AFC South: Tennessee Titans
If Tennessee doesn't feel it can play McCourty and get effective work without risking further injury, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh would start.
Rookie Marqueston Huff was the next guy in against Dallas, and Brandon Harris was a waiver pickup after he was cut by the Houston Texans.
Both spoke this week about their learning curves and preparedness.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is ready to call on each of them.
"If you have a hat on, you have to be accountable," Horton said. "Marqueston is practicing hard. I know he's a rookie, but I have complete faith in him and it's great to throw these guys in there and get them tested.
" ... They are different, probably in their skill set. One is smaller and quicker, one is bigger and probably more explosive at the point. We will give them all playing time."
The Titans are certainly unproven beyond McCourty and Sensabaugh as the nickel.
Some were highly critical that the team didn't re-sign Alterraun Verner, who had an excellent year for the Titans in 2013 before jumping to Tampa Bay as a free agent.
It's worth noting that in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 56-14 thrashing Thursday night at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, Verner didn't do a lot to help.
Only Jared Cook (169 against Jacksonville in 2011) and Dave Casper (150 against Cleveland in 1980) have topped Walker’s 142.
He’s averaging 4.3 catches per game with the Titans, surpassing Frank Wycheck’s 3.5 career mark. And his 44.1 receiving yards per game is second only to Casper's 46.1.
walker's stat line Sunday -- 10 catches for 140 yds and a TD -- made him the first Titan to hit those marks since Drew Bennett in 2004, per ESPN Stats and Info.
Walker’s start to the season has been big for the Titans. It’s also helped him get into first place in a league he’s in in Fantasy Fundraising, where people can create teams and compete with him and others week to week.
Players can challenge celebrity participants who represent charities. Walker is playing to raise money and awareness for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, while singer Kelly Clarkson represents St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Others involved include Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies, Troy Daniels of the Houston Rockets, actress Tiffani Thiessen and the band Montgomery Gentry.
Walker said he’s in first with a mish-mash of players, as much of his team was auto-drafted. His quarterback is teammate Jake Locker and he’s got the 49ers defense.
Jake Locker is facing the biggest game of his career, writes David Climer of The Tennessean. “As the Titans attempt to break the cycle of mediocrity, Locker is counted upon to become a franchise quarterback. And true franchise quarterbacks respond to adversity. They respond to a poor game with a strong performance.”
Jason McCourty did more Thursday than he did Wednesday, but his fate for Sunday in Cincinnati is questionable, writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
Justin Hunter’s still working on chemistry with Jake Locker, writes John Glennon.
Tennessee's good and bad through two games, from Glennon of The Tennessean.
Locker was happy for a chance to talk about his chicken coop, writes Wyatt.
The run-pass ratio should improve in Cincinnati, writes Titans radio play-by-play man Mike Keith.
That led me to consider whether the Titans' starters inside, Wesley Woodyard and Zaviar Gooden, are good enough to make up for their lack of size.
“I don’t think size and getting off blocks is a problem for Jurrell Casey or Ropati Pitoitua at end or either starting outside linebacker,” ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, said. “But it would worry me very much with both of those two smaller athletic inside linebackers.”
Gooden replaced Zach Brown, who suffered a pectoral injury in the opener and is on IR. Brown is 6-1, 248. A 17-pound difference with the move from Brown to Gooden is significant.
Ken Whisenhunt has been dismissive of size questions.
“I think it’s based on what they do well,” he said. “You look at London Fletcher, he played a long time in this league. How much did he weigh? To me, if they’re needed to fill a gap and they can do it, they’ll do it. We have physical characteristics for each position, and we try to place those guys in those positions, but it’s still about playing the defense.”
Now retired, Fletcher was listed at 5-10, 242 by Washington in his most recent bio.
I asked Williamson to list the top 3-4 inside linebackers in the NFL.
Here’s that list with their sizes:
* -- injured
Kamerion Wimbley qualified as a small defensive end the last couple years in the Titans' 4-3. Now back as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, he’s a better fit at 6-4, 258.
