Stillers @ Titans Preview (Game #10)
The surging 7-2 Pittsburgh Stillers travel down to the Tennessee to face the struggling but still-alive 4-5 Titans in what amounts to a must-win game for the Titans to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Stillers are feeling pretty good about themselves with their play during the first four games of this 5-game make-or-break stretch against division rivals. The Titans got back into the win column last week with a solid win over the perennially-fading Bungals. The Titans come into this game battered and bruised, although the same could be said about the Jaguars last week, yet the Jags fought tooth-and-nail for well over 3-1/2 quarters of tough football. The Bitans are only 2-2 at home this season, but playing the Oilers/Titans on the road in recent years has been the blues for the Stillers, who lost in Houston in �96, and then lost in various venues in Tennessee in �97, �98, �99, and �00.
* When the Titans have the ball, they�ll limp into Adelphia Stadium with a rash of injuries. Although their fine trio of McNair, George, and Wycheck will start, each has been banged up and hampered during this season, often times at the same time. The Titans� O-line is solid and experienced. Old warhorse Bruce Matthews mans the middle at center, and there is some solidness in guards Olson and Pillar. But starting LT Brad Hopkins -- the best lineman on the team -- is doubtful on Sunday, which would be a severe blow for a Titan offense that has been ransacked by sacks and facing the prospect of OLB Joey Porter flashing by the backup tackle, either Hall or Jason Matthews. And RT Fred Miller is a run of the mill clod who is a marginal player, at best. Injuries have really crippled the depth at receiver for the Titans. Dyson and Mason remain a very potent starting duo, but behind them are unheralded Chris Coleman and Drew Bennett. George has had a tough time running the ball this season, averaging a paltry 2.8 yds/carry. Wycheck has been hobbled a bit, but still remains a threat as one of the truly best all-around TEs in the business. The key matchup will be the Titans O-line against the Stiller front 7. The Stillers defense is playing with a lot of passion and aggression right now, along with enormous confidence. Although prone to start out games in the soft, mamby-pamby mode, the Stiller defense generally cranks it up and by the 2nd half, is flying to the ball like crazed rotweilers. If Hopkins is out, the slightly-above-average Titans O-line is really going to have its hands full dealing with a stout DL and 3/4 of a LB corps that is playing maniacal football. If the O-line cannot get Eddie George untracked, then McNair -- who has been hobbled in recent weeks -- will end up having to run for his life against the rugged Blitzburgh blitz.
* When the Stillers have the ball, they bring in an offense that steamrolled the Titans a few weeks ago, but then saw its running game get bottled up last week against Jax. On the plus side, the Stillers Dink and Dump Offense shed some of its dinkiness with some good downfield yardage last week in the win over Jax. And Plex Buress had his best day as a pro against the Titans in this year�s first meeting. The Titans� defense is no chopped liver, of course. Jevon Kearse still roams the DE spot, switching around on both sides of the line. DE K. Carter has been a bit of a disappointment for the Bitans. In fact, in the first Stiller-Titans meeting, Carter was as quiet as a churchmouse. The LB corps is adequate, with Favors, Chamberlin/Godfrey, and Robinson. Injuries have hampered the secondary, which was toasted by the Stillers in the first meeting. Dyson and especially Rolle are solid at the corners, but by no means should the Stiller offense get squeamish at the thought of facing this DB crew. Starting TE Mark Breuner is out for the season, which, contrary to public opinion, is not the catastrophic event that many are predicting. More importantly for Stiller fans to look for, is the FB spot. Dan Kreider finally started last week due to Jon Witman�s injury, but Witman is apparently healthy enough to play, which could mean that the Witman-loving Cowher could re-insert Witless back into the starting lineup. The key matchup will be Jeff Fischer�s defensive scheme against the Stillers� base formation. Fischer saw his defense get pulverized in the first meeting, in which his defense was unable to even slow down Bettis. Surely Fischer has had a thorough looksee of the film from last week�s Stiller-Jax tussle, in which Jax threw nearly every defender on the field into some sort of run-blitz. The result was more penetration than in a John Holmes film and a grinding halt to the Stiller ground game. Like Tom Coughlin last week, Fischer has his back up against a wall, and another divisional loss would be a severe blow to any playoff chances. The Titan defense has been pretty stout against the run in �01, but as noted, was pretty cheezy in the first meeting of these 2 teams. If Fischer is desperate enough, he might very well throw caution to the wind and mimic the Jaguar run-blitzing in an effort to at least bottle up the Stiller running game on occasion and take his chances that his defense can hold the Stillers to some harmless FGs.
* Spec Teams: Although Deshea Townsend was ridiculously held during the return, the Stillers did give up a KO return for a long TD in last week�s win over the Jags. Mason is always a threat every time he touches the ball in the return game. McCareins had given the Titans a burst with his return work, but ankle surgery in Oct. forced him to the sidelines. The Stillers burned the Titans in the last meeting with a somewhat-controversial successful fake FG for a first down, but because Fischer has to be feeling pretty desperate, he might very well try to block a kick, or throw in some chicanery of his own with a trick play on special teams. The blocking in the return game of the Stillers has been downright abysmal, which has really bogged down the work of Hank Poteat. Titan Kicker Joe Nedney has been pretty mediocre this season, but punter C. Hentrich has been solid. Stiller kicker Kris Brown seems fully recovered from his 3 (not 4!) missed FGs 3 weeks ago, although his KOs have been short and spotty.
* Synopsis: The Stillers gave the Titans a pretty stern whipping in the previous meeting, and Fischer has certainly not forgotten it. Added to that is the growing hex of playing these Titans on the road, which, while not yet as bad as the Penguins� hex in the old Philly Forum, has grown to considerable proportions. With the Stillers coming off a previous whipping of the Titans and last week�s beating of the Jags, and facing upcoming games against the Vikes, Jets, and Ravens, I fear that this is the exact climate for an "overlook" in which the team is snickering at the thought of playing the "patsie" Titans and looking ahead toward facing the Vikes (who are coming off a big win on MNF 4 days ago), Jets, and Ravens. The Tennessee bluesy hex continues, with the Titans pulling off a 16-13 win over the Stillers.