The Vikings will close out their preseason schedule against the Tennessee Titans, another former powerhouse looking for a comeback in 2002. After falling to 7-9 last season, including a hammering at the Metrodome by the Vikings, the Titans are in a new division with a new outlook – but a very familiar squad.
The Titans have spent several years concerned about the health of QB Steve McNair. Once again, he isn't expected to play tonight. He has missed at least one start each of the last three years and suffered through shoulder injuries the last two seasons. No longer a scrambler first, he has become a complete passer and, if he should get injured, the Titans don't miss a beat. Former starter Neil O'Donnell, who can bring a precision timing game to the contest, serves as McNair's backup and will likely make the start tonight.
The big unanswered question for the Titans this season is whether Eddie George is back at 100 percent. Despite playing all year last season, George had injuries to his foot, ankle, knee, hamstring, hip and shoulder. He showed guttiness playing through the injuries, but they took a toll — sending him to career lows in attempts and yards. He also is questionable tonight.
George's injuries forced the Titans to look for depth, so they signed Robert Holcombe and Greg Comella. Last year, the Titans were without a fullback. Comella gives them one of the game's best and, if George should be banged up, Holcombe, a former Ram, has showed he can carry the mail when asked – but when you play with Marshall Faulk, you don't get asked often. These three players will be the keys to restoring the running game in Tennessee.
The difference between the Titans of 2001 and previous years was, with George injured, the receiving corps had to step up. After a couple of years of dragging in veterans with no tread left on the tire, the Titans have gone with youth. Starters Derrick Mason and Kevin Dyson (the only WR taken in the draft ahead of Randy Moss in 1998) have become solid go-to targets, but depth is razor thin. Justin McCareins, Drew Bennett and Darrell Hill have a combined two years of experience and two NFL starts. Keeping the starters healthy is key.
At tight end, the depth is good, with former Pro Bowler Frank Wycheck and emerging Erron Kinney forming a veteran 1-2 punch, and second-year man Shad Meier looking to be the TE of the future.
The Titans are undergoing an overhaul that hurt the team last year on the offensive line. With veteran Bruce Matthews finally gone, Jeff Smith moves to center and will compete with Gennaro DiNapoli for the starting spot. Whichever center starts will be flanked by guards Zach Piller and Benji Olson and tackles Brad Hopkins and Fred Miller. The group has a good veteran-youth mix, but depth is extremely thin, with rookie Justin Hartwig as the top backup guard and former Gopher Adam Haayer, who has never played an NFL game, as the top tackle backup.
With an inconsistent offense last year, Tennessee's defense suffered. The Titans allowed 23 or more points in 10 games – too many for most teams to be consistent winners. The Titans are hoping for huge things on the defensive front and have the horses to do it.
On the ends, there are All-Pros in Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter. On the inside is where the questions are. Defensive tackle John Thornton is coming off of major shoulder surgery, and rookie Albert Haynesworth has already been sidelined with ankle problems. The concerns on their health have given players like veterans Henry Ford and Joe Salave'a a chance to show their worth to the team. On the outside, rookies Saul Patu and Carlos Hall both have a decent shot to make the team because of depth issues.
While the linebackers of the Titans are an anonymous group that doesn't get a lot of national attention, it could be the best unit of the Tennessee defense. Randall Godfrey patrols the middle with a vengeance but was slowed with injuries last year and needs to be 100 percent for the defense to click. On the outside, the Titans (like the Vikings) need to replace both starters. Greg Favors and Eddie Robinson are both gone, and third-year men Keith Bulluck and Peter Sirmon are both being thrust into starting roles. If any of the LBs struggle, however, depth has been addressed. Third-year man Frank Chamberlain lays in wait behind Godfrey, and rookies Rocky Calmus and Rocky Boiman have been solid in minicamps and training sessions and could try to make a case to earn a starting spot. With a young group, they will make mistakes, but the system and their aggression will likely play in their favor.
In the secondary, more changes are underway. Samari Rolle is one of the best cover corners in the league, and Andre Dyson is an aggressive speedster who worked his way into the starting lineup a month into the season last year and never gave it up. Veterans Dainon Sidney and Donald Mitchell give the Titans a pair of backups with starting experience and the luxury of depth.
The safety spot, however, is in overhaul mode. While holdovers Aric Morris, who started 10 games last year, and Bobby Myers remain, starter Blaine Bishop is gone and the starting spot is up for grabs. Lance Schulters was brought in to start at free safety, and rookie Tank Williams is challenging Morris for the starting job at strong safety. That job may not be decided until after the Vikings game.
For the home finale of the preseason, the Titans will be a great test for the Vikings. Last year, Todd Bouman lit up the Titans for 42 points. While the same isn't expected, both teams have reason to play with some emotion Friday.
Eddie George — It would have been natural to say that the matchup to watch would be Daunte Culpepper vs. Jevon Kearse, since the Vikings went for Culpepper and the future instead of Kearse and the present following a 15-1 season in 1998. However, Kearse won't be playing against the Vikings because of an injury, so the matchup could change from the Vikings offense to the Vikings defense … if Eddie George plays.
He, too, is questionable with injury.
If George does make the start, the biggest matchup would be the Vikings defensive front vs. Eddie George. All offseason, Mike Tice and defensive coordinator Willie Shaw have stressed that the Vikings' free-agent and draft signings on defense have been two-fold — to bring speed to the defense and stop the run. No player will be a better barometer to how far the Vikings have come to achieving that goal than George.
Last year, George posted career-worst numbers because of multiple injuries ranging from turf toe to sprained ankles to hip pointers to shoulder problems. This year, he has vowed to return to the George of old, and coach Jeff Fisher has promised to give him more rushing opportunities than usual in the preseason to assure that he is back and 100 percent.
Last week vs. Oakland, George looked like his old self, rushing with authority and playing like the All-Pro he has been for years. With the Titans expected to give him a full half of work vs. the Vikings, his role in the offense will be accentuated, and the Vikings will have to rise to the occasion to stuff George and force Tennessee to be a passing offense.
Titans Bring Banged-Up Offense
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