Any faint playoff hopes the Titans had were quickly extinguished in Denver, as the Broncos’ offensive juggernaut put up 51 on Tennessee, dropping them to 5-8 on the season. Talk has now shifted to the job status of coach Mike Munchak, and the continued enigmatic performances of running back Chris Johnson. The promise of a 3-1 start is distant memories now, as the injury to Jake Locker appears to have been too much to overcome for the offense.
Arizona returned to their winning ways with a comfortable 30-10 home victory over the Rams, finally ending their NFC West division drought at eight games. This is another important matchup for them as they try to stay in the thick of the wild card race in the NFC. They have a trip to Seattle awaiting them after their visit to Nashville on Sunday, so a loss here would end any realistic hope of a surprise playoff appearance in 2013. So what are some of the key matchups that will decide this game? Let’s take a look:
The Titans came into the season with big expectations for Jake Locker’s development, hoping his third year would be the one where he finally took the reins as Tennessee’s franchise quarterback. Just when it looked like that might be happening though, injuries again knocked him out, and so Ryan Fitzpatrick instead took over as starter. After showing some promising signs in Buffalo and getting his big contract, things fell apart quickly for Fitzpatrick as he was quickly dispatched from the Bills this offseason. He has put up mediocre numbers for the Titans (PFF QB Rating of 86.35) but has demonstrated his continued lack of consistency as a starter.
One bright spot in his game has been his play in the face of the pass rush this year, with a Under Pressure Accuracy Percentage of 69.0, good enough for fourth best in the NFL. That will likely serve him well against Arizona this Sunday, as the Cardinals have been mounting a ferocious pass rush of late, led by the suddenly revitalized John Abraham, who is coming off an NFC Defensive Player of the Week performance against the Rams. Along with fellow 30-something Karlos Dansby and his blitzing prowess, and defensive end Calais Campbell‘s ability to collapse the pocket from the interior, Fitzpatrick will likely have ample opportunity to test that accuracy percentage. The Cardinals as a team have 289 pass disruptions in their 13 games so far.
Fitzgerald and Floyd vs. Verner and McCourty
Although there are occasions when you can question whether Larry Fitzgerald is still the same receiver he used to be, last Sunday’s game against the Rams found Fitzgerald in vintage form. He caught all twelve of his targets from Carson Palmer, with a Ram defender draped all over him on more than one occasion. An earlier hamstring pull seems to be a thing of the past, as he has already caught 10 touchdown passes this year, after just four all of last season. Across from him, last year’s first round pick Michael Floyd has made huge strides over his rookie campaign of 2012, and has graded out at +15.0 so far this year (including +13.5 in the last four games), slightly ahead of Fitzgerald. He presents another difficult matchup for opposing corners, with a 6-foot-3, 220 pound frame providing a huge target for Palmer (much like Fitzgerald), and leads all Cardinals’ receivers with a Wide Receiver Yards Per Route Run of 1.91. He has been bothered by an ankle injury in recent weeks, but has still been able to make plays all over the field.
Defending this pair will largely fall onto the shoulders of Tennessee corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty. Verner had a terrific start to the season, emerging as the Titans number one cover man, but has struggled somewhat (-6.6) in his last three games. Overall he has allowed just 31 receptions on 66 targets, with 11 passes defensed, and five interceptions. He is third in the league with 15.6 Cover Snaps Per Reception, meaning he isn’t challenged very often by opposing quarterbacks. On the left side, McCourty has been almost as good at +11.4 overall this season, although he has allowed 51 catches on 81 targets, and has just seven passes defensed. Quarterbacks have a rating of 91.7 when throwing his way, compared to just 46.3 when targeting Verner.
Somewhat lost in the Titans otherwise disappointing season has been the terrific play of defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. Although coming off his worst game of the year against Denver (where a lot of defenders have their worst games), he has collected an excellent +30.6 grade so far this year, just his third in the league. He has been especially strong in the pass rush department, with 9 sacks, 7 hits and 31 hurries so far, terrific numbers coming from the tackle position, combined with 34 stops on defense and just six missed tackles all year. Those pass rush numbers add up to a Pass Rush Productivity rating of 9.0, good enough for sixth in the league at this position, just behind the likes of Suh, McCoy and Atkins.
No quarterback reacts well to pressure up the middle, and Carson Palmer has been no exception. Typically rushing from the left side will match Casey up with Arizona right guard Paul Fanaika, who has hardly been stellar since being forced into action as a starter late in preseason. Fanaika has graded out at -11.4 in pass blocking, having allowed 36 total pressures already this year, and will likely get some help from center Lyle Sendlein. The much maligned Cardinals offensive line has done a better job in recent weeks of keeping defenders off of Palmer, but they haven’t faced a tackle of Casey’s quality in quite a while.
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