Tennessee Titans: Jacksonville Jaguars

Video: Titans-Jaguars postgame

December, 23, 2013

Before they left EverBank Field Sunday night, Mike DiRocco and Paul Kuharsky discussed how the Jaguars and Titans measure up against each other in the AFC South.

Live blog: Titans at Jaguars

December, 22, 2013
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Tennessee Titans' visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and Paul PoslusznyUSA Today SportsPaul Posluszny and the Jags are aiming for a season sweep of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tennessee.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Maybe Delanie Walker shouldn’t feel so bad now.

The Titans tight end said he was embarrassed after the Jaguars won 29-27 in Nashville on Nov. 10 to pick up their first victory. Since then, the Jaguars are 3-2 with victories over Houston (twice) and Cleveland. The Titans are 1-4 with a victory over Oakland.

There seems to be much more stability in Jacksonville, too, because of the uncertain status surrounding Tennessee coach Mike Munchak.

Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky break down Sunday’s matchup at EverBank Field.

DiRocco: Some Titans players were pretty vocal about being embarrassed due to becoming the first team to lose to the Jaguars. Is that something that still stings, and how have they rebounded from that loss?

Kuharsky: It definitely left a mark. They are only 1-4 since then. It kind of set a bar for how bad they can be and re-established their propensity to lose to teams that are really struggling. The Jaguars are on an upswing since that game, and the Titans are on a downward spiral. If Tennessee losses to the Jaguars again, the Titans will be in line to finish in third place in an awful division, which is well short of their goals and expectations. The Titans are a better team than they were last year. But losing closer isn’t a really big difference in the really big picture.

Let’s turn that around. How has life changed for the Jaguars since that Nov. 10 breakthrough?

DiRocco: I could go into a lot of stats that show how much better the Jaguars are playing, but that's not what's really important. The past six games have been more about the validation of the process, establishing the foundation of the franchise's rebuild, and confidence in the new regime. Coach Gus Bradley never wavered from the plan that he and general manager David Caldwell established. His message stayed the same throughout the eight-game losing streak to start the season: trust in the process, work hard, and focus on improving and not victories, and the victories will eventually come. Because that has happened, the players appear to have completely bought into what Bradley and Caldwell want to do, and there's a confidence in the locker room that the franchise is headed in the right direction.

We talked about Jake Locker the last time these teams met, but that was before he suffered a season-ending injury to his foot. How does that change the Titans' outlook on him and are they in the market for a quarterback in the offseason, too?

Kuharsky: Locker is certain to be on the 2014 Titans. His fourth year isn’t that costly and it’s guaranteed. But they can’t execute a spring option for his fifth year that would line him up for over $13 million. A lot of his fate depends on whether Munchak is back as the head coach. It’s possible they go forward with Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and just-signed Tyler Wilson as their quarterbacks. It’s also possible they’d draft a new guy, and depending on how high of a pick he could land in competition to start. I think it’s less likely they chase a free agent like Jay Cutler if he comes free, but they have to assess all the possibilities. How can they completely commit to Locker based on his injury history?

One side effect of the Jaguars' surge is they aren’t going to be in position to draft the first quarterback taken. What’s your sense of what Bradley and Caldwell want in a quarterback and do you expect one to arrive in the first round?

DiRocco: Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said something interesting last week. He said he wants his QB to scramble around, take off running to get yards and take some chances throwing the football. To me, that sounds like a pretty accurate description of Johnny Manziel. I'm not sure how that reconciles with the ideas of his bosses. Bradley comes from Seattle, which has the mobile Russell Wilson. Caldwell comes from Atlanta, which has the considerably less mobile Matt Ryan. My sense is that Bradley and Caldwell probably lean more toward the Wilson end of the spectrum. People think that eliminates Teddy Bridgewater, but that's not the case. He's not a runner but he can run if needed. If he's around, I'd expect them to take him. If not, then I would still expect them to go quarterback. It's their most glaring need.

You mentioned Munchak's job status. What's your take on whether he will be back next season -- and should he be?

Kuharsky: He’s shepherded improvement, but his team lacks an ability to finish. He’s 0-4 in the worst division in football, 1-9 in the past two years. His teams have lost to the previously winless Jags in 2013 and the previously winless Colts in 2011. He’s 4-18 against teams with winning records when the Titans played them and 2-19 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. To me, three years is a sufficient sample size to know what you’ve got and those numbers are the most telling thing on his resume. Keep him and they deal with all the limitations connected to a lame duck coach. I don’t know what Tommy Smith, the head of the new ownership, will do. But the fan base overwhelmingly wants change, if that’s worth anything. People still pay for tickets because they’ve got investments in personal seat licenses they do not want to throw away. But a lot of people are staying home on Sundays now.

Cecil Shorts is done and Maurice Jones-Drew is uncertain. How can the Jaguars threaten on offense without their two best weapons?

