Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sleeping With the Enemy: Week Seven, Titans @ Chiefs

This is "Sleeping with the Enemy," a feature in which we interview fans of the opposing teams represented inside the House of Georges. Sort of. For a short spell, we interviewed fans of clubs facing both the Chiefs and Broncos, but our Denver faithful opted to switch to a Braille-only format, and publish it only on the stall walls of random Denver-area breakfast joints. It then evolved into a Chiefs-opponent-only feature, and this week it's even specialer: we've got two Titans fans in the House, and they were eager to break down this game with detail and precision. In the post-jump mix is Jimmy Morris from Music City Miracles, and Nick from Titan Sized. Join us, as we crunch Titans numbers, and examine a few of the 4000 things wrong with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Given that this Titans squad has played so well in the early goings of the season, I had a few questions to ask of Jimmy and Nick.

Bankmeister: This contest between the Chiefs and Titans looks to be an interesting one ahead of time, even if the final outcome is as bad as it could be. The Titans are undefeated, and have a largely reputable D. Stack that against a 1-4 Chiefs squad with next to no offense, and the field is obviously tilted in Tennessee's favor. What, in your estimation, are the three keys to Tennessee's early-season success?

Jimmy: 1. Defense: #1 in the NFL in scoring defense (11.2 points per game)
2. Running the ball: LenDale White and rookie Chris Johnson have combined for 119 yards per game
3. Protecting the football and forcing turnovers: #1 in the NFL in turnover ratio (+6)

Nick: 1. The play of the defense.
The Titans boast one of the best front four in football, with mad man Kyle Vanden Bosch and DT Albert Haynesworth eating up the right side, overachieving DT Tony Brown next to Haynesworth and the now resurgent "Freak" Jevon Kearse at left end. While the Titans may have one of the best D-Lines in the NFL, they have an even better secondary. Led by "The Young Guns" CB Cortland Finnegan and FS Michael Griffin (both of whom are tied for the league lead in interceptions) and "The Old Guys" CB Nick Harper (game-ending INT's in the last two weeks) and SS Chris Hope (leads the team in tackles), this group is probably the best unit in the league. And that doesn't even factor in the glue that holds the defense together, linebacker Keith Bulluck. He has been the one constant for this team for nine years now, and he is the one that the rest of the guys look to for leadership and emulate his work ethic.

2. The steady hand of QB Kerry Collins.
This season has been one full of successes for the Titans, but it has not allowed fans of the team to forget the turmoil that surrounded the team early on with the Vince Young saga. There was already plenty for us to debate given Young's early play, but when he went down with the knee injury, the team's hand was forced. While Collins hasn't been spectacular this season ( 3 td 3 int 73 passer rating), he gets rid of the ball quickly (only been sacked once), and has had two game-winning drives against good defenses (Jacksonville and Baltimore). While much of Kerry's success in running the offense can be attributed to our stellar offensive line, the bottom line is he's gotten it done with below average wide-outs.

3. The play of rookie running back Chris Johnson.
Widely criticized for taking Johnson with the 24th overall pick in the 2008 draft, the rookie out of East Carolina University quickly quelled the debate with his pre-season and early regular season play. While his play has dropped off some in recent weeks, his touches have increased during that same span, and he is clearly the number one guy in the Tennessee backfield. He looks like a guy that can carry the load for this team for years to come, and I think is making GM Mike Reinfeldt and Coach Jeff Fisher look pretty savvy right now. I think he'll have a big day against a weak Chiefs' run defense.

B: For Kansas City fans, this game is coming at a bizarre time, in three separate fashions. One, in the last game the Chiefs played, Larry Johnson was held to two rushing yards. That effort, if you can call it that, come one week after a 198-yard output. How will such inconsistent numbers match up against the Titans' run defense? The second factor is that the NFL trade deadline just expired, and the Chiefs failed to trade Tony Gonzalez, a transaction he requested. Does Gonzalez have a marquis day, or does he come out laissez faire, angry that they didn't get a deal done for him? Third, it's the return of Brodie Croyle at quarterback. He's claimed he's not 100%, and that he likely won't be for the rest of the season, but knows he must contribute to this team in a winning fashion or chalk his Kansas City career up as over. Is the Titan pash rush one he should fear in terms of intimidation and injury? They've already netted 15 sacks as a unit. Does this trend of averaging three a contest continue?

