AFC South: Andre Dyson
The 2001 Tennessee Titans hold sixth place.
Here’s what he says:
"The Titans went 26-6 in 1999-2000. They were particularly unbeatable at home, winning 16 of their first 17 games played in (then) Adelphia Coliseum. But a shocking 24-14 loss to the Ravens in the playoffs took the shine off their new digs, as Tennessee would go on to lose five home games in 2001 on its way to a disappointing 7-9 record. Injuries to star running back Eddie George were a major culprit, as he managed only 3 yards per carry while playing through toe and ankle injuries. An even bigger culprit was a defense that couldn't get to the quarterback and couldn't cover receivers … any receivers. The Titans' defensive DVOA ranked 30th against No. 1 receivers, 28th against No. 2 receivers and 30th against all other receivers. The bright spot was Steve McNair, who turned in his best season to date and whose development ensured that Tennessee wouldn't stay down for long."
The missing context here is that the pass defense was so bad when compared to the two previous seasons because of a changing of the guard in the secondary that failed badly.
Of the four top guys in the defensive backfield from the two big seasons, free safety Marcus Robertson and cornerback Denard Walker had moved on as free agents and strong safety Blaine Bishop played in only five games because of injury.
Guys who filled in those spots -- corners Andre Dyson, DeRon Jenkins, Michael Booker and safeties Aric Morris, Bobby Myers (one game before injury), Perry Phenix , Joe Walker and Daryl Porter -- simply didn’t make for a good enough collection to support the one holdover who played regularly, corner Samari Rolle.
Most Titans fans regard the team’s inability to pull out Super Bowl XXXIV when it got there and, more so, the divisional-round playoff loss to Baltimore at the conclusion of the 2000 season as the things that are hardest to swallow.
Even before the team’s 0-3 start on the way to their 7-9 record, it was clear the franchise wasn’t the same caliber in 2001. It’s hard for me to imagine those Titans ranking among the 10 biggest disappointments of the last quarter century.
But with such an approach, Tennessee needs a veteran option who could play if none of those guys are ready, or to step in when someone gets hurt.
The Titans secured theirs Friday by re-signing Rod Hood.
It’s a far better plan than last year’s, when Jeff Fisher and the Titans decided a corner they’d burned for years when he was a Texan, DeMarcus Faggins, could fill that role. Faggins didn’t make the roster, and the Titans suffered from lack of depth at corner until they eventually added Hood.
He played well in some situations, OK in others. Fans who wanted to blame everything on a slipping Nick Harper, however, canonized Hood in a way he didn’t deserve.
If he’s the second corner, he’ll be hard pressed to rate as well as Denard Walker, Andre Dyson or Harper did as previous No. 2 cornerbacks.
At their peak, they were all sufficient, even as critics marveled at how opposing offenses actually completed passes in games while perhaps steering away from Samari Rolle or Finnegan.
So the insurance plan is in place.
It’s time now for the Titans to focus on offseason progress for McCourty and Mouton and on drafting a guy in the first or third round who can prove a better alternative than all the existing options.
The pass was perfect. David Garrard had put about all he had on it and while Troy Williamson didn't have much of a lead on Dre Bly, it was enough. The ball fell out of the gray Denver sky into Williamson's hands. Down at the 2-yard line, the play was a 69-yard beauty.
And it didn't happen.
Even so, the Jaguars viewed the nonplay as progress.
That's how it works sometimes with big plays in the passing game, where incremental progress can provide hope and a washed away bomb can provide evidence that it can happen, will happen, if the players just keep working on it.
"You see Troy. It was an amazing catch, it was an amazing route, it was something that we are trying to get to," Garrard said. "Unfortunately we had a holding call. But that's just something we have to keep building on and continue to get better at. ... That's something we definitely want to get to more.
"We can do those things. We just have to be patient, we can't think that we're going to throw it over everybody's head all of the time."
The Titans and Jaguars pride themselves on pounding it, grinding it out, winning it the hard way.
Long marches that chew up the clock and spit out first downs build a rhythm and leave a defense tired. They can be lovely, but wouldn't an occasional big play be a nice supplement?
The Titans have just three pass plays of 30-plus yards and only one run of 20-plus this season. Jacksonville has three of those passes and four of those runs.
The standard response to questions about explosive plays is that offenses are looking for them, dialing them up and expecting they'll show up. But they're not easily found, and so offenses have to wait on them while trying to go 80 yards in 12 plays or take advantage of field position won by defense or special teams.
"You're looking for big plays, the home runs," Jeff Fisher said. "We've taken some shots, and we haven't hit many of them and we're going to keep taking them and eventually it'll happen. The completion percentage on deep passes is not as good as on the shorter passes and we've just had our share of incompletes. If you keep doing it, eventually you're going to hook up."
As I started asking around about the impact of big plays versus long drives for a defense, I was a bit surprised with the answers I got. Titans coordinator Jim Schwartz, linebacker Keith Bulluck and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch all said they can come to terms more easily with a big play than a big drive, because the big play is typically easier to resolve.
Schwartz remembered a 2002 game against Pittsburgh when Hines Ward beat Andre Dyson for a 72-yard touchdown on the first play of the game. The coordinator started to gather his defense to sort things out, but the players basically waved him off, saying "We're OK, we're straight."
"Sometimes if a team can methodically move the ball, guys are looking for answers," Schwartz said. "It's not just one thing that needs to be fixed, it's a multitude of things. The one play you can handle as long as it's something that you can identify quickly and it's something that is fixable. It wasn't, 'Hey, look we've got a corner who can't cover this guy.' If it's something fixable, I think the one big one is easier to overcome. You're only attacking one problem on the sideline. As opposed to they got six yards each play, they went 12 plays, 72 yards, 'OK, well we have a lot of things to address.'"
If the psychological damage defensively is worse on a long drive, I tend to believe an offense gets a bigger boost out of a big play. An offense has to work, fight and execute for a long time on a long drive. The same payoff for less work is what everybody on offense wants -- points as quickly and easily as they can put them up on the scoreboard.
Indianapolis is built for those plays. The Colts like to pounce and put up a couple of scores, forcing a team to become one dimensional on offense. That tailors a game to the Colts' defensive talents. They got back to that formula last week when they routed the Ravens.
Reggie Wayne is often part of the big pass plays, and he thinks they are ultimately more damaging because a defense gets that much less time to assess formations, groupings, routes and schemes.
"For us and for me, the quick-strike score is better because it leaves the defense wondering what happened and how we scored so quickly," he said. "The 12-play, 80-yard-drive touchdown gives the defense the opportunity to see where we may have positioned ourselves more often as an offense and the defense can adjust based upon what they saw more often to limit what we like to do next time."
Kerry Collins spent some time during the Titans bye week considering his deep-ball accuracy.
In Kansas City Sunday, he and the Titans will continue to look for explosive plays. The Jaguars will work after their bye, hoping to line up the same when they return to action against Cleveland.
A successful long drive might serve to leave the defense with more questions, but Vanden Bosch knows that big play can affect a different area of the game, one that can be more important.
"More so than any other sport, football is all about momentum," he said. "That big play, just momentum-wise can be tough to overcome. It affects the crowd, it affects your attitude, it affects your intensity. That can be the bad thing. A big play is a quick shift in momentum. And so much of the game we play is momentum."