“If you’re not big, you definitely better be able to run and hit like a big guy,” said Wimbley said. “I think whoever we put out there, we have confidence they’ll be able to do their job and we don’t worry about size.”
The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback has dropped back 63 times in two wins this season and hasn’t been hit or sacked.
The Titans' ability to maintain the pressure at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday could be a big factor in their chances to pull what would be regarded as an upset.
“I think we’re doing good, to be ranked among the top teams in the NFL,” Titans outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley said.
Jurrell Casey spoke of the need to get Dalton off his first read, which will force him to hold the ball a beat longer.
If Dalton is in that quick rhythm, the Titans need to bat down some balls at the line. End Ropati Pitoitua has two batted balls this season, outside linebacker Derrick Morgan has two (one of which was in coverage) and Wimbley has one.
Nose tackle Sammie Hill said getting a hand on a pass at the line qualifies as a big play.
“You’ve just got to come off the ball real tough and get your hands up,” Hill said. “We know he throws the ball real quick. So our biggest thing is when we know that’s a part of their game, we’ve got to work to get the push and then get our hands up so we can get batted balls.
“For us, batted balls are just as good as hit and sacks, too.”
As with most mobile quarterbacks, we tend to ask if a guy should have run it on some of his throws and if he should have thrown it on some of his runs.
But when he stands in, or moves a bit and throws and the throw is poor, it’s somewhat natural to wonder if he should have run if he had space.
He threw high and behind Nate Washington on one early third down against Dallas, and after the pass fell incomplete, CBS analyst Troy Aikman pointed out how much room he had to gain a first down running if he had taken off.
What’s the gauge for deciding when to run it and when not to?
“I guess just feeling,” Locker said. “When you’re stepping up in the pocket and you feel like you’ve got a lane and you see some grass, you’ve got to take advantage of it. But there is a fine line between that and learning to stay in the pocket, trust the pocket and let things downfield develop a little bit.”
Locker’s backup, Charlie Whitehurst, said coaches may have had conversations with Locker about running. But in the quarterback meeting room, they have not really spoken about it.
“I do think it’s a feel thing, I do think you’re trying to sit in the pocket as long as you can and it is a last resort [to take off],” Whitehurst said. “There are some coverages where you may be thinking, ‘Shoot, if the first couple reads aren’t here, I’m taking off maybe a little earlier.’ I really believe you’re trying to complete the ball and running is a last resort.”
“The way we talk is all about throwing the ball, and protecting the ball, too.”
Coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn’t want Locker doing too much thinking with regard to when to run.
“I think if you try to get him too bogged down, to think about criteria when something is happening, that’s going to be detrimental to him,” Whisenhunt said. “We’ll talk about certain situations. But he’s got to have a feel for it. He’s a good player, he’s got a good feel for it.
“Every situation is different and you’ve got to play it based on what you feel and the way you see it.”
The Tennessee Titans tight end raced about 37 yards to finish off a 61-yard touchdown in Sunday’s 26-10 loss to Dallas.
“My mindset is one guy is not going to tackle me, when he hit me, I just bounced. It really gave me the momentum to go down the field,” Walker said. “I saw on the Jumbotron there was no one there…
“I don’t know why people think I’m not fast. I consider myself a fast guy. I showed it. If I get those opportunities, I will break tackles and I will outrun people. That’s what I am here for.”
Former Titans tight end Frank Wycheck, now the analyst on Titans radio, watched it unfold during the broadcast and said, simply, “Wow.”
Before going on to say he has seen great speed from Walker on special teams, former NFL tight end Ken Whisenhunt said he also was surprised and impressed by the show of speed.
"Delanie had more speed than I thought he did on that long run,” Whisenhunt said.
On more than once occasion, Locker held the ball long and was still in OK shape protection-wise. My thinking is with an extended clock, there should be more time for a receiver to break free and for Locker to find him.
Instead I felt as if he threw some of his worst balls when he had good protection and maybe even additional time, like the alarm went off in his head and he panicked.
