Titans' Plan A is to stop the run

Top-ranked rush defense to test Ravens, J. Lewis

January 01, 2004|By Corby A. Yarbrough | Corby A. Yarbrough,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Whether it is the defensive system or the players in the system, there is one recurring theme for the Tennessee Titans' defense: It can stop the run.

That system and its players will face their toughest test of the season on Saturday, when the Ravens play host to the Titans at M&T Bank Stadium in an AFC wild-card matchup.

The game pits the NFL's top rushing offense - led by 2,000-yard back Jamal Lewis - against the league's top rush defense - led by several Titans.

"It's going to be a challenge for us and them," said Tennessee defensive end Carlos Hall. "No. 1 against the run going up against the No. 1 runner, something's got to give."

Tennessee has consistently been one of the league's best in stopping the run. The Titans have moved from fifth best in the league in 2001 (89.4 yards per game), to second best last year (89.0), to first this year (80.9).

"We have a good system, and Coach [Jeff] Fisher always has an excellent scheme," said defensive end Jevon Kearse. "We understand the game and don't have the mentality where we sit back and read offenses. We go out and attack, move forward and get the job done."

What proves the worth of the system is that while Kearse and Kevin Carter have been mainstays at defensive end for the past three seasons, there have been eight different starters at defensive tackle. In only one of those three seasons - 2001 with Jason Fisk and Josh Evans - have the same two tackles started every game.

Through all the changes, the Titans' first line of defense has still managed to allow just four 100-yard rushers in three years.

"The system we run - once you get a core group of guys that belong on the same page - when you plug in linebackers, plug in safeties, plug in linemen, it doesn't make a difference because you're all doing the same thing," Carter said.

Carter and Kearse have manned the end spots this season, while Robaire Smith and Albert Haynesworth have combined for 26 of the 32 starts at defensive tackle. Carter and James Atkins have combined for the other six starts.

Much of Tennessee's success on defense can be attributed to its ability to get its opponents off the field. The Titans allowed a third-down conversion rate of 27.7 percent - best in the NFL - and will be facing a Ravens offense that was 27th in third-down conversion percentage (31.9).

"Winning on third down is a big stat," Carter said. "No matter how far someone drives down, if you're making them punt or making them get three [points] in the red zone instead of seven, you're going to win more often than not."

Getting teams off the field has helped the Titans allow only one 100-yard rusher this season. Lewis, who has 12 100-yard games this season, will have to try to get past a Titans unit that allowed only Indianapolis' Edgerrin James, in a Week 2 contest, to eclipse the 100-yard barrier.

"We set a goal and tried to go out there and just compete," said Smith, whose four years in the league make him the team's most experienced defensive tackle. "It's not like we really planned on being the No. 1 rush team or No. 1 sack team. We just go out there and compete and let everything else take its toll."

Perhaps the best explanation of why Tennessee has been so successful in limiting its opponents' running ability comes from the one constant for the defensive line - coach Jim Washburn.

"Coach Fisher told me when I got here that you've got to run it in December and you've got to stop the run in December. That goes for January, too," said Washburn, who has served as defensive line coach since the 1999 season. "I know this: It's December, and if you can't do those things, you go home."

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