Titans preview: Mirror image

The Vikings will likely see a lot of themselves when they meet the Titans this afternoon. They have a veteran quarterback, thunder and lighting at running back, a struggling passing game and a tough defense. We take a position-by-position look at the Vikings' opponent for Sunday.

From the moment the NFL schedules were released, the Vikings players and coaches knew that the first four-game stretch was going to be brutal. The Packers, Colts and Titans all made the playoffs in 2007 and if the Vikings were to hit the quarter-pole of the season with a 2-2 record, that would be viewed as a moral victory.

Despite a 0-2 start, the Vikings can still achieve that goal with a win today over the Tennessee Titans. But, at 3-0, the Titans will be far from a pushover. One of the most balanced teams in the league through the first three games, Tennessee has the league's 18th-rated offense and third-rated defense. They are a team capable of running the ball with a lot of efficiency, as well as shutting down opponents on the defensive side of the ball. Getting them to surrender will be virtually impossible and the Vikings will find themselves in for a dog fight from the opening whistle to the final gun.

The biggest change the Titans have undergone in the early part of the season is at quarterback. Vince Young has been sidelined with a knee injury and veteran Kerry Collins has taken his place. The Vikings have had some bad memories with Collins. After being effective early in his career with the Panthers, fans may remember that he was the quarterback with the Giants when they crushed the Vikings 41-0 to go to the Super Bowl. He still has a strong arm and can throw accurately – two assets that served him well when he filled in for Young last year and the Titans didn't miss a beat. His doesn't have much in the way of mobility, so it will be crucial for the Vikings, especially defensive ends Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, to get a pass rush on Collins that will force him to throw the ball before he wants to. If given enough time, Collins will pick the Vikings apart, so pressure is Priority One for the passing game. The Titans may have as much depth at QB as any team in the league after signing veteran Chris Simms to play behind Young and Collins, so even if something should happen to Collins before Young is ready to return, there is no hitting the panic button in Tennessee.

The Titans will look to minimize the amount of passing they do against the Vikings because, like Minnesota, their game plan is centered on a strong running game. Rookie Chris Johnson is making a strong case to be the Offensive Rookie of the Year. He and incumbent LenDale White have almost split their carries identically down the middle. Johnson has 50 carries for 276 yards (a 5.5-yard average), while White has 49 carries for 148 yards (a 3.0-yard average) and four touchdowns. Their styles couldn't be more opposite, but it is in keeping with the style used when White was the bruising back at USC and Reggie Bush was the big-play producer. White is a player who pounds the ball between the tackles, moves the chains and provides plays in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Despite being hampered by injuries in his first two seasons, he managed to rush for 1,110 yards last year and show he could be counted on in the offense. However, he was added to the injury report mid-week with an undisclosed shoulder injury, but he is listed as probable and is expected to play. Johnson, who surprised some scouts as a first-round pick out of small East Carolina, has displayed his value as a potential game-breaker in each of his first three games – leading the AFC in most yards from scrimmage (327) in his first three games as a pro. The emergence of Johnson has made 2007 second-round pick Chris Henry something of a forgotten man. A player blessed with good speed, he had problems following his blocks as a rookie and now is mired on the depth chart behind White and Johnson. The Titans fullback is Ahmard Hill, whose job is almost exclusively to block.

The biggest weakness of the Titans has been the same for the last several years – wide receiver. Over the previous three years, the Titans have lost Derrick Mason, Bobby Wade and Drew Bennett and never adequately replaced them. Through three games, their top wide receiver for receptions is former Bear Justin Gage with seven and their leading yardage wide receiver is former Jet Justin McCareins with 95 yards. Depth is thin behind them with oft-injured fourth-year man Brandon Jones, fourth-round rookie Lavelle Hawkins and first-year pro Chris Davis providing backup help. After facing multiple threats at wide receiver from Green Bay, Indianapolis and Carolina in the first three games, this nondescript group looks like one capable of being dominated by the Vikings. With offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger back after the firing of Norman Chow, the Titans pass offense has returned to the style that he incorporated – plenty of passing to the tight ends. Bo Scaife is the team's leading receiver and former Atlanta All-Pro Alge Crumpler has been added to give the offense some punch. If the Vikings are going to give up key pass plays to the Titans, it is likely that it will come from Scaife and Crumpler more than from the wide receivers, so it will be incumbent on the linebackers of the Vikings to shut them down.

