This is just what they needed. And by they, we mean the Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins. Because when both teams look at this game, both should have the same thought: It's a good chance for a win. And each team desperately needs one.
Perhaps the 1-5 Redskins are a little more desperate, having lost four straight. Then again, 2-4 Tennessee blew a 25-point lead two weeks ago and barely beat the winless Jacksonville Jaguars at home. It's not as if the Titans aren't a little desperate themselves.
ESPN NFL Nation Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Redskins reporter John Keim break down the matchup.
Kuharsky: Jay Gruden interviewed for the Titans job before they went with Ken Whisenhunt. How do you characterize Gruden's coaching style so far?
Keim: Well, they're 1-5 so ... Actually, we're about to learn a lot regarding Gruden and his style and who he is as a coach. Before the season, what we learned is that he's a coach who will be honest in his assessment of players and who will be passionate about coaching. You could see a different energy with him on the field. That hasn't translated to success this season, however. He wants players to feel good about what they're doing and the effort they're giving -- is that to their detriment, however? I remember back in the day those who played for Joe Gibbs saying they never knew what he thought of them -- and the fear of the unknown drove them. Gruden only wants to coach football and isn't caught up in having a lot of power. There's a lot to like about Gruden's style and this team and organization has a lot of work to do. So it's not like they're 1-5 because of him. But he now has to prove he has the answers.
Conversely, Paul, Ken Whisenhunt was a guy former Redskins coach Gibbs said Washington should consider. He played two seasons for Gibbs and at least had prior head coaching experience. What sort of difference has he made in Tennessee?
Kuharsky: He certainly changed the vibe with the team. He's a strong personality who communicates well with his guys and delivers consistent and sensible messages. He's a former player as his predecessor was, but he wasn't a Hall of Famer like Mike Munchak. He holds guys accountable in a more public way. Those players might not love that, but they have faith in him because they look at his résumé and know he took the Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl as a coach. He brought big system changes. He's the playcaller for an offense that now has a committee of running backs and likes a pocket passer who can stand in and throw the ball downfield. He's not been real flexible about reshaping Jake Locker, who doesn't fit that mold. Whisenhunt hired Ray Horton as his defensive coordinator, and Horton has revamped the defense into a 3-4. That too needs work and new personality. But these two playcallers are better than the guys they replaced and put the Titans in better long-term position. The short term includes growing pains for sure.
Do Kirk Cousins' eight interceptions speak to his overall decision-making? What have defenses done to help get him out of sync and prompt some of those turnovers?
Keim: Yes, they do speak to the decision-making and it's been an issue in too many games in which he's played. But sometimes it's not just about decisions, it's about accuracy. He'll attempt passes that, if thrown with more accuracy, would result in tough completions. Instead, they're picked off because he threw too high or too inside. It seems like he should be a game manager; he's really not. Defenses have hurt him with pressure -- he has a 77.2 passer rating against five or more rushers (26th in the NFL). Sometimes it's just the threat of it that causes him to hurry his passes or overstride or throw all arm. Game situations hurt him as well -- he makes more mistakes in the fourth quarter.
Who will play quarterback this week and how does it impact the offense? How much of the offensive line issues relate to quarterback -- or is it vice versa?
Kuharsky: I'm a believer that the quarterback makes the line more than the line makes the quarterback. The Titans are built in the opposite way, with a ton invested in a line that should help boost Locker. The group has not played up to standards despite the additions of the last two first-round picks in Taylor Lewan and Chance Warmack and two significant free-agent adds, Andy Levitre from 2013 and Michael Oher this year. The offense doesn't really change a lot when it goes from Locker to Charlie Whitehurst, though Whitehurst is more the pocket type I mentioned. I know he arrived in Tennessee with a horrible résumé outside of the longevity column, but for a veteran guy stepping in he's been fine. There is a reluctance to judge him on his reasonable present rather than his poor past.
It doesn't seem like Washington is getting a lot of big plays on defense. Please give us the pecking order of blame for that, which I imagine has to start with players ahead of coaching and scheme?
Keim: It usually starts with the players; in some cases they're not getting it done. In other cases they're not capable. The four-man pressures haven't worked, partly because linebacker Brian Orakpo has been way too quiet (half a sack). Until that changes, the Redskins won't do much damage against quarterbacks. He gets close; he's not getting home. The secondary has two young corners -- one, Bashaud Breeland, starting for the injured DeAngelo Hall -- and will endure season-long growing pains. The safeties are not playmakers; Ryan Clark never has been. There are clearly issues overall and when the group consistently doesn't get the job done you must look at the coaches, too. One criticism I've heard is that the coverages don't always match the pressure schemes, leading to unsound defenses. And the red zone calls left some football people, much smarter than I'll ever be, scratching their heads. But there is no magic wand here; the players have to start making plays. They have three pass-rushers in Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and Jason Hatcher who are good (but not elite). Though Kerrigan has 6 1/2 sacks, the group needs to do more -- and make a play that changes the game. Orakpo dropped an easy pick last week with his team trailing by seven deep in his own territory early in the fourth quarter.
The Titans' defense seems to have a good pass rush one game, then the next they don't. Why is that? And do they have playmakers on that side of the ball?
Kuharsky: Well, Jurrell Casey is a now a 3-4 end and he's an excellent pass-rusher. The Titans also have gotten production out of blitzes. But the outside linebackers in this 3-4 are mostly invisible as rushers. Derrick Morgan moved to OLB from 4-3 end, where he used to get close a lot. He's not a pass rush factor. Kamerion Wimbley and Shaun Phillips each got a sack of Blake Bortles last week, when Jacksonville was in desperation mode and Bortles was holding the ball extra long trying to find a play. A 3-4 team needs some sort of consistent rush presence from those linebackers on the edge. The Titans don't have that guy. So Casey and some of the defensive linemen and some DBs on the blitz can generate good pressure in situations in the right matchups. But straight up, they don't have anyone protection has to really account for on every play except for Casey.