The Tennessee Titans feel confident Jake Locker, having had some extra time to recover from his injuries, can play a key role in their bid to end a five-year playoff drought.
Locker will get a chance to show it against the St. Louis Rams, who are coming off an outstanding effort defensively.
Following three straight losses to elite opponents, Tennessee hopes to get back in the win column Sunday in St. Louis.
After missing two games because of hip and knee injuries, Locker showed some rust in a 31-17 loss to San Francisco on Oct. 20. He threw for 326 yards and two TDs, but both scores and 222 of those yards came after Tennessee (3-4) trailed 24-0 at the half.
The bye week that followed appears to have helped Locker, who says he’s feeling as good as he has since going down in a Week 4 victory over the New York Jets.
“He can get that rhythm going that we felt we were getting in on offense that kind of got stripped from us,” coach Mike Munchak said. “And now we’ve got to get in it fast because we have to win some games. If he can do that this week and get some help from his buddies, we can get ourselves going here.”
Locker has completed a career-high 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,047 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. But since he helped them average 24.5 points during a 3-1 start, the Titans have scored just 15.7 per game in losses to defensive-minded Kansas City (8-0), Seattle (7-1) and the 49ers (6-2).
Now a healthy Locker looks to provide a lift for a Tennessee team that ranks 27th in the NFL with 311.6 yards per game.
“The little details are what’s killing us,” Locker said. “If you watch all our games, we’ve moved the football. We’ve done a good job moving the football getting first downs. But we’ve had some drives stall out, especially early on.”
The Titans, who seek their first playoff appearance since 2008, also hope to get Chris Johnson on track in the running game. After averaging 85.3 rushing yards in his first three games, the former 2,000-yard rusher has run for 27.5 per game in his last four.
Munchak said he would like to see his squad run at least 35 times since the NFC West-worst Rams (3-5) are giving up 116.1 rushing yards per game.
St. Louis, however, is coming off its best defensive performance in Monday’s 14-9 loss to the Seahawks, who had 38 yards at the half — their fewest since 1998.
Tennessee will have to keep a particularly close eye on Robert Quinn, who had three sacks to increase his NFC-leading total to 10. He’s only the second Rams player to get 10 in the first eight games, matching Kevin Greene’s performance in 1988.
“He’s something like a superhero,” backup defensive end Eugene Sims said. “He’s phenomenal, he’s got the speed, he’s got the inside move, he’s got the power. He’s one of the best, if not the best.”
With Sam Bradford gone for the season because of a torn left knee ligament, Kellen Clemens will make his second straight start. Clemens completed 15 of 31 passes for 158 yards with two interceptions Monday, but showed some promise by driving the team 96 yards in 12 plays with just over five minutes left to put the Rams in position to win it.
The Seahawks, though, stuffed Daryl Richardson on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line before Clemens overthrew his intended target on the final play.
“I thought he managed the game well, he handled things, he settled down,” said coach Jeff Fisher, who spent 17 years with the Houston/Tennessee franchise and will face his old team for the first time.
Although he was sidelined late with an ankle injury, Zac Stacy is expected to play after rushing for a career-best 134 yards on 26 carries. He’ll try to find some holes in a Tennessee defense that ranks 24th in the NFL, giving up 117.1 yards per game.
The Rams, however, will be without offensive guard Harvey Dahl for at least a few weeks due to an MCL injury.
St. Louis has gone 2-2 versus the Titans since moving from Los Angeles, including a 23-16 victory over Fisher and Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV.