The Tennessee Titans take on the Cleveland Browns at LP Field, and thus have a great chance to get themselves back on track in the AFC South. The game kicks off at 12pm CT. Below I break down some of the interesting match-ups and game factors by position group.
Jake Locker is back this week following a wrist injury that sidelined him against the Colts. The fourth year passer has had more issues than I care to pen in one afternoon, but he has also shown the flashes that tease the team to believe they can win with him. Maybe they can. He will need to be mistake free (or close to it) today to help the team get back on it's feet after three consecutive blowout losses. Remaining comfortable in the pocket, and not being spooked when the defense take away the out routes will be paramount to a successful day for Locker. Whether he is capable of throwing with anticipation and accuracy, into the middle of the field and on interior timing routes, is yet to be seen.
The Titans supposed strength has been a weakness so far. Nate Washington has slipped, and Justin Hunter has been a non-factor. Even Kendall Wright hasn't shined as he has in the past. Tennessee needs these guys to step up and make an impact going forward, especially against a defense with some talent on the outside. Joe Hayden and Buster Skrine are a formidable duo, despite some recent slips. They will be looking to get back on track in the same way the Titans skill players are.
Delanie Walker has been about the only constant on offense for Tennessee, and he should be a threat to play well again against Cleveland's slower linebackers.
The Titans will have to be diligent against a solid group of pass rushers for the Cleveland Browns. Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo can be dangerous off the edge, so the onus will be on Michael Roos and Michael Oher to keep Jake Locker's jersey clean, and the Titans running backs heading vertically. On the interior, Phil Taylor can cause some issues as well, so it will be interesting to see how the Titans use their blockers, and where they call the majority of their running plays. Using Andy Levitre to pull on power and counter plays was successful late last season, but he has been a weakness of late for Tennessee.
At the running back spot, a lot has been made of the Titans utility of their players. Shonn Greene has garnered most of the carries, especially early in games, so far, with Bishop Sankey not being worked in until later in the game (which, recently, has also meant a non-competitive phase). Sankey has looked the part when given the opportunity, and should earn more and more of the snaps as this team gets into the teeth of it's schedule. Dexter McCluster hasn't been used as creatively as Titans fans envisioned either, and I would look to see Ken Whisenhunt get him more involved in the passing game, if only to ease the way for Jake Locker, who has been excellent when targeting his tight ends and running backs.
Against guys like inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, the Titans will need to be smart if they want to center their game plan around the run. For their own sake, the Titans should leave Leon Washington firmly on the bench when the offense takes to the field. He's not magically going to turn into Darren Sproles.
On the defensive side of the ball, it's been rough going for Tennessee. While they haven't been bad against the run outside of the Cowboys game, the unit has been plagued by third down plays, especially in the screen game and quick slants across the middle. This has neutered some of the effects of solid interior play from the likes of Jurrell Casey. The return of Ropati Pitoitua should also help, as he missed last week's game through injury. The biggest matchup in the trenches here will be between Sammie Hill and Alex Mack, which will no doubt dictate if the Browns can run the ball or not. I would have to say that Alex Mack has the advantage there. Seeing rookie DaQuan Jones earn some extra snaps would be a positive thing for Tennessee, especially on run downs.
The Madden "mini-linebacker" gag has been a microcosm (literally) of the Titans second level defenders so far this year. Wesley Woodyard has been the best of the bunch, though that isn't saying much. He nabbed an interception last week of Andrew Luck, and will be relied upon to keep track of Jordan Cameron and the Browns running backs. Derrick Morgan has had a rough two-game stretch as well, and will need to get back to the form he showed in game one and put pressure on the pocket. In that same vein, both Kamerion Wimbley and Shaun Phillips need to be the shot in the arm for the Titans pass rush that they were supposed to be from game one.
The Titans don't match up well with the Browns backfield and tight ends, as they have been poor defending the underneath zones, and fitting the run. With Zach Brown on IR, Zaviar Gooden was left to step up in his stead; but it's abundantly clear that both Gooden and the rest of the Titans starting backers have fundamental issues in stopping the run consistently. Hopefully we will see more of rookie linebacker Avery Williamson, who has been a rare bright spot against the run. This will be an area to watch closely come Sunday.
The Titans are short one corner this week, with the NFL's most penalized player, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, out with a concussion. The hope is that Coty Sensabaugh can step up in his place, and improve the quality of play from the position. The flipside of that is that we will likely be seeing rookie MarQueston Huff in on nickel and dime sets, which would be dangerous for the Titans. On the other side of the field Jason McCourty has had struggles of his own as well. The corners will need to keep close watch of Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins. On the back end, Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin need to play aggressive football. Too often either the playcalling or their decision making has allowed offenses to dink and dunk up and down the field. With a strong physical guy in Pollard patrolling the underneath, perhaps the Titans can improve their abysmal third down defense rate.
The Titans have had issues in their special teams units as well. They could use a boost on a long kick return for once; they definitely have the talent. The unit has been on the decline since the firing of Alan Lowry, and even this new regime seem to be unable to prevent that. Neither Leon Washington or Dexter McCluster have been able to generate much of anything.
As for the kicking game, Brett Kern and Ryan Succop have had their issues, but I am more confident in them getting past them than the return game picking up the production. The Titans have suffered terrible field position so far this season, and a change in that could yield more positive results on game day.
The Titans have a solid chance to get back on track with a game at home against a team with questionable talent. Will they take that opportunity to heart? That is hard to say. Both teams will likely be focused on running the ball, and both have able offensive lines to do so. The difference may be in the Titans linebackers; whether they can respond and play down hill against the run or not. In the end, if the Titans can't pull themselves together and get a redemptive win at home against the Browns, they may just live up to the dour expectations tagged to them by the pundits when the season first began.