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Cowboys Vs. Titans: Looking Back To Look Ahead

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With the bye week's post-game empty plate, I expect there to be a buffet-style heaping helping of "meet the next opponent" posts as we gear up for our upcoming home tilt against Tennessee. With that in mind, I thought I'd start things off by looking at the aftermath of the Titans' frustrating 26-20 home loss to Denver.

But first, I want to direct your attention to the latest of OCC's impressive string of posts, a variegated collection of Cowboys-related musings. One of the threads I found fascinating was Wade Phillips' assessment of the Cowboys' performance. According to Phillips, the best teams put games away early and, when they lose, they're in it to the end. By this reasoning, the Cowboys, at 1-2, are in excellent shape: they were in each of their losses until the end (in the case of the Redskins game, until the last second), and had won the Texans game by early in the fourth quarter.  I'm thinking pretty seriously of applying this formula to our weekly BTB pickem...

More seriously: how might we assess this week's opponent using Phillips' formula? On first glance, they should not be taken lightly.  Tennessee's victories have been by substantial margins (a 38-13 blowout of Oakland and a victory over the Giants in which they won going away, 29-10, and induced frustrated NY players to lose their cool); their losses have featured a close contest through three quarters (a 13-3 defensive battle against Pittsburgh turned into a 19-11 loss; the Titans couldn't overcome a flurry of turnovers) and yesterday's nailbiter (in which the Titans had the lead and the ball with just over four minutes left in the contest only to implode). Like the Cowboys, they have won convincingly and have been in every defeat until the end.

The national media will ask us to remember the Titans-Broncos game for Titans coach Chuck Cecil's obscene finger gesture. What is more meaningful to actual football fans is that Tennessee was outscored ten-zip in the final quarter to let a winnable game get away. As is the case in such games, several factors contributed to the loss:  one of the most significant storylines is that a stout defense, which had been leading the league in fewest yards allowed, faded in the second half.  Yet, as we know from last year's road game against these selfsame Broncos, the defense can only do so much when the offense struggles. The 2010 edition of the Titans offense is but a shadow of the 2009 bunch.  In '09, Tennessee' s super-electric Chris Johnson went through long stretches where he appeared unstoppable; this year, he has fallen back down to earth. Against Denver, he managed a mere 53 years on 19 carries.

A couple of weeks ago, before the Titans took on the Giants, the "Football Scientist," KC Joyner, offered some thoughts on how to stop "CJ2K." One of the things that makes this so difficult, Joyner maintains, is that Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger (known across Titans Nation as Dinger), has engineered such a creative running scheme. Tennessee's run arsenal features a standard array of running plays; what makes their ground attack so dangerous is that they run counter fakes off of each of these. These counters are so dangerous because the entire offense gets in on the act: the offensive line does a beautiful job selling the fake, thereby inducing an over-anxious defense to commit to the fake and take false steps. And all CJ needs is a step.

This year, he has had a much harder time getting that step. Why is this? In his article, Joyner looks at last year's Titans-Bills game; two of the linemen Joyner singles out for commendation are C Kevin Mawae and RG Jake Scott. As Cowboys fans, who were grumbling this offseason about interior offensive line depth, know all too well, Mawae is no longer with the Titans. In part because of this, Scott and his interior linemates have struggled thus far this season. Indeed, Denver came up with a scheme to stop Johnson that appears to be based on an assumption that there wouldn't be many interior running lanes. As Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels noted in his post-game presser, their game plan was to:

Set the edge, don't let them bounce to the outside. We blitzed the two outside linebackers I think 55 or 60 times or however many plays they had. I mean, it was close to all of them just to make sure we contained him and didn't let him get to the outside and get to the perimeter where he makes most of his big plays.

What this suggests is that the area of greatest concern for the Broncos coaching staff was that Johnson would bump his runs outside, get outside the tackles, and do some serious damage. Simply put, they sold out to deny him the edge. Ultimately this strategy was successful. We've seen his game stats; his longest run was was eight yards.

When CJ isn't going off, the Titans offense is in trouble. They are a run-first team by design. Head Coach Jeff Fisher and his staff don't trust Vince Young enough to take the training wheels off the passing game. Taking away their running attack thus forces the Titans to go where they don't want to go: it asks Young to win the game. The Titans don't trust him to do so--and he certainly doesn't strike the same degree of fear into the hearts of opposing defenses that Johnson does.  In sum, without a running game, the Titans' offense is inept. Against the Steelers in week two, this was the case as well: they struggled to run the ball (CJ's line: 16 carries for 34 yards) and, without the threat of a run, Young was exposed. He was pulled after three quarters in which he had three of the Titans'  seven turnovers (it could have been worse; they recovered another three of their own fumbles).

In this brief look, we can see the seeds of the upcoming week's "five keys to victory"-type posts. Number one on these lists is likely to be something to the effect of "don't let Chris Johnson take over the game" or "make the Titans' passing game beat you." Given the results of Sunday's game against Denver, that seems like pretty sound advice.