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Thursday, October 2, 2008
Updated: October 9, 3:12 PM ET

Is he a backup or just a 1-A? No, that's not an apartment number.

In the most recent issue of ESPN The Magazine, Charles Curtis breaks down the essence of the league's most mysterious winners. (We call it the "tao" because we're edgy.) But really, just how do the Tennessee Titans, not blessed with a roster full of big names, roll through the league as they have? We found five ways, from the style of their running backs as it merges with their zone-blocking scheme to the swagger Jeff Fisher maintains in making some risky decisions and watching them pay off—big. After they rolled the Vikes on Sunday to move to 4-0, we figured maybe some other teams ought to read up on the Titans' methods. Here, we go ahead and nominate those teams, as well as give props to others who seem to have already gotten the message. THE TITANS WAY: RUNNING BACKS THAT FIT THE SCHEME Curtis notes, "Rookie RB Chris Johnson's 4.24 40 speed makes him the perfect fit for the Titans' zone-blocking scheme. Says C Kevin Mawae: 'It's all about his ability to beat linebackers to the corner and make safeties miss.' When that happens, Johnson turns on the jets. See Week 2 vs. Cincy: He broke a 51-yard run off-tackle, the longest Titans run in two years." Remember that the Titans also use LenDale White to bring some pop to balance the speed, especially at the goal line. Dude is like an old Bettis—a 1.2 ypc average, but a TD every game. Tandem backs? Yeah, we got you covered there too.

WHO COULD USE IT? The Philadelphia Eagles could use a little pop to go with the brilliantly quick, but increasingly fragile Brian Westbrook. Instead, they bring in Correll Buckhalter, who is a downhill runner, but saves money by having knee surgery while he gets his teeth cleaned every six months. Backing them both up? Lorenzo Booker, all 191 pounds of him. No chance he stands in against a blitzing linebacker.

"This would be a better metaphor if that was one of our LB's tackling me."

WHO ALREADY HAS? The Dallas Cowboys mess with you. You might believe that Marion Barber III is a speed back like Johnson, followed by a bruiser, but Barber never runs away from a tackle. He's battering the defenses in the same way Johnson is dodging them for the Titans. Later, the 'Boys spring rookie Felix Jones on defenses. The rookie from Arkansas ran untouched for a 60-yard touchdown against a shocked Packers defense on Monday Night two weeks ago. Jones averages 8.2 yards per carry. Now that's a change-up.

THE TITANS WAY: FIND A GUY WHO CAN OPEN UP YOUR OFFENSE Curtis notes, "(With) the switch from (Vince) Young to Kerry Collins, Tennessee now has a QB who can take advantage and go long. In his career, Young has completed 18% of his attempts of more than 20 yards, whereas Collins hits 24% of his deep balls." We know Vince Young will be back. Will Tennessee keep the deep patterns coming when he's in command? The temptation has to be there. WHO COULD USE IT? Maybe the Cleveland Browns. Two things. 1. Check the schedule. Yowsa. This may not be the year. That's just how the league dishes it. 2. Derek Anderson can make all the throws, but he hasn't been the same QB we saw the first half of last season. He's like a sophomore in the majors. The book is out. He has to adjust. If the Browns want to make Brady Quinn into Aaron Rodgers and give him preparation/purgatory, that's fine, but a) Anderson ain't Favre, and b) if Quinn is the future, do you want to wait until Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards are already looking elsewhere?

WHO ALREADY HAS? The San Francisco 49ers lost Alex Smith and went with the guy who they think can "explore the space" when it comes to their offense. J.T. O'Sullivan (when will he drop the periods like CC Sabathia for marketing purposes?) may have beaten out Smith anyway and has drawn great reviews from Mike Martz, who has molded the Pietà out of Play-Doh before.

