Football Mythbusters: Titans, Steelers Should Both be Disappointed

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Football Mythbusters: Titans, Steelers Should Both be Disappointed
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MYTH:  "It was a 15-round, old-school Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight that went the distance" (Keith Bulluck, regarding the Titans’ 13-10 overtime loss to the Steelers in the season opener)

FACTS:  It was anything but.  Though it is easy to say both teams played great and were evenly matched, the game was so low-scoring and close only because of mistakes by both teams.

Though the Steelers won, they have no reason to be excited about this victory.  The loss of Troy Polamalu is reason enough for the Steelers to be unhappy about the game.  On top of that, the Super Bowl Champions did not appear remotely super.

On offense, their running game was nonexistent.  On paper, the Steelers should be expected to run the ball much better than they did last year with the return of a healthy Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall.  On the field, the Steelers ran the ball even more ineffectively than they did last year. 

Instead of using Mendenhall in a complementary role to Parker’s outside speed, the Steelers used Parker as an every-down back, and the results weren’t pretty: 19 yards on 13 carries.

Though the Steelers’ touchdown drive at the end of the second quarter made the Steelers’ passing offense look excellent, the “great” plays have to be taken in context.

Instead of pressuring Roethlisberger with an additional rusher or two, which worked to near perfection the few times the Titans actually did so, the Titans only rushed with their four defensive linemen.

The rest of the Titans’ defense went into a zone defense that was spread really widely.  These miscues in defensive play-calling gave Roethlisberger plenty of time to penetrate the spread-apart zone defense with pump fakes that the safeties fell for twice in a row.

Despite his numbers, Roethlisberger was less than stellar as a passer.  He is constantly praised for his ability to extend the play by scrambling around in the pocket.  Without a doubt, it is absolutely amazing when Roethlisberger makes a play like that. 

However, for every play like that, there are usually four to five where Roethlisberger holds onto the ball too long, trying to make a play, and instead gets sacked or turns the ball over. 

That lack of consistency makes it hard for me to buy into the idea of him as a quarterback on the level of Brady, Manning, or even Drew Brees.

Though he was incredible in spurts on Thursday night, he had some major ups and downs.  Had he displayed more consistency, this game wouldn’t have even been close.

On defense, the Steelers allowed one long run by Chris Johnson (and this was before Polamalu left the game), but otherwise did an effective job against the run.  Once again, this was the Titans’ fault.

LenDale White and Chris Johnson form the best running back tandem in the league.  With White’s brute power and Johnson’s breakaway speed, the two of them earned the nickname “Smash and Dash” as they gave defensive coordinators headaches all year.

This formula led the Titans to a league-best 13-3 record in 2008, but the Titans did not employ it against the Steelers, instead using Johnson as the primary back and only giving White eight carries. 

Unfortunately, the Titans didn’t Dash too well without any Smash to help out.  Johnson himself only got 16 carries, too, though.

It’s this simple: when White and Johnson get the ball, the Titans win.  When they don’t, the Titans lose. 

This held true even throughout the pre-season of Johnson’s rookie season.  The Titans went 3-1 in the pre-season, losing badly to the Falcons by a score of 17-3.  Lendale White sat that game out with an injury.

When the Titans started off 10-0, their dreams of an undefeated season came to an end at the hands of the New York Jets

At the beginning of the game, the Titans benched Lendale White for getting into an argument with running backs coach Earnest Byner after a fumble.

The Titans lost 34-13.  Twice is a coincidence.  After it happened a third time against the Steelers, you can only hope the Titans will see the pattern.

It should be noted that the trend works in reverse, too.  In the playoff loss to Baltimore, the Titans were dominating on the ground until Chris Johnson left the game with an ankle injury.  Afterwards, the offense sputtered and the Titans lost 13-10 to the Ravens. 

All off-season long, the Titans tried to downplay the loss of Albert Haynesworth, saying they were confident in their rotation at defensive tackle.  However, the Titans were unable to get anywhere near the pass rush they had in 2008 without Haynesworth.  This had almost a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense, giving the Steelers’ receivers more time to get open.

As I mentioned before, on a few occasions, the Titans did bring additional rushers, getting excellent pressure on Roethlisberger and preventing him from making plays. 

Had the Titans’ coaching staff recognized and adapted to their inability to pressure Roethlisberger with only their defensive line, the team would’ve had a much better chance of winning the game.

Because Jeff Fisher is my absolute favorite coach in the league, I really hate to say this, but the Titans lost the opener because they were outcoached, and failed to adapt their strategies on offense and defense. 

Had the defense rushed more men, and had the offense revolved more around the Smash and Dash duo, we’d be discussing a completely different ball game.

 

Side Notes

Jay Cutler’s debut in Chicago was disastrous.  Though he had a few nice moments, all in all, he was skittish and sloppy.  It was a very disappointing start for Cutler. 

Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, definitely made his case as the NFC North’s best starting quarterback, despite being pressured all day long by Bears DE Adewale Ogunleye. 

