Stillers vs. Titans Preview (Game #5)
The first-place Stillers finally get another home game, and their first MNF game since '99, against the 2-3 Tenn Titans. The Stillers have a 7-game losing streak against this AFC Central rival, despite having two games last year in which the Titans were down in the 4th quarter before mounting a late comeback both times. The Titans, considered a front-runner for the AFC crown going into the season, stumbled out of the gate with an 0-3 record before rebounding by squeaking out wins over Tampa and winless Detroit (in OT). Like the Stillers-Tampa game last week, this game figures to be a defensive battle in which both offenses will struggle to score points.
* When the Titans have the ball, they�ll try to get something going with an offense that, while talented, has struggled some this season. Steve McNair leads the way at QB, and while his running has been solid, his passing has been below average. McNair has only 3 TDs to go along with his 4 INTs. For years the Bitans have been able to hand the ball to trusty RB Eddie George, but George has been held in check this year, gaining just 2.7 yds/carry and scoring only 1 TD. One trusty player who is producing is TE Frank Wycheck, who leads the Titans with 18 grabs. The Titans possess a fleet of receivers who, when healthy and in synch, can wreak havoc on any secondary. Mason and Dyson are well known to Stiller fans for their exploits in hauling in dozens of passes against the Black and Gold the past few years. Chris Sanders and Drew Bennett aren't chopped liver, either, giving the Titans 4 quality receivers (though Sanders is questionable for this game). The O-line is solid and experienced, although, surprisingly, they've given up 12 sacks thus far. Old warhorse Bruce Matthews, who began playing in the NFL just a couple years after Ronald Reagan became president, anchors the line, along with studly LT Brad Hopkins. Joey Porter will have his hands full with Hopkins, who is a top-notch run and pass blocker. The key matchup will be the Titan's TE and H-back against the Stillers' OLBs and SS. Frank Wycheck is McNair's security blanket, but little-known H-back Erron Kinney is 2nd on the team with 17 receptions. Because the Titans like to use the H-back instead of a traditional FB, Kinney poses a unique challenge because of where he lines up as well as where he goes in motion. Unlike the weak Kansas City WR corps 2 weeks ago, in a game in which the Stiller DBs/LBs were able to gang up on Tony Gonzalez, the Titan WR corps makes this difficult, if not impossible. The important additional problem with this key matchup will be the blocking of Wycheck and Kinney. Both of these men spent last season's 2 games against the Stillers mauling and bullying OLB J. Gildon, which allowed George to gain some decent, though not spectacular, yardage. In sum, Porter, Flowers, Gildon and Brent will have a busy day shutting down these two TEs.
* When the Stillers have the ball, they�ll look to ride the Bus for their 5th consecutive win. The Titan defense has been surprisingly soft and lax in '01, despite a very talented core of players. Kevin Carter came from St. Lou to pair up with all-world DE Jevon Kearse. Ageless Eddie Robinson leads a solid group at LB, along with Randall Godfrey. Where the Bitans have really suffered has been in their secondary. Injuries have bogged down their best DBs, safety B. Bishop and CB S. Rolle, both of whom are questionable for this tilt. The key matchup will be Jeff Fischer's run defense against the Stiller running game. While the Titan secondary is ripe for a beating, it's highly unlikely that the Stiller offense will start slinging the ball like the Rams, unless the Titans take a large lead in the 2nd half. I do expect a few stabs downfield against the Titans, but if those don't pan out, it'll be a lot of old-fashioned smashmouth football. Fischer has always managed to bottle & minimize the Stiller ground game. It'll be interesting if Fischer throws caution to the wind and uses a host of run blitzes to bog down the Stiller ground game. At any rate, this will be a force-on-force engagement, with lots of bruises left on both sides of the ball.
* Spec Teams: The Titans bring the best spec teams we've faced thus far in '01. Kicker Joe Nedney is coming off the AFC Spec Team player of the week award for his FG booting against the Lions. Punter C. Hentrich is a solid, reliable punter. The Titans, as they always seem to do, have a large contingent of quick kick/punt returners. Old standby Mason does some punt return chores, but the Bitans also have Coleman, Mccareins, Walker, and Berlin to share the workload. All are capable and dangerous, and the Stiller coverage teams will face their sternest test yet. Stiller kicker Kris Brown is in a terrific groove, while punter Josh Miller has struggled a bit. Hank Poteat has been held to minimal yardage in punt returns the past 2 games.
* Synopsis: This is the first nationally televised game at Heinz Field, which will be fitted with the two new 35-foot tall Heinz ketchup bottles atop the main scoreboard. The game against Cleveland was slated to be this stadium's national TV baptism, but events of 9-11 postponed that game. So now the Titans get to bear the brunt of what figures to be a raucous, frenzied, well-inebriated Stiller crowd. There's no question that the Titans are the best team the Stillers have faced thus far, but the emotion of MNF (Cowher is undefeated on MNF) and the first national TV game from Heinz Field will energize the Stillers, who will grind out a 16-10 win over the Titans.