"It really depends," Whisenhunt said. "I mean, we had mistakes from our receivers yesterday that changed the spacing on some of those routes. Sometimes it was the way they came off the ball. Sometimes it was getting jammed up, not being in the right spots. That can lead to a quarterback holding on to the ball, that can contribute to where it goes from there."
I wrote earlier about two third-down throws from the first half that Locker did poorly with: He seemed late on one and he was high and behind his target on another.
That second one, he scooted to his left to buy time and had plenty of time before making a poor throw. He could have run.
He had good time on a third-and-10 from the Tennessee 27 and couldn't find anybody, overthrowing Delanie Walker by a great deal and finding the deep safety behind him, Barry Church for his first interception. That was early in the second quarter.
He had good time on a second-and-10 from the Tennessee 32 later in the second quarter when play-action deep shot up the right side to Taylor Thompson was well overthrown.
The Titans have invested a lot in protecting their quarterback. When he's got a clean pocket and/or a lot of time, he's got to fare better.
Mondays in Nashville with Jeff Fisher and Mike Munchak as the team's head coach almost always featured a positive spin off even the worst performances.
Defensively, Whisenhunt wasn't playing that game a day after Tennessee's 26-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
“It's hard to say anybody is doing a good job after yesterday's game,” he said.
Particularly bad was a run defense that allowed 220 yards on 43 carries -- an average of 5.1 a carry.
The troubles for the run defense were predominantly gap issues, Whisenhunt said. The Titans “weren't as detailed in our approach,” as they were in Kansas City and that's where it showed up the most.
After Week 1's win over the Chiefs, Whisenhunt emphasized it was just one game. Week 2's poor showing is getting plenty of attention, but it was also 1/16th of the schedule.
The Titans travel to Cincinnati on Sunday. The Bengals are 2-0 and playing well.
Whisenhunt said he expects they'll run the ball intending to see if the Titans have fixed a big issue.
Giovani Bernard has 41 carries through two games, the third-most in the league. He's only got 138 yards and a 3.4-yard average. But if the Titans play the way they did against the Cowboys, those will grow.
The Titans were 0-for-6 on third down in the first half. That helped set up a game in which Dallas controlled the ball for 41:11.
In Cincinnati on Sunday, Tennessee needs to find a way to extend drives and move the chains. It’s a necessity for the offense if it’s going to drive the ball, and it’s a necessity to get the defense some rest.
Jake Locker threw on all six first-half third downs; three times he threw incomplete, twice he completed passes short of the sticks and once he was intercepted.
A look at the three incomplete third-down passes:
- Third-and-2 from the Tennessee 28: Out of the shotgun, Locker threw to Kendall Wright at the right sideline. Cornerback Sterling Moore made a good play to break up a good throw, and Wright looked for a flag.
- Third-and-6 from midfield: Locker stood in and threw to Nate Washington in the middle of the field. Linebacker Rolando McClain and safety J.J. Wilcox closed and prevented the catch. It looked like Washington was open earlier, though there was no guarantee he’d get to the marker.
- Third-and-5 from the Tennessee 22: Locker slid to his left and threw back toward the middle, where Washington was open. The throw was too high and too far behind Washington, who got his hands on it but couldn’t pull it in.
Tennessee ran only eight times on 21 offensive plays before halftime. The Titans should be able to hand off on third-and-2 and third-and-3 rather than calling pass plays.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt needs to measure that out better next week and Locker needs to be more accurate on the most important downs.
Murray consistently found room and was the key to Dallas keeping the ball for 41:11. He ran for 167 yards and a touchdown and made the Titans’ defense look pretty clueless en route to a 26-10 defeat.
Said coach Ken Whisenhunt: “We missed gaps, we missed hits, we missed contain, we missed tackles. They ran the football well. Give them credit. They did to us what we did to Kansas City last week.”
Any defense aims to take away the run and make an offense one-dimensional. Make a team have to pass and it creates pass rush opportunities.
