With the Vikings home from the Big Easy, they now square off against the Big Hard — the Tennessee Titans. On the brink of season extinction with a 1-3 record, the Titans shredded the Green Bay Packers on both sides of the ball two weeks ago. Sunday, their intention will be to do the same to the Metrodome mystique as they did to the Lambeau legend.
With the Titans, the team starts around Steve McNair. There may not be a tougher quarterback in the league, but injuries have taken a toll over the last few years. Being unable to practice much of the last two seasons, McNair has missed time with a sternum injury. When he's in, he makes things happen and earned his co-MVP award last year. He can beat you with deep passes, short passes and his mobility.
While McNair is the centerpiece of the offense, the engine is clearly being run by second-year running back Chris Brown. Tabbed to replace Eddie George, Brown has averaged more than 100 yards a game and has three games with 100 yards by halftime. He is an upright runner who can bounce plays outside and take carries the distance from anywhere on the field. He's joined by veterans Antowain Smith and Robert Holcombe, who are asked to grind out some of the tough short-yardage plays, but Brown is the most dangerous offensive player on the Titans roster.
Perhaps the most unheralded group on the team is the receiver corps. Derrick Mason has quietly become a top wide receiver and is on pace for another 90-catch, 1,200-yard season. While the No. 2 position has been a revolving door with the trade of Justin McCareins, Drew Bennett has stepped up into the role and taken charge as the No. 2 receiver this year. Averaging more than five catches a game and 60 yards, he has become a valued addition to the offense. The team took a step back with wide receiver Tyrone Calico out for the year and tight end Erron Kinney limited by injuries, which opened the door for Eddie Berlin to move into the No. 3 receiver spot and Shad Meier and rookie Ben Troupe to man the tight end position. While those players aren't household names, they are capable of getting the job done.
The offensive line remains intact with one exception. Rookie guard Jacob Bell, a fifth-round pick, has stepped in as a starter at left guard, joining tackles Brad Hopkins and Fred Miller, center Justin Hartwig and guard Benji Olson to give the Titans a solid wall for Brown. The returning four started all 16 games last year, and with the dual assignment of protecting McNair and opening holes for Brown, they have done more than a competent job — the offense is averaging more than 200 yards a game passing and 150 a game rushing.
The problems for this edition of the Titans have been on defense. After losing star linemen Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith to free agency, there were holes that needed filling. The Titans have succeeded in that regard, but the defense isn't playing dominant enough to win low-scoring games. The replacements haven't been stiffs, however, as rookie Antwan Odom and first-year full-time starter Carlos Hall have joined incumbent tackles Kevin Carter and Albert Haynesworth. They create a formidable defensive front, but not one that was as explosive as it was with Kearse and Smith. If Daunte Culpepper is given time, that drop in experience could be critical.
Injuries have taken a toll elsewhere, as well — perhaps no place as heavily as linebacker. Peter Sirmon and Rocky Calmus were both playmaking starters, teaming with Keith Bulluck to be the strength of the defense. But, both Sirmon and Calmus have been lost for part or all of the season. In their place, third-year pro Brad Kassell, an undrafted free agent, is seeing time at middle linebacker and Rocky Boiman, also in his third NFL season, steps in on the outside. What was viewed as a strength entering the season has become a weakness, and the Titans now need to protect their linebackers, not exploit them.
In the secondary, safety Lance Schulters has joined the record-setting MASH list of players MIA with injury, but the Titans still have the depth to make up for it. At cornerback, Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson are both extremely productive playmakers. Even nickel back Andre Woolfolk would start for a lot of teams, giving the Titans depth to handle three-receiver sets. At safety, Tank Williams is a budding star in this league, and Lamont Thompson is a versatile player who can play both safety spots equally well if the situation calls for it. After facing the secondaries of Houston and New Orleans, Culpepper may find things much different when his receivers line up opposite these guys.
They say in the NFL the most dangerous teams are good ones in danger of having their seasons ended early. The Titans dug themselves an early hole and have been struggling to get to .500 or above since. There is desperation, and a loss to the Vikings could be another early nail in their 2004 coffin. Expect to see the best Tennessee can bring. There's no wiggle room anymore in the tough AFC South, so if the Vikings are to win, it will have to be with near-flawless execution. The Titans proved they could whip the Packers at Lambeau. The Vikings will have to bring their top game to prevent the same from happening at the Metrodome.
MORTEN ANDERSEN vs. GARY ANDERSON — The fortunes of both the Vikings and Titans have been interlocked due to problems with kickers. While there are several viable matchups for this category, if for no other reason than sheer history, the meeting of legendary kickers Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson is this week's matchup to watch.
For years, Anderson set percentage records for made field goals with the Vikings. But, in 2002, head coach Mike Tice decided he wouldn't use two roster spots for kickers. With Mitch Berger gone as the kickoff option, Tice went with Doug Brien and, regrettably, lost games because of it. Anderson was called out of retirement and came back to bail out his old team — including a 53-yard game-winner over Miami that killed the Dolphins' playoff hopes.
Again last year, Tice felt he had his man in Aaron Elling. He stuck with him the entire season. Why? His safety valve was gone. Anderson got called out of retirement again — this time by the Titans, who had lost Joe Nedney for the season.
But, as the 2004 season began, both Anderson and Andersen were out of work. Anderson was back in retirement, and Andersen had just been cut by the Chiefs. Enter fate once again. Nedney was injured yet again and Anderson got the call. Elling couldn't make a field goal on a bet so Tice brought in Andersen.
The wild card in this bizarre matchup is Elling, whose only field goal attempts this season have come for — who else — the Titans. He made one of two field goals in the opener and was replaced by Anderson — after being cut in favor of Andersen. Confused?
Both Anderson and Andersen will extend their shared NFL record of playing 344 NFL games (if both stay healthy, Andersen will re-take the record by himself when the Titans have their bye week). On the field will be two kicking legends and potential Hall of Famers. It will (likely) be the only chance for fans to ever see the two players with the most NFL experience on the same field playing in the same game. And, as close as this game is expected to be, it easily could be decided by one of their middle-aged feet.
Tennessee Hobbles Into Metrodome
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