NFL Preview - St. Louis (1-11) at Tennessee (5-7)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Two of the top running backs in the league will be on display at LP Field this Sunday, when NFL leading rusher Chris Johnson leads the Tennessee Titans against Steven Jackson and the St. Louis Rams.
Johnson leads the NFL in both rushing yards (1,509) and yards per game (125.8) on the ground, and sits second behind Jackson with 244 carries. In his second year out of East Carolina, Johnson uses his speed and quickness to his advantage, as evidenced by his seven straight games with at least 100 rushing yards. He is the main reason why the Titans' playoff hopes are still intact, although those aspirations took a hit following this past Sunday's loss to the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts.
The 5-7 Titans entered last week's AFC South showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium on a five-game winning streak, but suffered a 27-17 setback to the division-rival Colts. Johnson ended with 113 yards on 27 carries, marking the sixth time this season he has toted the football 20 or more times. He matched the NFL mark held by Earl Campbell (1980) and Eric Dickerson (1984) by running for at least 125 yards in his sixth straight game in a win over Arizona the previous week, but his hopes of owning the record himself were dashed in Indianapolis. He did, however, tie Campbell's franchise mark of 100 rushing yards or more in seven straight contests.
Tennessee's 0-6 start may be too steep to overcome, as it's among several teams in the hunt for an AFC Wild Card berth. Baltimore, Miami, New York and Pittsburgh are all 6-6, while the Titans and Houston Texans sit a game off the pace. Johnson can not lead the Titans to the postseason alone, he will need help from quarterback Vince Young and several teams around the league. Either way, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher will be relying on an effective ground and ball control to keep postseason hopes alive. He'll have the home crowd on his side this week as Tennessee kicks off a three-game homestand.
The Rams are trying to go by a similar philosophy, but unfortunately have more problems than the Titans. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo fell to 1-11 in his first season at the helm after last Sunday's 17-9 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in which Jackson compiled 112 yards on 28 carries. Jackson has reached the century mark in five of his last six contests but had a four-game touchdown streak come to an end.
St. Louis played solid defense in the Windy City, but it didn't correlate into any success on an offense which mustered just three field goals and got poor play from quarterback Kyle Boller.
Boller passed for only 113 yards with an interception and completed 17-of-32 pass attempts, and has six interceptions in the five contests he has played in. Shaky play by the offensive line hasn't helped much, as Boller went down three times against Chicago and has been sacked seven times in the last two games.
The young Rams, who own just six wins since 2007, haven't been able to find a winning formula for years now, and their inability to take advantage of good field position limited St. Louis in its attempt to put forth a consistent offensive effort against the Bears. Instead of ending drives with field goals from Josh Brown and hoping for Jackson to save the day, perhaps a better showing in the red zone would have brought more success.
St. Louis will have to play out the rest of the season without one of its top defenders after placing safety Oshiomogho Atogwe on injured reserve this week with a torn labrum in his shoulder and some cartilage damage. Veteran safety Clinton Hart is expected to fill the void in the defensive backfield for the Rams, who have played Tennessee just once since their Super Bowl matchup in 2000.
St. Louis has a 6-3 lead in the all-time regular season series with Tennessee, including a 31-27 home win in the last meeting, during the 2005 campaign. The Titans won the previous matchup, 24-21 in Nashville, during the 1999 season. That contest marks the Rams' lone trip to Tennessee all-time. The franchise's last road win in the series came in 1993, when the then-Los Angeles Rams defeated the then-Houston Oilers, 28-13 at the Astrodome.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with St. Louis defeating Tennessee, 23-16, in Super Bowl XXXIV, held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Fisher is 1-3 all-time against the Rams, including the playoff loss. Spagnuolo will be meeting both Tennessee and Fisher for the first time as head coach.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Boller (876 passing yards, 3 TD, 6 INT) will get the starting nod again for a Rams team that was held without a touchdown for the fourth time this season in a loss at Chicago. Marc Bulger is still recovering from a leg injury, but no matter who's been under center, the Rams have struggled. Boller lost his 10th straight start dating back to 2007 with the Baltimore Ravens and has just one touchdown pass in his last four games. He needs two more scoring passes for 50 in his inconsistent career. Tennessee is aware that the Rams' offensive line has been experiencing trouble protecting the quarterback, and will no doubt be gunning for Boller on Sunday. Rookie tackle Jason Smith is expected to be sidelined again after suffering a concussion in late November game against the NFC West-rival Cardinals. Smith has missed the last two games and is expected to be examined by an independent neurological consultant soon. In other injury news, leading wide receiver Donnie Avery (37 receptions, 5 TD) suffered slight damage to his shoulder in last week's loss but is not expected to miss any time. Avery is St. Louis' only hope in the pass game, where tight end Daniel Fells (17 receptions, 3 TD) is second on the team with three touchdown grabs.