The Titans rushed Tony Romo well early, with two sacks by Casey and one by Ropati Pitoitua. Bernard Pollard chipped in with one later.
But with Murray having such success, the Cowboys were able to run the ball 57 percent of the time.
“We didn’t stop the run, so we didn’t give them any reason to pass,” outside linebacker Derrick Morgan said. “We just kept letting the run down the field on us. We didn’t force them out of that.”
Run defense will be a major point of discussion as the Titans prepare for a trip to Cincinnati. The Bengals ran for 170 yards in a win over Atlanta at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
Pollard had showered and changed when he talked about what Dallas had just done.
“They’re still running right now,” he said. “Disappointing for our football team, disappointing and embarrassing to ourselves and to our fans. This was self-inflicted. They did a great job, but at the same time, we were the enemy. We didn’t tackle, we probably had all kind of MAs [missed assignments]. We’ve got to get in the film room and look at this thing and fix it now.
“Because we can’t allow this to linger.”
Exhibit A in the case against Locker as a long-term NFL starter came Sunday at LP Field, particularly in the first half.
Locker carried the biggest shovel as the Titans dug a giant hole en route to a 26-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that dropped Tennessee to 1-1.
"We put our defense in a tough spot with the way we played in the first half," he said. "Me especially."
In that first half, Locker had four completions in 12 attempts for 26 yards, with a long of 10, an interception and a sack. The Titans averaged 3.5 plays per drive on their six first-half possessions.
Locker managed to build his first half passer rating of 7.6 to 60.2 at game’s end, but outside of building on a great connection with tight end Delanie Walker he did little to elevate the offense.
The standard Locker concerns surfaced: He wasn’t accurate enough and he wasn’t very poised making throws after he held the ball too long under pressure.
“Yeah, Jake didn’t play his best in the first half, but we had opportunities to make a couple catches that get us going early and we didn’t do it," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “And it’s obvious to me now that we are an offense that needs to make a play early to get something going.”
There is no crime in having to call something early that’s intended to get a quarterback some early confidence and rhythm. Former Titans play-callers did that often for Steve McNair.
But Locker and the offense should be able to find success and rhythm in whatever Whisenhunt calls even if it’s not some basic play aimed at giving them a baby step at the start.
The Titans were down 16-0 when Locker and the offense came to life at the start of the second half.
His first three passes were connection of 12 yards to Kendall Wright, 11 yards to Wright and 16 yards to Walker. Those 29 yards in 2:09 at the start of the third quarter eclipsed the entire first half.
They drove to a field goal, saw the defense quickly get the ball back with a three-and-out and drove to a 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Delanie Walker.
But there was nothing more.
With Jason McCourty, the Titans top cornerback, out with a groin injury, the Cowboys responded to the Titans’ 10-point surge with an impressive 80-yard touchdown drive. Dez Bryant accounted for 57 yards, making catches on Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
Dallas linebacker Rolando McClain ended one Titans drive with a pretty interception he was awarded on a replay challenge. After Nate Washington bobbled a third-and-goal catch in the end zone, Locker threw too wide to Walker, who caught the fourth-down pass and landed on his hand out of bounds.
Dallas continued to mount rushing yards and dominate the clock, finishing with a monstrous 41:11 to 18:49 advantage in time of possession.
The thorough loss was as surprising as the Titans’ solid showing on opening day.
Through two games, defensive lineman Jurrell Casey tabbed the Titans with the same description they’ve deserved throughout his previous three years with the team.
“It’s inconsistency,” he said. “We haven’t been consistent. And until we fix that, that’s what our label is going be.”
Quiet the home crowd: There was more pregame buzz at LP Field than there has been in some time. And the Titans quickly quashed it with lifeless, ineffective play.
"We can't have fans chanting 'Let's go Cowboys' at home," said tight end Delanie Walker, the team's standout positive on a terrible day. "That doesn't help the cause."
Said running back Shonn Greene: "We don't want that. That's on us. We've got to give the fans something to cheer about and cheer for. We've got to execute better and give them a better game."
