Breaking down Sunday's Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts game (1 p.m., CBS)...
First, a little explanation. Perhaps it's because the Titans have ripped off five straight wins and seemingly resemble their 2008 form... Perhaps it's because people still don't believe in Colts coach Jim Caldwell, the first NFL coach to kick off a career with 11 wins... Perhaps it's because people see Tennessee's desperation and Indianapolis's perceived lack thereof... Whatever it is, most people around these parts are predicting a Titans' win. Not me. (Nor the oddsmakers, who're giving the Titans 8½.) Henceforth, we're devoting the crux of this week's column to deconstructing Tennessee, rather than the standard back-and-forth on both teams, because somebody had to do it.
1. Vince Young has changed. First the good stuff. In his first five starts since getting benched in Week 1 of 2008, Young appears a changed man. His numbers are way up in all the right places -- his completion percentage is up seven points on his career average; his passer rating is up 25 -- which offsets a pedestrian touchdown total of four TDs in five games.
Throw-by-throw, he looks more like an NFL passer. Last week his highlight reel included a picture perfect, 35-yard rainbow over the uncovered left shoulder of Nate Washington; and his game-winning drive was peppered with short lasers that lead his receivers toward the sideline. But Young's most improved asset, specifically his confidence in the pocket, requires some viewing to appreciate.
All of a sudden, Young is a pocket mover, not a runner. He keeps plays alive with his feet, knowing his second or third looks might open up if he can drag the play out that extra second, and it's paying off. Two plays last week against Arizona demonstrate this.
First, Young had first-and-10 at his own 41, up 3-0 in the first quarter. He faked a handoff to Chris Johnson and rolled to his right, then stepped into the pocket as it collapsed behind him. Darnell Dockett got a hand on Young, which in the past had been the signal for Vince to scurry up the middle, probably gaining a few yards. But the new Vince deftly tip-toed out of traffic and kept his eyes up-field to find tight end Bo Scaife for a 17-yard gain.
Three quarters later, same thing but at a far more crucial moment. On the final play of the game, Young bought some time with his feet and a pump fake before zipping one to Kenny Britt at the back of the end zone for a winning score. On that play, there's no question Young had room to run, and he might've been able to get down to the one- or two-yard line, but a touchdown was unlikely.
From the Cardinals' perspective, it had to look a lot like the Steelers' winning play in the Super Bowl last February. And therein lies a comparison Young has to like: the way he keeps plays alive these days resembles Ben Roethlisberger at his finest.
One might read this to mean Young is running less often, but the opposite is actually true. As a starter in '09, he's running 7.4 times a game, as opposed to 5.9 in years past. But Young's runs these days are largely drawn up as such, as opposed to the reckless scrambles we're used to. And when he does take off he's more prone these days to take a step out of bounds rather than risk a collision and a fumble. His average of .75 fumbles per game is down significantly.
2. ...But he's still the same guy. And now the bad. For all his confidence, Young still makes stupid mistakes that, to me, show a lack of concentration. That game-winner to Britt last week? It was thrown into a slew of four defenders and would have been picked or deflected by a better secondary. The 99-yard drive that got him there? It included a.) a deflected pass that miraculously ended up in Scaife's hands and b.) another poorly thrown ball on fourth down that Britt corralled while jumping over a defender's back. That's more luck than talent.
But because Young beat Arizona in such a dramatic fashion, we'll remember the late touchdown and the 387 passing yards. We've already forgotten he took two stupid sacks late in the first half of that game, thus costing Tennessee an easy field goal -- a field goal that would have changed the dynamic of the game. Classic Vince Young brainfarts.
Now consider this week's opponent and defense. Indianapolis may rank 15th in yards against average, but it seemingly comes alive at all the right moments. The Colts' win last week against Houston was sealed by a strip of Matt Schaub and a fumble recovery. A week earlier they beat Baltimore by intercepting a Joe Flacco pass. Before that they stopped Tom Brady on fourth-and-one. Before that it was the Texans again going down on a Schaub interception. And so on... Is Young really the guy you want making decisions late against Indianapolis with the game on the line?
