The Tennessee Titans were supposed to be mediocre, at best.
They were recycling Matt Hasselbeck, who was coming off a dreadful season in Seattle. They lost Kenny Britt early in the year. Most vexing of all, beloved running back Chris Johnson was off to an absolutely miserable start.
But a funny thing happened. The Titans won some games. They're now 5-4, fresh off two miserable losses in a row but still evincing enough promise to draw consideration as contenders in the worst AFC South I can remember. A game I thought would be a cakewalk for the Falcons will probably be anything but.
Or will it? The Titans haven't gotten to 5-4 by merit of any particularly outstanding units. They pick a few passes and get a few sacks, but their defense is decidedly middle-of-the-road. Their offense is worst, cashing in 21st in overall and passing offense and 32nd in rushing yards per game. That's good news for the Falcons, who have the fourth-ranked rush defense in the NFL.
This may or may not be a comfort to Falcons fans, who just want their team to get an easy win against a competent team for once. Fortunately, this is a winnable one if the Falcons cut down on their mistakes and hone in on the Titan's vulnerabilities. I'm sure in the back of all of our minds, there's the nagging question of whether they can overcome the mistakes of deliberation and execution we've seen so frequently in recent weeks. We'll find out soon.
After the jump, my big question, three smaller ones and a prediction for the game.
The Big Question
Can the Falcons get their passing game going?
Given that the Titans are poor against the run, priority #1 will be getting the run established. Turner should have a big game in this one, and perhaps that will be enough to get the Falcons the win. Somehow I think Matt Ryan and his merry band of wide receivers will have to be involved, though, against a 15th ranked pass defense.
Right now, my confidence level is extraordinarily low. Everything we've complained about in regards to Mike Mularkey and his inane playcalling, Matt Ryan's accuracy and the reliability of the team's wide receivers came to a head against the Saints, leading to a handful of disastrous plays and a general sense that the Falcons couldn't find butts with their hands in the passing game when everything was on the line.
We need to see better than that. We need to see the Falcons dealing with opportunistic defenses by zipping the ball by them. We need to see receivers making catches and moving forward. We need, in essence, to see that the Falcons have a really good passing game, which they were supposed to have this whole time. I know this is frustration speaking, but the Falcons also aren't going to be a playoff team without it.
So the Falcons will have to get back on track against a competent pass defense, if for no other reason than to free up Turner. The biggest question is whether they will.
Three Small Questions
Question 1: Will the Falcons shut down Chris Johnson?
The Titans are the worst rushing team in the league by average yards per carry. Both CJ2K and Javon Ringer are averaging 3.4 yards a carry behind a struggling line, and the Falcons have built an imposing front seven over the last few years. On paper, this would seem to be a dreadfully easy task.
It's not that simple, of course. Johnson remains one of the league's true home run threats, a lightning fast back who can change the course of a game in an instant. The fact that he's been an unmitigated disaster all season does not completely remove the possibility that he'll suddenly find his form.
The Falcons would do well to shut him down early and remove any question.
Question 2: Will the Falcons shut down Matt Hasselbeck?
Assuming they force the Titans to be a one-dimensional offense, they stand a fair chance of shutting down the passing game as a result. There's nothing spectacular about this offense.
But Hasselbeck is having a nice season so far, and Damian Williams is a piece of that. He's a quality target on a team that lost its best receiver earlier this season, CJ2K is also a pretty competent pass-catcher out of the backfield. The Falcons will need to take those two out of the equation, stop the run and dare Hasselbeck to beat them by going to his other targets.
More than likely, that'll be enough.
Question 3: Can the pass rush get going?
This is sort of a question 2A, I guess, but bear with me. The Falcons have been inconsistent in their pursuit of the quarterback this season, accounting for a low sack total and not a ton of pressure. Drew Brees was virtually untouched on Sunday.
It's not just that a good pass rush would help the team shut down Hasselbeck. It's also that the team needs to get it revved up for the stretch run and for any possible playoff berth. If they can't apply any pressure to a teams like the Packers or Saints, they're doomed.
The Falcons will stumble and bumble, but they'll ultimately win this one by virtue of superior talent. I'll say 24-14.