Up front, the Titans are extremely young on the line – with the notable exception of 14-year center Kevin Mawae, who was a foundation of the Jets O-line for years. He is flanked by a pair of fourth-year guards in Eugene Amano and former Colt Jake Scott and their starting tackles are even younger – left tackle Michael Roos is in his third year and right tackle David Stewart is in his second. Both Amano and Scott are in their first years as full-time starters with the Titans after Benji Olson retired and Jacob Bell left via free agency. They're still going through the learning curve of playing in between new teammates and this could be taken advantage of by the Williams Wall. Roos has the speed and agility to handle power rushers like Jared Allen and Stewart is a mauler who is best suited as a run blocker. With the general lack of experience, big plays could be created by the Vikings against this group. Depth is very thin with first-year man Leroy Harris as the top backup at the center and both guard positions and second-year pro David Loper set as the primary backup at both tackle spots. If any of the starters get injured, the dropoff could be pronounced.

While the Titans may have what is viewed as a non-descript offense, they made the playoffs last year on the backs of their defense, which is currently rated third in the NFL. As with most successful defenses, it all begins up front and the Titans have one of the best front fours in the league. In the middle of it all is sixth-year man Albert Haynesworth. He is to the Tennessee defense what Kevin Williams is to the Vikings. He can collapse the pocket and get after the quarterback and is very strong in the running game. He will be a handful for Matt Birk and the Vikings guards. He is flanked by third-year pro Tony Brown, who replaces Randy Starks (now with Miami) at the other tackle spot. On the outside, the Titans have big-time playmakers on both sides. Kyle Vanden Bosch made the Pro Bowl after registering 12 sacks last year and, after spending four years in Philadelphia, Jevon Kearse returns to the Titans at left end. Both have explosion off the snap and can meet at the quarterback. They will be a tall order for Artis Hicks and Ryan Cook to slow down. Again, depth is thin along the line, so it will be vital for the starters to stay healthy because there isn't much in the way of quality backup help available.

The linebackers for the Titans don't get the kind of recognition they deserve, but they can be dominant. They are blessed with two incredible athletes on the outside in David Thornton and Keith Bulluck. Bulluck has been a defensive standout since he joined the Titans, but Thornton, who came over from division rival Indianapolis last year, has developed into a big-time playmaker. Ryan Fowler was lined up in the middle and was off to a strong start last year before a shoulder injury derailed his season, but second-year pro Stephen Tulloch will unseat Fowler for the starting spot in this game. Tulloch saw a lot of action as a rookie when Fowler went down and the starting job could be his beyond this week. Fifth-year pro Josh Stamer is the top backup on the outside. That being said, the Titans pride themselves on having three-down linebackers, so don't expect the starters to get much of a breather.

Many believed the Titans would have a letdown in the secondary when the team, fed up with the off-field distractions of Adam "Pacman" Jones, traded him to the Cowboys for magic beans. For years, the secondary has been viewed as a weakness of the Tennessee defense, but now it has emerged as a strength. Cornerbacks Nick Harper and Cortland Finnegan have emerged as physical playmakers that can jam receivers at the line, as well as make big plays downfield. Harper has been slowed in practice with a thigh injury but is expected to be ready for today's game. At safety is veteran Chris Hope, who was brought over from Pittsburgh and missed most of the 2007 season with a neck injury that required surgery. He is now healthy and provides a veteran leader in the secondary. He is teamed with second-year man Michael Griffin, who has sideline-to-sideline range and can deliver a big hit. Those who follow the Titans say he is a star on the rise that could become one of the top free safeties in the league as he matures and learns the ins and outs of the NFL game. Depth is good with former Raider Chris Carr at nickel back and 2007 Titans nickel back Vincent Fuller providing backup help at safety this year. What once was a weakness has transformed into a strength for the Titans.

The specialists are also exceptional with kicker Rob Bironas and punter Craig Hentrich. Bironas went to the Pro Bowl last year and was as accurate as any kicker in the league. Hentrich is aging in his 15th season, but is a specialist at pinning opponents inside the 20 with expertly angled punts.

In many ways, to look at the Titans is to look at a mirror image of the Vikings. Both have a veteran quarterback at the helm, a strong running game, an underachieving receiver corps, a dominating defensive front and a playmaking back seven of the defense. When two teams come into a game as identical in so many respects as these two, the chances for a low-scoring, tightly-contested game seems almost inevitable. Neither team will have a distinct advantage so it will come down to which team makes the big plays at the critical times. Neither team will blow the other out, which should make this a potential nail-biter from start to finish and potentially one of the better games on the Week 4 NFL slate.


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