DiRocco: They were able to put up 20 points and post their second-highest yardage total of the season, including a season-high 159 rushing, in last Sunday's loss to Buffalo. Running back Jordan Todman stepped up big time and ran for 109 yards (Jones-Drew cracked 100 only once in the first 13 games) and tight end Marcedes Lewis was more involved in the passing game than in previous weeks (four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown). But I'm not sure that is sustainable. Teams will certainly concentrate on stopping Lewis and make quarterback Chad Henne move the ball with three receivers who have a combined 75 career catches. Todman doesn't scare anyone, either. The Jaguars will have to be creative on offense (they've run gadget plays the past three weeks) and capitalize on every opportunity they get.

Video: Jaguars-Titans review

November, 11, 2013

Before they left LP Field Sunday night, Paul Kuharsky and Mike DiRocco discusses what the Jacksonville Jaguars' win over the Tennessee Titans meant for the teams they cover.

Live blog: Jaguars at Titans

November, 10, 2013
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Jacksonville Jaguars' visit to the Tennessee Titans. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Chris Johnson and Cecil ShortsAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesChris Johnson is coming off his best game of the season, and Cecil Shorts' role has just gotten bigger.
The Tennessee Titans fielded a lot of questions this week about taking the Jacksonville Jaguars lightly. The questions seemed silly given that the 2011 Titans lost their opener to the Jaguars (who finished 5-11) as well as a late-season game to the 0-13 Colts, and the 2012 Titans lost to Jaguars (who finished 2-14).

For the Titans to maximize the meaning of their Nov. 14 home game against the AFC South-leading Colts, they first need to beat the Jaguars on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars have to believe they'll have a chance against the Titans given that two of their past seven wins came against Tennessee.

ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco chat about the matchup.

Paul Kuharsky: I know Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell a bit and believe they can lead the Jaguars to a good place. It’s got to be eating them up to have so little talent and no positive results halfway through the season.

Michael DiRocco: Last week Bradley admitted that he didn't anticipate the season being as rough as it has been, but the Jaguars did face a brutal first-half schedule that included games against Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. That being said, Bradley and Caldwell were expecting the team to at least be competitive. That the Jaguars haven't been is a clear indication that they have more work ahead of them than they may have originally thought. They're going to have to spend more money in free agency this offseason than they wanted because there aren't enough draft picks to shore up the offensive line, defensive line and linebacker spots in addition to finding another receiver and a franchise quarterback.

Speaking of franchise quarterbacks, it seems as though Jake Locker has really progressed in his development and appears to be the guy around whom the Titans can build. Do you agree?

Kuharsky: Yes. He’s not going to be Andrew Luck, but he’s not Christian Ponder or Blaine Gabbert either. Locker can be a winning NFL quarterback. He showed steady growth through the first four games, then got hurt. He has not been as good since he returned, but I would think they expect he can get back on track against the Jaguars. He’s got an arm, his speed is remarkable and he generally makes good decisions. And the margin for error is getting better. The win in St. Louis was the first Locker start the team has won when he has thrown an interception.

Is there anything that leads you to think Chad Henne can bust through with a big game in Nashville with Justin Blackmon on the shelf again?

DiRocco: Losing Blackmon is a big blow because he was the offense’s best playmaker, but the Jaguars do have a solid No. 2 receiver in Cecil Shorts (team-high 46 catches). One of the offense’s surprises has been the development of Mike Brown, a former college quarterback who has become a reliable No. 3 receiver. He missed four games with a back injury but has caught 12 passes for 212 yards in the three games since his return. Henne has played well but is really struggling in the red zone, where the Jaguars have scored just five touchdowns in 20 trips. He has made questionable decisions and some bad throws inside the 20. He may very well end up with 250-plus yards Sunday, but the majority could be garbage yards, coming after the game has been decided. He has compiled a lot of his yards that way this season.

Paul, Bernard Pollard seems to have made the biggest impact of all the free-agent signings on defense. The Titans’ pass defense ranks in the top 10 in the NFL. Is Pollard the key?

Kuharsky: He has been a solid player, one who influences the run and pass defense. But he’s not playing much deep coverage. That’s not his strong suit, and they’ve done very well getting him in position to do what he does best.

He has backed up his talk in a big way, disproving this preseason skeptic. He is the No. 1 attitude guy on a team that was sorely lacking in that department. The front is varied and there is plenty of blitzing, all of which is helping the secondary. Another veteran safety addition, George Wilson, has done some good work covering tight ends in nickel and dime packages. And as Gregg Williams has requested more man-to-man, Alterraun Verner has emerged as a top-flight corner.

What hope do the Jaguars have of slowing a run game that found a good rhythm last week in St. Louis if the offensive line plays well and Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene do what they are supposed to?

