It's bad enough that the Tennessee Titans haven't been able to rely on running back Chris Johnson much this season, and the latest arm issue with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck could squelch any plans on a playoff run.
The Titans still have a pulse in the AFC postseason picture with a 5-5 record, but have lost four of six games since a 3-1 start. They are back at LP Field this week after back-to-back road tilts and will welcome the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Music City on Sunday.
Tennessee almost rallied to beat Atlanta in last weekend's 23-17 loss in which Hasselbeck left the game in the third quarter with a right elbow injury. Tests revealed no structural damage, however, and first-year head coach Mike Munchak said his quarterback looks good and Hasselbeck arm strength is back to normal.
"This is how we thought he would look by Thursday and like he just told you all, he did everything, was able to make all of the throws," Munchak said. "I think he is very confident and so are we, so we are ready to roll for Sunday."
Rookie quarterback Jake Locker handled some of the reps in practice, with Hasselbeck gradually working his way in. Hasselbeck completed 13-of-25 passes for 124 yards with an interception against the Falcons and Locker finished 9- of-19 for 140 yards and a pair of touchdown passes -- the first two of his young career.
Johnson's lack of production this season has made it difficult for the passing game, and he ran for a season-low 13 yards on 12 carries in Atlanta, a week after rushing for a season-best 130 yards at Carolina. Whether his holdout over the summer has played any part in his limited contributions has been the source of debate, but there's no question that Titans need their All-Pro running back giving defensive coordinators nightmares like he has in the past.
"That starts with the offensive line," Munchak said of Johnson's struggles. "Anytime you have this conversation, it starts with them. They know that. We need to do better than that. That game may have been much different."
Tennessee is second in the AFC South, two games behind Houston.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are hoping they can turn things around when they invade Tennessee this weekend. The Bucs have lost a season-high four in a row following a 4-2 start and dropped their third straight game on the road with a 35-26 defeat in Green Bay last Sunday.
Tampa Bay never backed down from the unbeaten and defending Super Bowl champion Packers, however, as quarterback Josh Freeman passed for a career-best 342 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
"We gotta go back, prepare and get ready for Tennessee," Freeman said afterward. "We have a lot of confidence. We're a young team. I'm really proud of those guys."
The Bucs have hitched their wagon to running back LeGarrette Blount, and the bruising back almost single-handedly led his team to victory at Lambeau Field. Blount had 18 carries for 107 yards, including a career-long 54-yard touchdown run that will be on highlight reels for some time.
Blount was released by the Titans at the start of last season and may have an extra chip on his shoulder for this matchup.
Tampa Bay will need to play with some attitude, since its season could be on the line this week. A third-place tag in the NFC South is what the Bucs are left with right now, as New Orleans and Atlanta are battling for division supremacy. The Buccaneers know they must improve immediately and hope bad luck haunts the other teams gunning for a postseason spot in the crowded conference.
The Titans have won seven of nine lifetime meetings with the Buccaneers, but Tampa Bay came through with a 13-10 victory at Raymond James Stadium in the teams' most recent encounter back in 2007. The Titans' franchise had defeated the Bucs five consecutive times prior to that result, including a 31-28 overtime decision at LP Field in 2001 and a 33-13 triumph in Nashville two years later. Tampa Bay is 0-6 as the visitor in this series, and the Bucs' only other win in this set was a 33-24 home verdict over the then-Houston Oilers in 1983.
Munchak and the Buccaneers' Raheem Morris will be opposing each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time in their present positions.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
The Bucs had the Packers on the ropes for a bit last week, but two turnovers on interceptions by Freeman (2516 passing yards, 11 TD, 15 INT) did not aid the cause. He is three picks shy of matching his career-high total of 18 established in his rookie campaign of 2009 and has thrown five interceptions in his last two games, as well as nine in Tampa Bay's past four contests. Tight end Kellen Winslow (47 receptions, 2 TD) led the receiving corps with nine catches for 132 yards last week and wide receiver Mike Williams (46 receptions, 2 TD) broke out of a funk with 83 yards and a score on seven receptions. Williams, who hadn't scored since Week 1 prior to last Sunday, is first on the team in receiving yards (489) and second to only Winslow in receptions. Wide receiver Preston Parker (29 receptions, 3 TD) has caught three or more passes just twice in the previous six games for the Bucs, who are 13th in passing (243.8 ypg). Blount (541 rushing yards, 4 TD) should get a fair share of carries Sunday and is on pace for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The bulky back has recorded more than 100 yards in a game only twice this season, though, and last accomplished the feat in Week 4 versus Indianapolis.