The Titans have struggled mightily in defending the pass this season and are 31st in that category, allowing 267.0 passing yards a game. It doesn't get any easier this week against the inferior Rams, because safety Michael Griffin (56 tackles) is battling a shoulder problem and is questionable. There were no interceptions or sacks against the Colts, but Colts all-world quarterback Peyton Manning was held to just one touchdown pass. Cornerbacks Nick Harper (59 tackles) and Cortland Finnegan (46 tackles, 3 INT) should have an easy afternoon against the Rams, and may even get to rest in the fourth quarter. Harper registered five tackles against his former team last Sunday, just one week after leading the Titans with 10 tackles in a win against Arizona. Finnegan had the tough task of guarding Colts wideout Reggie Wayne, who was limited to four receptions for 48 yards and no touchdowns. The Rams don't have anyone nearly as talented as Wayne on their roster. Safety Chris Hope (63 tackles, sack, 2 INT) will help out against Jackson on both running and receiving plays.
It's apparent that Jackson can run the football successfully at this level, but he can also hurt defenses out of the backfield. The chiseled running back leads the Rams with 44 receptions and owns 267 receiving yards. As far as his running skills are concerned, Jackson was able to have a productive afternoon in Chicago despite the Bears stacking eight or nine men in the box. Jackson, who has hit the 100-yard rushing mark seven times in 2009 for the lowest scoring team in the league, has eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for a fifth consecutive season. He has averaged an NFL-best 125.5 scrimmage yards per game since 2006 and owns 455 scrimmage yards in his last three December games.
Even with mammoth tackle Albert Haynesworth having left in the offseason, the Titans are still eighth against the run this year. The Titans, who have been the third best team in the NFL in defending the run since the start of the 1995 season, have only allowed 11 100-yard rushers in 85 regular-season games at LP Field since 1999. Jackson has a chance at becoming the 12th running back to hit the century mark, but first must go through a litany of linebackers to do so. Last week against Indianapolis, top tackler and durable linebacker Keith Bulluck (93 tackles, 1 INT) notched seven stops in his 125th consecutive start. Bulluck went over 100 tackles during the season for the eighth consecutive year, extending his team record. Linebacker David Thornton (58 tackles, 1 sack) led the squad with 13 tackles last Sunday, including one stop for a loss. Defensive tackle Tony Brown (31 tackles, 4 sacks) and end William Hayes (37 tackles, 4 sacks) are tied for the team lead in sacks, while end Kyle Vanden Bosch (36 tackles, 3 sacks) owns three.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Since taking over as the Titans' starting quarterback in midseason, Young (1,251 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) has been a surprisingly effective player for Fisher. He passed for a season-high two touchdowns against Indianapolis and rushed for 16 yards on four scrambles. The elusive Young can make things happen with his feet when the pocket collapses, much like former NFL MVP Randall Cunningham used to. Young doesn't have the strongest arm in the league and isn't as accurate as backup Kerry Collins, and has been intercepted just twice in the last six games. The former University of Texas star sports an 8-2 record as a starter against the NFC, though, and is shooting for his fifth consecutive game with a touchdown pass. The Titans are 24th in passing this season and have been getting a lot of production out of rookie wideout Kenny Britt (36 receptions, 3 TD), who leads the team in receiving yards, but Nate Washington (33 receptions) is tops on the roster with five touchdown catches. Not that it's a surprise, but Johnson leads the team with 39 receptions for 322 yards and a score. Tight end Bo Scaife (34 receptions, 1 TD) had 56 yards and a touchdown on five catches last week, while Britt ended with 46 yards and a score on three catches one week after catching the game-winning touchdown strike against Arizona.
