are currently ranked a measly 25th in STDVOA. Why have you abandoned us, Marc? Probably because he's returned all of ten balls; kicks, punts or otherwise. What's good about this is that if we want any unit letting us down, it's the return game which has been significantly trivialized by new kickoff rules. Unfortunately, it may also leave guys like Mariani fighting for a roster spot next year.
Coaching Staff: I think we can all agree that we're mostly satisfied by what the new coaches have brought to the table, but can we please talk about Jerry Gray some more? What a difference a change in coordinators makes. Gray's players are disciplined, cerebral, and play their assignments. That'd be no big deal if they were all new players, but they're not, they're Chuck Cecil's players put in a new system that just works. I don't know how he does it, but his team is always in position to make a play. Even guys who struggled mightily last year, like Cortland Finnegan, are having career seasons.
Hard to believe that the year is already one quarter of the way over. I'll say this; this team is playing at the top of their game right now. Ranked inside the top ten in just about anything you can think of defensively and getting better offensively every week, this team has the smarts and talent to go places, do things, and make an impact. And one final thing; people are starting to notice. Gear up and get ready for an exciting rest of the year.