NFL Preview - Baltimore (1-0) at Tennessee (0-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Chris Johnson was unable to pay back the Tennessee Titans last weekend after the club finally gave its star running back the big contract extension he was searching for. The Pro Bowl playmaker could be in for another long Sunday this week, given the Week 1 performance of the Baltimore Ravens' defense.
Tennessee will look to get Johnson going in its 2011 home opener at LP Field, but must do so against a Baltimore defense that is coming off a record-setting display.
A holdout for all of training camp while waiting for a new contract, Johnson inked a four-year deal worth $53 million prior to the start of the season. The back was given $30 million guaranteed, but was held to just 24 yards on nine carries in a 16-14 loss at Jacksonville this past Sunday.
A 2,000-yard rusher in 2009, Johnson also caught six passes for 25 yards in the loss and didn't think his holdout limited him, though both he and Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak said it was tough to gauge where Johnson is at physically because the Titans failed to put together long drives.
"He made some plays here and there, but like I said, there wasn't a lot of running room and if you want to get a back going, he's got to have more than four carries in the first half," said Munchak, who was making his debut as a head coach. "He has to get more touches, but he didn't get them."
The Titans suffered their ninth loss in 10 games dating back to last year, part of the reason Jeff Fisher was not kept as head coach following the season. That leaves Munchak and the new staff to figure out how to solve a Ravens defense that forced a franchise-record seven turnovers in a dominating Week 1 win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Baltimore, which was eliminated in last year's postseason by Pittsburgh, got a small amount of revenge with a 35-7 victory over its fellow AFC North member. The defense intercepted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three times and also forced four fumbles in the dismantling.
That was more than enough for quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, who led an offense that accounted for 385 yards of offense that included 170 on the ground.
"Satisfied? I hate that word," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh after the win. "[But] it's a great victory. The whole thing about having ghosts and demons and monkeys on your back, that's not real to us. It's a football game and every game is a new game."
Sunday's game will mark the home debut for Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who was signed during the offseason after a long stint in Seattle. Tennessee is 7-5 in its previous 12 home openers at LP Field.
These teams have split 16 lifetime regular-season meetings, with the Titans pulling even with a 13-10 road victory during the 2008 season. Baltimore's last non-playoff win over Tennessee occurred two years earlier, when the Ravens pulled out a 27-26 squeaker at LP Field. Not counting the playoffs, Baltimore is 4-4 all-time as the visitor in this series, which includes a loss in the Astrodome in 1996 when the Titans were then the Houston Oilers.
The Ravens and Oilers have also squared off three times in postseason play, most recently in a 2008 AFC Divisional Playoff in Nashville won by Baltimore, 13-10. The Ravens also went on the road to earn a 24-10 decision over the Titans in a 2000 AFC Divisional tilt, while Tennessee produced a 20-17 road win when the clubs matched up in a 2003 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Harbaugh is 1-1 against Tennessee for his career, with the lone triumph coming in the above-noted 2008 Playoffs during his first season with the Ravens. Munchak will be facing both Harbaugh and the Ravens for the first time.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Flacco (224 passing yards, 3 TD) shook off an offseason's worth of criticism by outperforming Roethlisberger last Sunday. He didn't turn the ball over one time and was sacked just once while helping the Ravens build a 21-7 halftime advantage. Flacco hit wide receiver Anquan Boldin (4 receptions, 74 yards) for a 27-yard touchdown pass less than two minutes into the game and also found Rice (107 rushing yards, 4 receptions) for an 11-yard scoring reception in the first half. With bigger option Willis McGahee no longer in the fold, Rice also did the dirty work as a runner by scoring from one yard out in the second quarter. He and backup Ricky Williams (63 rushing yards) had plenty of room to run, in part to the strong lead blocking of new fullback Vonta Leach, while Flacco spread the ball out to six different receivers. In a dual effort to replace offseason departure Todd Heap, tight ends Ed Dickson (5 receptions, 1 TD) and Dennis Pitta (2 receptions) combined for seven catches and 104 yards, though recently-acquired wideout Lee Evans did not make a catch in his Baltimore debut despite four targets.