The loss of Atogwe (74 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) is huge for the Rams, but that just means Hart will have to step up when he takes the field. Before the injury, Atogwe had started 60 consecutive games dating to 2006. The veteran Hart brings a bevy of experience to the secondary, having already played with Philadelphia and San Diego before heading to the Gateway City. He will join a Rams defensive backfield that allowed Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to complete only 8-of-17 passes for 143 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions last Sunday. Strong safety James Butler (40 tackles, 3 INT) leads the team in picks with three, while cornerbacks Ron Bartell (49 tackles) and Quincy Butler (23 tackles) will do their best to save face for St. Louis' 16th-rated pass defense. Bartell came away with a pass defensed in the loss to the Bears.
Johnson is arguably the best running back in the NFL, although some may argue that Minnesota's Adrian Peterson takes that honor. Either way, Johnson is one of the most dynamic running backs since Barry Sanders ran behind a poor Detroit offensive line. Johnson will try to post his 13th career 100-yard rushing game and his eighth consecutive such outing, which would break Campbell's franchise record for most consecutive 100-yard contests. He also needs 151 yards from scrimmage to pass Campbell's franchise record (1,981 scrimmage yards in 1980). Finally, Johnson needs one more rushing touchdown for 10 this season, which would eclipse his total from his 2008 season and tie for the eighth-highest total in a season in franchise history. Against the Bears, he became just the fifth different player in NFL history to reach 1,500 rushing yards in his team's first 12 games, joining Walter Payton, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Terrell Davis. Johnson leads the NFL with 19 carries that have gained 20 or more yards and ranks first in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. His 1,509 rushing yards and 322 receiving yards give him a total of 1,831.
Spagnuolo was one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL before finally landing a head coaching job. It's unfortunate, however, that the Rams are so bad on defense and rank 28th against the run, allowing 146.2 yards per game on the ground. St. Louis is also 28th in points allowed and 25th in total defense even with two decent ends rushing the corners. Chris Long (34 tackles, 4 sacks) and Leonard Little (22 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT) hope to keep the elusive Young between the tackles before he scrambles to safety and possibly more. The two linemen each registered a sack against the Bears. Rookie middle linebacker and leading tackler James Laurinaitis (97 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) led the way with 12 stops last week and has recorded double-digits in stops in two of the past three weeks. There's no question Laurinaitis and outside linebackers David Vobora (35 tackles) and Paris Lenon (31 tackles) will be hoping the front line can create havoc and leave them free to cover the dangerous Johnson. Darell Scott (8 tackles) and Long are Spagnuolo's main run stuffers up front.
Johnson has been a possessed man this entire season with his numerous 100-yard rushing games, and will continue his mission Sunday against a Rams' run defense rated near the bottom in the league. He's been an instant success ever since stepping foot on the turf as a rookie in 2008, and there should be no reason why he doesn't tear up the gridiron Sunday. Britt is enjoying a productive campaign this year and should be inserted into the starting lineup with Young, Titans kicker Rob Bironas and the Tennessee defense. This could be the week Young really lights up the fantasy scoreboard. Jackson is an obvious choice for owners this week, but that's the only player St. Louis can rely on. Kicker Josh Brown is a safe choice in an emergency situation and perhaps wideout/return man Danny Amendola could be used, since Avery is banged up with a shoulder problem.
Johnson alone will be too much for the patched-up Rams' defense to stop, which is why Tennessee will win its fourth straight game at home and stay afloat in the hunt for the AFC's last Wild Card spot. The Titans are second in the NFL with 165.8 rushing yards per game, which has kept them relevant in postseason talks, while Young also has the speed and agility to make something happen on a busted play. St. Louis' front line has to apply pressure from ends Little and Long in order to contain Young and force Johnson up the middle. Fisher most likely doesn't care how many points his team wins by or how many yards Johnson tacks on, just as long as his playoff-hopeful squad wins.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 26, Rams 14
12/10 19:02:34 ET