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Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Titans' D-line might help change my mind

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn., -- When the Titans and Cardinals broke into pieces early in practice, injured Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald didn’t stick with the quarterbacks and receivers in seven-on-seven.

He watched the Titans defensive linemen work against Arizona’s large offensive line. There were many good battles, and the Cards fared a lot better at fending off the rush in the drill than they did Monday night in a preseason loss at LP Field.

My thinking about the Titans is turning a bit -- they may be better than I've been expecting. And the biggest force behind it is the defensive line.

And that’s with four key guys currently out or limited: Derrick Morgan, the No. 1 pick; William Hayes, perhaps the best edge rush prospect; Jacob Ford, who has 12 sacks in 29 games; and Tony Brown, probably the best all-around interior lineman.

It still looks like a very deep group that will find ways to get to the quarterback without blitz help, though the Titans worked the blitz a good deal against the Cardinals in the game.

The rest of the group is also a pretty anonymous gang, part draft picks, part reclamation project free agents: ends Jason Babin and Dave Ball; tackles Jason Jones, Jovan Haye and Sen’Derrick Marks.

That’s five quality ends before Raheem Brock or Eric Bakhtiari, who's likely to be on a 53-man roster. That’s four quality tackles before seventh-round rookie David Howard.

High motor end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who set the Titans’ standard for work, left as a free agent for Detroit. Albert Haynesworth is heading into his second-season of drama in Washington.

And defensive line coach Jim Washburn may be just fine without them. The rotating won’t be based as much on situations -- though you want your best pass rushers on the field on third down, first down hardly qualifies as a “run down” any more -- as it will be on freshness. Tired linemen are expected to remove themselves from action, making way for the next guy while recovering.

Jeff Fisher said he’s very happy with the group’s depth and his counterpart at Thursday’s practice was impressed.

“I think they’re good, I think it’s one of the better defensive lines, I’ve always thought that.” Ken Whisenhunt said. “I know what coach Fisher’s mentality’s been with defense. They play hard. They do a very good job with their twists and their stunt game. Definitely when you play a team like Tennessee, it makes your O-line better. Because if you don’t work hard, you’re going to get embarrassed.”

Cardinals guard Alan Faneca also talked about twists and stunts, saying he thinks the Titans are using them more instead of relying on juggernauts like KVB and Haynesworth to pave the road.

“I think they’ve mixed in a lot of guys, they all seem to play pretty good with each other,” Faneca said. “…To me it seemed like they were working a lot on their inside games and stuff. With Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth, they really let those guys work so that really wasn’t as big of a staple of theirs. They mix it up. You can’t anticipate one thing, you’ve got to anticipate a couple things, and that slows your reaction down.”

I don’t know how much more the Titans may game and stunt -- this could just be a time in camp where they’ve emphasized it. I am certain they all want to and believe they can line up and beat the man across from them while using stuff to keep blockers off balance. A year after the team had 31 sacks, a drop off of 13 from 2008, I'll be surprised if the number isn't up.

“We’re very deep right now,” Jones said. “Right now we still have interchangeable parts, athletic guys on this D-line. When the hurt guys get back it’s going to be full force… We still have the same pride. When we get our rushes we expect to get to the quarterback or at least hit him and cause some havoc.”