Music City Makeover, or Music City Mirage?

September 27, 2013 by Peter King
A year after posting a 74.0 QB rating, Jake Locker is passing at a 89.8 clip so far this season. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
A year after posting a 74.0 QB rating, Jake Locker is passing at a 89.8 clip so far this season. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Feeling pretty good about Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker’s development? You should. Among the quarterbacks drafted to pilot franchises in the last three years, Locker and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill—drafted eighth in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, respectively—have been the most improved in the first month of the season.

But, and there’s a big “but,’’ it’s the next month that will tell us everything about where Locker stands as a quarterback. Check out the tests Locker and the Titans face over the next four Sundays, beginning in Nashville against the Jets:

titans-opponents

“Every good defense we can play early in the season we’re playing,’’ offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said after practice Thursday. Add the teams they’ve played so far, Houston (second overall) and Pittsburgh (fifth) to that list, but not last week’s opponent, San Diego (31st). “And this week is the best one we’ve seen so far. The Jets are really doing a great job of rotating a lot of good players and they’re all making plays.”

It’s been a struggle every week so far for the 2-1 Titans, but as Loggains said, “We could be 3-0. We could be 0-3.” In Week 1, they ran the ball 67 percent of the snaps to beat Pittsburgh. In Week 3, that number was down to 42 percent because San Diego stacked the front with so many varying run packages. So Loggains gave the ball to Locker. He’s glad he did.

I watched the gametape this week. I don’t want to be too quick to say Locker’s accuracy issues are done—he completed 53.9 percent in four years at Washington, and he’s only up to 56.1 for his career in the NFL. He also airmailed a key throw or two against San Diego, particularly one to an open Damian Williams in the end zone on the game-winning drive. But Locker is maturing. You can see his confidence in the pocket. He’s a better decision-maker. He scans the field when he has to. His footwork looks professional, and though his speed is a tremendous weapon outside the pocket, he’s looking to throw first, not escape.

Down 17-13 Sunday against the Chargers, Locker got the ball back with no timeouts at the Tennessee 6-yard line with 2:05 left in the fourth quarter. He went 7 of 10 on the drive; one of the incompletions was a spike, another a perfectly thrown ball that was dropped by Delanie Walker, the third the overthrow to Williams. Six of the seven throws were right on the money, in position for the receiver to catch in stride. That’s the kind of quarterback you win with.

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The touchdown pass, a 34-yarder to second-round rookie wideout Justin Hunter, was a good example of a growing player. Tennessee lined up two wideouts, Nate Washington and Kendall Wright, to the left, with tight end Walker in the left slot. Hunter was the only receiver to the right. The three-by-one formation made the single high safety, undrafted rookie Jahleel Addae from Central Michigan, creep to his right, thinking—obviously—that Locker would try to find a hole for one of the three receivers on the left side.

“San Diego was playing a little soft,’’ said Locker, “and I saw the single-high safety. I just figured it was a great chance to throw it up to a guy with great hands, with a great catching radius.’’

Here’s the point you noticed watching the tape. Locker kept his gaze to the left for the first second or second-and-a-half after the snap. That meant the safety, Addae, had to think Locker would throw to the strong side, the three-receiver side. “His eye placement on that play was just right,’’ said Loggains. By the time he let loose for Hunter, Addae tried to sprint over in time—but he was too late. Hunter, with a 4.5-inch height edge over cornerback Crezdon Butler, won the one-on-one battle.

That’s the kind of play good quarterbacks make, from using the eyes to understanding the matchup to making the throw on target.

“With Jake,’’ said Loggains, “the process is still ongoing. But he’s trending in the right directions.’’

About Last Night …

The Rams offense is in big trouble. Robert Klemko detailed what ails the St. Louis D after last night’s 35-11 debacle of a home loss to San Francisco (what, was 2012 a mirage for the Rams?). But Sam Bradford deserves more than his share of the blame. And offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The Rams’ two big additions to the passing game in the offseason—speedy wideout Tavon Austin and athletic tight end Jared Cook—were targeted 17 times Thursday night, with zero impact. Their six combined catches produced 51 yards, and they never sniffed the end zone. “Tomorrow’s going to be a pretty tough day in the film room,’’ Bradford said post-game, and it should be. I realize the pressure Bradford was under; the Rams may have to max-protect more while they get their offensive line blocking better. And the running game is so ineffective—it’s tough to ask the quarterback to play winning football against a pressure defense when it’s always 2nd-and-11. But they have to find a way to get the ball to Austin in space. Period. That’s why they moved up to pick him in the first round of last April’s draft.

