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Tennessee RBs present tough test for Rams
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Gone are the days when Eddie George would get the football 30 times a game, wear down a defense with his sledge-hammer running style, and move the chains all day long.
But make no mistake, Tennessee still loves to pound the football. Even with a new offensive coordinator in Norm Chow. Even with a new tandem of running backs in Chris Brown and Travis Henry. It is who the Titans are under coach Jeff Fisher.
"First and foremost, they're a running team," Rams coach Mike Martz said.
A physical, power-running team.
"When you look at their offense, that's what they're built for," Rams linebacker Dexter Coakley said. "They pride themselves on being a physical team, even back to the days that Eddie George was there. They still have that attitude, and you can see it on tape."
The Titans have had a 1,000-yard runner in eight of the past nine seasons. George, now out of the NFL, did it from 1996 through 2000, as well as in the '02 and '03 seasons. Brown, who replaced George as the Titans' feature back a year ago, went for 1,067 yards in '04.
Sometimes, the overall numbers weren't all that gaudy. For example, the Titans never finished higher than seventh in the NFL in rushing offense between '99 and '04. But it's what they did with those rushing yards.
Since the start of Tennessee's '99 Super Bowl season, the Titans have won the time of possession battle 70.4 percent of the time (in 69 of 98 regular-season games). And in those 69 games where they controlled the clock, the Titans have a 50-19 record. In contrast, they are 13-16 when they don't have the time of possession edge.
That remains the victory formula for Tennessee, even with Chow's emphasis on a quick-tempo, short-passing game. After relying so heavily on George all those years, the Titans traded for Henry to give them a "co-starter" in the backfield with Brown. But the Titans have yet to see their two-headed running game take off, averaging only 97 yards a game so far this season.
"It's not where we want it to be right now," Fisher said. "We're going to take some of the blame for that over the last couple weeks. But I also have to give some credit to the Pittsburgh and Baltimore defenses. We played two pretty tough defenses here in the first two weeks."
The Titans had to junk their running game in the season opener against Pittsburgh after falling behind 27-7 early in the third quarter.
Last week against Baltimore, Brown suffered what was described as a mild concussion on Tennessee's first offensive play and missed much of the game. (He practiced Wednesday, and although listed as questionable, is expected to play Sunday in St. Louis.)
So the Rams game may provide the first opportunity for Tennessee to really unleash Brown and Henry on an opponent.
"They're both power runners," Coakley said. "Obviously, Brown's a lot taller than Henry."
Brown is 6-3, 220. Henry, who had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons with Buffalo, is 5-9, 215.
"With Brown, people get misled by him running upright, but he's still a very physical runner," Coakley said. "He'll hit it between the tackles, and he's very explosive when he hits the hole."
Brown is more of a long strider. Although he's a little faster than Henry, and probably a better outside threat because of that, he's not real elusive. Instead, he'll hit the hole quick and break tackles.
"Henry's a little bit more of a shifty guy," Rams defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. "He's still got quickness and speed, but he has a little bit of cutback ability that Brown may not have. Doesn't have quite the same power that Brown has. So they've got a great change-up going on."
Together, they make Tennessee one of only three teams in the NFL with a pair of 1,000-yard running backs on the same roster. The others are New Orleans (Deuce McAllister and Antowain Smith) and Pittsburgh (Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley).
Veteran quarterback Steve McNair remains the "X" factor in the running game. Although he doesn't run as much as he used to, McNair can't be overlooked on the ground.
"The thing that worries me most is McNair, because he hasn't been running these last two games, and everybody knows what he can do when he gets in the open field," Rams defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "They run a lot of boots, and a lot of nakeds where he's outside of the pocket.
"You might think you have them on third and 8, or something like that, and have (the receivers) covered up. And he rolls out, makes a guy miss, and takes it for 20 yards and keeps the drive alive. He's been doing that his whole career."
Which is just another thing for the Rams' third-ranked rush defense to worry about.