- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 18
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Since 2002, Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans have had a losing record in the first month five times. Last season, it wasn’t just a bad start, it was a miserable 0-6.
Fisher and his staff have often been masterful at guiding a team’s climb out of a hole, but starting off on more level ground is a necessity if the young 2010 Titans are to re-emerge as a playoff team.
“Camp’s different than it was last year, we have four preseason games rather than five, we had injuries to deal with,” Fisher said. “We’re going to work on a couple opponents [earlier], prepare for them a little differently.
“We need to get off to a good start this year.”
A lot of recognizable names are gone, and that’s fine if a youth movement is as stocked as they believe it is. But it’s the sort of roster that could need time to settle in, which could mean early struggles again.
THREE HOT ISSUES
Will there be sufficient leadership?
Even if Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Alge Crumpler and Kevin Mawae were all starting to tail off and even if the Titans feel they have an upgrade over each, that is still as big a loss of collective leadership in one offseason as I can recall. The people in place to lead now -- guys like safety Chris Hope and fullback Ahmard Hall -- have to maintain, or increase, their level of production to attain and maintain the credibility that batch had.
Linebacker Will Witherspoon was the biggest veteran addition, and he looks to be a top candidate to take on a leadership mantle. But as a newcomer he’s got to figure out how to fit himself smoothly into the mix.
“With me it’s more about deciphering how to approach individuals,” Witherspoon said. “…Those are the kind of things you have to figure out. You look at the stages of leadership and different types of leadership. I’m not the guy who’s a loudmouth, getting down a guy’s throat.
“But I will, if I feel like I need to, take a guy aside and say look, ‘Here’s what I see, here’s what going on and here’s how people feel about it. Here’s what I can tell you is going to change it or you’re just going to end up with a real problem.’”
Vince Young needs to play a solid 16 games.
He’s got the league’s most explosive back behind him, an excellent offensive line protecting him and the franchise’s best crop of wide receivers in some time. Things are set up for Young to succeed as the team’s starting quarterback.
The Titans need to know they can count on him to bounce back from play-to-play, series-to-series, day-to-day and week-to-week. They need improved accountability, accuracy and consistency. They need for him not to provide reasons for fans to debate whether Rusty Smith is actually the team’s quarterback of the future.
There are more questions on defense, and the Titans need to do some scoring to allow for the sort of mistakes some of the young defenders are bound to make, especially early on.
Can the pass rush and secondary improve?
The pass rush was insufficient and the secondary failed to hold up when it needed to last. Fisher said the back end needs to be better on play-action but that the regular rush against drop back passes should be improved with a deep crop of defensive linemen.
“If we can get back to where we were with the guys rushing up front in the rotation, they’ll be fine,” Fisher said. “The play-action pass, that’s got to get done by the secondary. You don’t get as quick pressure on the quarterback in the play-action pass. We gave up too many plays in the play-action passing game last year. That’s going to require better play from the linebackers and the secondary.
“On drop backs we should really be able to do some more things.”
They don’t have clear-cut guys as the primary rushers or for the No. 2 corner spot. But they have the next best thing in what appear to be a deep pool of young options.
Harris and Stevens: Offensive lineman Leroy Harris and tight end Craig Stevens might prove more effective than Mawae and Crumpler, the two guys they are replacing. Harris is actually at left guard, with Eugene Amano sliding inside to center. Stevens doesn’t have Crumpler’s girth but can fend off a would-be tackler and/or slip out into a route so long as concussion issues don’t surface again.
Morgan out: First-round pick Derrick Morgan has been sidelined for camp with a calf injury. The defensive end has missed so much installation and work it will be tough for him to contribute. The Titans have to hope some combination of William Hayes (once he’s healthy), Jacob Ford, Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Raheem Brock can effectively rush off the edge from the start.
Offensive line coach Mike Munchak consistently develops talent, but the Titans have virtually no experience behind their starting offensive line. Mike Otto could be sufficient as the backup swing tackle, but they could look for a veteran interior swing guy after cuts.
Lavelle Hawkins has gotten great reviews and is more of a traditional slot receiver than Justin Gage. It’ll be great for the team if Hawkins provides an option inside, but I’ll wait until he’s deployed in a meaningful game before buying the hype.
Babin is a new reclamation project for defensive line coach Jim Washburn. He’s suited for the team’s go-get-the-quarterback mentality and in practice, and in the first preseason game, appeared to be getting off the ball with excellent speed.
Jared Cook is only now starting to flash and create the buzz he generated at this time a year ago. The second-year tight end is a physical specimen and an attractive target, but word is he’s not as reliable as he should be. One thing that can hurt his cause: Stevens, while nowhere near Cook as an explosive threat, has been catching the ball well.
Dowell Loggains was promoted to quarterbacks coach when Fisher shuffled his staff a bit with the late departure of running back coach Kennedy Pola. Loggains has used some creative new methods to keep things fresh for his guys. It seems small but can make a big difference.
Ryan Mouton is not on par with the more consistent Jason McCourty or the more instinctive rookie Alterraun Verner among the cornerbacks vying for the No. 2 spot. I expect McCourty to start opposite Cortland Finnegan with Verner backing up the effective, but oft-injured, Vincent Fuller at nickelback. Verner’s ability to find a pick almost every day is one of the big stories of camp.
Sen’Derrick Marks is significantly stronger than he was as a rookie and could be an influential player for a defensive line that’s expected to be much more productive.
The Titans saw young defensive coordinators Gregg Williams and Jim Schwartz reach new comfort levels in their second seasons. Chuck Cecil expects to follow a similar course. Cecil knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll face another season of uncomfortable questions.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 18NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Since 2002, Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans have had a losing record in the first month five times.