George breaks away during Titans' run

NFL: As Tennessee gains prominence in advancing to the AFC championship game, so does running back Eddie George, who has carried the team there.

January 20, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In a quiet conversation before Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game, Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher reminded star running back Eddie George of his suddenly expanding role.

"I told him when we traded up in the 1996 draft to get him, this was the reason," Fisher said. "You need the running back to win games like this."

It has become clear, two rounds into the NFL's postseason tournament, that the Titans will go as far as George can carry them. After rushing for 106 yards in a 22-16 win over the Buffalo Bills, George powered for 162 yards in a 19-16 decision over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

Next stop: Jacksonville for this Sunday's AFC championship game showdown with the Jaguars. Once more, he can expect a heavy workload.

In the regular season, the four-year veteran got the ball on 36.3 percent of the team's offensive snaps -- 320 rushes and 47 receptions.

In two playoff games, he's gotten the ball on 48.8 percent of the Titans' snaps, consisting of 55 runs and five receptions.

In a season of diminishing returns and early exits for some of the league's best running backs, George is still going strong.

"Eddie has been a solid player for us since his rookie year," Fisher said. "He's playing as well as he's played since he's been here right now, and his role has increased all the way to the playoffs.

"He believes he can carry this team. He showed that he has every reason to believe that. But we have to do more than just run the football on Sunday, obviously."

The Titans' offense has been decidedly one-dimensional this postseason. Offensive coordinator Les Steckel has called 51 passes to 72 runs in two games. George's ground yardage has out-gained quarterback Steve McNair's passing yardage by 268 to 188.

The run-pass ratio and the yardage totals should change in the championship game, though. That's because in the Titans' two wins over Jacksonville this season, quarterbacks Neil O'Donnell and McNair enjoyed big passing games.

With McNair sidelined by back surgery, O'Donnell started the Sept. 26 game at ALLTEL Stadium and passed for 204 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-19 victory.

In Tennessee's 41-14 rout on Dec. 26, McNair threw for 291 yards and five touchdowns. In those two games, George ran for 57 and 102 yards. He was the only 100-yard rusher against the Jaguars this season.

Beating the Jaguars a third time in one season will require more balance.

"It's difficult to beat Jacksonville, period," George said. "We know what's ahead of us."

Jacksonville's rush defense ranked third in the NFL this season, giving up 90.3 yards a game. The Titans' rush offense ranks 13th (113.2).

George has gotten better as the season progressed, unlike other years when he faded in the second half of the year. His 1,304 yards were generated on a 4.1 average and produced nine touchdowns. Four of his five 100-yard games came in the second half of the season.

For the third straight year, he was named to the Pro Bowl. And he is one of four running backs to rush for at least 1,200 yards in each of his first four seasons. Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson are the others.

The Titans are 19-5 when George rushes for 100 or more yards. They're 14-0 when he carries the ball at least 27 times.

Even though he's been the Titans' meal ticket, George is often lost in the parade of premier runners. Asked if he felt overlooked, he leaned on the perspective of postseason success.

"No, I don't think so," he said. "I think during that time the teams that I've been on, we were lame-duck teams. The organization was in disarray at the time.

"Secondly, during those three years, Terrell [Davis of the Denver Broncos] was having an outstanding year. He deserved all that recognition. I was just a back that was getting 1,300 yards a season. When you're competing against that, it's tough to get top billing and get recognized. I just realized that my day will come. If it comes, I'll be ready and I'll be thankful."

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