NFC East: Tennessee Titans

Giants vs. Titans preview

December, 4, 2014
12/04/14
8:01
AM ET


The Tennessee Titans haven't won a game since Oct. 12. For the New York Giants, the last good day came Oct. 5.

Barring a tie, one of them will see a troubling losing streak come to an end Sunday at LP Field.

Players on both teams are saying the right things about holding together, but their talent hasn't been sufficient in 2014. They will both be drafting high in the spring, and this game will have a big bearing on who goes first between them.

ESPN.com Titans reporter and Giants reporter Dan Graziano discuss the matchup.

Kuharsky: The Giants' pass rush is banged up. So is the Titans' offensive line. Do you expect New York to be able to put heat on Zach Mettenberger (or Jake Locker if Mettenberger's shoulder keeps him out)?

Graziano: I do, because the Giants showed Sunday they can get heat on a quarterback when they're up against a poor pass-protection team. They had only 19 sacks in their first 11 games but added seven in Jacksonville. The issues are personnel-related, as they're going to be without Robert Ayers (torn pectoral muscle) and possibly Mathias Kiwanuka (missed Sunday's game with a knee injury). But Jason Pierre-Paul is playing for a contract, and the young players (Damontre Moore and Kerry Wynn) who'd fill in at defensive end for Ayers/Kiwanuka have plenty of flaws but enough athleticism to generate pressure on the quarterback amid the penalties and other mistakes they'll inevitably make. The Giants have used linebackers and safeties to blitz more this year than in past years, too, so they will definitely be dialing up packages to put pressure on whoever's playing quarterback Sunday for Tennessee.

What's going on there at quarterback anyway? Has Mettenberger shown enough to change the Titans' perspective on what they need to do at quarterback this offseason, or will they be starting from scratch and looking at the guys at the top of the draft?

Kuharsky: He has made incremental but steady progress since he's taken over as the starter. He suffered a sprained throwing shoulder in Houston, but he's promising he'll play Sunday. And they need him to be on the field for these final four games to continue to build his resume. I don't know that they will make a pronouncement about him after the season, because they'll want the rest of the league to believe everything is in play for their high draft pick. But Mettenberger really fits what Ken Whisenhunt wants from a quarterback. He is a pure pocket guy who will stand in against the rush and deliver the ball with a big arm. He looks like an NFL quarterback to me, and I am not sure the top options in the draft fit Whisenhunt stylistically. I'm thinking they're going to feel they've found their guy.

Tom Coughlin told his players not to worry about his job and just to play. You think they can manage to do that, or does his fate hang over the team's head in a way that can't help but be a factor?

Graziano: I think they can do it. When you ask players in the Giants' locker room about Coughlin's job status, they're almost surprised to get the question. I haven't heard any grumbling, on or off the record, from players about Coughlin this year: Young players, old players, doesn't matter, they believe in the guy and will continue to play hard for him. The Giants' issues this year have a lot less to do with the messaging from the coaching staff than they do with a general talent deficiency on the roster. Coughlin's doing what he can with a banged-up team that wasn't that good or deep in the first place, and based on my conversations with the players, he really does have them focused on trying to finally win a game. They haven't won since Oct. 5, one week before the Titans' most recent win.

I saw you wrote this week that the Titans had fallen to last in the league in points allowed. What's the biggest problem they're having on defense?

Kuharsky: Oh, it's a bit of everything. In Houston, they didn't get pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick. That meant meant he could sit back and find a rhythm and find himself five touchdown passes, and they gave up 45 points. The week before in Philadelphia, they gave up a 107-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff, then allowed a 300-yard passing game to Mark Sanchez and a 100-yard rushing day to LeSean McCoy. Run defense is typically the heart of the problem. They're surrendering 141.5 ground yards a game, another number that's worst in the league. They miss gap fits, they miss tackles and they don't have the people in the new 3-4 front they need to slow down good backs.

Eli Manning has turned the ball over a lot, but the Titans have given up twice as many touchdown passes as they've taken away interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks have a 94.5 passer rating against them. Manning got sacked four times and lost two fumbles in Jacksonville. How does he typically follow up a game like that?

Graziano: Manning has faced significant amounts of pressure in pretty much every game of the Giants' seven-game losing streak. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Manning has been sacked or put under duress on 31.4 percent of his dropbacks in the past five games (league average is 24.9). Some weeks, he weathers it better than others. Against the 49ers, he threw five interceptions. But he'd thrown only six all year in the nine games prior to that. The fumbles are a problem, and they've made it hard for the Giants to feel as good as they'd like to about him getting his interceptions under control. Basically, if Manning gets any kind of protection at all, he's able to run the new, rhythm-based offense effectively. But most weeks, he doesn't, and that means he's inconsistent. I imagine Eli will come up with decent numbers against that Titans' pass defense, but you can't rule out the possibility of an ill-timed, game-changing error of some sort. That has been the story of the Giants' season.