3. Chris Johnson will chew up yards and clock -- and that's just fine with Peyton Manning. Make no mistake, this game rests just as much on the shoulders of Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher, as it does Young's. But Manning will have something to say about the final outcome, and the bottom line is he simply needs less total time to work his magic (even considering Johnson's three touchdown runs of 85 yards or more).
In an ideal world the Titans keep the game close enough on defense that they can follow a game plan Sunday similar to the one the Miami Dolphins chose in Week 2 against the Colts. In that contest Miami called 49 running plays versus 35 passes and chewed up 239 rushing yards. Possession-wise, the Dolphins were dominant, holding a 45- to 15-minute advantage. That's a picture perfect game in Jeff Fisher's mind, and there's reason to believe Tennessee can match the feat by pounding Johnson and using Young's feet and short passing game -- set up by play-action fakes to Johnson, no doubt -- to keep the chains moving.
But Manning and Co. are built to beat that. In a time crunch, they're terrific. The average Colts' scoring drive lasts just 3:19, eighth-shortest in the NFL (Philadelphia is first). And they can keep that time over great distances. Their 33 drives of 70 or greater yards are more than any other team. Hence, they still squeezed in 27 points against Miami in Week 2, which was good enough for a win.
Against Tennessee, Manning faces a no-frills, even front. Chuck Cecil's defense doesn't dabble much in bizarre stunts or excessive blitzing (elements that have proven effective against Manning in the past), so it should be interesting to see if Tennessee changes that this time around.
Every week, I lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 13 matchup:
Dallas Clark -- Only one player has cracked 100 yards receiving against Tennessee since its win streak began: Niners tight end Vernon Davis. Clark also has history on his side. He's caught at least six balls in each of his past three games against the Titans, including in a two-touchdown game last year.
Pierre Garcon -- Reggie Wayne's an easy pick, but consider Garcon (or Austin Collie) this week as well. Only the lowly Lions have allowed more receiving scores than the Titans, meaning there could be enough TDs to go around.
Chris Johnson -- Just think about it is all I'm saying. Consider the fact that Johnson had just 34 yards the first time these teams met, on Oct. 11. Meanwhile, the Colts have only allowed two backs, Ricky Williams and Steven Jackson, to go over 100 yards on the ground. If you're stuck with Johnson, life's not over. But don't be afraid to look at other options in this crucial fantasy week if the matchups look better.
Vince Young -- Don't buy last week's 387-yard performance, which came against the league's 30th-ranked secondary. (Two of the other five teams Young has beaten ranked 24th or worse as well.) If Young passes for 300 yards again it would be just his third time in 40 games. Don't bet on it. If you need a sub for Kurt Warner or Ben Roethlisberger look elsewhere.
Who has Tennessee defeated in this five-game streak, really? Jacksonville and San Francisco. Ho-hum. The careening Texans. The Bills at their darkest hour. And the Cards without Warner. Barely. Color me not impressed.
Whether it translates to his players, I can't tell, but I love Caldwell's attitude about being 11-0. "We're not pulling in the reins by any stretch of the imagination," he said this week. "We aren't comfortable." The way I see it, he and Manning will keep the troops in fifth gear until they can absolutely afford to let up, and that time hasn't come yet. (A true test of how serious the Colts are about not letting up may come in whether defensive end Dwight Freeney plays through an abdomen injury. He practiced on Thursday, but still could sit out Sunday.)
Manning will attack the Titans' secondary early and Caldwell will load the box against Johnson, leaving Young to do it himself. By the time Indy's up 14-0, Johnson could be an afterthought, and I don't think Vince is to the point where he can keep up with Manning, even with man coverage. Colts 30, Titans 17.