Ogunlye was phenomenally explosive off the line of scrimmage and dominated the entire game.  The Packers tried chipping him with backs and tight ends, but it didn’t make a difference. 

Rodgers did an excellent job considering his complete lack of time in the pocket, and delivered nicely on the game-winning touchdown. Rodgers definitely benefited greatly from learning behind Brett Favre for a few years.

Matthew Stafford played like he needed to sit back and learn, too. Three interceptions aren’t a great way to start your career.  Then again, Drew Brees had a rough start in San Diego, but eventually became one of today’s best quarterbacks.  He threw for an impressive six touchdowns against the Lions.

Speaking of quarterbacks who benefited from sitting on the bench as a rookie, Phillip Rivers led the Chargers to a game-winning touchdown against the Raiders in a matchup that was apparently a lot more even than I thought it would be. 

The Raiders showed some fight at the end of last season, including their season finale where they ruined Tampa’s playoff hopes. 

It seems like this has carried across to the 2009 season.  The Raiders didn’t get the win, but they showed some real signs of life.  They had better hope they can show some signs of life against the brutal NFC East, the AFC West’s inter-conference opponents.

Another AFC West team that surprised me was Kansas City.  Despite not having QB Matt Cassell, their offense was impressive against the defensively sound Ravens. 

Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be better able to tell if that is thanks to the Chiefs’ addition of former Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley, or if it is due to the Ravens’ off-season loss of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan

Additionally, quite a few of Ryan’s former defensive players came to play for his Jets.  With the addition of multiple talented players, and a defensive scheme that these new players are familiar with, the Jets’ defense could be much improved, while the Ravens’ defense could slump.  This could be an interesting storyline in the weeks to come.

Two key points were lost behind the story of the amazing game-winning touchdown catch by Brandon Stokley.  First of all, either the Bengals have failed to deliver on their expectations of having a high-powered offense once again, or the Broncos’ defense got a LOT better over the off-season.

Another issue is the demotion of Brandon Marshall, who did not start the game, instead substituting into the game during a few plays. 

This isn’t the pre-season.  The only way Josh McDaniels would bench a starter for any period of time is if he feels the benefits of benching him outweigh the loss of the on-field production the player brings to the table.

Look for more Brandon Marshall headlines as the year progresses.  Between this and the Cutler trade, I think Josh McDaniels wishes he were coaching the Detroit Lions instead. 

At least then he wouldn’t have to meet as high of a set of fans’ expectations.  The Broncos’ playoff hopes have sunk lower and lower after the end of the 2008 season, Denver’s first shot at football relevance since Elway retired.

Regardless of who plays quarterback in Minnesota, the Vikings are going to be carried on the back of the amazing Adrian Peterson

His long touchdown run against the Browns was mind-blowing: halfway through the run, he stopped, stiff-armed two defenders, and started running at full speed again. 

Browns’ coach Eric Mangini started Brady Quinn at quarterback after refusing to tell the media who was going to play quarterback for the Browns. 

Though Mangini was ridiculed throughout the media for this lack of disclosure, the reasoning behind it was sound.  He kept the starter secret so the Vikings wouldn’t know who to prepare for, and this was a good idea. 

Though Quinn's and Derek Anderson’s playing styles may not differ as much as those of Peyton Manning and Michael Vick, there are still many subtle differences in the nuances of each quarterback’s styles of play. 

The Vikings’ personnel studying film had to watch where and how both quarterbacks liked to throw the ball in a variety of situations. 

This creates double the work for the Vikings’ defensive staff.  Though this shrewd move wasn’t enough to win the game for the Browns, it was a well thought-out plan.  I liked it.

The Texans got murdered by the Jets.  Earlier in the summer, I wrote an article saying the Lions should start Daunte Culpepper and let Matt Stafford learn, while the Jets should throw Mark Sanchez into the fire and see what he could do.  If Week 1 performances are any indicator, I was right. 

This brutal loss makes the Texans’ matchup against the Titans on Sunday even more important.  Starting off 0-2 can set an unpleasant tone to the season for the losing team.  Neither the Titans or the Texans can afford to lose this game.

The 49ers could be a dark horse pick to win the NFC West.  They’re a very physical team in the NFL’s weakest division.  Their upset of the reigning NFC Champion Cardinals could prove to be more than just a fluke. 

In a previous article, I pegged the 49ers as the NFC West’s team to beat.  I don’t know if they’ve got what it takes to make noise in the post-season against teams like Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Orleans, or the New York Giants.

Philadelphia has gone from having the most enviable quarterback situation in the league to the least enviable in a matter of seconds. 

After Donovan McNabb suffered a cracked rib against the Panthers, the Eagles had to stomach the idea of facing New Orleans without either McNabb or Michael Vick, who is not eligible to play until week 3. 

Had they left the situation at that, and chalked up the New Orleans game as a likely loss, the situation would have been bad enough, because the Eagles would have had to decide whether they had the best chance of winning starting a healthy Michael Vick or a Donovan McNabb who probably would not be up to full strength. 

