The numbers don’t lie when it comes to the Tennessee Titans’ struggles through the first quarter of the season.
Statistically speaking, they are ranked 20th or lower in six of the 17 offensive categories tracked by the league, and 20th or worse in 10 of the 17 defensive rankings.
In that vein, the Titans’ 1-3 start is no surprise. With as many statistical categories as the NFL tracks each week, there’s no glossing over that many deficiencies as aberrations.
Offensively, the Titans’ most noted shortcomings are in the running game, where Tennessee is 30th in rushing yards per game (288 yards) and 31st in average (72.0 per game). The Titans are also last in net punt average, an offensive category, thanks to having already allowed three returns for scores in two weeks. The franchise had never allowed more than two in a season, yet there were two in Sunday’s loss to Oakland.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher said at his Monday press conference that his goal is still to achieve offensive balance between the passing game and the running game. That’s something that, thanks partially to second-half deficits and partly to an ineffective running game, hasn’t happened in any game this season for Tennessee.
On Sunday, Tennessee had just 43 yards rushing with star running back Eddie George getting only 26 yards from scrimmage. Either that number must change or the Titans’ reliance on the run must in order for this team to escape its doldrums.
“Right now, we are getting what we are blocking,” Fisher said. “We are not getting anything extra. We are making mistakes on the line, Eddie may be hitting the hole wrong; it is the same story. We will get it going.”
Fisher has even said that the Titans will likely have to pass to set up the run, though he does not want quarterback Steve McNair to attempt 48 passes again if he can help it.
“If we can make some plays down field and make people more concerned with our passing game, we will hit some creases,” Fisher said. “It’s very difficult, as you have seen around the league, for people to run the ball on early downs against eight-man front defenses.”
That said, the Titans’ best chance on offense appears to be just as it was the second half of last season, when the offense was placed on the right arm and playmaking ability of McNair and his receivers.
“We have had success when we carry balance into a ballgame. That is where we have had success more often than not through the years. Steve has shown what he can do [Sunday],” Fisher said.
Despite occasional problems with tipped interceptions, dropped balls and offensive penalties, Fisher appears tempted to unleash McNair and the passing game, even with receiver Derrick Mason out until after the bye with a separated shoulder.
“This is Steve’s team; I would like to think that Steve took a step [Sunday] in taking this team over, while still philosophically our approach is to carry balance into a game,” Fisher said.
Defensively, there appears to be even more problem areas, as the Titans are 29th in passing yards allowed, surrendering 1,096 yards already. That puts them 28th in average (274 yards per game).
But that’s not the worst of it. Tennessee has already allowed 12 touchdown passes this season, compared to none allowed via the run. That statistic is more of an indictment of the pass defense than praise for the run defense, because teams like the Browns and Raiders found they simply didn’t have to bother establishing the run because they could move the football through the air against the Titans.
And with Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n Gun Washington Redskins coming to town, Fisher expects a similar strategy against his team this Sunday.
“We have a very challenging opponent this week,” Fisher said. “They are an offense that will be very similar to the offense that we played this week. They’re a spread offense that lets the quarterback make decisions on the line.
“This week’s opponent will captivate our focus and our attention and we will have a good week of practice.”
So how do the Titans combat that? For one thing, they must find a way to put consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. Extra blitzing and more man-to-man coverage as in the successful days of yore could be the order of the day this Sunday. Especially with rookie cornerback Mike Echols potentially starting in place of injured Samari Rolle, the Titans will need to help him as much as possible, but will also need the first-year corner to hold his own in man coverage.
“We have to start getting consistent pressure on the quarterback,” Fisher said.
The other thing that must be done is to shore up the special teams and minimize the mistakes. Add the three punt return touchdowns to a pair of tipped interceptions returned for scores, and the Titans have given up a mind-boggling five return TDs in just four games.
“Obviously there are a lot of little things in all three phases of the game that aren’t getting done;” Fisher said. “There are accountability issues, assignment issues. Until we get those things fixed, we’re going to continue to find ourselves in this situation throughout the season.”