Expert: Titans-Ravens Will be a Slugfest — By Design

By: Dan Pompei, NBCSports.com
By: Dan Pompei, NBCSports.com

ASK THE NFL EXPERT

If you believe the hype, you may predict the Titans will defeat the Ravens Saturday by a score of 9-7. Your logic: A Keith Bulluck fumble return for a touchdown and an Albert Haynesworth safety will overcome an Ed Reed interception return for a touchdown.

Yes, these teams are highlighted by dominating defenses. But there is more to them than that.

If you are interested in seeing an aerial display you will not find it in Nashville. You may find it in Carolina, where the Cardinals will play, or even in Pittsburgh, where the Chargers will visit. But not in Nashville.

During the regular season, the Titans ranked 27th in the NFL in passing and the Ravens ranked 28th. But really, it was by design. Neither team ever tried to lead the league in passing.

Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said he is satisfied with the team’s offensive balance — or shall we say imbalance? — because the Titans are winning. “Obviously, I’d like to have more success throwing it than we have,” he said in a break from game planning this week. “I’d probably like some more bigger plays, but we’re winning and it doesn’t matter how. It’s been ugly some weeks, but they have found a way to do it.

The formulas to win for both teams were to complement their great defenses by running the ball and minimizing turnovers. So the Ravens had the fourth best running game in football and the Titans had the seventh best.

Both did it with more than one back, as the Titans found a wonderful mix between Chris Johnson and LenDale White. Johnson had the edge in carries 251 to 200. White had the edge in touchdowns 15-9.

Because the runners have completely different styles, Heimerdinger has found different uses for each.

The Ravens also split up the work between Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice, but as the season has gone on McClain has emerged as their go-to back. No one would have thought this 6-0, 260 pound blocking specialist would have developed into Brandon Jacobs light. No one, that is, except Cam Cameron.

“I haven’t seen anything he’s done this year that we didn’t think he could have done in the offseason,” said the Ravens offensive coordinator, who had his eye on McClain back when he was the head coach of the Dolphins. “He was always on my radar. I thought he could catch and run the ball a little bit.”

Even though neither offense has created many sparks, both of their offensive coordinators have been praised for doing outstanding jobs, and rightfully so.

The last time the Titans had more than 10 wins in a season was 2003. The offensive coordinator on that team was Heimerdinger. He left the following year for the Jets and then the Broncos, apparently taking a piece of the Titans with him.

“He’s made a big difference with his play calling, his choice of plays, and also his demeanor,” Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. “The expectation level is up on offense. You can see it in practice and in games. The offense is just more efficient. He’s done a heck of a job.”

Both coordinators had to make adjustments on the fly because the quarterbacks they thought would be their starters ended up on the bench.

Kerry Collins took over for injured Vince Young in the second game of the season, necessitating some changes in the Titans' offense. Heimerdinger started relying on different formations because the Titans suddenly were seeing more two deep, man under schemes because defenses no longer feared turning their backs on the Titans quarterbacks. They knew Collins couldn’t hurt them with his feet.

And Heimerdinger has played to Collins’ strengths in his game plans and play calls. “Kerry makes real good decisions and protects the ball,” Heimerdinger says. “He knows where his three and four [reads] are. He knows which side of the field to work.”

In Baltimore, rookie Joe Flacco became the starter only after injury to Kyle Boller and illness to Troy Smith. But he has performed exceptionally well for a rookie, operating with consistent poise. Last week, he became the first rookie ever to win his debut playoff game on the road.

So while it’s true the Titans-Ravens game should be dominated by defenses, each has an offense that is capable of stealing the show.

Q: Who was the biggest free agent bust this year? Is it Pacman Jones?
— Chuck N., Waco, Texas

A: Pacman Jones may have been a bust, but he wasn’t the biggest. That would be Brian Kelly, who is believed to have been paid more than $4 million by the Lions before he was cut in December.

Q: What can we expect from Tom Brady next season. Do quarterbacks who have gone through his type of surgery ever come back?
— Peter, Norwood

A: I’m sure Brady will be back and as good as ever, if not better. But it may take awhile.

It is not uncommon for it to take two years for a player to completely overcome a serious injury like Brady’s. On the one hand, Brady doesn’t use his legs to sprint and cut like a wide receiver or running back might, so he won’t be useless.

But on the other hand, legs are critical to a quarterback in terms of planting and throwing, so he might not be himself.
Q: How much blame should a coach really get? If you don't have the quality players or you have ones who make a lot of mistakes not even the best coach could do anything with them. Cleveland and Detroit for example.
— Wendy, Lynchburg, Va.

A: There is no question head coaches often get too much blame when things go wrong. But a head coach makes so many decisions that he can’t possibly always be right (Bill Belichick aside). So if a team goes south, it usually is pretty easy to make a case against the head coach.

Even if a team does well, but not quite well enough — like the Jets, for instance — the coach can be a convenient scapegoat. But head coaches all know the deal. They are hired to be fired, and none of them expects to be in their positions for a very long period of time.

Q: Please, I am not the smartest when it comes to football, but in the Colts vs. SD (great game) I am really confused as to when a player is down. Is it when his knee is down or where he stretches the ball out to. Looks like both calls were made tonight to me. What's up?
— Elaine, Chapel Hill, Tenn.

A: A runner is down when, after being contacted by a defensive player, touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet or hands. Just because a player is ruled down when his knee touches the ground does not mean the ball is spotted where his knee touched. The spot should be the farthest point he advanced the ball before the play was ruled dead.

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