As this season has gone along, the game preview posts have gotten more and more statistical. I've stopped putting in my two cents, for the most part, and therefore have stopped looking brilliant when my predictions come true. At this point, I'm asking for your opinion on what I should do going forward. More stats or more opinions?
For this game preview, we're kicking it old school. Not because I'm looking to look smart, but because I've never realized just how heated this rivalry is. The Chargers players are still angry over a game two years ago, in which Shawne Merriman was allegedly injured on purpose with an illegal hit. Jeff Fisher has said that he doesn't like the Chargers, he considers them a dirty team, and has hinted that other teams around the league feel the same way. What has been most surprising to me, though, is how much Titans fans truly seem to hate the Chargers team (and ergo, their fans).
The most important part of this game, for the Chargers, is health. This cannot turn into week 1 in Oakland, where the opposing team is causing horrible injury after horrible injury with dirty hits. The Chargers need to put the game out of hand early and then take their starters out. Can they do it?
When the Titans Have the Ball
Since bringing in Vince Young to replace Kerry Collins, after going 0-6 through their first 6 games, the Titans have had quite the balanced offensive attack. Vince Young spent his time off working on his footwork, and as a result has become the accurate passer Tennessee needed to exploited the 8 man fronts defenses were throwing at them.
For the season, the Titans rank 11th in the league in yards per game and yards per play. They're 10th in 3rd down completion percentage. They've racked up the 14th least penalty yards in the league. While all of these are great stats, they paint the picture of an offense that's much better than Tennessee's. In terms of yards per play, the Titans are tied with the Patriots, Texans and Packers, and are better than the Vikings and Cardinals. However, each one of those teams scores more points per game than Tennessee.
So what's the Titans issue on offense? Similar to the Cardinals, Tennessee has a problem with turnovers (they're tied for 2nd in fumbles lost). The Cardinals will still make the playoffs with their -8 turnover margin, which is absurd, because the NFC West is so bad. The Titans are fighting to try to make the playoffs, but their 18th ranked turnover margin (-1) may end up being the thing that stops them.
The Titans passing attack is still not what you would consider "hich-octane". They're ranked 20th in the league in passing yards per game, and VY is averaging less (161.9) in that category than Kerry Collins did this year (175). He has been more efficient though, averaging 7.7 yards per pass attempt. His 5-to-2 TD/INT ratio is also much improved over Collins' 3-to-4.
In a nutshell, this is exactly the type of passing offense that can beat the Chargers. The Bolts are about not giving up the big play, but the Titans never even seem to try. They rank 27th in 20+ yard pass plays and 2nd in sacks allowed, which means they run short routes and get the ball out quickly. Young has a tendency to fumble the ball when he's hit (7 fumbles in 8 games), but getting to him seems like it might be a problem for the Chargers pass-rush (which has been awful lately).
The running attack, led by Chris Johnson, is so mind-boggling good that it should keep Ron Rivera sleepless this entire week. 2nd in the league in yards per game (162.6), 1st in yards per attempt (5.3). Although they blow everyone else away in 20+ yard runs (22, the next closest team has 15), they're only tied for 8th in the number of rushing touchdowns they have. The culprit, almost certainly, is that the Titans' running backs are tied for 2nd in the league in fumbles.
So here's the gameplan against the Tennessee offense: Contain Chris Johnson (don't let him get outside) and hit him hard. Do everything you can to get to Young, and hit him hard. Their offense will move down the field easily, probably, but giving up FGs and answering with TDs will change the Titans' gameplan in a hurry.
When the Chargers Have the Ball
The reason there's no stats about the Chargers defense above, and there won't be a ton about the Chargers offense below, is that you already know this team. You know what they're good at (defending WRs, preventing big plays, throwing the ball) and what they're bad at (stopping the run, running, rushing the passer). Whether or not they've moved up or down a ranking since last week is not going to determine the winner of this game.
Now, onto the Tennessee defense. A few injury notes. Keith Bulluck and David Thornton, the Titan's starting outside linebackers, have both been placed on IR this week. Bulluck is the leader of the defense, and arguably the entire team, as their best player. He leads the team with 108 tackles, and Thornton has 60 of his own (in 11 games). Their replacements, Colin Allred and Gerald McRath, have 41 tackles between them this season. This creates a huge hole in the defense that can be exploited with Antonio Gates, Mike Tolbert and hopefully a stronger Chargers running game. Also, Nick Harper (who apparently has been terrible) has a bad shoulder. Rod Hood (who has been inexplicably active for the past few weeks) could get the start if Harper misses the game.
This is not the Titans defense we remember from 2007, 2008 or 2009. The one that dominated the league. Tennessee ranks 28th in yards allowed per game and 24th in yards allowed per play. They're 22nd in 3rd down completion against them (roughly the same as the Chargers) and are allowed 24.8 points per game (27th). With a good offense, you can put up yards and points against the Titans.
Their passing defense is a major weakness. They're 31st in the league in passing yards allowed, giving up 7.2 yards per pass attempt (worse than the Giants and Cowboys). Thanks to Cortland Finnegan (and Bulluck), they're tied for 8th in the league with 19 interceptions. Expect Philip Rivers to avoid throwing that way unless he sees a big opening. There's plenty of holes in this defense, if you can avoid turning the ball over, such as the 50 pass plays of 20+ yards allowed this season (29th).
The rush defense has been good, but not great. The success can be attributed to a good defensive line (Kyle Vandenbosch and Tony Brown are excellent) and to Keith Bulluck. How much it goes down with the loss of Bulluck is a mystery right now. Tennessee has allowed just over 100 yards per game on the ground (9th), and 4.2 yards per carry (16th). Like the Chargers, they don't give up many big runs and are tied for 4th in the league in 20+ yard run plays allowed (5).
The Chargers game plan seems almost too easy. Test out the run and see if Keith Bulluck's replacement is up to snuff. Throw at the TE and RBs out of the backfield plenty. Look for big plays down the field with Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. If the Chargers can have success with that early (and why shouldn't they? That's what they've done all season), the second half of this game can be relaxing for the Chargers players, coaches and fans.
I haven't been saying it much, but all season I've been saying how much the Chargers remind me of the Colts. Great passing offense, poor running game and a bend-but-don't-break defense that makes big plays when it needs them. Also, if the Chargers are within a few points with 2 minutes left and the ball in their QB's hands it's a win (usually). The Colts were able to put up a ton of points on the Titans early a few weeks ago (24-10 at halftime), and then needed a few big plays from their defense in the second half to secure a 10-point victory. With a similar team, I'm expecting a similar game.