Poor third-down defense plaguing Titans

Posted Nov. 07, 2011 @ 6:22 p.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

Playing 60 minutes of solid football has been a problem for the Titans this season, and Sunday was no exception. Tennessee coasted in the first half, building a 17-7 lead over the Bengals by intermission. RB Chris Johnson awoke from his season-long slumber, generating 55 rushing yards on only nine carries, including 20- and 18-yard scampers in which we caught a rare glimpse of Johnson actually outrunning defenders in the open field. QB Matt Hasselbeck tossed a pair of TD passes, including a beautiful eight-yard laser to WR Damian Williams in the back of the endzone, where Williams showed great awareness by getting both feet down inbounds.

But after the break, the familiar problems that have popped up too often for the Titans in recent weeks reared their ugly head again. The offense struggled to sustain drives, squandering the encouraging signs of life from Johnson. The defense failed to pressure Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton, allowing Dalton and fellow rookie wideout A.J. Green to shred the Tennessee "D," particularly on third down. On the afternoon, Cincinnati converted 8-of-16 third downs, including 6-of-11 in the final 30 minutes. The Titans, who go on the road in Week 10 to face another rookie signalcaller, Panthers phenom Cam Newton, are the league's 30th-ranked third-down defense, with only 14 sacks in the first eight games.

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Dalton sure didn't look like a rookie in the second half, putting on a clinic against the Titans. He worked the middle of the field masterfully, with plenty of time to go through his progressions as the Titans' pass rush was again nonexistent. Second-year DE Derrick Morgan made his second career start and was responsible for one of Tennessee's only two hits on Dalton, but it was not nearly enough. The coaching staff won't say it, but Morgan is simply not making the kind of impact plays the club envisioned when it spent the No. 8 overall pick on him last year. The same can be said for teammate Jason Jones, who has disappointed in his transition from tackle to end. Bengals OLT Andrew Whitworth has stonewalled plenty of pass-rushing ends this season, and the Morgan-Jones pairing can now be added to the list.

Meanwhile, the man Morgan replaced in the starting lineup, Dave Ball, who could be sidelined next week after suffering a concussion, also has been far too quiet after registering a career-high eight sacks last season. Although letting DE Jason Babin (nine sacks on the season) walk in free agency to the Eagles was hardly a surprise, as Babin was a Jim Washburn disciple and Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray scrapped the "wide-nine technique," it is safe to say the club expected bigger things from this trio than it has gotten thus far.

Gray has tried to find ways to dial up pressure. CB Cortland Finnegan has done a good job of blitzing from inside this season and got close on a few occasions on Sunday. LBs Akeem Ayers and Barrett Ruud both brought extra pressure with nothing positive to show for it. But nothing seems to be working right now for the Titans. Morgan, Jones and Ball are all try-hard guys who can't be faulted for their effort; they just don't have the array of pass-rushing moves to consistently get home.

At 4-4, the Titans are still alive in the AFC playoff picture. But they are trending in the wrong direction, with myriad problems that don't appear to have easy fixes. Their remaining schedule doesn't do them any favors, beginning with a trip to Charlotte to face the dangerous Panthers offense Sunday. Newton has been sensational this season, and his success is likely to continue on Sunday if Tennessee's defense allows him to sit back in the pocket and survey the field the way Dalton was able to do in the second half Sunday.