Can McNair go downfield against the Pittsburgh Steelers? Sure he can. Will the Tennessee Titans spread the field and try to exploit the defensive weakness of the Steelers? They did it the last time around.
"I mean they spread us out last time if you remember," Cowher recalled. "So I can't imagine them deviating too far from it, based on the success they had, based on the success that Cleveland had last week; so I still think they're going to try to run the football."
Cowher's comment about the Titans still trying to run the ball might seem a strange way to sum up his thought about them utilizing the spread, but if you look at what the Titans did during the regular season, it makes perfect sense.
First, we must consider the Titans' main advantage going into this playoff game. Tennessee is rested, much more than the Steelers. Furthermore, the NFL exacerbated this problem by pandering to TV market concerns. Who wants to watch the battle of Appalachia? Do they have television there? The Titans tired out the Steelers defense in the last match up and the result was a number of missed tackles. The Titans held on to the ball 13 more minutes than the Steelers did, thanks to 40 rushing attempts and just 33 passing attempts. Why deviate from that now?
Cowher doesn't expect the Titans to deviate from this game plan. Tennessee will probably try to hit a few big plays early on and then revert to their run-first philosophy. Unless the Titans fall behind by 10 points or more, don't expect Steve McNair to attempt the 43 passes that Kelly Holcomb tried against the Steelers.
Take a look at the number of passing attempts by McNair in each of his 16 regular season games: 34, 38, 23, 46, 39, 36, 27, 19, 21, 33, 43, 43, 23, 24, 21, and 22.
The Titans have thrown over 40 passes only three times this season. What is their record in those three games? It is 1-2.
The Titans record in terms of number of passing attempts:
During the Titans 1-4 start, McNair attempted about 36 passes per game. In their impressive 10-1 finish, he attempted about 30 passes per game. McNair and the Titans are at their best when throwing less than 30 times, not when they attempt as many passes as Holcomb did.
As Cowher stated, the Titans will try to run the ball. During the regular season, Tennessee averaged 32 rushes per game (4th in the NFL) and 31 passes per game (23rd in the NFL). Tennessee is not going to suddenly decide to mimic Tom Brady and Rich Gannon and stray from what has proven successful for them, particularly when this formula was good enough to beat the Steelers the first time around.
McNair is difficult to sack and he protects the ball well. Opposing defenses have a tough time coming up with big plays against Tennessee. On the other hand, the Titans defense generates plenty of turnovers and big stops. Since the 1-4 start, this unit has allowed about 15 points per game.
Jeff Fisher does not have Tommy Maddox and the Steelers receiving corps. He still subscribes to a ball control offense, spirited special teams, and a defense that is supposed to win the game. This defense does not believe Maddox can beat them.
Statistically, the Titans defense looks quite similar to the Steelers. The opposition has struggled to run the ball and taken to the air, where they have found some success. Tennessee's pass defense ranks down there with Pittsburgh's. The mismatch is that the Titans are better at controlling the football and keeping the opposing offense off the field.
Are the Titans going to spread and chuck, thereby giving Maddox more snaps?
The answer is likely no.
"We didn't tackle very well in that football game," Cowher said about the loss to the Titans."
Cowher is doing more than expressing his disappointment. He is explaining the key to the upcoming playoff game. If the Steelers tackle well, the Titans will have trouble sustaining the long drives they thrive on. They need to hold McNair in check, on the ground.
The other issue is Maddox and his propensity for interceptions. Ideally, the Steelers will have better success running the ball this time around. They can help their defense rest, after the short week, by beating the Titans at their own game. They can also accomplish this by getting an early lead and not turning the ball over.
The Steelers are not interested in a shootout either. They would like to see a Maddox line like he had against Tampa Bay: 17 for 23, 236 yards, 1 TD, and NO interceptions.
The Titans are built better for such a task, but the Steelers could easily turn the tables. There is not likely to be an aerial show. In fact, that would be to the Steelers' advantage. What the Titans would prefer is a close and physical game that comes down to the 4th quarter. At this point, the better-rested team has the big edge. Of course, as Steeler fans well know, anything can happen if you let a team hang around long enough.