(On Page 2: The player you need to know this weekend, and 10 things I’ll be watching for)

Player You Need To Know This Weekend

After a number of mini controversies already in the season, Josh Freeman (right) will be taking a seat for Mike Glennon. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPRESS.com)
After a number of mini controversies already in the season, Josh Freeman (right) will be taking a seat for Mike Glennon. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay (No. 8). It’s way too early to play Glennon. Greg Schiano knows that, but Schiano just couldn’t bear to watch Josh Freeman anymore. Freeman’s completed 53 percent of his passes since Schiano was hired, his game has plummeted this year, and there was the matter of him oversleeping for the team picture, missing it and then not being voted team captain. A mess. A big, hot mess. I don’t blame Schiano for starting Glennon now and not waiting until the Bucs’ bye week. Do you want to play a home game with the most unpopular athlete in Tampa leading your team out on the field, trying to salvage your season? Glennon will surely be asked to pilot a safe gameplan against Arizona, and he’d better: The Cardinals’ D, according to The MMQB’s pass-pressure rankings, have 58 sacks/pressures/knockdowns of quarterbacks through three weeks.

Sound Bite of the Week

“No, but if you want to be on TV, hang around him.”

—Arizona coach Bruce Arians, asked this week if there was anything new to report on the playing status of safety Rashad Johnson, who had the tip of his left middle finger severed Sunday against the Saints. Johnson’s playing status for Sunday at Tampa Bay is questionable. But he’s sure getting a lot of media attention.

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

1. The battle for the NFC North lead. And it doesn’t include Green Bay. Detroit (2-1) hosts 3-0 Chicago, while Green Bay has an easy game against The Bye. (I’d hate the Week 4 bye if I were a coach. Too early.) Man to watch for the Bears: Defensive tackle Nate Collins replaces Henry Melton (knee; out for the season), and he’ll need to give the Bears 30 good interior snaps against a team with a revived running game. But just because this is Collins’ first start doesn’t mean he hasn’t played—he’s been in nearly 50 percent of the plays this year as a fireman on the line.

2. Going Long. The Bears drafted inexperienced Oregon guard Kyle Long in the first round last spring for Sundays like this one: to face off against Detroit tackle Ndamukong Suh. Long’s been playing well for Chicago, solidifying a position of great need. Suh’s been intimidating and great for Detroit. This is the most compelling matchup of the weekend, mano a mano.

The London Debate

Can an NFL team succeed playing full-time in London? Don Banks says the league should be wary of expanding overseas, while Andrew Brandt says it makes perfect cents.

3. The return of Matt Cassel … in a very strange place. I bet Matt Cassel never thought his career would get resurrected in London. But with Christian Ponder out with a broken rib, Ponder gets the start against the Steelers at Wembley Stadium.

4. America’s Team against America’s Story. Looks like after not playing in a game since Aug. 8 San Diego inside linebacker Manti Te’o (foot) will make his NFL debut against Dallas.

5. Sit, Terrelle. Sit. Washington, defensively challenged through three weeks, will likely face pocket passer Matt Flynn instead of Terrelle Pryor (concussion). Flynn’s lost his job without playing two seasons in a row in two different NFL cities. And he’s not likely to push Pryor to the bench no matter how well he plays Sunday at home.

6. The trade market for the rock-bottom Josh Freeman. Is there one? And why trade for him now when you can sign him as a free agent after the season without compensation? Any team that signs Freeman would have to invest time in a now-marginal prospect mid-season, teaching him a new offense and trying to revive his career. Not the best time for that—unless it’s in a place like Jacksonville, for a conditional late-round pick.

7. We’ll have to wait until Monday night for the game of the weekend. Miami (3-0) at similarly 3-0 New Orleans, and the Dolphins are crossing their fins that ace pass rusher Cameron Wake (knee) will be able to play. He’ll be vital, because the Dolphins can’t afford to make it a scoreathon Monday.

8. The Giants trying to salvage the wreckage. As former Giant Carl Banks said in the wake of the 38-0 embarrassment at Carolina, the depressing thing about the performance was the offensive line showed no fighting spirit. This just in: The Kansas City pass rush is tougher to block, and the game Sunday will be at rabid Arrowhead Stadium.

9. The Ohio Bowl. Cincinnati at Cleveland, with Clevelander Brian Hoyer, suddenly dangerous, angling for the upset.

10. Peyton continuing to be pretty good. No quarterback’s ever been this sharp in a three-game stretch to start a season. Quarterback rating: 134.7. Quarterback ratings of Manning’s seasons in his 30s: 101.0, 98.0, 95.0, 99.9, 91.9, 105.8. In other words, he’s playing well. The Eagles fly to Denver to try to derail Manning. I don’t like their chances.