Searching for an identity at 0-2

One of the reasons I’m not too worried about the Tennessee Titans’ 0-2 start is the fact that they are a proven commodity. We all know what Jeff Fisher football means — a bunch of butt kickers on the defensive line, a smashmouth mentality on defense, and stability in the coaching ranks.

They have a formula there, and if not for a rare off night from K Rod Bironas and the field-goal unit in Week 1, the Titans are 1-0. They need to hash out some issues in the secondary right now, for sure, but come December I see this team still being in the playoff conversation.

To that end, Miami knows it is going to run a feature a mid-range passing attack, based on play action. It has a quarterback who does not turn the ball over and the Wildcat is going to be something that’s emphasized. The defense looks a step slower and older from a year ago, but this is an 0-2 team that clearly has an identity, knows how to get things back on track, and beat the Colts in pretty much all facets of the game yet somehow lost.

Carolina, at 0-2, knows who it is as well, running that old Joe Gibbs offense with the heavy doses of inside runs setting up deep stuff for WR Steve Smith. The turnovers have killed the offense, but QB Jake Delhomme is not going to do that every game. They don’t strike me as a playoff team, but we know they have a two-headed beast at running back and we know who they are.

There are some other clubs with similar records, however, that I can’t figure out. I’m not quite sure they know what they’re trying to be, and, as often happens in a rebuilding process, the personnel does not always match the supposed identity of the team. But in those cases, things can get ugly and it’s why already I worry about some clubs seeming destined for lost seasons.

The Cleveland Browns don’t have much going for them. They rank 31st in points scored, 29th in overall passing, 32nd in total yardage, 27th in rushing and 31st in points allowed. They also face a rough stretch with three of the next four on the road — including trips to two of the best defenses in the NFL in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The home game is against an improved Bengals team, and they also have to travel to Buffalo. Besides being able to get after the quarterback a little bit, I can’t find too many strengths with this club right now. I don’t think QB Brady Quinn makes it through this upcoming four game-stretch as the undisputed starter — I see Derek Anderson getting some snaps along the way. There is a dearth of playmakers on the roster.

Similarly, the Kansas City Chiefs could be a few weeks away from a QB controversy as well. Matt Cassel never stood out in the preseason, and though he is still coming back from a knee injury, Brodie Croyle showed way against the Ravens and coach Todd Haley has made it abundantly clear that he is not averse to mixing it up behind center. Like the Browns, the Chiefs can’t run the ball, and while I do like some of the youngsters in the secondary, it’s hard to imagine them getting a chance to play much with a lead, gamble a little, squat on some routes, etc.  The loss of TE Tony Gonzalez threatens to stilt this offense all season, and I think the Chiefs are going to end up having to throw the ball a ton, which is dangerous behind that offensive line.

The Washington Redskins need to answer some questions on offense as well. Defensively, they’ve been stout against the run for years and have kept that franchise in games with precious little support. But the running game has slipped as RB Clinton Portis’s injuries and carries have mounted, and that offensive line has been allowed to become too brittle. They have not had a regular vertical presence in the passing game since WR Santana Moss’s monster 2005 season. They can’t complete the deep ball, struggle in short-yardage situations and seem to lack a plan in the red zone. Not good.  Now, with guard Randy Thomas out for the season again — he is a key in their power game —  the right side of the line looks scary vulnerable. Right tackle Stephon Heyer is much better in pass protection than he is having to drive block, and now with Chad Rinehart likely to make his NFL debut — the 2008 third-round pick has been perpetually inactive since being selected — I expect Lions coach Jim Schwartz to attack them with abandon. The Redskins have become too one-sided in the run game in the past, behind Pro Bowl LT Chris Samuels, but his knees have slowed him the past few years. Unless young WRs Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas and TE Fred Davis finally step up, and this becomes a true West Coast attack, it could be another long year in Washington.

And, to me, the St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars are going to have to go all-out to become ground-based, ball control teams, and let their feature backs carry a massive load. They don’t have enough downfield weapons, both quarterbacks are trying to rediscover their top form, and both teams are trying to rebuild with a younger offensive line. Neither team is rushing the ball even 40 percent of the time (St. Louis is 24th in run percentage; Jacksonville is 23rd). Yes, they are going to be playing from behind and all of that, but they need to maintain a commitment to the run to keep games from getting out of hand, and to play to what should be their strengths (if I am either team I’m also thinking about talking a chance on WR Matt Jones).

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