NASHVILLE, TN, Nov. 14, 2008 — The Tennessee Titans finally have made it tough on defenses. Kerry Collins has proven he can win games with his arm.
Veteran QB Kerry Collins has led an efficient offense that has the Titans sitting atop the AFC at 9-0.
Now, running back LenDale White says, it's time for opponents to pick their poison.
Keep stacking the line to stop one of the NFL's best rushing offenses? Or play straight up to keep Collins from picking a defense apart?
"If they still choose to make us pass first, run second, then they've got to live with that. They have to," White said. "I think that it showed a lot of people that Kerry's more than capable of getting the job done. You're going to have to play it more safely."
Yes, the Titans have the ingredients for an effective air attack even as they rank 27th in yards passing.
Collins' arm remains as strong as ever, the Titans' offensive line has allowed a league-low five sacks and the 14-year veteran quarterback is finally getting some help from someone other than tight ends Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler and rookie running back Chris Johnson in former third-round pick Brandon Jones.
The result has Collins coming off his best game throwing the ball in a Titans uniform, a 21-14 win at Chicago last week that kept Tennessee (9-0) the NFL's only unbeaten team.
"We showed that we can throw it," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
The first problem with Tennessee's passing offense had involved the team's ability to protect Collins. Well, he's been sacked just four times.
"While the other day we couldn't run the ball -- it was tough, they were loading up the box -- the pass protection was absolutely stellar, and it's been stellar all year long," Collins said. "And for an old guy like me that can't move around a whole lot, I owe those guys a lot."
The Titans' other problem had been finding receivers to catch Collins' passes.
The team was heavily criticized for not signing a big-name receiver during free agency, when their biggest move was keeping Justin Gage with a four-year deal and bringing back veteran Justin McCareins. They drafted Lavelle Hawkins out of California in the fourth round.
But both Gage and McCareins have been limited by injuries. Gage has played only six games due to groin and knee injuries, while McCareins has played in eight games only to leave early against Chicago with a concussion. Combined, they have 30 receptions.
Collins has been leaning instead on Scaife with his team-leading 42 catches for 422 yards. He had a career-high 10 catches for 78 yards with a touchdown in Chicago and needs only five more receptions for his best season yet in his fourth year.
Crumpler, also signed in the offseason, has 17 catches. Johnson has caught at least two balls a game with a career-best six in an overtime win against Green Bay on Nov. 2.
Jones has been the key the past three weeks as defenses have worked to stop the Titans' running game. He has 16 of his 27 catches in that stretch, capped by a career-best eight receptions for 82 yards against Chicago.
Jones' motivation? Hearing a daily challenge from offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger to beat bump coverage with reminders that no one outside the team thinks that Tennessee's receivers are any good on a running offense.
"You don't like that as a receiver," Jones said.
Jones, who texted an apology to Vince Young after dropping a late pass in a loss to Indianapolis last season, needs only one catch with seven games left to set a career-high. He's two away from 100 for his career, but keeps reminding himself how he felt after that drop.
"That feeling, it's like a dagger in your back. I'm going to keep that. It's a learning experience, letting me learn from that. I tell myself I don't want to feel like this anymore," Jones said.
Collins thinks the 6-foot-1, 212-pound Jones finally is putting his talent together with his hard work. Gage also is working off a bit of rust from his knee injury. That helped Collins complete 12 straight passes at one point against Chicago and finish with 30 completions, 289 yards passing, two TDs and a passer rating of 108.7.
"Certainly, everybody from Day One has given our receivers a hard time, but those guys are just making plays, plays in big situations," Collins said. "Our passing game is getting better and better. By no means do I think we've played our best game yet."