NFL Preview - Tennessee (3-2) at Jacksonville (3-2)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the defending conference champion Indianapolis Colts and emerging but inconsistent Houston Texans have garnered most of the headlines in the AFC South this season, the division's other two teams have been quietly plugging away.
Those two clubs - the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans - will square off at EverBank Field on Monday night, and one will be able to call itself a first-place team as the 2010 season heads to Week 7.
Of the contest's two combatants, the Jaguars have undoubtedly been the most surprising. A young Jacksonville team that crumbled down the stretch last year plodded through a disconcerting preseason that was followed by a rough 1-2 September that included blowout losses to the Chargers (38-13) and Eagles (28-3).
But October has been a different story, as Jack Del Rio's squad began the month with a 31-28 upset of the rival Colts in Week 4, and followed it up with last Sunday's 36-26 takedown of the Bills in Buffalo.
One of the major stories during the recent mini-run has been quarterback David Garrard, who looked on the verge of losing his job prior to what has been arguably the best two-game stretch of his career. The ninth-year pro has completed a combined 33-of-42 passes for 341 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception over the last two weeks, the first time Garrard has posted back-to-back passer ratings of better than 120.0 in his career.
Garrard and the offense have helped make up for the failings of a defense that has allowed 26 or more points in each of its last four outings, is last in the NFL in touchdown passes allowed (12), and is tied for last in the league in touchdowns allowed (18), along with the Bills.
Looking to capitalize on those defensive deficiencies will be the Titans, who have done their best work this season away from Nashville. Tennessee's two most recent wins came on the road against NFC heavyweights the Giants (29-10 in Week 3) and Cowboys (34-27 last Sunday), with the upset win in Dallas coming despite 511 yards of total offense for the home team.
Reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Chris Johnson carried the Titans as usual, piling up 131 yards and 19 touchdowns to go along with his fifth and six touchdowns of the season.
Johnson leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns (6) as Week 6 begins, and the Titans' seven overall rushing TDs lead the league as well.
Despite Dallas' yardage total, coordinator Chuck Cecil's defense pressured the Cowboys' Tony Romo to the tune of six sacks on the day.
Tennessee leads the NFL in sacks with 22 as Week 6 kicks off.
Tennessee leads the all-time regular season series with the Jaguars, 17-13, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Titans were 37-17 losers when they visited Jacksonville in Week 4, but notched a 30-13 victory - the team's first of the year after an 0-6 start - when the Jags came to Nashville in Week 8. The Jags are 0-2 in Tennessee since last winning there in 2007.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the playoffs, with Tennessee scoring a 33-14 road victory in the 1999 AFC Championship.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher is 18-13 versus Jacksonville all-time, including the aforementioned playoff win. The Jaguars' Del Rio is 6-8 against both Fisher and the Titans in his career.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The Titans have a strange dichotomy on offense, as a team that ranks just 26th in NFL total offense is somehow fifth in the league in points. Much of that is down to the ability of quarterback Vince Young and running back Chris Johnson to finish off plays in the red zone, which they did with proficiency in Dallas a week ago. Young (684 passing yards, 6 TD, 2 INT, 88 rushing yards) was just 12-of-25 for 173 yards in the win, but two of his 12 completions were touchdown passes to wideouts Nate Washington (15 receptions, 3 TD) and Kenny Britt (14 receptions, 3 TD). Britt led the way with four catches for 86 yards and the score in a winning effort, while third-round rookie Damian Williams also got involved with his first two NFL catches totaling 30 yards. Tight end Bo Scaife (12 receptions, 1 TD) has been a reliable over-the-middle target for Young, while Javon Ringer (119 rushing yards, 1 TD) has offered a change-of-pace in the backfield. Johnson (485 rushing yards, 13 receptions) carried 24 times for a career-high 228 yards and two touchdowns against the Jags last Nov. 1st. The Titans offensive line has allowed a bloated 12 sacks through five games but has done a good job of creating holes in an offense that is averaging 4.6 yards per rushing attempt.
