By Preston J. Gary, Jr.
I'll never forget the last time the Saints faced Matt Hasselbeck. The banged-up veteran quarterback had a vintage performance against a banged-up Saints secondary, leaving many Saints fans calling for Roman Harper's head. In addition, a Seattle defense frustrated Drew Brees and the offense, while Marshawn Lynch had perhaps the best postseason run in recent memory. I don't think any Saints fan will be able to forget that for a while.
So while I am heading into Sunday's matchup feeling good about the groove Drew Brees and the offense are in, I have much trepidation at the prospect of facing Matthew Hasselbeck and a hot Chris Johnson.
Make the jump for more...The Saints can clinch the division and/or a playoff spot with a win and a combination of losses on Sunday. The Titans are fighting for a wild card berth and the slim hope of a division title. The Titans spent the first couple of months trying to find consistency, and I think they found it over the last month with the resurgence of Chris Johnson. Johnson is the key to their offense, their strength.
In the first month of the season, the Titans lost Kenny Britt for the year. While waiting on Chris Johnson to earn his pay, Hasselbeck got accustomed throwing the ball to Nate Washington, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins, and Jared Cook. It's not exactly the plethora of talent the Saints have at wide receiver, but with a running game and a quarterback who takes care of the ball, it's been enough to keep the Titans in most games.
Washington, who leads the team in catches, has a banged up ankle and has missed practice this week, but he will play Sunday (he hurt his ankle against the Bills but continued to play through the pain). Let's hope he isn't too effective. The second leading receiver for the Titans is Chris Johnson - though you could say that the RB is the leading target because Johnson and RB Javon Ringer have more combined catches than any WR on the team.
While Tennessee's passing offense doesn't scare me at first glance, the memory of Hasselbeck with a few no-name WR's in the great northwest picking apart a Gregg Williams defense does, much the same way Chris Johnson invokes the memory of that Lynch run.
On defense, the Titans are typically "bend but don't break". They've kept all but four opponents to under 17 points. While the stats aren't all that impressive, their pass defense is the strength of their defense. Cortland Finnegan and Jason McCourty make a fine duo at corberback. However, McCourty suffered a concussion against the Bills, and may not play against the Saints. If he is ruled out, it will spell big trouble for the Titans.
If you listen to the Titans this week, their defensive game plan sounds like that of the Saints. In essence, the Titans are accepting the fact that the Saints will move the ball and accumulate yards; their goal is to limit the Saints to field goals through smart, physical play. Their defensive coordinator sounds like Gregg Williams, going as far as saying that his secondary needs to "put fear in guys" (specifically Jimmy Graham) by laying big hits on routes that occur in the middle of the field.
So it looks like the Titans plan to punch the Saints in the mouth, and keep punching until the clock expires. Anything they can do to disrupt Drew Brees and the timing of the offense will keep the game close and allow Chris Johnson to remain a factor. I don't believe the offense will look smooth and well-oiled against Tennessee. It will be a game where the Saints look "just a little off". The Saints will have to remain patient on offense - utilizing the run earlier, and Gregg Williams will have to put his guys in better positions to succeed, because until the offense can get a good lead, the Titans will keep this game close, Falcons-style, and that worries me.
I've heard the argument "over the last four games the defense has only allowed __ points in the first half while the Saints built their lead" and "the Saints are ok with teams throwing for 600 yards because they are up by such a large margin, what do you expect the other team to do?" I'll tell you what I expect. Do you know what a big lead SHOULD do for a defense? It should result in more turnovers and more sacks because the opposition is one dimensional. Gregg Williams sends more blitzes than anyone else, yet they don't get there. When he isn't blitzing, he's pretending to before the snap.
How about we abandon all this exotic display of "coaching genius" and just play defense? Or just actually coach fundamentals, you know, like wrap up and tackle, catch the freaking ball, play disciplined - as in staying in your gap, zone, or sticking with your assignment? Here's a question - if the pressure does not get there in time and the secondary is giving the WR's a big cushion, what happens when the QB dumps it off short? How many first downs did we see the opponent get on third and long with a short throw and no one in the vicinity to make the tackle?
Yes, the Saints lack playmakers at linebacker, yet they have talented guys along the defensive line and in the secondary. How about we stop blitzing sub-par linebackers, focus on more stunts and penetration (as opposed to gap assignments), and let the CB's play physical bump and run? In other words, how about forgetting being exotic and versatile for the sake of being exotic and versatile and instead play to the strengths of the personnel and put them in better positions to succeed? I've seen coaches like Mike Nolan, Mike Zimmer, Romeo Crennel, and more have good defenses with lesser personnel. Instead of being "exotic," they just play fundamentally sound. They don't have 100 different formations and packages; instead of being a "jack of all," they're a "master of one."