THE TITANS WAY: PIECING TOGETHER A STRONG SECONDARY Curtis writes, "CB Cortland Finnegan was a seventh-round pick in 2006 but is first-rate in coverage. Even Ocho Cinco said so before the Titans' Week 2 win over the Bengals. Paired with Nick Harper, Finnegan lets D-coordinator Jim Schwartz mix up schemes. The Titans used eight-man fronts to stop the Jags' run game in Week 1 (33 yards), then utilized a Cover 2 vs. Cincy." WHO COULD USE IT? San Diego has first-round picks Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie on the corners, but still gets torched in the passing game, giving up a league-worst 276 ypg through the air. How can they intensify their pass rush weakened by the loss of Shawne Merriman if they can't leave the corners without lots of help? Ted Cottrell needs to find some answers. (Bonus: We have those answers right here!)

WHO ALREADY HAS? Facing Tarvaris Jackson will do any passing defense proud, but the Indianapolis Colts are giving up a paltry 141 ypg through the air. They've found no-name strength out of guys like Antoine Bethea and Kelvin Hayden. Indy struggles against the run, but oddly, that also has a lot to do with missing super-safety Bob Sanders, who spends more time in the backfield than many defensive ends. Synergy alert: Nick Harper came to the Titans from Indy.

THE TITANS WAY: LB'S THAT CAN RUN AND HIT We note that it has a lot to do with Sir Painsworth, who is both unblockable and will stomp your face if need be, that the Titans LBs are so good. "The relentless D-line allows the smallish but quick LBs to make plays all over the field. OLBs Keith Bulluck (6'3", 235) and David Thornton (6'2", 225) can run and hit, and MLB Ryan Fowler (6'2", 250) is a classic thumper who blows up blockers." Find a line that can hold blockers and linebackers who can run, and you kill a running game and cover TE's and backs in the flat. Simple as that. WHO COULD USE IT? Go ahead. Name a St. Louis Rams linebacker. Thought so. The Rams get killed on the ground. Up front, Le'Roi Glover is aging and Adam Carriker is both young, and at 308 pounds, not quite Gilbert Brown. That leaves Will Witherspoon, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Quinton Culberson in trouble. And they weren't super fast or exceptional tacklers in the first place. They give up 166 ypg on the ground. Doesn't leave much time on the field for Steven Jackson. Double whammy.

WHO ALREADY HAS? Philadelphia is killing the opposing running game, and while they're strong up front, MLB Stewart Bradley looks like a stud in the middle. He could be there for a decade. (Urlacher comparison alert: About the same size, and a white dude also from the Mountain West.) Next to Omar Gaither and Chris Gocong, this unit is scary because they're fast, they can tackle and none is over the age of 24. As a unit, they give up 54 ypg on the ground. Tough sledding.

"They want me for a Seinfeld pilot?"

THE TITANS WAY: CHANNEL YOUR KENNY ROGERS Fisher apparently hasn't hung around so long by being conservative. Curtis notes, "Fisher stands out as a gambler…With Bengals punter Kyle Larson backed up on his own 1-yard line, Fisher stuck with his regular D instead of bringing in the special teams. Bulluck blocked the punt and recovered it for six." WHO COULD USE IT? Okay, this is odd. Mike Shanahan took THE risk of the year when he went for two against San Diego. (Ed Hochuli took the personal risk of the year from that game by saying "My bad" afterward. Hats off, Ed.) However, Jay Cutler throwing for big plays and scoring so quickly means the horrid Denver defense is back on the field in the thin air more often. And they give up a messy 408 ypg! Has Mike fallen for Jay's cannon? Remember when Tony Dungy decided to run the ball a lot more the year after Peyton Manning shattered Dan Marino's TD record? His defense got a little better and a little fresher and they won the Super Bowl when they finally figured out how to stop the run in the playoffs. Take a risk, Mike, and spend more time running it. Wait, did we just write that?

WHO ALREADY HAS? As our own Seth Wickersham told us in the hallways, "Miami took the risk of the year when they started snapping it directly to Ronnie Brown and letting him either hand-off or run." Go figure. The Dolphins, of course, pushed the earth off its axis for a good hour, and won in New England. So we just told Mike Shanahan to risk it by running more and praised a Bill Parcells franchise for being risky. Welcome to Bizarro World, the NFL Episode!