Flipped the score: The Titans won in Kansas City a week ago, 26-10. That's the same score as this loss to the Cowboys.
There was a lot of talk about self-inflicted wounds and how it wasn't what the Cowboys did, but it was what the Titans did -- and didn't do.
"We were the enemy," safety Bernard Pollard said.
He dropped a likely pick-six when tight end Jason Witten broke up the play in the third quarter. The Titans had just closed it to 16-10.
"He made a great play," Pollard said. "I've got to hold that ball."
Injury update: Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he didn't anticipate the groin injury that cost cornerback Jason McCourty the second half being a major issue going forward.
Pictures: Check out my Instagram account for some postgame pictures, including Whisenhunt as he emerged from the locker room to talk with the press.
What it means: A team that can go to Kansas City and win at Arrowhead is also capable of playing poorly enough at home to lose to an opponent that played terribly on opening day. The Titans showed in Week 2 that they can be run on, that they can’t keep a topflight receiver in check and that Jake Locker remains capable of the sort of bad stretch that can be too hard to overcome. Tennessee is 1-1.
Can’t stop the run: A week after rendering Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles insignificant, the Titans saw DeMarco Murray run it all over them. He finished with 29 carries for 167 yards and a touchdown, controlling the game for Dallas. Tennessee looked like it lacked the muscle to get off blocks and get to Murray.
Injury of note: Cornerback Jason McCourty didn’t play in the second half because of a groin injury. He had been following Dez Bryant to that point. Bryant proved too tough an assignment for Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh to contain. Rookie Marqueston Huff was part of some packages after McCourty’s injury.
Game ball: Tight end Delanie Walker got the Titans back in the game in the third quarter when he pulled in a pass from Locker, bounced off cornerback Morris Claiborne and outraced four Cowboys to a 61-yard touchdown, his career-long reception. Walker finished with 10 catches for a game-high 142 yards and the score.
What’s next: The Titans hit the road and head to Cincinnati, where they will face the Bengals next Sunday.
At the same time, it needs the flexibility to alter its approach week to week to attack an opponent smartly.
This week, I’ve been thinking about the line between the two -- dictating by doing what you do well and reacting to what an opponent doesn't do so well.
For the vast majority of the Titans' time in Tennessee, it’s been a team built on the idea of running and stopping the run. The league has evolved to a place, however, where that philosophy can appear terribly dated. Running well is usually a byproduct of winning, not vice versa. You can stop the run very well and get torched by a good quarterback.
We're still learning the identity of coach Ken Whisenhunt’s Titans. He’s still learning it to a degree.
Said Titans general manager Ruston Webster in his weekly appearance on The Midday 180 in Nashville, which I co-host: "I think every team has certain plays that they are going to run no matter what, and no matter who they play. Mike Holmgren was always a guy who said, 'It doesn’t matter what they do, all that matters is what we do.' I think we take that approach to a certain extent. Coach Whisenhunt’s been successful whether it’s in Pittsburgh, Arizona or San Diego at making adjustments, not only to other team’s weaknesses, but to his team’s strengths. I think that’s been something that he’s done very well through the years."
What are the boilerplate statements about what the Titans intend to be?
"Truthfully, I think we are still building that," Webster said. "But I would say that our identity is probably in our versatility. We have multiple players that can be tough matchup for teams. ... Then defensively, I think we’re aggressive and physical."
Though Whisenhunt is the playcaller, offensive coordinator Jason Michael helps design the offense and the game plans.
The Titans have talked to a great degree about taking what the defense gives them.
"You have to find out as the game goes," Michael said. "When I say 'what the defense allows,' we have our core runs, our core protections, our core thoughts in the passing game that we are going to go with every week with. That’s stuff we got a ton of reps at throughout OTAs, throughout training camp, throughout the preseason, that we are going to continue to work.
"When we have those opportunities, we’ll use them. There are some game plan specific things we’re going to work on. And that’s throughout the course of a game and how it plays out."