My point? If the personnel can't do what the scheme is calling for, change the damn scheme. If you blitz more than anyone else in the NFL and the players can't get to the QB, stop blitzing, because all you are doing is making the secondary more vulnerable by taking players out of coverage. When you don't have great "three-down" linebackers, you can't be versatile and do the same things a team like Pittsburgh or Baltimore can do. When you lack a David Harris/Bart Scott duo, you can't be exotic and get away with it. Simply put, when the talent does not fit the scheme, you need to change the scheme.
You may ask why I've gone off on this tangent in the midst of my Saints versus Titans analysis. The answer is that the Saints (Gregg Williams) need to play Tennessee straight-up on defense because Matt Hasselbeck knows his tricks, and Chris Johnson is licking his chops. The Titans can beat the Saints on Sunday by frustrating the offense and confusing the defense with play-action. Everything will work for Tennessee when the game is close. I fear the Saints offense will get disrupted enough to allow the Titans to stay within their offensive game plan. If Gregg Williams doesn't put his players in a better position to succeed and doesn't call a more honest game, the Titans may upset the Saints in the same frustrating fashion Seattle did back in January.
I believe this game will be closer than many expect it to be. How well the defense plays will give us a good indication of how they'll look in the post-season against more balanced teams with physical defenses. Here's to hoping no injuries occur during a 31- 27 Saints victory.
1. Saints - 32.8 Points Per Game, 449 Yards Per Game, 6.5 Yards Per Play, 53% 3rd down conversion, 31:10 Time Of Possession, -2 Turnover Margin
22. Titans - 20.8 PPG, 319 YPG, 5.3 YPP, 39% 3rd down, 27:58 TOP, +5 TOM
1. Saints - 325 YPG, 8.1 Yards Per Attempt, 70.4% completion, 30 TDs, 11 INTs, (50) 20+yard pass completions, 21 sacks given up, 105.5 QB rating
18. Titans - 222 YPG, 6.7 YPA, 60.2% completion, 17 TDs, 10 INTs, (32) 20+ yard completions, 17 sacks given up, 83.9 QB rating
8. Saints - 123 YPG, 4.8 Yards Per Carry, 13 TDs, 2 Fumbles, (11) 20 + yard runs
28. Titans - 97 YPG, 4.0 YPC, 6 TDs, 3 Fumbles, (12) 20+ yard runs
18. Titans - 19.1 PPG, 356 YPG, 5.2 YPP, 42% 3rd down conversions allowed, 10 Fumble Recoveries
27. Saints - 22.4 PPG, 379 YPG, 5.9 YPP, 35% 3rd down conversions allowed, 5 FRs
18. Titans - 234 YPG, 6.5 YPA, 61.6% completion, 17 TDs, 10 INTs, (41) 20+ yard pass completions allowed, 22 sacks, 83.7 opposing QB rating
30. Saints - 264 YPG, 7.2 YPA, 58.3% completion, 19 TDs, 7 INTs, (37) 20+ yard completions, 25 sacks, 87.7 opposing QB rating
16. Saints - 115 YPG, 4.9 YPC, 9 TDs, 7 FR, (11) 20+ yard runs allowed
21. Titans - 122 YPG, 4.1 YPC, 6 TDs, 9 FR, (10) 20+ yard runs allowed
Overall Statistical Analysis: This is a matchup where the statistics don't tell the entire story. It would do better to take a snapshot of the last four weeks. In that span, Chris Johnson has returned to form and nearly doubled both the yardage and touchdowns he had in the first eight games. Without Kenny Britt, Johnson is the offense.
In the same span, Drew Brees has had one of his best months ever. On the way to building a big lead in the NFC South, the Saints running backs have combined for 100 or more yards as in afterthought each of the last four weeks. The Saints defense has only been "good" at the most critical moments.
The Titans have forced more turnovers, though they've given up more explosive plays and third down conversions. The Saints may make a few mistakes, and Chris Johnson may help to keep it close for a while, but Drew Brees and the offense should continue to manufacture explosive (20+ yard) plays on the Titans defense. The Titans settle for field goals far too often because they lack a diverse WR group, and that will be the difference.