The Titans ranked just 26th in total defense a year ago and struggled to stop Jacksonville's running game in the opener. Tennessee yielded 163 of its 323 yards allowed on the ground, though the Jaguars found the end zone just once. Jacksonville's other nine points given up came on field goals, including two from 45 yards or deeper. The Titans and leading tackler Barrett Ruud (14 tackles) will try to build on that bend-but-don't-break mentality on Sunday, and the front four could get a boost with the possible return of ends Jason Jones and Derrick Morgan from knee injuries that kept them out last week. Tennessee managed a pair of sacks against the Jaguars, including one from cornerback Jason McCourty (5 tackles), who also forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Will Witherspoon (5 tackles). Safeties Chris Hope (8 tackles) and Michael Griffin (6 tackles) will be making sure that Rice or Boldin don't break a long play.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
With Johnson (24 rushing yards, 6 receptions) not having much room to work with, Hasselbeck (263 passing yards) played near mistake-free football to keep the Titans in the game. He completed a pair of touchdown passes to wide receiver Kenny Britt (5 receptions, 136 yards), including an 80-yarder towards the tail end of the third quarter. Hasselbeck's lone miscue, though, was an interception near the end of the game that brought to a close any comeback thoughts. Still, the signal-caller is a calming presence under center for the Titans and is 158 passing yards away from becoming the 33rd player in league history to reach the 30,000-yard mark. Britt was Hasselbeck's No. 1 look versus the Jags, with the wide receiver getting a team-high 10 targets. Wide receiver Nate Washington (6 receptions, 67 yards) and Johnson were both next with seven each. In all, seven different receivers caught a pass on Sunday, though Tennessee will certainly look to get its ground game moving in this matchup after recording just 43 yards rushing in Week 1.
If the Ravens can exert even half the pressure they did last week, it should lead to a second straight win. Pittsburgh managed 312 yards of offense on Baltimore, which got three sacks from linebacker Terrell Suggs (5 tackles) as he became the franchise's all-time leader in that category (71.5) in addition to forcing a pair of fumbles. Safety Ed Reed (6 tackles), meanwhile, had a pair of interceptions to extend his club career record to 56. On-the-field leader Ray Lewis (7 tackles) grabbed Baltimore's other interception of Roethlisberger and forced a fumble as well, while cornerback and leading tackler Lardarius Webb (11 tackles) and linebacker Jarret Johnson combined for a sack. Webb may be leaned on again this weekend after 2011 first-round pick and fellow corner Jimmy Smith was forced out of this past weekend's game on the opening kickoff due to a high-ankle sprain that will sideline him for a few games. Cornerback Chris Carr also left in the first half due to a nagging hamstring injury and is questionable for Sunday's tilt. The line is anchored by tackle Haloti Ngata (4 tackles), who recovered a pair of fumbles versus the Steelers.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Titans won't stand a chance in this one if Chris Johnson can't get his wheels going, and that is no easy task against the Ravens. Johnson has totaled 116 rushing yards and one score in two career games versus Baltimore, including one playoff matchup, while the Ravens have allowed just 24 players to reach 100 rushing yards since the 1999 season, the second-fewest behind only the Steelers (22) during that span.
When Hasselbeck does go to the air, he'll need to avoid Reed. The Ravens safety is just 20 interception return yards shy of setting the NFL's all-time record currently held by Rod Woodson (1,483). Hasselbeck, meanwhile, has seven touchdown passes in two career games against the Ravens, but hasn't faced them since 2007.
The Titans may have a tough time winning the turnover battle in this matchup. While the defense of the Ravens is coming off a huge game, the franchise's 63 total giveaways since the 2008 campaign are the third-fewest in the league over that time period.
Harbaugh said during his Monday press conference that he expects his club to get better. That has to be a scary thought for the Titans, who have to believe they let a game get away from them last weekend. Hasselbeck was able to play a solid game until his costly mistake at the end, but he'll be under a world of pressure from the Baltimore defense this Sunday. A quick start is a must for the Titans if they want to keep Chris Johnson involved, but a red-hot Ravens defense won't allow that to happen.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 27, Titans 13
09/15 11:08:23 ET