We talked about Coughlin earlier, but what's the state of the coaching situation in Tennessee? First year of Whisenhunt, first year in a new defensive system. Are they showing any progress?

Kuharsky: There really is little heading into Week 14 that suggests they've improved from the beginning of what has been a disastrous first season for Whisenhunt and his staff. Mettenberger is in line to start his sixth game and, as I mentioned, his growth curve is encouraging. Left tackle Taylor Lewan (who missed last week with a high ankle sprain) and inside linebacker Avery Williamson are two other rookies who've been good. They are able, at times, to generate pressure with blitzes. Otherwise, it seems Whisenhunt has been stubborn. The system has not been adjusted much to fit the personnel, which is certainly lacking. But Whisenhunt got a five-year contract, and team CEO and president Tommy Smith said in a couple recent interviews that there is no change coming at coach or with general manager Ruston Webster.

Cowboys vs. Titans preview

September, 11, 2014
9/11/14
8:00
AM ET

The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a bad loss to San Francisco and head for Nashville, where the Tennessee Titans await after a surprisingly strong opening win in Kansas City.

ESPN.com’s Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss the Week 2 clash.

Kuharsky: It was an ugly start for the Cowboys in their loss to the 49ers. Is this version of the team the sort that will bounce back and play better in its second chance or continue to unravel?

Archer: There are so many new faces with this team that I really don't know yet. There are 19 guys on the team that weren't with the team in Week 1 last year. The defense has a lot of holes, despite what was a better-than-expected showing in the opener against the Niners. The key, obviously, is Tony Romo bouncing back. That was one of his worst games. It wasn't just the interceptions. Quarterbacks are going to have those. He just didn't see the field well. It was odd to see him so out of sync. He's done a decent job of bouncing back from these types of games. In the 10 contests after games with three or more picks, he has 15 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Rarely does he have two bad games in a row.

Beating a 2013 playoff team in Kansas City is an impressive feat and that has to help a new coach get his message across. How has Ken Whisenhunt attempted to changes things with the Titans?

Kuharsky: He’s a strong presence who gives a team confidence with a résumé that includes taking long-hapless Arizona to a Super Bowl. He’s very direct and the players have responded well to his approach. Everyone coming off a mediocre year and a coaching staff change craves that clean slate and clear direction, and he’s offered both. At the core of the Whisenhunt Titans are new systems. He’s the playcaller on offense and he has a strong plan for how to move the ball with a committee of running backs and a stable of quality pass-catchers. He’s unpredictable and he builds things during a game where he sets up something now for later. On defense, the Titans are now a 3-4 that should also bring a far greater degree of unpredictability. The Titans are still not certain who will be the main playmakers on defense.

Who are the playmakers on Dallas' defense, and what degree of playmaking can the Cowboys expect? I look at the depth chart and no one jumps out. I know some guys are developing. But I see George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey and Justin Durant (who will miss the next three to four weeks) and wonder if they are putting the Jaguars old defense back together?

Archer: The Cowboys are doing a lot of hoping with their defense. I never put the Jacksonville connection together, but that sure doesn't sound too good. And those three guys are some of the better defenders, especially with Sean Lee out for the year. In the past this defense was built around DeMarcus Ware and everybody else. They had some solid players with Ware who made Pro Bowls but nobody close to his level. Now they're hoping guys like Selvie, Mincey, Durant, Bruce Carter, Henry Melton, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne can have career years. Melton needs to be a playmaker. He was a Pro Bowler under Rod Marinelli in Chicago and is working his way back into shape after missing most of last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Carr ($50 million) and Claiborne (sixth pick of the 2012 draft) have to live up to expectations. They have yet to do that and were substandard in the opener. So to wrap it all up, they are taking the no-name defense to the extreme and hoping the offense can carry the day and make life easier for the defense.

This is a huge year for Jake Locker. Cowboys fans haven't seen much of him. Is he anything more than just a caretaker? Can he carry an offense?

Kuharsky: For starters, he’s got the personality you want in a quarterback. He works hard. He’s dying to be successful. He craves coaching. He’s a natural leader. His teammates really like and respect him. Of course none of that matters if he cannot play. On the field, he brings great speed, but using it comes with some fear of injury, because he’s repeatedly gotten hurt. He’s not typically going to read the whole field, and he's not always on target. But he now understands and adjusts the protections and feels a real ownership of the offense and he can make some very good throws. He’s behind a line that should be good, handing off to several quality running backs and throwing to some very good players, headlined by receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Justin Hunter.

