What to Watch: Tennessee
Saturday, December 12, 2009

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

What to Watch: Tennessee

1. Chris 2K

The Rams defense has seen its share of top running backs this year, including Minnesota star Adrian Peterson. But none of those backs come with the home run ability of Tennessee star Chris Johnson.

Johnson has elbowed his way into the MVP discussion by leading the league in rushing at 1,509 yards, breaking the 100-yard mark in seven consecutive games. It’s no coincidence that the Titans have gone 5-2 in those contests after a 0-5 start.

There might not be a faster player in the league than Johnson, who once registered a 4.24 in the 40-yard dash. He has the moves to go with it; too, boasting an impressive jump cut and make you miss elusiveness that draws comparisons to Barry Sanders.

More than anything, it’s Johnson’s ability to break a long touchdown run at any moment that makes him so dangerous. For evidence, absorb the fact that Johnson has three runs of 85 or more yards this season that have gone for touchdowns.

No player in NFL history has recorded that many plays of more than 85 yards in a career.

“I just don’t think you can have an 85-yarder,” Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. “Those seem to be the ones that kind of break your back emotionally, so we just have to make sure we do a good job of containing him. He is going to get his yards because it is like saying (New Orleans quarterback) Drew Brees isn’t going to complete a pass. I think when you are rare and you are talented, you are going to get some yards. It is just the explosive ones that we have to eliminate.”

As Flajole points out, you can’t stop Johnson but limiting his big plays can go a long way toward a victory.

2. Containing Young

As though slowing down Johnson doesn’t present enough problems, the Rams also have to deal with athletic quarterback Vince Young.

Young’s return to the starting lineup has energized the Titans, who are 5-1 this year with him at the controls. He has matured dramatically in the past year after the death of mentor Steve McNair and spending time on the bench.

Young has come back with a vengeance, completing more than 60 percent of his passes and taking care of the ball with just three interceptions.

Of course, what makes Young so dangerous is his ability to get out of the pocket and makes plays with his legs and arm.

“They find different ways to get him the football,” Flajole said. “You probably see that they run him on quarterback draw, they run him on option plays, they run a little zone key play where he has the ability to throw a bubble screen if he gets the right look or keep the ball himself. They’ve been very creative with him. They do a good job of making sure they get the ball in his hands in critical situations and he is like having another tailback in the backfield.”

To contain Young, the Rams must find a way to be gap disciplined and be sure tacklers when he does get out of the pocket.

3. Going Deep

After the Rams offense struggled to get the passing game going last week against Chicago, they were left searching for ways to get more vertical in the air.

While Tennessee is vastly improved in pass defense since the beginning of the year, it still ranks near the bottom of the league in that category and the Rams should again have some chances to get things done aerially.

“You need to be efficient in the passing game,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “There are a lot of reasons for that. Obviously, it starts with protection which our guys are really fighting their ***** off. You can’t have drops and when you throw the football, you have to be accurate. If anywhere along the lines those things break down, it doesn’t look good. That’s the reason for practice. Guys get used to each other, the timing, and where working very hard on that.”

That doesn’t mean the Rams will come out chucking the ball deep on every play but there’s no doubt that they will look to take advantage of any chances their running game opens up for them down the field.

4. Jack Attack

Johnson won’t be the only superstar back in this game. Rams stud Steven Jackson enters the contest as the league’s No. 2 rusher and would like nothing more than to see how he stacks up against Johnson on Johnson’s home field.

“I think there’s a sense of pride,” Jackson said. “Chris is having an unbelievable year. He’s having a year that I could only dream of having one day. I’m a big fan of his because not only is he a speedy guy, but he is willing to take a pounding.”

Make no mistake; Jackson is having his share of success this year. But it’s been made more difficult in recent weeks because Jackson has dealt with a back injury that has kept him out of practice.

“It’s always better when guys can practice,” Shurmur said. “I think we’ve seen with his performances the last couple of weeks, that he can function and actually do very well without practicing. He’s done parts of things during the day probably more this week than last. We’d like to get him back full time, but until we do, we’re anticipating that he’s going to perform well.”

Things won’t be easier against the Titans, a team that ranks eighth in the league in rush defense. As always, though, the Rams will need Jackson to step up, play through pain and provide another strong outing to get the offense rolling.

5. Breaking Through

If it’s true that continuity is key for an offensive line then the Titans have perhaps the best starting five in the league.

Tennessee has a mix of veterans and youth that has started the majority of the team’s game in each of the past two seasons. Center Kevin Mawae is one of the best leaders in the league and young tackle Michael Roos is an emerging star.

The Titans line has allowed just 12 sacks in 12 games this year and with Young under center, it’s even harder to rack up negative yardage plays against Tennessee. The Titans also gave up just 12 sacks all of last season.

And that doesn’t even mention the way the line attacks defenses in the running game.

“They have done a great job and of course they are doing a great job in the run game too.” Flajole said. “They’ve got a talented back (RB Chris Johnson) back there and they are creating some holes for him and they make it double tough – a lot of athletes at a lot of different positions.”

The Rams will need to find some creative ways to get pressure on Young and find ways to get Tennessee in third-and-long situations.