J: Well it appears now that LJ isn't going to play so that answers that. The Titans pass rush is very good when healthy. Right now it looks like Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and defensive tackle Tony Brown might miss the game. That will slow the rush a little bit, but the defensive plan will be to get after Croyle all day long.

N: As I said earlier, the Titans' defense is its biggest strength. Albert Haynesworth is probably one of the front-runners for defensive MVP thus far, and there is just no way that the Chiefs can cover both he and Vanden Bosch on that right side (unless they put their entire o-line over there). With that said, KVB has been a bit banged up since he left the Baltimore game with a knee injury and will be listed as questionable for Sunday's game (although he says he'll play). What will be interesting to see is if the Chiefs utilize the speedy Jamaal Charles and Kolby Smith more this week, as these faster, more change-of-pace backs have given the Titans some trouble this season (see the Bengals Chris Perry and the Texans Steve Slaton).

As for Gonzo, that guy is the consummate professional, and that shouldn't change because he didn't get the trade that he requested. The biggest concern for Chiefs fans should be whether the QB (whoever that may be) will even be able to get him the ball. I don't see that trend of getting to the QB change this week for the Titans, especially against that line.

B: On the Tennessee side of the football, Chris Johnson appears to be carrying the load, except when in goal-line formations, then LenDale White gets the ball. Is this a formula that Jeff Fisher will continue to employ, or will one of the two emerge as a featured back? Regarding the pass, what is the fan base feeling on Kerry Collins being at the helm? Will there be another phase of Vince Young football, or will his personal issues/"injuries" keep him from again securing the one slot on the depth chart?

J: I think we will see the 2 back system for the whole season. The Titans LOVE to run the ball so they will need both guys. The fan base is happy with Collins at the helm. The most important thing is for the quarterback to take care of the ball in this offense. Collins has done that for the most part. It is his team until he quits doing that. We will see VY again because he has too much potential and they are paying him too much money to ride the pine, but it might not be until 2009.

N: That will probably be the case if the Titans get down inside the two or three-yard line, as LenDale White-Castle is the epitome of a "three yards and cloud of dust" running back. But in watching the Titans over the last couple of weeks, many observers will note that the majority of the red zone carries have gone to Johnson. They are sealing off the outside and allowing him to get to the sidelines more, as evidenced in the Minnesota game three weeks ago.

As far as the feeling about Kerry Collins at the helm, most Titans fans seem to be very comfortable with him leading the offense. His numbers haven't been huge, but he also hasn't thrown but three INT's (one of them being a tipped ball against Baltimore) and more importantly as I said earlier, he hasn't been sacked but once since taking over (which can be credited to great pass blocking by the offensive line as well). He has also made big plays when the Titans have needed him to the most. It's obviously not how we would have scripted it, but the guy has led a team to the Super Bowl (in this decade) and has a very high football IQ. VY should be using this time to learn from the veteran, because if he does come back to lead this team at some point, he'll be better off for it. And for the record, I think Vince will be back as the starting QB for the Titans, even if it's not this season .

B: In the receiving corps, the Titans have some decent ends of tightness in the form of Alge Crumpler and Bo Scaife, but lack any real number-one-type receivers. Justin Gage, Brandon Jones and Justin McCareins have all combined for roughly 450 yards and a couple of touchdowns, but FisherBall seems to be about strong defense, and running the ball. Assuming Collins stays in, and given his alleged ability to put the ball in the air, will they ever open up the playbook for this guy?

