|Tennessee has to find a way to slow down New Orleans' high-scoring offense. (US PRESSWIRE)|
By Ryan Wilson
The Titans are 7-5 and one game out of the playoff picture, trailing the 7-5 Bengals (Cincy beat Tennessee in Week 9).
The Titans started 3-1 the season, then went 1-3 before another 3-1 run over the last month. Their recent success has been a combination of Chris Johnson's resurgence coupled with a friendly schedule. And if they're to challenge for a wild-card spot, they'll need to continue to play well in December. They face the Saints this weekend, then it's at Indy, Jacksonville, and at Houston to wrap up the regular season.
You have to like Tennesee's chances if Johnson continues to round into form. Football Outsiders' Ben Muth, a former offensive lineman at Stanford has been impressed with the Titans' o-line play, as well as Johnson's return from obscurity.
"What sticks out most for me while watching Johnson recently is the sense of urgency in his running style that was absent in the first half of the season," Muth wrote Thursday. "Earlier this year, Johnson seemed too willing to take a very short gain and get back to the huddle to fight another day. He seemed to be waiting for that big play to come, and just trying to make do until it did. Well, big runs in the NFL aren’t just given to you. Sure, you’ll occasionally catch the defense with the perfect call and pop one untouched for forty yards, but that happens maybe four times a year. Big plays, more often than not, are the result of great downfield running or blocking, and neither of those things are provided solely by the offensive line."
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints will look for their fifth win in a row when they take on the Tennessee Titans at LP Field this Sunday. Join Jason Horowitz and NFL.com's Pat Kirwan for a preview of this matchup.
Since there are no guarantees that Johnson will revert to his 2010 form, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is doing his part to motivate the troops. Specifically, that means owning the middle of the field, even if it comes at a price.
“The biggest thing I think in this league is you have to start putting fear in guys from throwing the ball in the middle of the field,’’ Gray said Wednesday, according to the Tennessean's Jim Wyatt. “And if that means getting a letter from the commissioner on Monday, that means getting a letter from the commissioner."
In related news: Gray should expect a letter from the commissioner. (We're kidding because Roger Goodell, whose disciplinary worldview seems to be "no violation is too small," has a history of liberally meting out punishments. But we wouldn't be shocked if, you know, Gray got a letter.)
“A lot of times you have to be able to let these guys know: You are not going to be able to throw the ball in the middle of the football field," Gray said. "This is not a basketball game; it is a football game. So the ball doesn’t go down the middle of our field. And that is what safeties should do in this league.”
The Titans' defensive coordinator also made it clear that he's not telling his players to violate the new safety rules the league put in place this season. And the basketball reference? That's for Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, suddenly one of the NFL's best pass catchers. He played hoops at the University of Miami before a season with the Hurricanes football team changed his career plans.
“Just do a clean hit, hit a guy clean,’’ he said. “And the good thing is, [Graham] is 6-foot-7, so you are not going to hit him in the head anyway.”
This will be a stiff test for the Titans; the Saints are one of the league's most explosive offenses. With how well the o-line line protects Drew Brees, Tennessee's best strategy might be to get physical with his intended targets. Through 13 weeks, that's been easier said than done.
"I don’t think we’ve covered a 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 tight end, but the thing is the safety has to come down and hit him and help out (the linebackers),’’ Gray said.
When asked if the Titans have been delivering enough big hits to make would-be pass-catchers wary, Gray responded, “Of course not. They wouldn’t be throwing the ball down the middle of the field if we had been doing enough of it.”
For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're at it, add our RSS Feed.