Special teams were special for Titans: I wrote in my preview that the Titans had a slight advantage in terms of special teams. The advantage proved to be more than slight: the Panthers’ special teams were responsible for a majority of the Panthers’ halftime deficit. A Marc Mariani punt return touchdown at the beginning of the game gave the Titans an early seven-point lead, and a missed Olindo Mare field goal attempt at the close of the half cost the Panthers three points. In other words, ten points of the Panthers’ halftime deficit were a direct result of special teams play.
Cam’s legs are key: Earlier in the week, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray told the Tennessean’s John Glennon that containing Cam Newton to the pocket was the biggest concern for the Titans’ defense.
“You’ve got to make sure that all of a sudden he doesn’t turn into a runner,” Gray said. “That’s their secret weapon. That’s their biggest weapon.”
Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker told Glennon the same thing, specifically in regards to the techniques his linemen would use when pass-rushing.
“I made it clear this week that we’re not going out there and say, ‘Hey, let’s try out some new fancy pass-rushing moves,’ ” Rocker said. “You’ve got to contain him. You’ve got to constrict those lanes and not let him run everywhere.”
Rocker and Gray were right. On the Panthers’ final drive of the first half, Newton escaped containment on second down from Carolina’s 42-yard line and picked up 26 yards on the ground, putting the Panthers in field goal range. Although missed the field goal, the run by Newton demonstrated his ability to put his team into scoring position in a clutch situation in just one play.
Titans’ offensive line play spotty: In run-blocking, the line sealed the outside edge with frequency, allowing Chris Johnson to pick up minor gains despite his hesitation and timidity when hitting a hole. In pass protection, the line struggled to keep rushers from pressuring Matt Hasselbeck. It’s not enough of an issue to sink the team, but it’s a large factor in why the Titans beat average teams but lose to good ones.
If Titans miss the playoffs, blame Chris Johnson: Johnson had his best game of the season by far, rushing for 4.8 yards per carry and picking up 44 yards through the air. Most impressive of all was his fourth-quarter performance, in which he amassed 74 yards on the ground and scored a touchdown. Between this game and last week’s game, Johnson is clearly starting to get more comfortable. Despite his impressive stat line today, he still doesn’t look like the same player he was before this year. He’s getting there, but he’s definitely not there yet. He should be back to that point by the end of the season, and chances are this year will be a forgotten bump on the road to a long and successful career.
However, Johnson’s role (or lack thereof) in the Titans’ season should not be forgotten. With the stability Matt Hasselbeck has brought to the quarterback position in Tennessee this year, a Titans team with Johnson at full speed would have put the Jaguars and Bengals away, and been much more competitive against the Texans and Steelers. Johnson’s clearly getting better, but the issue hasn’t been his physical ability. He has been hesitant and uncomfortable, a problem that can be directly attributed to his holdout.
This summer, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt expressed displeasure over Johnson’s refusal to come into camp while his deal was being negotiated. Reinfeldt specifically told Nashville’s 104.5 The Zone the Titans didn’t want Johnson practicing but they just wanted him to learn the offense.
"He's still got two years left on his deal, and if we are willing to commit those types of dollars it would be a show of good faith," Reinfeldt said. "We are not asking him to go on the practice field. He's not going to get put in harm's way, but he needs to be here to meet the coaches, the new players and learn the offense. That is part of what we are trying to accomplish here."
Johnson instead waited until his deal was done to report to camp. He’s been hesitant and appeared to be unsure where the hole was on most plays. As the season has progressed, he has appeared to be gaining a better feel for the offense. If he had bothered to come learn the offense in training camp, the Titans would be ahead of the Texans in the race for the AFC South right now. Instead, they’re looking at probably a wild card spot at best.