WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Hasselbeck (2,014 passing yards, 13 TD, 6 INT) hasn’t thrown an interception in back-to-back games, the first time he’s done so this season. He owns four touchdown passes to just two picks in his last three games as well. Hasselbeck, in his first season with the Titans, has thrown for 300-plus yards only once in 2011 for a Titans offense that is rated 13th in passing (240.2 ypg). The problem for Tennessee hasn’t been Hasselbeck, however, it’s been Johnson and the ground game. For whatever reason, Johnson (366 rushing yards, 1 TD) has slipped a bit this season, managing only 366 yards through eight games. He’s capable of racking up more than half of that total in one game, and doesn’t seem to be bothered by injury either. It has been speculated that his lengthy contract dispute during the NFL lockout has played a role in his performance. The Titans can’t afford to lose any more weapons on offense, and the latest injury to Washington (36 receptions, 2 TD) could make it rough for this week and beyond, as he leads the team in receiving yards and catches (36). Fellow wideout Damian Williams (18 receptions) is tied with the injured Britt with a team-best three touchdown receptions and could play a larger role this week if Washington can’t go. Cook (19 receptions, 2 TD) battling a leg issue could also open the door for more looks for tight end Craig Stevens.
The Carolina defense needs to force more turnovers in the second half of this season, as the team has had a negative turnover ratio all year. Carolina has a weak run defense and allowed Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson to rush for 86 yards and a score before the break, and has allowed 133.3 yards per game (26th overall) on the ground in 2011. Defensive end Charles Johnson (28 tackles) added to his team-leading sack total of seven with one against the Vikings, and the Panthers totaled a season-high four in that 24-21 loss. Hasselbeck has been sacked just 11 times this season, but was taken down twice last Sunday. Carolina also shouldn’t take Chris Johnson’s ground struggles for granted, because he can pop off a long run at any moment. Linebacker Omar Gaither (15 tackles, sack) was back in action after a two-week hiatus because of injury against the Vikings, while backups Jason Phillips (4 tackles) and Thomas Williams (13 tackles) are still nursing injuries. Starters James Anderson (66 tackles, 1 sack), Dan Connor (44 tackles) and Gaither have had a full week to rest, however, and will be counted on to slow the Titans down. Safety Sherrod Martin (37 tackles) leads the team with just a pair of interceptions.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Newton (2,393 passing yards, 11 TD, 9 INT) is off to a fantastic start to his NFL career, as he is fifth in the league with an average of 299.1 passing yards per game and sixth with a total of 2,393 total yards through the air. He is also second among quarterbacks with 319 rushing yards and has a team-best seven rushing touchdowns, something Tennessee should keep an eye on because of its poor run defense. DeAngelo Williams (363 rushing yards, 1 TD) leads the team in rushing yards and carries with 75, while backfield mate Jonathan Stewart (327 yards, 2 TD) has been a solid compliment. Through the first three weeks of the season Williams was averaging just 20.3 yards per game, but has posted an average of 60.4 over the last five weeks. Stewart is averaging 49.3 rushing yards a contest over the past six games after combining for only 31 yards through the first two weeks of action. The Panthers are currently eighth in rushing, registering 129.6 yards per game. They are also fifth in both total yards (415.1 ypg) and passing yards (285.5 ypg). Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey have combined for more than 600 yards receiving and five touchdowns, with Olsen grabbing four of those.
Tennessee has given up 20 or more points in three of its past four games, and Sunday’s poor second half against the Bengals added to that total. Defensive tackle Shaun Smith (19 tackles, 1 sack) said the team has to play 60 minutes of football in order to compete at this level and was disgusted with the outcome of the game. His sentiments could be shared by every member of the team, including strong safety Jordan Babineaux, who had a game-high 10 stops in the most recent loss. Babineaux should expect another busy afternoon against Newton and Steve Smith — two of Carolina’s top offensive threats. Tennessee runs a typical 4-3 defense as has the personnel to make it tough on the Panthers’ running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Stewart. Cornerback Jason McCourty (67 tackles) leads the team in stops and also owns a team-high two interceptions. The Titans did not post any picks against Cincinnati, but had four passes defensed. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan (37 tackles) had two of those breakups and will have the luxury of trying to stop Carolina’s potent pass scheme.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Panthers haven’t been able to string consecutive wins together this season, but they can get the first step out of the way if Newton protects the football and the offense gets both running backs started off early. The Panthers, however, have established themselves as a passing team this season, and that could solely guide them to victory if the Titans aren’t prepared.
Chris Johnson was a dual threat against the Bengals in a losing cause. Munchak has tried all season to get his franchise player going and will attempt to strike again while the iron’s still hot against Carolina’s struggling run defense. If that scheme fails early, expect to see Hasselbeck airing it out like he has through the first eight contests, though the Titans are far more dangerous when Johnson’s productive.
Turnovers have been a major issue for the Panthers, who are 2-0 when having a positive turnover margin and 0-6 when finishing with either an even or negative margin. The defense was able to rattle Minnesota rookie quarterback Christian Ponder in Week 8, but will face a savvy veteran in Hasselbeck this time around. He hasn’t thrown a pick in the past two weeks.
Prediction – Cam Newton and the Panthers return to the field this week, and you can expect them to start playing better, given the fact Newton is playing well, and they had a week to tweak some things. The Titans are in a free fall, they had a lead last week against the Bengals, and couldn’t close it out. Look for a big day from Newton and the Panthers, and Carolina to get a huge home win. Carolina 27 Tennessee 17