J: No. That is not the style of ball Fisher wants to play which is part of the reason they don't have a #1 receiver on this roster. The front office figures why give a guy a bunch of money if he isn't going to be that big of a factor anyway? It isn't always fun to watch, but it has been effective so far this season.

N: I think they have some in recent weeks with Justin McCareins, as he is a guy that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger is comfortable with from their first stints as Titans and during their time with the Jets. Brandon Jones played quite well against Baltimore filling in for the injured Gage, in my humble opinion. The biggest question will be if and when Justin Gage can get healthy, as he has been hampered all season by a knee injury. He developed a really nice rapport with Young last season, and I think he can do the same with Collins if he can get back on the field. But yes, you are correct in that FisherBall is all about controlling the line of scrimmage with the offensive and defensive lines and the Titans do that better than any team in the league. Although the defensive line has been rightfully showered with accolades, the play of the o-line has gone largely unnoticed outside of Tennessee. It starts with the coaching. Hall of Famer Mike Munchak is one of the best positional coaches in the NFL. The line lost two of last years starters and has still managed to improve. It is also one the deepest units on the team; Daniel Loper and LeRoy Harris can play guard and tackle (respectively) without a huge drop off. Book-ended by two young tackles, Michael Roos & David Stewart, and with two young running backs, the Titans will be able to punish defenses for some time to come.

B: The month following the Chiefs game is a tough one for Tennessee, in that they draw Indy and Green Bay at home, then travel to Chicago and Jacksonville. Beyond that, it only barely gets easier, if at all. How do you see the season shaping up for this squad? Are they the real deal? Give us a prediction for this club. Can they win 13 games? More?

J: This team is the real deal. I predicted before the season that they would win 11 games, and I think that is about where they end up. The schedule so far has been pretty soft, and the Titans have done a good job of taking care of business. They will lose some games against some of these tough teams, but I think they will win the AFC South.

N: In our season preview, I believe that we picked the Titans to win a modest nine games and be right on the cusp to yet again make the playoffs. Barring a total meltdown, it looks as though they are well on their way to at least that. It would be crazy to think that they won't hit any bumps along the way, but this team looks for real. The game here against Indy on Monday Night Football will be our biggest test yet as the Colts look to have figured some things out and are finally getting healthy (minus the recent news about Addai). What we don't need to do is look past teams like the Chiefs, Bears and Jets like it seems the Giants did with the Browns last Monday night. If we can make it to that week 8 match up against the Colts undefeated, and beat our bitter division rival, the Titans will solidify their stake to the claim of the best team in football. Luckily, we get a good Green Bay team here as well, as Titans' fans give the team one of the better home-field advantages in all of football. The Jags always play us close and seem to be getting themselves together as well, so traveling their should be a really tough match up in week 11. I could see this team getting 13 wins, but that's a long way off still.

And given that there's a ridiculous amount of drama associated with the Chiefs, only adding to their tendency to play really bad football, Jimmy had a few questions for me.

J: Who is the best quarterback on your roster? Is there a legit NFL QB on the roster?

B: Without trying to seem like I'm bailing on a tough question, it's nearly impossible to answer since we haven't seen consistent play yet out of Croyle. Most folks say he's no good because he's lost all the games that he's started; I say the team has lost them. To answer it directly, it's Damon Huard right now, but if Croyle could stay healthy, I might be one of the only people left in the area that think Croyle could be the best on our roster.

J: How much talk is there that Larry Johnson is going to be suspended?

B: As of right now, there is no talk. (Editor's Note: This part of our conversation occurred prior to Thursday afternoon.) All's Herm has said is that they're dealing with it within the organization, and I imagine they'll wait to comment on it until the legal process has been completed. It's being called a minor assault, or something bizarre like that. I doubt the Chiefs would suspend him, but it's possible that Goodell could step in and do so. (Note: Clearly, I know nothing, as it was in fact the team that suspended him, and not the league.)

J: Talk about the Tony Gonzalez situation. How big of a distraction is it? Do you think they should have traded him?

