The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head off to Tennessee to face the 5-5 Tennessee Titans. As their record suggests, the Titans are a decidedly middle-of-the-road team. Their defense is mediocre, as is their offense. They don't have many weak spots, but they don't have any player an opponent must pay attention to.
The only player with the physical skills to demand that kind of attention has been playing some terrible football this year: Chris Johnson. He leads a rushing attack that is ranked dead last in the NFL by Football Outsiders' numbers. With the Bucs' run defense having a good game against the Green Bay Packers, there's a chance the Bucs could actually continue to look good in run defense against the Tennessee Titans.
The Bucs started out the year strongly in run defense, but inconsistency and injuries quickly exposed problems and teams were able to run willy-nilly on their defense. The Bucs may have turned a corner with their game against the Green Bay Packers - or maybe that was just a blip on the radar and they'll return to their lackluster play this week. But at least the Titans are unlikely to take advantage of a weak performance by the Tampa Bay defense.
The same can't be said for the Tennessee pass offense, however. Football Outsiders ranks it as the eighth best unit in the NFL and Matt Hasselbeck has a lot to do with that. Hasselbeck has been pretty awful in recent years, but was hurt by a very leaky offensive line in Seattle. The Tennessee line is doing a much better job of protecting the veteran quarterback, and Hasselbeck is smart enough to get the football where it needs to go when he's given time. His biggest weakness at this point is his lack of arm strength.
Hasselbeck still thinks he has a stronger arm than he really does, leading to some forced throws and predictable turnovers. But overall Hasselbeck has been a solid quarterback for the Titans this year. The key to stopping him will be pressuring him, but the Titans' offensive line has played very well while the Bucs still struggle to get to the quarterback despite four high draft picks spent on the defensive line in the past two years.
Hasselbeck's main receiving options are TE Jared Cook and WR Nate Washington, both useful route runners who can get open and make some tough catches but don't present overwhelming matchup problems. Second-year player Damian Williams is their only capable receiver after those two, and he hasn't made a great impact. This isn't a group that should really scare the Bucs' secondary, but that unit has itself struggled throughout the season. If they can play the way they did against the Packers, this group should present few problems: Damian Williams is no Jordy Nelson. But if they play the way they had in previous games, any receiving corps can present a problem for the Bucs.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs must find a way to break down a Tennessee defense that has really played very well against the run. Football Outsiders ranks them eighth against the run and 23rd against the pass. That would suggest a pass-first gameplan for the Bucs, but they've struggled to score points when they've tried that so far this year. Instead, the Bucs must instead get their run game going against a tough run defense. If they can't do that they are likely to struggle to score points yet again.
Especially so because while that defense hasn't done well as a unit against the pass, they have some real quality at cornerback with Cortland Finnegan, Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner. Veterans Jordan Babineaux and Michael Griffin complete a unit that has plenty of individual talent, but has somehow struggled against the pass despite that.
Part of the reason may be the team's move to a Tampa 2-like defense, as the Titans have played a lot of zone coverage. In fact, that scheme was one of the main reasons why they signed LB Barrett Ruud this offseason and let Stephen Tulloch walk. They needed a middle linebacker who could thrive in pass defense. The Titans haven't really seen a quarterback put up big numbers, but they haven't faced many good quarterbacks - and when they have they've generally lost, as they did against the Falcons, the Bengals, the Texans and the Steelers.
Overall, this is a game I can see the Bucs winning if they can build on last week's loss against the Green Bay Packers. The Bucs need Josh Freeman to show up and have a big game, however, and Aqib Talib needs to play like he did against the Packers to stop Nate Washington. If those two players can show up, the Bucs have a great chance of winning this game.
I'm predicting a 24-20 win for Tampa Bay. What do you think?