I think if he plays well, he can carry an offense at times. But his job is to get the ball into the hands of playmakers and to minimize mistakes. I think it needs to be an offensive football team and that Whisenhunt has a handle on how best to use him. He has panicked under pressure in the past, but handled it well in Kansas City. That’s a development to monitor.

This season will tell the Titans if he’s their guy going forward.

What’s your feel of Scott Linehan as a playcaller?

Archer: I think Linehan will be an asset for this offense. I never agreed with last year's decision to make Bill Callahan the playcaller. He had never worked with Jason Garrett's passing game before and had West Coast ties. It was a poor fit all around. Linehan's history with Garrett -- they were on Nick Saban's staff together in Miami -- makes this move more sensible. They think alike. And more importantly, Linehan is learning how Romo thinks. The offense has not been this team's problem when you look at the numbers. They have scored enough points, put up enough yards, but they haven't gotten it done together at the end of seasons. Hence the 8-8 records. Linehan's work in Detroit with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson leads me to believe that Romo and Dez Bryant will produce. But Linehan will have a better running game and better tight end (Jason Witten) than he ever had in Detroit. So if the Cowboys can stay away from turnovers, they should be explosive.

The Cowboys saw a 3-4 defense last week in San Francisco, but I view the Titans' defense as a different 3-4 with Ray Horton. Is he stealing from Dick LeBeau's playbook in Pittsburgh?

Kuharsky: Horton regularly pays homage to LeBeau, the coach he learned under while a Steelers assistant. But this isn't a straight version of the Pittsburgh 3-4. There is some two-gapping. But the defensive linemen are not asked to do it regularly, and it would be a mistake to have a stud lineman like Jurrell Casey trying to take up blockers when he’s an excellent playmaker. Casey’s now an end in the base and inside in the nickel. The Titans have a deep pool of defensive linemen who are pretty good. But the linebackers are questionable. Converted 4-3 end Derrick Morgan was quite good in his first real game as an outside linebacker. Kamerion Wimbley and Shaun Phillips need to provide an edge-rushing threat. And the inside guys, Wesley Woodyard and now Zaviar Gooden, are built more on speed than on being big, thumping hitters.

There is a lot for us to see and learn, and Horton admitted it’ll be at least four games before things start to fully click for everyone in a different scheme.

Three things to look for in the Titans game against the Redskins tonight at LP Field:

Jake Locker's command: The third-year quarterback’s practice work has improved recently, but I’ve noticed some slow starts. I imagine offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains will make an effort to get Locker started off with some easy completions that get the offense into a rhythm. Another thing we should watch is how he fares throwing to his left, where he’s looked more comfortable, as compared to throwing to his right. Expect some deep shots in this game. See the third entry below.

How does Akeem Ayers line up? The strongside linebacker is going to be used on the line of scrimmage a lot. Sometimes he’ll even be a defensive end with his hand in the ground. Is he equally good out of both stances? Does he stay out in space much, if at all? Ayers is a key piece to the Titans' defense this season. Here is the first glimpse in a game setting at how they will deploy him, how an offense will react to him, and how he will produce.

Justin Hunter: Hunter was part of the University of Tennessee receiving corps that shredded NC State last year in the opening week of the college football season, victimizing cornerback David Amerson, among others. Amerson is now a rookie member of the Redskins' secondary. Hunter has gotten an earful from Titans defenders and his position coach, Shawn Jefferson, throughout camp but has shown a great ability to go up and get the ball in practices. The Titans hope he’ll be on the end of a big play from Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick tonight.

Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? It's the debate of the moment in today's NFL. Which superstar quarterback is the best? Who, between that pair of excellent, future Hall of Fame signal-callers, would you pick if you had the choice? That's not the question that was asked of our Power Rankings panel this week, but it turned out to be the one we answered.

Yes, after weeks upon weeks of power-ranking everything we could think of in the NFL, we've decided to throw all qualifiers and designations out the window and make it very simple: Who are the best players in the league?

As was the case when our panel was asked to rank the league's top quarterbacks, Brady beat out Manning for the top spot in this week's power rankings. Six of the eight NFL bloggers polled ranked Brady No. 1 overall, and the two who didn't -- Mike Sando and Paul Kuharsky -- ranked him second behind Manning. The top four players in our rankings and seven of the top 10 (of the top 11, technically, since Michael Vick and Andre Johnson tied for the No. 10 spot) all play the same position -- quarterback -- which says a lot about the way we value that position.