The Eagles made this situation worse by signing free-agent Jeff Garcia, who was cut by Oakland due to his dissatisfaction with being JaMarcus Russell’s backup.

Though it gives the Eagles a better chance of beating New Orleans, it also creates a three-way dilemma at quarterback.  I feel the Eagles sacrificed in the long term to get better results short-term.

Due to all the news about Donovan McNabb, you might not have heard that the Panthers played in this game too.  To me, it definitely didn’t look like the reigning NFC South champions were in shape to defend their title.

The Seahawks are going to be better than they were last year if they can stay healthy.  However, don’t be fooled by their 28-0 victory over the Rams.  The Seahawks aren’t that good, the Rams are just that bad. 

Marc Bulger doesn’t have an offensive line to protect him, and he doesn’t have good receivers who can get open quickly to make up for this lack of protection.  That’s a recipe for disaster. 

The Falcons showed that they mean business, beating Miami by a score of 19-6.  Don’t be fooled if anyone says that the way Atlanta bottled up Miami’s new version of the Wildcat is proof the Wildcat is some sort of “fad.” 

Remember, this was also rookie wildcat quarterback Pat White’s very first NFL game.  The weakness was the player, not the scheme.  Give Miami some time. 

Atlanta is looking like a serious Super Bowl contender.  Trading for Tony Gonzalez was a great way to augment an already-potent offense, and Atlanta’s defense looks pretty good.  I could see this team going toe-to-toe with anybody in the league.

The Cowboys looked great without Terrell Owens.  Their running game looks great, and Tony Romo has great chemistry with his receivers. 

This sounds the exact same as the start of last season, but now the other three teams in the NFC East are even better than last year.  I just can’t envision Dallas as a force in the NFC this year just because the rebuilding Buccaneers were clearly outmatched.

If I were David Garrard, I’d be fairly insulted at the Jaguars’ 2-point conversion attempt.  Instead of selling the run and throwing a play-action pass to the flat (that play works REALLY well in short-yardage situations. 

It’s the closest thing there is in football to a guarantee that our play will work), the Jaguars tried their version of the wildcat formation, with Maurice Jones-Drew lining up in the shotgun as a receiver came in motion.

As the receiver went in front of Jones-Drew, the center snapped the ball, and Jones-Drew faked the handoff to the receiver, kept the ball, and ran up the middle.  Nobody bought the sweep, and Jones-Drew’s run was stuffed. 

Here’s why the Wildcat, a formation I’ve written about and consider a great formation to include in an offense, was the wrong call for this situation.  You’re on the two-yard line, and your running back is in the shotgun.  He has to run a full seven yards to score. 

The Wildcat is not going to be as effective for getting short yardage to get into the endzone, because at the goal line, defenses can run-blitz without as much of a threat from a mobile passer taking the snaps and stretching the field.  Also, it has been in the news since OTAs that the Jaguars were experimenting with the Wildcat. 

Also, I highly doubt that anybody in the league believed the Jaguars were only running it to “help their defense get better at defending it when the Jaguars play against Miami.”  The Colts knew it was coming, and they were as prepared for it as you can possibly be. 

Though it could have been used more effectively at other points in the game, the Jaguars did not use the formation in as opportune of a situation as they could have.

The Giants’ defense looked even better than it did during their 2007 playoff run, and their offense will always be dangerous as long as they have Brandon Jacobs and the Giants’ formidable line of maulers up front.  Kevin Boss should really help Eli Manning convert crucial third downs. 

I’m not too impressed with the Redskins for some reason.  I don’t know what it is, but something about them is underwhelming.  Can they really stand a chance in the same division as the Eagles and the Giants?

Tom Brady is back. 

He looked skittish for the first half of the Monday night game, but it was visible when he rediscovered his comfort zone.  The entire second half of the game, he was getting more and more comfortable, and by the end of the game, he looked as good as he did in 2007. 

The Patriots’ miraculous comeback against the Bills just looked too easy for Tom Brady as he threw two touchdowns in 76 seconds.  He knew exactly where to put the ball, and he delivered.   This team scares me. 

On a positive note for Bills fans, Buffalo put up an excellent fight in this game, which had a very memorable conclusion.  Overall, both teams looked really good.  Losing Jerrod Mayo will hurt the Patriots a little bit, but Bill Belichick will find a way to win without him.

 

Week 2 Picks

Atlanta beats Carolina, Minnesota beats Detroit, Green Bay beats Cincinnati,  Oakland beats Kansas City, San Francisco beats Seattle, Pittsburgh beats Chicago, Denver beats Cleveland, New York Giants beat the Cowboys.  Some harder picks: Philadelphia beats New Orleans, New England beats the New York Jets, Baltimore beats San Diego, Tennessee beats Houston.

I'll also pick an upset that I have no factual basis for choosing, I'd just REALLY like to see it happen.  This week's Crazy Upset Pick will be Miami beating Indianapolis.

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