DiRocco: Honestly, not much. Although middle linebacker Paul Posluszny is playing very well, the Jaguars’ run defense ranks last in the NFL. The big problem is that the defensive line has been handled pretty easily, with the exception of tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, a former Titans player. He has had a solid season, and is by far the team’s best defensive lineman. However, the rest of the group has been pretty underwhelming. Tyson Alualu has been moved to end and is a two-down player; he’s making very little impact. Tackles Roy Miller and Brandon Deaderick aren’t holding ground or getting off blocks well, either.

Paul, you mentioned Chris Johnson. He has been a workhorse back and has had five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Is he slowing down a bit?

Kuharsky: Not in terms of losing speed, I don’t think. But up until last week, the run game had been ineffective, and he was a major reason why. The blocking with a new interior line has been slow to come around, and the play calling has been suspect at times. Greene is a short-yardage specialist who missed a lot of time after suffering a knee injury in the season opener. He’s back now and should make a difference.

Arian FosterBrett Davis/USA TODAY SportsThe AFC South has three of the 15 running backs in the #NFLRank top 100, including Arian Foster.

The AFC South is the lone division in the NFL with three running backs rated in the top 100 players on offense in #NFLRank, ESPN.com's widespread player-ranking poll.

Fifteen running backs made the top 100, so the AFC South accounts for one-fifth of them, with Houston’s Arian Foster 14th, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew 50th and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson 68th.

Indianapolis, the only team in the division whose quarterback is on the list -- Andrew Luck is 41st -- is also the only team from the division without a running back on it.

But the Colts came close. Vick Ballard finished 110th.

Having a top running back doesn’t automatically make a team run-centric, though Tennessee and Jacksonville certainly will be. Houston's passing game with quarterback Matt Schaub (No. 108) is equipped to make big plays, but is also most effective when it’s built off play-action that is triggered by Foster’s success. (See sidebar.)

While running effectively and playing good defense remain things good football teams typically need to do to win, it’s rare for a team without a good passer to have a great deal of success. And that has changed the way running backs are regarded.

Foster, Jones-Drew and Johnson are all playing under lucrative second contracts in a league where a back is highly unlikely to get big dollars or years the third time his agent sits down for negotiations.

Increasingly, teams are wary of drafting a running back high, as the Titans did with the 24th pick overall in 2008. Instead, they seek to find a back in the middle or late rounds. Some even hit a home run in the undrafted rookie pool, as the Texans did with Foster in 2009.

“A lot of things we do start with the run,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “I think you’ve got to do what your team does best. You can’t worry about what everybody else does or what everybody else thinks is the formula. Last year, our formula, we played great defense, we ran the ball well, we held onto the ball longer than anybody in football. It was an excellent formula for our football team. This year, I don’t know. We’ve got to go see.”

Foster gives the Texans a great combination of speed and power, running with a gliding, effortless style and catching the ball well. Those qualities have earned him 1,115 regular-season touches over the past three seasons.

“He’s a real good running back,” Johnson said. “He’s a bigger guy. He can run the ball and catch the ball out of the backfield. Just seeing him run the ball is interesting, because he is a very smooth runner. They’ve got a great scheme with him, they like to run that stretch with him, he’s got a great feel for his linemen and they’ve got a great thing going where they know when to cut the backside down. The offense he’s in is a very good offense.”

Jones-Drew was knocked out of action last season after just six games. He’s back from a foot injury now, and while he’s on a team with better receivers than they've had in some time, the Jaguars still have a giant question mark with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback as well as a susceptible defense.

The Jaguars will hand the ball to him against loaded boxes and when trailing. He could face those situations more than any of the league’s top backs.

He came into the league as a second-round pick just seven years ago but has seen a dramatic change in perception about the position in that span.

“I think money-wise they tried to change it, but there are certain players and every team understands that you need a balanced attack,” he said. “So Aaron Rodgers, they threw the ball so many times. I remember last year he was like, 'We need a running game, we need a running back.' And they went out and drafted two.

“Teams want to portray it as if running backs aren’t valuable or are interchangeable. No, everybody has a piece. Your piece [as a quarterback] may be bigger than the other positions. But in order for the whole offense to work …"

Jones-Drew points to the 2010 Packers who won Super Bowl XLV. Come the playoffs, pass-happy Green Bay got quality play from James Starks, who ran well and created a new option. Last season’s Super Bowl teams, San Francisco and Baltimore, had hot quarterbacks who were supplemented by good runners.

Balance and co-existing skill players -- it’s an easy formula to want, and often a difficult one to execute.

Things won’t work if they are too pass-centered, Jones-Drew said. And it’s the same if his team is over-reliant on him.

“I’ve been screaming for balance ever since I’ve been here,” he said. “People can’t say I’ve been like, 'Oh, let’s run the ball.' 'Cause I know what balance brings. It opens it up for everybody.”