Stillers-Titans Preview(Game #9)
Armed with a 5-game winning streak, the Stillers travel down to Opry Land to take on the Titans, who are coming off a solid MNF road win over the Skins. The Stillers 5-game streak does admittedly carry the asterisk of some fortuitous circumstances, in which they've taken advantage of opponent's injuries (Jets, Jags, Cleve) or poor play (Cinci, Ravens). Still, the team has found a few solid posts to hang its helmets on, including a decent running game and a stingy defense that is stuffing the run and minimizing the big play. As they did against Jax, the Stillers face a team coming off a road MNF game, which presents a challenge to the Titans in terms of preparation time. Coupled with that, is the fact that the Stiller offense has finally added a few additions to the stale slopoke I-formation scheme they'd been running the past 2-plus seasons, which was so predictable that 3rd grade schoolchildren were spending time with crayons diagramming defenses to stop it.
* When the Bitans have the ball, they come into the came a bit hobbled, but still capable and dangerous. Steve McNair will start at QB, and ever since his late-game heroics in Pittsburgh five weeks ago, he's played steady, competent football. Eddie George is a bit banged up, but he carried the ball 20-plus times on MNF with no ill effects, so he should be going full bore versus the Stillers. It's no secret that Tennessee has a host of capable pass-catchers at its disposal. TE Wycheck leads the team in receptions, while Derrick Mason leads all Titan receivers with 23 grabs. Chris Sanders is a solid receiver opposite Mason, and longtime Stiller killer Carl Dickens comes in as a 3rd receiver. WR Nancy Pigpen is also in the mix, but he's listed as questionable and this pansie-assed china doll always seems to find a reason, be it a torn toenail or swollen hemorrhoids, to sit out against the Black 'n Gold. The key matchup will be Titan O-line versus the Stiller D-line. The Titan line is as good as they come. Hopkins is a rock at LT, and Miller is a decent RT. Guard Bruce Matthews has seemingly been playing in the league as long as some rookies have been alive, and he continues to excel. The Stiller defense stuffed George in the first meeting, limiting the star RB to just 74 yards on 27 carries. The defense has excelled during this winning streak, in a large part because the D-line has not been dominated, and has actually created a lot of havoc and disruption by knifing off blocks and thru gaps. Kimo, Smith, Henry, Sullie, and Clancy will have their hands full against this bruising, capable O-line. If these men can cause some disruption and jam up the line of scrimmage, it will allow the Stiller LBs and DBs to stomp on George like they did in week 3. If the D-line gets bullied about, this causes the ILBs and the safeties to press more to stop the run, and that's when Frank Crycheck gets wide open off play-action fakes and seam routes.
* When the Stillers have the ball, they'll continue to go with what's gotten them back into the hunt, with a steady diet of The Bus and the conservative Dink & Dump passing game. Running against the Titans is no easy task, of course. The DL is solid, with Kearse and Holmes manning the ends. Starting DT Henry Ford is out for this game, which is a good break for the Stillers. The LB corps is capable as well, with Goddfrey flanked by the trusty Eddie Robinson and Favors. Just as I said last week, the key matchup is not FB Dan Kreider against whoever. One major-media pregame report has already declared that one of the key matchups is Kreider against MLB Godfrey. It said, "Kreider played well in his 1st NFL start last week, but his effort was not consistent enough and he lacks the overall skills to get the job done�.Godfrey is too active and knowledgeable not to take advantage of this matchup�..With Jon Witman and Chris Fu out with injury, the Kreider/Godfrey matchup is really going to hurt Pittsburgh's chances of running the ball." This is sheer bunk. First off, Kreider faced a far better set of LBs last week in Lewis, Boulware, and Sharper. The Titan trio is no slouch, but Ray Lewis is head & shoulders better than ANY of the Titan LBs, and on the whole the Raven LB corps is superior in every regard. Second, Kreider was not "not consistent enough". The guy played his ass off and smacked defenders around with authority. Third, center Dirt Dawson will be knocking some LBs on their backside on occasion in the game, which is a nicety the Stillers get from their center that few teams enjoy. Fourth, on many plays, Kreider won't even be in the game, as the Stillers will presumably continue a trend of sometimes running the ball from 1-back sets. Rather, the key matchup is the Stiller receivers making big plays and consistent catches against the Titan secondary. To be sure, the Titan secondary is experienced, strong, hard-hitting, and oftentimes smothering. Coach Jeff Fischer has no qualms having his CBs come up and physically jam the piss out of receivers at the line of scrimmage. Playing the Dink and Dump against this crew will be as futile as trying to race Michael Johnson while wearing snowshoes. The Stillers must call some downfield plays; Stewart must then have the vision to spot the open receiver and then have the guts to attempt the throw; and then the receivers must makes the catches and get the RAC yards against a rugged secondary. Hopefully Gilbride will have enough sense to spread the offense on occasion, but I expect Fischer, when he can, to stack the line to stop Bettis, and therefore the passing game must pick it up if we are to move the ball against this quality Titan defense. Stewart must put the ball in there, and while Shaw and Ward have been rather consistent, Burress and Edwards must grow up, act like men, and make the plays. My other concern is at RT, where Larry Tharpe will apparently get the start against DE Jevon Kearse. To me, this is the wrong move by Cowher. Shar Pourdanesh is healthy and has owned Kearse the past 2 meetings against the Titans, giving up just one sack and run-blocking superbly. Moreover, Pourdanesh's combination of bizarre guile, grit & nastiness has unquestionably gotten into Kearse's head, and Kearse clearly has been distracted and annoyed to the point of being noticeably reduced from his usual top-flight effectiveness. Furthermore, Tharpe's rotund physique and sorry conditioning makes him a poor matchup against Kearse, who seems to be capable of running full-steam for about six hours with no quit or fatigue.
* Spec Teams: Derrick Mason gives the Titans as dangerous a return man as there is today in the NFL. The Stiller coverage teams are really going to have to cover with tenacity, as well as smarts. Josh must rebound from last week's hideous effort, and Kris must get some decent distance on his kickoffs. Hopefully, Hank Poteat will resume his place as the Stillers main return man. Unbelievably, Poteat sat during a couple punts last week, giving way to lil' slowpoke Courtney Hawkins. Field position will be a premium against the Titans, so it would behoove the mentally-challenged Cowher to get Poteat onto the field as much as possible. Kris Brown will hopefully get a chance to atone for his pitifully short FG try of 49-yards in the first meeting, which would have sent that game into OT. On the other side, ageless Al Del Greco seems to kill the Stillers every year with a couple clutch 2nd-half FGs.
* The Titans have a better team right now, but coming off the short week created by MNF, they are susceptible to being exploited here-and-there from the reduced preparation. The Stillers are just about in a must-win situation if they want to win the division or even make the playoffs. Losing this game would mean they'd have to finish with 1 more win than the Titans to win the division, and another loss to a division foe would really crimp the Stillers in terms of playoff tiebreaker criteria. Without the 5-game winning streak, the Stillers may well have snuck up and surprised the Titans. But the Titans will be ready, and in a nip-and-tuck battle that will be fiercely fought all the way to the final gun, the Titans will prevail, 17-16.
The Still Mill