B: It is a distraction. Everyone in the organization tells the media that it's not, but it is, and Tony's post-deadline comments only add to that, even though he says he'll be quick to get over it. I don't think it will be a distraction during gametime, but the players have been well aware of the scenario. I do think they should've traded him. I wrote about it here (link to come), but in a nutshell, it would've been best for him. Since he's still here, however, I'm secretly happy that he's still a Chief.

J: What 5 steps do the Chiefs need to take to turn it around?

B: Whew. Five steps? Toughie. First and foremost, solve the quarterback dilemna. If Croyle isn't going to work, they need to spend a first-round pick on one that will, pronto. Second, they need to broaden the overall scheme just a smidge. Run the ball, stop the run, and control the clock might've worked in the stone ages, but there's too much talent in today's NFL, and they will blow you up more often than you'd like. They need to find a balance of passing and running, and not immediately go into the run-only shell when things appear frightening. Third, they need to solidify the right side of the offensive line and in doing so, obtain more QB protection. Period. That might even need to be number two. Fourth, they need legitimate number two and number three receievers. Dwayne Bowe's pretty good, but so far he ain't great, and teams will successfully hone in on him and get in his head when they know the Chiefs are looking to him most every time. Finally, they need to iron out any flaws and errors with items one through four, stay the course with them, and bring in a smart head coach that will adhere to that philosophy. Herm's a good coach and he's a smart guy, but he's not a smart coach, and he will never be great. My new mantra: Like terrible decsion-making and a lack of championships? Herm Edwards is your man.

And so did Nick...

N: Tony Gonzalez has been around forever, but his production is still there. We know now that he was not traded, but is that not a good thing for the the team? I mean, isn't there some value in having vets that are also stand-up guys around a young team (kinda like the Titans over the last few years)?

B: I think it is a good thing for the team. Tony's a great leader, role model, and still a great athlete in his prime. In today's KC Star, there were a couple of mentionings of what Tony's presence could mean for the development of Brodie Croyle, should he stay healthy and the starter. These mentionings were of course asterisked with the claim that such developmental contributions were not a part of the non-trade. So yes, there is value in that, and I'd argue that it's more than "some"; you have the everyday presence of teaching young guys things, but perhaps more powerful is the stuff the youngsters aren't necessarily thinking about such as how Tony's stayed in great shape throughout each calendar year of his career, and barely missed a game as a result.

N: The Chiefs have been downright dreadful against the run this year (dead last). The running game has always been the bread-and-butter of the Tennessee offense (12th overall this season). It seems as though we have a huge advantage in this particular area. Should we assume that is mainly the fault of a bad Chiefs d-line, or is there something that we are missing and shouldn't look over?

B: Dreadful indeed, and the Titans do and will have a huge advantage in this area. The d-line shares a fault, no doubt, but I would actually hang more blame on the defensive scheme, and the fact that -- I've said this, perhaps ad nauseum on the HoG -- Herm Edwards, defensive-minded as he is, is a good coach and a smart man, but he is not a smart coach. The Cover Two scheme either doesn't gel with Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham's personality, is outdated, or Edwards doesn't know how to operate it. It's probably the latter, given that he was never an actual coordinator.

Either way, we were much better against the run last year, but we still gave up the token huge plays both on the ground and in the air. To answer your question, it appears to me that the D-line's assignment is applied pressure first, tackle the runner second. That kind of means the linebackers are the first line of defense, and Derrick Johnson is finally coming into a solid, consistent player, Donnie Edwards is getting old (and he's hurt), and Demorrio Williams -- for my money -- had largely unimpressive numbers in a Falcons uniform, so why would he be any better in another crappy regime. Then there's the secondary, who might be our strength. Our young safeties are playing tight football, and our even younger corners show a ton of potential. Shocker, that's what Herm played. No wonder the rest of the unit is sub-par.

N: Our secondary makes most of our tackles (3 of the top 4 on the team), and CB Nick Harper and SS Chris Hope like to creep up to the line of scrimmage and show blitz. Do you think the Chiefs could punish our D if we're too aggressive? Do they have the personnel for misdirection, reverses, or gadget type plays?

