It has become Eddie George's turn-back-the-clock game. At a time when critics are saying George has "lost a step," maybe "two steps," the Titans running back turned back the clock today and gashed what was the NFL's fourth-best rush-defense for 88 yards and two touchdowns.
Go figure. The Titans have become a one-man show, starring quarterback Steve McNair. That's the way it's been the past three seasons, except when the Titans play the Jaguars, when George seems to turn the clock back to 1999. That's what he did today in leading the Titans to a 30-17 win at Alltel Stadium.
He did it early in the game, rushing for 39 yards and a one-yard score in the Titans' second possession of the game, which staked the Titans to a 10-0 lead that seemed to take the heart out of the young Jaguars.
"Eddie George is a prideful running back. If you give him lanes like that, he's going to look good," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said.
In each of the past three seasons, the Jaguars have given George those kinds of running lanes, though few other teams have. Last season, George rushed for 89 yards and 113 yards in two games, and in 2001, his worst season as a pro, he churned out 70 and 79 yards on a bad foot.
George looked good today, reclaiming his old role as the Titans' workhorse by carrying the ball 27 times and catching three passes for 13 yards. Much has been made of the Titans' inability to play the ball-control style of football that made them famous in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, but they returned to that style today.
"We didn't do the things we needed to do. Why should they run the ball on us like that? Nobody had run the ball on us all year like that. Coach is right," defensive tackle Marcus Stroud said, referring to Del Rio's postgame criticism of his team's performance, especially as it pertained to a 17-play field goal drive in the fourth quarter that consumed 11:14 of the clock.
It was the kind of game on which the Titans have built their dominance over the Jaguars. The Titans out-rushed the Jaguars, 133-54. The Titans nearly doubled the Jaguars in time of possession, 39:14 to 20:46. The Titans won the turnover battle, three to one.
Rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich suffered through his worst performance of his four-start career. Leftwich was 15 of 28 for 158 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 42.6 passer rating.
One of his interceptions was the result of Titans cornerback Andre Dyson muscling the ball out of Jimmy Smith's hands, and that led to a touchdown that staked the Titans to a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. Del Rio challenged the play but lost.
Leftwich's second interception, in the third quarter, was the result of being sandwiched by Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter. The ball was knocked out of Leftwich's right hand and into the hands of defensive lineman Robaire Smith, who returned it 43 yards to the Jaguars seven-yard line. Three plays later, George scored from the one and the Titans had a 27-10 lead.
The Jaguars quarterback's final interception toss was the result of a desperation end zone heave into heavy coverage. It was the kind of pass expected of a rookie.
"It wasn't enough to win," Del Rio said when asked to describe Leftwich's performance.
David Garrard replaced Leftwich at mop-up time and directed the Jaguars 86 yards in 12 plays, finding rookie tight end George Wrighster for a five-yard touchdown pass. Del Rio said, "I wanted to give David a chance."
Del Rio also said he wasn't looking for positives to take from the game. "I'm thinking about correcting the negatives," he said, and the negatives are clearly reflected by the final stats.
Fred Taylor carried the ball only nine times, as the Titans' early lead forced the Jaguars out of the ball-control gameplan they wanted to execute. That has become the Titans' trademark strategy this season. They have repeatedly taken early leads and forced their opponents to abandon the run.
"This game, regardless of who is playing and who is coaching, is obviously determined by turnovers and I think that was difference in the ballgame. It was a game where we needed contributions from all three phases: offense, defense and special teams. We got that. To our surprise, we ran the ball more effectively than we thought," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
Del Rio had established his three keys to victory as: no turnovers, no explosive plays by the Titans, and special teams allowing no big returns and no fakes. "We did that on special teams. Special teams played well today. But we turned the ball over and we allowed explosives," Del Rio said.
It also hurt the Jaguars' effort that Stroud was twice flagged for roughing the passer. The first time occurred in the second quarter, as McNair threw incomplete on third-and-goal at the Jaguars seven-yard line. That penalty offset a grounding call and allowed the Titans another shot on third down, which McNair turned into a touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Tyrone Calico.
Del Rio said he didn't agree with the penalty against Stroud, who had engaged McNair before he had released the pass. He was flagged for flinging McNair to the ground. Stroud's second such penalty, in the second half, was blatant.
"To come off the bye week and play like this, it's not good," Taylor said.
That would definitely qualify as an understatement. The Jaguars fell to 1-6 and have now lost eight of their last 10 games against the Titans, who are 6-2 and a half game behind the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South race.
Making matters worse for the Jaguars, they are in a stretch of schedule that will send them to AFC North-leading Baltimore, then face the Colts at Alltel Stadium before going to Nashville to face the Titans again. The Jaguars need to turn the clock forward and do it soon.