Expect Defense to Shine in Home FinalePosted:Dec 21st, 2012 5:26 pm
With two game left in the regular season, the checklist on being ready for the playoffs is pretty simple: #1: Keep the healthy guys healthy and get the key injured guys healthy and ready for the post-season. #2: Keep winning--a first round bye is still a tangible goal, especially with the 49ers playing a tough road game in Seattle Sunday night.
And so we welcome the Tennessee Titans, a team that had its prime time moment on Monday night and would like nothing better than skipping a trip to cold and snowy Green Bay on Christmas weekend. The Titans, at 5-9, saw their season officially become irrelevant six weeks ago when the Bears beat them 51-20 (Chicago is 1-5 since that game).
They are without four opening day starters on the offensive line and lost their backup center on Monday night. It's made life very difficult for their one legit offensive weapon, Chris Johnson. The best thing that could have happened was that 94 yard sprint against the Jets. It ensures he got the attention of the defense. But the reality is he gained 28 yards on his other 20 carries and is nothing like the superstar we watched a few years ago.
The offense was turned over to Jake Locker this season and he's a big, strong, fast QB who can beat you with his legs. The problem is, to this point he can't beat you with his arm. He was inaccurate at Washington and he hasn't improved. The Titans fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer in the middle of the season and the passing game is the main reason why. Locker will be without two of his favorite targets Sunday: rookie WR Kendall Wright is out with cracked ribs and the team lost its best pass catcher, TE Jared Cook to a season-ending injury a few weeks ago. Locker will look for Kenny Britt and Nate Washington, neither of whom will be thrilled about their matchups.
The Titans' defense has actually been solid since the Bears debacle. Linebacker Akeem Ayers has become the leader, though they had hoped prized free agent Kamerion Wimbley would be that guy. They've got decent corners, but they rank 27th against the pass. They took the ball away from the Jets five times on Monday night--the main reason they beat the Jets. Needless to say, the Pack will not be in the Christmas spirit on Sunday.
On the Pack's side of the ball, the offense is a bit concerning. TJ Lang and Jeff Saturday have not practiced this week and RB Alex Green is likely to miss the game with a concussion. Toss in Aaron Rodgers' tweaked ankle (though he practiced fully all week) and you get the feeling the offense will be a bit pedestrian this week (Randall Cobb has also been limited with a shoulder injury).
This sets up to be a day the defense rises up. The return of Clay Matthews last week elevated the defense to an entirely different level. He raised the play of Mike Neal and BJ Raji and was disruptive throughout. Locker doesn't need a reason to leave the pocket but Matthews will provide a constant one. Sam Shields' return has also been very noticeable. Suddenly, the trio of Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Shields is on a par with anyone's and it's hard to see the Titans doing anything in the passing game.
We'll all watch what Mike McCarthy does when the Packers get inside the Titans 35. Will he alter his play calling to take into account the enigma that is Mason Crosby? Is this the week Crosby shakes out of his funk and drills a few field goals? He's missed at least one in each of the last nine games he's tried one. Not something we'd hope to be dealing with as we massage our NFC playoff seeding.
The last time the Titans played a cold weather game was three years ago at the end of the season in New England. The Patriots eked out a 59-0 win. I don't see that kind of drubbing, but I don't see the Titans scoring more points than that.
Packers 17 Titans 0
Update: On Friday afternoon it was reported, and then confirmed that center Jeff Saturday is being benched in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith. The 37 year old returned to practice on Friday (he missed Wednesday and Thursday with shoulder and neck injuries) and is healthy enough to play. Mike McCarthy said he expects Saturday to play, but EDS to start.
I was more on board with the Saturday signing than many of you and clearly it did not live up to my expectations. But it wasn't an abject failure by any means, and EDS no doubt learned a lot by watching the veteran.
That said, this is a pretty shocking move to make in Week 16--an admission that Saturday is nolding the unit back. We know that Rodgers is a big EDS guy and has said he will be the starting center at some point. That time is now and the Packers' offensive line undergoes a big change with the playoffs two weeks away.
Dietrich-Smith will be tested mightily next weekend at the Metrodome, in what could be a playoff atmosphere if A) the Vikings shock the Texans on Sunday or B) Adrian Peterson is within sniffing distance of Eric Dickerson's rushing record. That could be a good experience for him heading into the playoffs.