It was bound to happen. After the Tennessee Titans opened the season with a 282-yard rushing effort at Jacksonville, other teams saw how effective the rushing attack could be with Chris Brown and LenDale White, so they set out to find ways to stop it.
Since that game, the Titans’ rushing effort has fallen each week, cut in half to 141 yards against Indianapolis, then 98 at New Orleans and last week 92 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Not surprisingly, in order to slow the Tennessee rushing attack, which currently ranks fourth in the league, teams have brought an extra man into the box, creeping a safety down to help stop the run.
“They’re stacking eight guys in the box against us and sometimes bringing a ninth guy in. That’s what happens. You kind of take it as a compliment because they respect your running game,” center Kevin Mawae said.
Sometimes the extra man in the box has come to serve as a spy on quarterback Vince Young to help control his running tendencies at times.
“It’s been consistent. We’re always going to see an extra guy around the line of scrimmage for run and contain purposes to contain Vince,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’re just encouraging him to go through his progressions and make good decisions.”
Last week, against Atlanta, Young suffered through a dreadful performance with three interceptions. And when White’s fumble was returned 56 yards by DeAngelo Hall for a touchdown, it made for a tough day for the Tennessee offense.
Despite the struggles, the run game is still the Titans’ staple, and White says the team must stick with it, despite the obvious obstacles that will await them this Sunday in Tampa Bay.
“We ran the ball like 22 times. Nothing against Norm or anybody on our team, I just think we should have kept running the ball,” White said. “They did a good job, but we probably got away from the game plan a little bit because we were fumbling the ball and threw a couple of picks and things like that. We just needed to find something to get our offense going. The Falcons did a great job, so hats off to them, but we’ve just got to stick to our game plan.”
It’s possible the Titans could find more running room this week against the Bucs, who are 22nd at stopping the run, giving up an average of 124 yards on the ground per game.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden acknowledges that with the rushing attack, combined with Young’s own rushing abilities, some defensive adjustments will have to be made.
“We’re going to have to, like everybody else, change to some degree when we play a team like Tennessee,” Gruden said. “They have a quarterback that is very talented. He’s a tremendous talent, not only throwing the football but he is capable of breaking some long runs off. They have some option element in their game that we have to defend. It will be a great challenge for us. We’ll have to make some adjustments to get off the field, something that we didn’t do well last week.”
What Young and the Titans will have to do is not only find running lanes, but take better advantage of the one-on-one passing matchups that they could find because of extra men in the box.
“Our running game is doing all right. We’ve just got to keep working at it, keep running the ball,” Young said. “You can’t run the ball when they’ve got almost the whole defense in the box. Our receivers are doing a good job downfield, and when it’s time for Chris Brown and LenDale to run the ball, they’re doing a good job as well.”
White says sometimes different offensive looks can be used to try and open the rushing lanes.
“Different things work against different sets. There are certain defenses where you can spread them out and run the ball. … You can run out of spread, run out of power, or run out of two tight ends,” White said.
But the best tonic for the running game is a complementary passing attack. Much like the old “Dare McNair” strategy teams employed against the Titans in Eddie George’s heyday as a running back, the Titans will have to make teams pay for selling out against the run.
“What we need to do is be able to take advantage of the times that they don’t have that many guys in the box, and when they do, be able to take advantage of the one-on-one matchups that our receivers get,” Mawae said. “I think last week was indicative of what they were going [to do], and we just didn’t make a lot of plays downfield like we should have. It’s going to be a challenge we’re going to face every week, because teams know we can run the ball.”
INJURIES: Wide receiver Brandon Jones (knee) and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (ankle) both sat out practice again on Thursday, but Fisher said he was hopeful both would be able to practice today.