By Casey Pearce
NASHVILLE, TN, Sept. 18, 2003 – The Titans took it inside on Thursday. Instead of practicing in the 80-degree heat, they took advantage of their newly refurbished indoor practice facility, continuing to prepare for Sunday’s interconference matchup with the New Orleans Saints.
Following a difficult day gripping the ball on Wednesday, QB Steve McNair threw the ball with more ease on Thursday.
``A lot of the soreness went out last night, and I felt good in the walkthrough this morning, so I feel like I can be able to go,'' McNair said. ``It felt a lot better. I put a lot of zip on the ball. I wasn't as accurate as I wanted to be, but that's going to come. I still have a couple days.''
The Titans signal caller didn’t take any snaps Wednesday due to swelling and discomfort in his right ring finger that he dislocated on Sunday. But head coach Jeff Fisher was pleased with McNair’s performance and recovery on Thursday.
“I don’t anticipate any problems at this point, unless he injures it again,” Fisher said. “But he threw pretty well today.”
As the Titans prepare for the Saints, they realize they’ll have their hands full with Saints RB Deuce McAllister. In their 33-7 loss at Indianapolis last week, the Colts racked up 127 yards on the ground. Fisher said that stopping McAllister and the Saints’ running attack is a priority.
“Our philosophy is it starts there,” Fisher said. “You’ve got to shut the run game down. If you shut the run game down you put yourself in better position on third down to get off the field. This week it has to start there. We have the NFC leading rusher from last year, an excellent offensive line and it’s going to have to start up front.”
Aside from McAllister, who led the NFC with 1,388 yards in 2002, the Saints boast plenty of other weapons on offense. QB Aaron Brooks tied for the NFC lead with 27 touchdown passes. WR Donte’ Stallworth tied for second in the conference in touchdown receptions, and WR Joe Horn was third in the NFC in receiving yards (1,312) and fifth in receptions (88).
“They have a great running back and probably the best corps of receivers we’ve faced,” S Lance Schulters said. “They’ve got a lot of speed out there and it’s going to be tough for us to match up.”
Sunday’s kickoff is scheduled for noon central time. The game will be televised locally on FOX 17.
Mason tops among NFL receivers
WR Derrick Mason has certainly reaped the benefit of Tennessee’s potent passing offense. With 20 catches in two games, Mason leads the NFL in receptions, but he sees room for improvement in his game.
“I’m not pleased,” Mason said. “I could do a lot better. The last two games, I think I’ve left three balls out there on the ground. It’s a long season, and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to get the passes that I have. It’s just one of those things where Steve is looking for me and I’m getting opportunities to catch passes.”
While Mason enjoys having so many balls thrown his way, he believes that his big numbers will lead to more opportunities for the other receivers to get involved in the offense.
“Eventually people like Drew [Bennett] and Justin [McCareins] are going to start getting those passes as people start rolling those defenses over,” Mason said. “Those guys are going to start catching passes.”
Mason’s 20 receptions have gone for 197 yards and one touchdown. His two game total is just ahead of Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward, who has 18 catches on the season.
McAllister to test run stoppers
In 2002, the Titans allowed only one running back to rush for more than 100 yards against them. That number was equaled in 2003 after Colts RB Edgerinn James rushed 30 times for 120 yards last Sunday. The Titans will be looking for improvement in their run defense this week.
“It’s embarrassing,” LB Peter Sirmon said. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again, no matter who we play.”
The Titans’ defense will have their hands full again this Sunday trying to slow down Saints RB Deuce McAllister. At 6-1, 221 pounds, the former Ole Miss Rebel is built much like James and has similar attributes to the Colts star, but Sirmon said that McAllister is unlike anyone whom he has played before.
“I don’t compare him to anyone,” Sirmon said. “He’s got a great combination of tools. He’s deceptively fast and I know they’re going to try to pound it on us with him.”
McAllister rushed 20 times for 96 yards and a touchdown in the Saints’ Week 2 victory over the Houston Texans. He is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, which ranks third best in the NFC.
Special teams to play big role
While much has been made about Aaron Brooks and McAllister's high-powered offense, the Saints boast one of the best special teams units in the NFL as well. Return specialist Michael Lewis, who represented the NFC in last season’s Pro Bowl, set an NFL record for total kick return yards in 2002 with 2,432 yards on kickoff and punt returns. LB Rocky Boiman, who led the Titans with 28 special teams tackles in 2002, said he’s been impressed with what he’s seen of Lewis.
“He’s got tremendous speed, tremendous quickness,” Boiman said. “He’s somebody that you have to get a lot of hats around.”
Last week at Indianapolis, WR Brad Pyatt returned a kickoff for 38 yards and averaged nearly 14 yards on punt returns. Boiman said that given the explosiveness of the Saints’ return teams, the Titans will have to do a better job covering kicks this week.
“Their return game can be a definite game breaker for them,” Boiman said. “It’s definitely something we’re going to have to address. [The coverage teams] didn’t do a very good job last week, so we have to step it up.”
While Lewis may draw most of the attention when it comes to New Orleans’ special teams units, the Saints have a well-rounded group with some impressive resumes. RB Fred McAfee, who is widely regarded as one of the league’s top special teams players, also made a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2002 as the NFC’s kick coverage specialist.
The Saints also boast the third most accurate place kicker in league history in John Carney, and P Mitch Berger currently leads the NFC with a net average 42.3 yards per punt.
Punters, get ready
Should the Saints fail to convert on first or second down Sunday, it may be a long day for P Mitch Berger. The Titans’ defense is allowing an NFL low 16.7 percent conversion rate on third down. DE Jevon Kearse attributes the defense’s success to good preparation and said that he hopes being tough on third down will lead to some Tennessee victories.
“All the guys up front know what they’re doing,” Kearse said. “We’ve just got to keep it going with the third down efficiency and hopefully some wins will come with it.”
Opponents have converted on only four of 24 third down attempts against the Titans.
Horn boasts consistency, toughness
Saints WR Joe Horn has caught a pass in each of the last 64 games in which he has played. The 6-1, 206-pound Horn is well deserving of his three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. The eight-year veteran has averaged 88 catches and more than 1,300 yards over the past three seasons. Horn, along with Donte’ Stallworth, Jerome Pathon, and Michael Lewis make up one of the league’s best receiving cores. Titans CB Andre Dyson knows that he will have his hands full on Sunday.
“It’s that way every week,” Dyson said. “You just have to go out there and do your best and step up to the challenge every week. All of their receivers are big and fast and are a threat to go the distance every time they touch the ball.”
Horn’s toughness has earned him the respect of his teammates. Despite suffering a severely twisted knee while warming up for the Saints’ opener against Seattle, Horn has played through pain.
“Joe Horn is a very dependable guy,” Saints QB Aaron Brooks said. “I know where he’s going to be at all times. Whether Joe is hurt or not, he always tells me that if he’s on the field then I can expect 100 percent out of him. That tells a lot about a guy that’s been banged up for a while.”
Although he missed much of practice during the week due to the knee injury, Horn had 10 catches for 111 yards last in the Saints’ Week 2 win over the Texans.