Total Titans approached us about collaborating with their site to preview Sunday's game by exchanging some questions and having a writer from each site provide insight on their respective teams. Below are my questions to Tom Gower and his answers; Tom writes for TT and also contributes to Football Outsiders, and we appreciate his time and effort. In turn, I answered some questions from Tom which have been posted here.
Ted - Would you say that the schemes of the Titans have changed significantly with the new coaching regime in place, and if so, how?
Tom - In the run game, I haven't seen much of a change. In the passing game, the wide receivers are having to do much more reading of the defense and route adjustments than were apparent in Mike Heimderdinger's offense, where they pretty much had to run the route of the play as it was called. As you might expect from a wide receiving corps that doesn't have a lot of experience, that's been a work in progress. Matt Hasselbeck is also a much different quarterback than Kerry Collins and Vince Young. Particularly with Young, the Titans were a downfield passing team (they led the league last year in frequency and success rate of passes 21-30 yards downfield). Hasselbeck doesn't have the arm to threaten defensive vertically like that, but is a much more precise thrower on short and intermediate passes, which he used to great effect in picking apart the Ravens' zones last week.
Defensively, there's a much bigger premium on larger defensive linemen. Under departed defensive line coach Jim Washburn, now with the Eagles, the Titans had one of the league's lighter and quicker defensive lines and notably lined up their defensive ends frequently in a wide-9 technique. New defensive coordinator Jerry Gray has them lining up mostly in a more conventional 7-technique on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles, though they lined up some at wide-9 last week to take advantage of the Ravens' offensive tackles. The defensive tackle rotation looks a lot different, as the Titans added widebodies Shaun Smith from the Chiefs and Jurrell Casey in the draft and last year's defensive tackles Jason Jones, Sen'Derrick Marks, and Malcolm Sheppard have played as much or more end than defensive tackle thus far. The Titans also added size at linebacker by drafting Akeem Ayers, their first true Sam linebacker in the better part of a decade.
Ted - Have you noticed anything in the gameday coaching character of Mike Munchak in the small six-game (four preseason) sample that is of interest? (eg. tendency to go on fourth down, or liberally/conservatively challenge plays)
Tom - Munchak earned a lot of plaudits for going for it last week on fourth and one from the Ravens 10 in a 10-10 game in the third quarter, when a normally conventional Jeff Fisher would have kicked a field goal. He passed up a couple opportunities to call timeouts and run the two-minute drill on offense, which may have just been it wasn't what they wanted to work on. The offense had a couple particularly leisurely fourth-quarter possessions against the Jaguars while trailing, which probably indicates more the parts aren't all on the same page yet than any sort of coaching philosophy.
Ted - Who are some Titans players who fly under the national radar but who are deserving of wider attention?
Tom - Last year's first-round pick, defensive end Derrick Morgan, had a strong game against the Ravens in his season debut after missing most of last year with a knee injury. He's a left defensive end, and I don't think he has the initial quickness or closing speed to be a great NFL edge rusher, but is a stouter defensive end against the run than the Titans have featured in the past and gave Ravens right tackle Michael Oher trouble at times with his bull rush.
Offensively, Nate Washington was a disappointment the past two years as a starter after a big free agency signing, but he's played a prominent role in the gameplan the first two games. They've lining him up primarily in the slot working against the nickel and dime defenders and linebackers. I'm not sure they'll attack the Broncos the same way, but even if they don't, I expect him to play a big role as he's the only real veteran receiver on the team and seems to be the one who's picked up the new scheme fastest.
Ted - In light of the Broncos' extreme focus on setting the edge against Chris Johnson in 2010 and their success in limiting his overall productivity by successfully doing so, I'm wondering what you expect the Titans to try to do to get him loose in other ways.
Tom - The Titans seem to have pinned their hopes for better productivity for Chris Johnson this year on improved play by the offensive line, especially LG Leroy Harris, C Eugene Amano, and RG Jake Scott on the interior in their second year of working together, but Scott has continued to struggle and Harris has continued to struggle to get off his initial block to get to the linebacker. They did add Daniel Graham in free agency, so between him and Craig Stevens they now have two tight ends who aren't terrible blockers, but it doesn't seem to have helped. We'll see if they come up with any new wrinkles this week, but frankly I'm not expecting much.
Ted - Do you think the Week 1 Titans or the Week 2 Titans are closer to the consistent 2011 product?
Tom - I came into the year with very low expectations and thought they'd finish about 5-11. The Week 1 performance was about what I was expecting, and I still think they'll end around there on the year. I think the Week 2 game said as much or more about the Ravens than it did about the Titans, namely some injury issues in the secondary giving the Titans better opportunities and Joe Flacco's inability or unwillingness to identify receivers and throw them the ball against the Titans' underneath zones.