Titans' patchwork defensive line holds up, makes plays

Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 6:58pm

Malcolm Sheppard couldn’t offer the Tennessee Titans any tips on how to stop Houston Texans running back Arian Foster.

While Sheppard spent that last three months of the season with the Texans, the rookie defensive tackle hadn’t seen the field much. A member of the practice squad, the rookie free agent out of Arkansas played in just one game with the Texans. Thus, he admitted he didn’t have any pointers on how to slow down Foster, who entered the game as the league’s leading rusher with 1,330 yards.

He could, however, offer help to a depleted defensive line. So, on Tuesday, the Titans signed him off the Texans’ practice squad and just five days later he was playing against his old team.

Although he called it “weird” to face his former squad so quickly after leaving, it was a good debut for Sheppard and a strong outing for a defensive line that was without two starters. The Titans shut down Foster, holding him to just 15 yards on 11 carries on Sunday in a 31-17 victory over the Texans at LP Field.

“This is my second time getting a chance to play and I got to play against guys that I have come to like and respect to the fullest,” Sheppard, who had two tackles, said. “To go against them it was kind of weird but it was fun at the same time. Because you are just competing and it is football at the end of the day. You are just playing the game. It is nothing personal. It was fun.”

With starting defensive tackle Tony Brown and starting defensive end Dave Ball both placed on injured reserve last week, the Titans turned to the likes of Sheppard, Marques Douglas and Hall Davis. Douglas was added as a free agent a little over a month ago, and Davis was signed from the Titans' own practice squad on Friday.

“We were a little nervous because we were doing walk-throughs Saturday night, going over more stuff Saturday night and even (Sunday) morning,” defensive end Jason Babin said. “Those guys did good and I’m real excited about them.”

Everyone chipped in as the defensive line had three of the team’s four sacks and played a huge hand in limiting the Texans to just 30 yards rushing.

Three weeks ago, the Texans rushed for 188 yards against the Titans, with 143 from Foster. On Sunday, Foster still contributed, catching six passes for 46 yards.

Foster, a University of Tennessee product, injured his ankle near the end of the game. He said afterwards he had a muscle spasm entering the game but was healthy enough to play. Even so, the Titans made sure Foster didn’t get the opportunity to showcase his speed.

“That first game it was kind of embarrassing the way he ran the ball on us. That is something we pride ourselves in,” defensive tackle Jason Jones said. “This game everybody was keyed in. We weren’t going to let 23 [Foster] beat us so once we got the run stopped it was time to let the dogs loose and really get after (Texans quarterback Matt) Schaub.”

The front four impacted Schaub as well, with eight quarterback hurries and three sacks – two from Babin and one by Jones.

The Titans’ defensive line wasn’t perfect, though. It jumped offsides several times, which contributed to 12 penalties. They had three offsides in the fourth quarter, including one from Babin that negated an 87-yard interception return for a touchdown by Jason McCourty.

“I feel bad taking away that interception,” Babin said. “We might have kind of cheated a little bit because we knew we had the lead and we could take some chances.”

The fouls in the end didn’t hurt the Titans. Nor did playing youthful and inexperienced reserves on the defensive line.

“There’s no doubt they won the battle up front,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “We usually play physical games. Whoever does the best job up front usually finds a way to win, so give them credit.”

Father-son reunion: Titans' offensive lineman Kevin Matthews, son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, was signed to the active roster off the practice squad early in the week and made his NFL debut as a member of the Titans' kickoff return team with his father, a Texans' offensive assistant on the opposite sideline.

"I was trying to catch my breath when we were out there right before ... the opening [kickoff]," Kevin Matthews said. "I ended up having a pretty good play and I just kept on from there. ... I had a knockdown. It was nice, a pretty good first NFL play."

Father and son chatted briefly and posed for pictures prior to the contest.

"It was a very special moment that I’ll remember," Kevin Matthews said. "I really look forward to getting those pictures developed."

Sitting out: Tight end Bo Scaife was one of the Titans' inactives. The sixth-year veteran had played every game and was tied for second on the team with 36 receptions.

The decision was made -- in part -- to provide more opportunity for second-year tight end Jared Cook.

"I don’t expect him to be happy with it all," coach Jeff Fisher said. "It’s kind of hard. The way the roster is going we needed to keep the [defensive] linemen up and keep the receivers up."

Cook finished with three receptions for 42 yards.

Right spot, right time: Rookie Alterraun Verner made his third interception of the season, which is the most among Titans' cornerbacks and second overall to safety Michael Griffin (four).

"It was a zone coverage and I was just dropping back," Verner said. "He threw it to the person behind me, I guess I was just in the way because it almost felt like he threw it right to me. It almost happened earlier (too)."

Welcome back: Injured quarterback Vince Young was on the Titans' sideline for a time during the second half but was gone before the end of the contest.

"I think we all want him to be part of it," starting quarterback Kerry Collins said. "... He's been a big part of what's been going on around here the last five years, so it was good to see him back out there."

Rushing milestone: With 130 yards on 24 carries, running back Chris Johnson raised his season total to 1,267, which made him the 10th player in NFL history with at least 1,200 rushing yards in each of his first three seasons.