VOL. 8 | NO. 45 | Saturday, October 31, 2015
New Math: Whisenhunt Explains Atlanta Game Plan
TERRY McCORMICK | The Ledger
When a team loses five games in a row, everything is magnified.
And for the Tennessee Titans, that magnification is looking more like the large-print Bible my grandmother had as her eyesight failed in old age.
Remember how Coach Ken Whisenhunt proclaimed the 2015 Titans were much improved over the previous edition? Now his team is 1-5, a game worse than last year’s woebegone bunch, which managed a 2-4 record through six games. They then went winless the rest of the season.
Everything the Titans do is coming into question, and much of the criticism is valid.
After all, Whisenhunt can try all he wants to explain his seeming disdain for running the football, even though last Sunday’s 10-7 loss to the Falcons was tailor-made for grinding it out.
The Titans even had a willing runner to carry the load in Antonio Andrews, who plowed over and through the Falcons several times to pile up 57 yards on 10 carries, only to find himself on the bench at critical junctures of the game, as Whisenhunt elected more often than not to put the game in the hands of backup quarterback Zach Mettenberger. The Titans threw the ball 35 times Sunday, compared to only 16 rushing plays.
When asked about that imbalance, Whisenhunt rattled off an answer that sounded a bit too much like Common Core math in trying to explain the discrepancy.
“Well, let’s see, I think we had 54 plays, roughly. If you take 15 or so out for two-minute, that puts you at about 40, and you take out nine third-downs, that puts you at about 31, or so, give or take,” Whisenhunt explained.
“And then how many carries did we have yesterday, about 15? So it was about 50 percent run.
“I think what skewed it a little bit was certainly the two-minute situations. But that was a good run defense, too. That was the No. 1 run defense in the league. We did have some effectiveness running the football and we certainly want to continue to run it for sure.”
Let me simplify it for you, coach. 35 minus 16 equals 19, as in 19 more passes than runs, or putting the football into the air 69 percent of the time – and scoring seven points in the process.
If there is a saving grace for the Titans in all of this, it is that they reside in NFL slums known as the AFC South, where it looks like the first team to six wins this year is going to secure a playoff spot.
Only in this woeful division could a 1-5 record have a team just a game-and-a-half out of first place.
And there’s even better news on the horizon this week. One of the Titans’ AFC South brethren, the Houston Texans, are up next on the schedule and look even more dysfunctional than the Titans.
This is a bad matchup, so bad that if you call Vegas to put money on this one they should transfer your call to Gamblers Anonymous. You clearly have a problem.
The Texans are a grease fire. Not only are they not winning, they’ve already been behind by 40-plus points in two of their losses, including trailing 41-0 at the half Sunday at Miami.
Even after “Hard Knocks” left Houston two months ago, the Titans look like a reality show disaster.
Just this week, quarterback Ryan Mallett was released after losing the starting job, regaining and losing it again, then missing a team flight to South Beach.
A report from the Houston Chronicle said Coach Bill O’Brien, an ardent Mallett supporter, was done with Mallett on Sunday and wanted to cut the quarterback on the spot for missing the flight. He was overruled by GM Rick Smith.
O’Brien apparently got his way.
This latest episode in this Texas soap opera briefly upstages bigger disasters, such as the team losing running back Arian Foster for the year Sunday with a torn Achilles and the defense has been getting shredded, even with J.J. Watt in the lineup.
That should be good news for the Titans. But thus far this season, that hasn’t meant anything.
The Titans have, in fact, been the magical elixir for struggling teams.
Already this year, their inability to win games has been the right tonic for the Browns, Colts and Dolphins, who were each struggling with their own chaos entering their respective game with the Titans, only to cure their ails at Tennessee’s expense.
Will the Titans again be the healing ointment for another awful football team in desperation mode? Or is this finally the week that desperation smiles on win-needy Titans?
Five things to watch
1. The status of Marcus Mariota: The Titans erred on the side of caution last week, holding Mariota out to allow his sprained MCL to heal.
The question this week is whether he needs another week to heal or he’ll be able to give the offense a much-needed spark.
2. Will they run the football? The Titans showed Sunday they can run the football? The question is will they stick with it.
In Ken Whisenhunt’s 22-game tenure as head coach, no Titans back has run for 100 yards or more in a game.
But when you constantly rotate backs – and only run it about a third of the time – that isn’t going to happen.
You don’t have to go all Jeff Fisher in running the ball, but sometimes it’s OK to hand it off three or four times in a row.
3. The defense’s play. There is little doubt that Sunday’s performance against the Falcons was the best of the season for the Titans defense.
They held Julio Jones in check for the most part and picked off Matt Ryan twice, and did so with three-fourths of the starting secondary missing by the end of the game. The key now is to build on that, and it starts with stopping DeAndre Hopkins and their old buddy Nate Washington.
4. Check the offensive line. The Texans still have a formidable defensive line, even if they are struggling. J.J. Watt wreaked havoc on them last year, and Houston will probably try and find a favorable matchup for him to try and exploit.
The Titans may have injury issues. Taylor Lewan is operating at less than 100 percent with a pinched nerve in his left shoulder.
Rookie Andy Gallik is in the concussion protocol following his first start, making newcomer Jon Looney a possibility this week at center.
5. Bishop Sankey on a milk carton. The 2014 second-round pick has become a forgotten man on offense and a non-voting member in the Titans running back by committee. Sankey didn’t log a single carry vs. the Falcons and seems to be relegated to being used primarily on kickoff returns.
Three matchups to watch
Titans secondary vs. DeAndre Hopkins: Hopkins has been one of the Texans few weapons on offense this season and has produced at a high level. He already has 58 catches in seven games without the benefit of a consistent quarterback.
With Arian Foster on the shelf with an Achilles injury, more now rests on Hopkins’ shoulders as he becomes the Texans top playmaker. Still, he could find some room to work against an injury-riddled Titans secondary.
J.J. Watt vs. Taylor Lewan: The Texans may move Watt around, but there’s a good chance he will be going against Lewan at times.
This will be a good test for Lewan to go against the NFL’s premier pass rusher in Watt, who has to be ready to take the frustration of the Texans’ season out on someone. Last season, he lived in the Titans backfield in the two meetings. That has to stop on Sunday.
Brian Hoyer vs. Titans pass rush: The Titans have shown they can get to the quarterback, and there is no doubt they would love the chance at revenge against Hoyer who engineered a huge comeback a year ago against them when he was with the Browns.
The Texans have no other options, as Bill O’Brien appears done with irresponsible Ryan Mallett and, at present, there is no other QB on the Texans active roster.
Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com