When the Vikings look across the field at the Tennessee Titans, they're seeing a mirror image of themselves — a team that entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations and now faces the harsh reality of likely being on the outside of the playoff dance looking in.
The Titans, like the Vikings, created an early hole for themselves, dropping their first three games and facing an uphill fight from that point on — a battle they are finding impossible to completely dig out of. Similar to the Vikings, injuries have played a significant role in the fall of the Titans.
A couple years ago when the Titans went to the Super Bowl, Steve McNair was being hailed as the next big thing in NFL quarterbacks. Since then, he's been hailed as what's wrong with NFL quarterbacks. McNair gets injured far too often, and there are some that think his shoulder woes aren't going to get any better over time. His passing numbers are weak — averaging one touchdown pass a game and less than 190 yards — and his former strength of rushing the ball has been limited by injury. Fortunately, the Titans have veteran Neil O'Donnell as a capable backup.
The same isn't true at running back. Eddie George is a warrior, at times to a fault. He has never missed a game in his pro career, but some experts believe that, like Cal Ripken, his streak has hurt the team. George has battled knee, ankle and foot injuries all season, and his rushing numbers are hideous — less than 3 yards a carry — as he has refused to be sidelined. The absence of fullback Lorenzo Neal, who was allowed to leave via free agency, is seen as a factor, because the two-tight end system used by the Titans just isn't working. Former Redskin Skip Hicks waits in the wings, but the running game is George's and isn't really going anywhere.
The Titans' passing game has been a malaise of underachieving receivers. Tight end Frank Wycheck has led Tennessee in receiving every year for the last five and, despite injuries, is on pace to do it again. Derrick Mason has emerged over the last two seasons as the main receiver after failures with free-agent veterans Yancey Thigpen and Carl Pickens, but 2001 has marked the long-awaited emergence of Kevin Dyson, who was the only wide receiver taken in the 1998 draft ahead of Randy Moss. Dyson leads the Titans in touchdowns and is the primary deep threat. Veteran Chris Sanders also fits in the mix, but the Titans have a collection of rookies seeing significant backup time, which is why the Tennessee offense has sputtered most of the season.
Along the offensive front, the Titans have been forced to move ageless veteran Bruce Matthews back to center after an injury to starter Kevin Long, plugging Zach Piller in at left guard, joining guard Benji Olson and tackles Fred Miller and Brad Hopkins. While the unit hasn't been a bust, it hasn't opened the holes for George that it had in recent years or protected McNair, who has been sacked an average of three times a game.
Even when the Titans were successful, their offense wasn't among the league's best. But this season it's been a defensive letdown that has hurt the team. Through their first 10 games, seven teams put up 24 or more points — something not one team did in 2000.
The problems runs deep and throughout, but it begins up front. Jevon Kearse remains an impact player, averaging about a sack a game, but the rest of the line — tackles Jason Fisk and Josh Evans and left end Kevin Carter — have struggled. The front four hasn't pressured passers enough, allowing teams to average more than 250 yards passing a game, which is pathetic considering those passers include Jay Fiedler, Elvis Grbac twice, Charlie Batch, Kordell Stewart twice, Tim Couch and Jon Kitna — none of whom are anywhere close to the league lead in passing numbers.
At the linebackers, the trio of Greg Favors, Randall Godfrey and Eddie Robinson has been a mirror of the defense as a whole — capable of stopping the run but struggling against the pass. The three of them provide the Titans with one of the best LB groups in the league, along with backup Keith Bulluck, who would start for many teams.
But as the defensive line has struggled, it has had a ripple effect through the defense. Nowhere has that been felt more than in the secondary. Samari Rolle had a preseason holdout that netted a huge contract, but injuries and attrition have brought this once-powerful unit to its knees. Rookie Andre Dyson has been pushed into the starting lineup because of injuries to starter Donald Mitchell, and either safety Daryl Porter or Aric Morris has been forced on the field to join safety Blaine Bishop because of injuries that have sidelined Perry Phenix. To top that off, both Rolle and Bishop have played most of the season with serious leg injuries that have allowed teams to beat them over the top — something the Vikings will surely try to do.
No team can empathize with the Vikings' 2001 struggles as much as the Titans can. With a team that is two years removed from a Super Bowl, they're likely on the outs for the playoffs and have gone from a team looking forward to a January run to the catch phrase of, "Remember the Titans?" VU
FREAK vs. FREAK — While they will have little to do with each other, how often does a game feature two players with the nickname "The Freak?" Randy Moss and Jevon Kearse would have been teammates if several former Vikings coaches had their way, instead of Daunte Culpepper and Moss, but nobody is complaining now.
Nothing makes returning from an injury worse than having to face a Freak, and both teams will have to get that done to win. Brad Badger is coming off a toe injury and, in his first full game back, draws the assignment of stopping pass-rusher Kearse, who will have Culpepper in his sites all day.
Meanwhile, the other Freak, Randy Moss, is likely to draw a lot of man coverage from Samari Rolle, who has been having a down year thanks to injuries, which is one of the reasons why teams have been passing at will on the Titans. Look for both Freaks to try to out-Freak one another and, whichever has the bigger impact will likely determine which Freak Show wins the game. VU
Titans-Vikes Similar Teams in 2001
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