The Titans sustained a few injuries against the Falcons, as linebacker and former Buc Barrett Ruud (57 tackles, INT) went down in the second quarter with a groin injury and rookie Colin McCarthy (23 tackles) filled the gap. McCarthy finished with a team-best 10 tackles, including three for a loss, and his first career forced fumble. Linebacker Will Witherspoon (38 tackles, 2 sacks) recovered the loose ball, his seventh career fumble recovery, and marked the second consecutive week Witherspoon helped create a takeaway after he recovered a forced fumble the previous game at Carolina. Defensive end Derrick Morgan (15 tackles, 2 sacks) suffered an ankle injury against the Falcons, but should be ready to go come Sunday. Tennessee is 22nd against the run, allowing 124.3 rushing yards per game, and should expect a healthy dose of Blount. Falcons running back Michael Turner had 100 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries last week against Tennessee. Freeman was able to light up Green Bay's secondary and will face a Titans team that's 16th in pass defense, yielding 233.4 yards per contest. Cornerback Jason McCourty (81 tackles, 2 INT) leads the team in stops and interceptions.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
While reports indicate that Hasselbeck will get the start this week and Locker will go back to holding a clipboard, Munchak's recent comments about the offensive line raises some concern. The head coach is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and knows the intricacies of holding blocks and making holes, so his words certainly carry weight. Locker (152 passing yards, 2 TD) was sacked just once last week and Hasselbeck (2357 passing yards, 14 TD, 8 INT) avoided hitting the ground, but Johnson (509 rushing yards) was stuffed for 13 yards. The shifty back has only two touchdown runs on the season as well, and just one over the previous five weeks. His lack of production is hurt the offense at times, and the Titans are hoping his first appearance against the Bucs will pay off. Right tackle David Stewart left last Sunday's game with a calf injury, but the problem is not expected to be serious. Wide receiver Nate Washington (48 receptions, 4 TD) led the Titans with a career-high nine receptions for 115 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons. It marked the first time in 2011 and the third time in his career he reached the 100-yard plateau. Fellow wideout Damian Williams (24 receptions) is tied with Washington with four touchdown receptions.
Tampa's defense has seen better days and allowed 378 yards of offense to the Packers in comparison to the Bucs' 455 total yards in last week's loss. Aaron Rodgers led the Packers with three touchdown passes and was intercepted once by cornerback Elbert Mack (13 tackles), whose pick helped pull the Bucs within two points at the time. Tampa Bay will have to force turnovers and limit penalties this week, something it failed to accomplish against the Packers. The Bucs did play solid run defense, holding Green Bay to 91 yards rushing, but are still 26th in that category (133.5 ypg), which could spell trouble for Morris' 4-3 defense. Mammoth defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (9 tackles) was added a few weeks ago and his presence could hinder Johnson's quest to succeed, while Brian Price (18 tackles, 3 sacks) will play alongside Haynesworth with hopes of making Tennessee one-dimensional. Price and rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn (21 tackles, 4 sacks) each had a sack last week for Tampa Bay, which is 29th in both pass defense and points allowed. It is 31st in yards allowed, permitting 398.9 per contest.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Both teams have been penalized heavily this season, with the Titans committing 10 for 86 yards last week. Just two NFL teams have more yards off penalties than the Titans' 719, and only Oakland (103), Carolina (84) and Tampa Bay (83) have produced more yellow flags. Both coaches are frustrated with the lack of discipline, and each team will have to cut down on its mistakes to have the best chance of winning.
Freeman and the Bucs' offense must improve down the final stretch of the season if reaching the playoffs is on the agenda. Morris held back-to-back padded practices for the first time since the start of the regular season prior to the Green Bay game, but cutting down on the turnovers is a must for his team.
The Titans should have no issues at quarterback no matter who plays under center, but establishing the ground game could relieve pressure on the shoulders of Hasselbeck or Locker. Tennessee has the NFL's worst ground attack, posting just 77.3 rushing yards per game.
The Buccaneers can match their win total from last year by winning the last six games, and that would be a long shot given the rest of the schedule. However, Morris had the right idea with harder practices last week and said the padded sessions were key to his team's performance in Green Bay. The offense played much better than in had in recent weeks thanks in part to both Freeman and Blount, and both will have to click again on the road this week. The Titans have struggled as well, and their woes could continue. A loss won't seal Tennessee's postseason fate just yet, but it will certainly make it harder to recuperate.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 26, Titans 24