B: With all due respect to your question and the Chiefs players, I doubt that the word "punish" could be used in any regard when speaking of the Chiefs' offense. The only exceptions would be: a) the right side of the O-line punishing the quarterback with their ole style of blocking, b) Larry Johnson punishing women in KC night clubs, or c) Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey punishing the fan base by pretending that his squad will one day find a legitimate balance between productive running and passing. And I'm certain the personnel is there, but conservative crew wearing the headphones would almost assuredly never call for any such shenanigans.

N: Glenn Dorsey was one of the top prospects coming out of college, even with the injury trouble that caused him to slip a bit in the draft. Have you see any development over the first five games to justify that "can't miss" tag, or is that not enough of a sampling to even determine his progress (no sacks, 1FF, 11 solo tackles)? Do you see his development as similar to Mario Williams slow start his rookie year or even our own Albert Haynesworth, who didn't really come into his own until his third year?

B: I believe that I am unfit to answer that question, and here's why: In my eyes, actual, hard-core football fans watch the game very differently from one another. For example, my father-in-law watches almost nothing but the dirty work in the trenches from the start of each snap to its conclusion. He would be somebody that could tell you, assuming he's seen each game. I don't watch football like that, especially with my team playing as poorly as it has for far too long. I'm mostly focused on the sticks; achieving and preventing first downs is what keeps me energized. I suppose that the best I could tell you is that any player is only as good as the players around him. Given that most of the players around Dorsey are either young, inexperienced, or in some cases, bad, I'd have to say those stats are pretty okay with me, especially considering our record. How that compares to Williams and Haynesworth is beyond me, as I'm a massive homer, but I will agree with you that Haynesworth became something of a beast in the last season and-a-half to two seasons.

N: Keeping the last question in mind, if 2008 is pretty much lost for the Chiefs, what do you think some of the team's goals are for the remainder of the season? They had a large and highly touted rookie class coming out of the 2008 draft. Which of them do you think will play on Sundays for a long time in this league? Do you expect a big overhaul in the off-season at quarterback, running back and maybe most importantly, head coach?

B: I don't want to sound off with these run-of-the-mill answers, but when you're real young and real bad, it's all about the basics, and right now, it has to be about finding ways to win football games. Sure, every club does that every week, but this club is doing it at a primitive level. Right now I can't say that I don't see any of them playing. Dorsey, Branden, the two Brandons, Jamaal Charles, and even Brad Cottam to a lesser degree have shown flashes. DaJuan Morgan and Will Franklin will need to be patient for opportunities to play, and frankly, with those sixth- and seventh-rounders, I don't know squat about them. But of those mentioned, I imagine they'll be around for some time.

Finally, it's like this: If the Brodie Croyle experiment fails, and the Chiefs don't spend their first-rounder on a quarterback in April 2009, that head office had better be on a plane for Siberia before the first day of the draft is over, because there will be a beyond furious, clinically insane mob of fans looking to rape and pillage. Honest Injun'. As far as Larry Johnson goes, who knows. I was glad we signed him to the big deal, then regretted being glad, and now I don't even know where I stand with him. Between Charles and Kolby Smith, I think a 1200-yard back could emerge, and I don't know if we'll see that opportunity, because if the Chiefs want to trade Johnson, I doubt they'll find anyone who will accept that fat contract.

And no, Edwards will not, much to my chagrin, be fired in the off-season. This good-ol-boys club is about as good ol' boy as it gets. He gets 'til early November '09 to figure it out. God bless us all.

In the end, it was a piece-mealed effort, but one that made for some heavy football scrutiny, some enjoyable reading, and one conclusive, predictive agreement...

J: I think the Titans come in there and win it going away, 28-10.

N: 30-10, Titans win.

B: Aw, what the hell. The Chiefs make a game of it: Titans 27, Chiefs 21.