"Quarterback is the most significant position on the field and can make the difference between a lopsided losing record and the playoffs," said AFC East blogger Tim Graham, whose ballot had quarterbacks in each of the first seven spots and eight of 10 overall. "It takes a truly special running back or defensive player to outweigh the importance of a quarterback. For example, Adrian Peterson is a sensational player. But without Brett Favre producing at quarterback, Peterson couldn't carry the Vikings to the playoffs."

So the question then became which quarterback was the best. The debate these days seems to be squarely between Manning and Brady, though two of our eight bloggers did rank Manning third on this week's list. We'll get to them in a minute. We'll start with the majority opinion -- that Brady is the best player in the league right now.


I was one of the six who ranked Brady in the top spot, and the main reason was that I think Brady has attained a level of excellence in New England that's beyond what Manning has been able to attain in Indianapolis. Brady's accomplishments in 2007, when he combined with Randy Moss to set all kinds of offensive records and went undefeated until losing the Super Bowl to the Giants, were all-time legendary. But what people may not realize (perhaps because of the ludicrous level at which Brady excelled that year) is that the past two seasons have been the second-best and third-best statistical seasons of Brady's career. If Brady hadn't hurt his knee in the first game of the 2008 season and missed the rest of that year, it's very possible he would be on the kind of run right now that would make a Brady-Manning debate seem silly.

After the Patriots traded Randy Moss in the middle of 2010, the question was whether they were giving up on the season. What they were doing instead was committing to a midseason overhaul of the offense that wouldn't have been possible without the confidence they had in Brady to manage it. All Brady did was muster the second-best completion percentage and second-highest touchdown-pass total of his career while throwing just four interceptions and winning at least 14 games for the fourth time.

Not everybody agreed, however.

"Manning is simply asked to do more than any player in the league is asked to do," Kuharsky said. "He's superb at it. I love Brady. But Manning can do more, is asked to do more, and has to do more. Jim Caldwell is an OK coach so far. Bill Belichick is an all-time great. The guy making up the gap in order to have the Colts stay in range of the Patriots is Manning."

But the Colts really weren't in range of the Patriots this year, and for that reason Manning's star has dimmed in the eyes of a couple of our panelists. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked Aaron Rodgers No. 2 and Manning No. 3. And NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas ranked Saints quarterback Drew Brees in that No. 2 spot ahead of Manning.

"I'm not trying to diminish Peyton in any way. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, if you look at his numbers and Brees' numbers over the last three or four years, they're similar and, in some ways, Brees' numbers are better," Yasinskas said. "Brees and Manning each have won one Super Bowl title. My argument is that, right now, Brees is even more valuable to the Saints than Manning is to the Colts. Times change and circumstances change. But right now I think Brees is the perfect quarterback for the Saints and is in the perfect situation with their offensive system and coaching staff. In fact, I considered voting for Brees No. 1 overall, but couldn't quite bring myself to rank him ahead of Tom Brady."

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who came in first in the defensive player power rankings, ranked fifth on the overall list. AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Polamalu fourth, and Seifert ranked him fifth. Walker's ballot was the most generous overall to defensive players, as he ranked Polamalu fourth, Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware fifth, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis eighth and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis ninth.

Walker and Kuharsky (who ranked him 10th) were the only ones who ranked Ware at all, and Kuharsky seemed a little chapped about it.

"If we rate these quarterbacks so highly, how can we not rate the guy we said was tops at disrupting quarterbacks highly too," Paul asked. "Makes no sense. I had him too low at 10. For six of you guys to leave him off entirely dents your collective credibility. Next I imagine you'll say the E Street Band isn't the all-time best backing band."

Paul is grouchy.

"I value pass-rushers, and no player has more sacks the past two seasons than DeMarcus Ware (26.5)," Walker said. "Getting to the quarterback is the best way to combat the league's increasing number of pass-happy offenses, and no one does it better right now than Ware."

The highest-ranked offensive player who wasn't a quarterback was Peterson, who came in sixth after being named on five of eight ballots. Sando, Walker and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson left the Minnesota running back off their ballots -- the third time in three tries that Williamson has ranked Peterson lower than most of the rest of us did.

"This is a quarterback league and that's how I built my top 10," Williamson explained. "There were only three non-quarterbacks on my top 10. After I constructed the quarterback rankings, I went to the best available non-quarterbacks, and the list was quite short. But to reiterate, this is the top 10. The best of the best. I think Peterson is probably a top-15 guy and that’s pretty good in a league of 1,800-plus professionals."

Pretty good indeed. But as Bill said, it's a quarterback league. And for that reason, the debate about the best player in the league came down, once again, to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.

Countdown Live: Titans-Cowboys

October, 10, 2010
10/10/10
4:01
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Tennessee Titans trip to face the Dallas Cowboys.

Contribute your thoughts and questions starting at 4 p.m. ET. See you there.

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