Jacksonville has managed a 3-2 record to this point in spite of its defense, rather than because of it. The Jaguars are a distant 30th in NFL total defense, including 29th against the pass and 13th versus the run, as Week 6 begins. To make matters worse, Jacksonville comes into the contest somewhat banged up on defense, as top pass rusher Aaron Kampman (15 tackles, 3 sacks) and linebacker Justin Durant (6 tackles) have been nursing ankle injuries, while cornerback Derek Cox (11 tackles) is attempting to overcome a hamstring problem. It is uncertain whether any of the three will have limitations on Monday night. What is certain is that an interior line led by rookie first- rounder Tyson Alualu (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Terrance Knighton (8 tackles, 3 sacks) will have to be stout at the point of attack as it tries to slow Johnson, and that linebackers Kirk Morrison (29 tackles) and Daryl Smith (27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) will have to make plays behind them. If Kampman is out, things will get tougher for a beleaguered secondary led by cornerbacks Rashean Mathis (18 tackles) and David Jones (23 tackles, 1 INT).
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
The Jaguars enter Week 6 ranked just 22nd in the league in total offense, but have been efficient enough in their red-zone opportunities to pull off wins over the last two weeks. Much of that has been down to Garrard (789 passing yards, 9 TD, 6 INT), who has been working reasonably well with a young receiving corps paced by the formerly anonymous likes of Mike Sims-Walker (16 receptions, 2 TD) and Mike Thomas (21 receptions). An unsung hero within the passing game is tight end Marcedes Lewis (16 receptions, 5 TD), who continued a breakthrough season with two touchdown catches against the Bills, and has also been of assistance to an offensive line that has given up 12 sacks but has played better in recent weeks. All of that said, the program for Jacksonville on Monday will be to establish running back Maurice Jones-Drew (406 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 2 TD), who is expected to play despite being bothered by a wrist problem. Jones-Drew scored on runs of 80 and 79 yards against the Titans last Nov. 1st. Rookie Deji Karim made his formal NFL debut last week with 15 carries for 70 yards in Buffalo, and should get some more touches on Monday.
Until further notice, it looks like big plays will carve out the identity of the Titans defense. Tennessee is just 22nd in the league in total defense, including 27th against the pass and 11th versus the run, but the unit's playmaking ability means the Titans are a healthy 10th in the league in points allowed. Last week's win in Dallas was fueled in part by interceptions for linebacker Stephen Tulloch (51 tackles, 1 INT), safety Michael Griffin (39 tackles, 2 INT) and emerging rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner (24 tackles, 1 INT) as well as six sacks, including two each by end Jason Babin (22 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and tackle Jason Jones (12 tackles, 2 sacks). Babin and Dave Ball (14 tackles, 4.5 sacks) are 1-2 on the team in sacks. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan (26 tackles, 1 sacks) will likely spend much of his time on Monday defending Sims-Walker. Tulloch is Tennessee's leading tackler on the year, and fellow LB Will Witherspoon (23 tackles, 3 sacks) has been a major part of the run-stopping effort as well. The Titans this week re-signed veteran linebacker Jamie Winborn (8 tackles), who played parts of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with Tennessee and is also a former Jaguar.
Johnson hasn't been as consistent a fantasy producer as he was late last season, but he's certainly justified his No. 1 overall selection with multiple 100-yard games and six touchdowns. There's really not another sure-fire fantasy starter on the Titans, though if your league rewards sacks on defense then Tennessee could be a decent play from that perspective.
Garrard has been good of late, and some of his targets have had their moments as well, but the only real fantasy starter in this lineup remains Jones-Drew. Scobee, who is a perfect 10-of-10 on field goals this season, could be a good kicking option for those who have someone on a bye week.
There have been NFL teams over the years - the turn-of-the-century Rams come to mind - who have been able to win football games by putting up a high number of points every week that masked numerous deficiencies on defense. But the only way to make that work is if the offense is exceptionally talented and near- perfect in its execution, and while the Jaguars have been the latter over the past two weeks, the absence of the former characteristic is likely to be their undoing. The Titans have enough going on defensively to force Garrard into a couple of key mistakes, and the Jags' defense is not good enough to make consistent stops against Johnson and the Tennessee offense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 31, Jaguars 19
10/15 11:00:15 ET