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fordfixer
12-20-2008, 04:28 PM
Defensive steel trap awaits Titans' Smash and Dash
Titans running backs White, Johnson face vaunted unit
By Jessica Bliss THE TENNESSEAN December 20, 2008
http://www.tennessean.com/article/20081 ... 00328/1027 (http://www.tennessean.com/article/20081220/SPORTS01/812200328/1027)


With the AFC's No. 1 seed and home-field playoff advantage on the line, the Titans need to prove their running prowess all over again Sunday.

LenDale White and Chris Johnson need to smash and dash and dazzle.


The Titans are playing the Steelers, however, so it will be a difficult day to do all that.

Touting the NFL's second-best run defense, Pittsburgh is allowing 75.8 rushing yards per game and has kept some of the league's stronger ground attacks in check.

The Titans must find ways to conquer a dominant 3-4 front by focusing on third-down conversion and clock management, factors that could make all the difference in a defensive game.

"The run game is going to be key, especially keeping our defense off the field," Titans guard Eugene Amano said. "The defense works better when they are getting three-and-outs and we are running the football and killing the clock and all that. That's when we are at our best, so that's our goal."

For most of the season, the Titans have held the upper hand with their rushing attack.

They're averaging 142.8 rushing yards per game, fifth best in the league, with a season-high 332 yards in Kansas City and 292 in Detroit against two of the three worst run defenses in the league.

Against Minnesota, which has the league's top-ranked run defense, White and Johnson combined for three rushing touchdowns despite being limited to 76 yards. The Titans won that game 30-17.

With 1,159 yards, Johnson is the NFL's sixth-leading rusher. White has 700 yards and 14 touchdowns, one behind league leader Michael Turner of Atlanta.

"Oh, man, those guys are spectacular," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said of Johnson and White. "A one-two punch. We've had some success against some runners and some run combinations but these guys seem like a big-time challenge."

The stout run defenses of the Ravens, Bears and Jets all ranked in the top seven limited the Titans to an average of 37.7 yards over three games, two of which Tennessee won. While the Titans have taken some lessons from those letdowns, they are not daunted by having to face a superior Pittsburgh defense.

"Our mentality is not going to change," center Kevin Mawae said. "It is what it is. We just happen to be playing another tough defense."

Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme is anchored by four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton and a group of linebackers that includes Pro Bowl selections James Farrior and James Harrison. The Steelers led the league in rushing defense three of the past seven seasons and finished lower than third just once.

And while fleet-footed opponents might feel like they are running through molasses, Pittsburgh's veterans show no sign of slowing.

This season's 75.8 rushing yards allowed is the second-lowest average given up by the Steelers since they joined the AFC in 1970. The 2001 Steelers allowed 74.7.

And there's more.

The Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, keeping quality running backs such as Clinton Portis of the Redskins and Steve Slaton of the Texans in check. The Giants entered a Week 8 game against the Steelers averaging 169.7 yards on the ground, but Brandon Jacobs managed just 47 and the team just 83 overall.

In fact, only three backs have surpassed the century mark against the Steelers in the past 80 games.

"They just run their scheme really well," Amano said. "That's their thing."

Ready for the test
The Titans had mixed results against other 3-4 defenses this season.

The Jets shut down the Titans in a 34-13 romp, limiting Johnson to 10 attempts for 46 yards. White got just one carry as Tennessee attempted to rally with an air attack.

The Browns also ran the 3-4, but overall their defense was dismal and the Titans collected 235 yards on the ground in a 28-9 win.

Still, it seems the speed an extra linebacker adds to a three-lineman and four-linebacker scheme can be problematic for some offensive lines.

"It's more because mostly all teams run the 4-3 and once you get to the 3-4 you have to change up your blocking scheme," Johnson said. "You are going to run the same plays, but there are not four down linemen, so you have to change up what you are doing. So that makes it tough."

White wasn't ready to share any strategies the Titans might employ to decode the Steelers.

"It's the same as every other team," White said. "If you get in your book and study the game like you should then it shouldn't pose any other threats or any other challenges than a 4-3 team or a 4-6 or whatever. "As long as you study and do what you need to do then you will be all right."

Sunday is the day to prove it.

Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 or jbliss@tennessean.com.