This week I did a Q&A with Tom Gower of TotalTitans.com to get the inside scoop on the Bears opponent this week the 3-5 Tennessee Titans. Jake Locker is still battling a shoulder injury, and Chris Johnson is the NFL's leading rusher over the last five games. We talked to Gower about this and more in this expert inside look.
MI 1. Have the Titans managed to figure out their starting QB situation between Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck and who is the best player to get the Titans' offense going?
TT: The message has been consistent: Jake Locker is the starting quarterback when healthy. The left (non-throwing) shoulder injury he suffered Week 4 against the Texans has lingered much longer than I expected or thought the Titans led on, so Hasselbeck's been the starter. After a rough first game in Minnesota, Hasselbeck's been pretty much the guy he was last year. He was never much of a vertical passer and is now even less so, operating best in the 3- and 5-step game when he can get the ball out quickly and on time. Locker is less proficient at that (unsurprising given his inexperience), but can threaten defenses down the field. The Titans want to be able to attack teams vertically better than they can with Hasselbeck, but he'll do until Locker is healthy.
MI: 2. Is Chris Johnson finally on track and how big a part of the Titans offense does he need to be for the Titans to win?
TT: Chris Johnson's production right now is almost exclusively a function of the blocking he receives. If the blocking is good enough, he can gain yards. It was against the Texans, Bills, and Colts, and he did. If the blocking isn't good enough, he won't. It wasn't against the Vikings, and he didn't. Considering the quality of the Bears defensive line and the health status of the Titans offensive line (all five starters missed practice Thursday, though left guard Steve Hutchinson did so because it was his normal off day rather than due to injury), I'm putting the over/under on Chris Johnson's yards rushing this week at about 35.
Considering Johnson had good games against the Texans and Colts and the Titans scored 14 (7 before the Texans had their backups in) and 13 against the Colts, I don't think Chris Johnson being relatively productive means a whole lot to the Titans offense. It's a passing league these days.
MI: 3. Outside of Chris Johnson who is the biggest threat on the Titans offense?
TT: Kenny Britt was that player, even if you included Chris Johnson, but coming back from an ACL injury he hasn't been the same player. I don't think he has the same explosiveness, and he's really had difficulty catching the football at times. He still could put up big numbers, because Hasselbeck likes to throw to the X receiver isolated in man coverage and let him make a play, but he hasn't looked like the Andre Johnson prototype he was last year.
The Titans' most reliable receiver is still Nate Washington, while rookie first-rounder Kendall Wright leads the league in receptions on third down. One thing Hasselbeck likes to do is play off Britt lined up outside and if there's a safety over the top or a double team on him, then go back to the other side and a player in the slot. Last year, that was normally Washington, while it's been Wright more often this year. They've been trying to get the ball to Wright with room to run, throwing him a lot of shallow crosses (a staple route of the offense) and giving him some wide receiver screens. Tight end Jared Cook also has the speed to burn you, but Hasselbeck has rarely targeted him outside of the two minute drill this year.
MI: 4. The Titans seem to really struggle on defense, what is the biggest cause for the Titans' struggles on defense this season?
TT: What the Titans do well on defense:
1. The cornerbacks are good at tackling.
2. Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley can kill some left tackles all day with his shoulder dip move.
What the Titans don't do well on defense:
1. Everything else.
Everything else has a number of components. The tackling (outside of the starting corners) has been atrocious for most of the season. Free safety Michael Griffin had a good game last week, but has been one of the worst offenders there. He also struggles in coverage and has bad ball skills. Strong safety Jordan Babineaux also hates spates where he comes up in run support and whiffs on the tackle, and had his own struggles in coverage. Nickel slot corner Ryan Mouton has his moments in coverage, and then games like last week where Reggie Wayne ate him alive. The run defense, especially in nickel personnel, has been godawful atrocious. The linebackers have been no better than the safeties at taking away tight ends.
The Titans have actually done a reasonable job of not giving up too many big plays, but when you're giving up 8 yards every other play anyway, it doesn't matter much.
MI: 5. Do the Titans have any big play makers in the secondary who can step up and shut down Brandon Marshall?
TT: In addition to being pretty good tacklers, both starting corners Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are pretty physical. Verner's not as big as McCourty, so I think he could be vulnerable on jump balls. McCourty has good deep speed but doesn't have great lateral quickness. I worry more with him against a guy like Reggie Wayne last week, Wes Welker earlier in the year, or Steve Smith, but think he can force Marshall to make difficult contested catches.
MI: 6. The Bears are the favorite on the road, what will it take for the Titans to pull off the upset?
Get lucky and maybe make a few plays on special teams (tough given Dave Toub, Devin Hester, Adam Podlesh et al.). A defensive score would be great. In their close wins over the Steelers and Bills, they picked up every fumble and their opponents didn't get any. Tim Jennings or Charles Tillman falling down in man coverage and giving up a long touchdown would help. For the Bears offensive line to really struggle in pass protection and Jay Cutler to throw the ball up for grabs a lot.
It's hard for me to see the Titans moving the ball on a good Bears defense, while the Titans defense hasn't stopped very many teams. Bears 23 - Titans 10.