AFC South: Akeem Ayers

Titans Camp Report: Day 10

August, 4, 2014
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • The Titans got no one injured Monday in a joint practice with the Falcons at their facility, always the best development to come out of a preseason practice. Defensive linemen Antonio Johnson and Mike Martin and tight end Dorin Dickerson came in with injuries and didn’t practice.
  • The first fight turned out to be the only big fight. It came as the Titans and Falcons worked on punt returns and Coty Sensabaugh swiped a helmet off Robert McClain and a lot of players from both teams came onto the scene to get involved. It may have settled itself down, but Tommie Campbell came flying in to shove two Falcons, Bernard Pollard got involved and Ri’Shard Anderson came in with helmet in hand and swung it into Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen “We got it over and out of the way and moved on,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We thought it might come, it came early and we settled down.” Whisenhunt doesn’t fine players for practice fights, but Anderson should be fined for a foolhardy and dangerous move.
  • Later, Falcons center Joe Hawley got tossed by officials for his role in a smaller scrap with Michael Griffin.
  • Whisenhunt was audibly upset when Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora hit Jake Locker’s arm on a pass. “He grabbed his arm, he hit his hand,” Whisenhunt said. “Osi apologized. He knows he can’t do that.”
  • Marqueston Huff looked like he’s got the potential to be a quality gunner on punt returns. I saw him quickly burst between Kimario McFadden and Jordan Mabin to get en route in a hurry.
  • On a very early snap in one-on-ones matching Titans defensive backs against Falcons receivers, Jason McCourty was right with Roddy White on a quick throw from Matt Ryan, got an arm in and watched the ball pop loose. Another pass for White with McCourty on him was overthrown. McCourty was very solid in that period. The rest of the defensive backs were not as good. Griffin drew two flags for contact. (Khalid Wooten made a nice play and had a near pick of a Jeff Matthews pass for Tramaine Thompson. I think Wooten is steadily improving though he's not playing against the high-caliber guys.)
  • In one-on-ones, the Titans' offense connected on a big play early as Justin Hunter ran away from corner Robert McClain, collecting a throw from Charlie Whitehurst. Hunter caught another deep one from Zach Mettenberger.
  • Locker didn’t throw deep much, as the Falcons seemed to be offering open stuff underneath far more often. Some plays worked great against it. Locker hit Kendall Wright out of the slot and Wright ran away from Josh Wilson for what would have been a touchdown. On another play, Dexter McCluster worked into open space in the short middle and had a ton of space from there. Whitehurst found room for some shots. One of them connected up the right side with Derek Hagan over corner Javier Arenas and safety Sean Baker.
  • In many practices Locker still seems to have one moment that could be deadly. He held the ball and shuffled left as the pocket began to collapse and threw for Delanie Walker. But Desmond Trufant got to it and dropped what should have been a pick. “For any quarterback, there is always at least one you wish you could have back,” he said when I asked him about that specific play.
  • Both of the Titans' kickers attempted field goals against the Falcons field goal defense from 33, 36, 39, 42 and 46 yards. Travis Coons made them all, Maikon Bonani missed his attempt from 46 wide right.
  • Andy Levitre took three snaps in each team period before rookie Taylor Lewan replaced him. Levitre had his appendix removed on July 24. He still didn’t participate in the high contact one-on-one pass-rush drills.
  • In one team period, the offense worked exclusively in “penny,” its three-cornerback, one-safety package.
  • Falcons receiver Harry Douglas made a catch over Sensabaugh after the Falcons had the Titans jumping around before the snap. Derrick Morgan started with his hand down at left end, stood up and backed out, then returned to his initial position while multiple defenders shouted out multiple signals and waved each other around in what appeared to be confusion.
  • Akeem Ayers made a couple plays, including batting down a pass from Sean Renfree. In one-on-ones he made a great spin move against tackle Lamar Holmes that got him to the quarterback. But in a seven-on-seven period, T.J. Yates threw to running back Devonta Freeman and Ayers had no chance against him in space.
  • Avery Williamson impressively ran step for step with running back Josh Vaughan on a deep route and the pass glanced on the rookie linebacker’s helmet.
  • Moise Fokou worked as high in the linebacker rotation as I can remember, pairing with Zaviar Gooden as the inside tandem with the second team at least some.
  • On a snap where DaQuan Jones and Al Woods were the two defensive linemen, neither put a hand on the ground. The Titans played that one with everyone starting off standing up.
  • On one snap of nickel where nose tackle Sammie Hill came off the field, the standing up, off-the-line outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley actually lined up inside of right end Jurrell Casey.
  • There were a bunch of penalty flags on both sides. The most popular offense was illegal contact by defensive backs. The second biggest was offside. More to come on that
  • It’s always amazing to see how many guys know each other when two rosters of 90 and their coaching staffs combine. Titans linebacker Zach Brown saw Yates and exclaimed, “T.J, what’s up buddy?” Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter chatted with Hagan. Falcons owner Arthur Blank got off his cart to hug Titans tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, who used to be Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. A lot of it was pre-practice, a lot was during the kicking period when non-special teamers had time to chat. I watched Chris Spencer and Griffin talk with Devin Hester as Pollard shouted to the Titans, “Y'all be careful with making friends right now.”
  • Find pictures at pkuharsky on Instagram.
  • The Titans are off Tuesday, then have an open practice at 9:20 a.m. CT Wednesday.

Camp preview: Tennessee Titans

July, 17, 2014
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Paul Kuharsky examines the three biggest issues facing the Tennessee Titans heading into training camp.

Jake Locker: It’s now or never for the Titans’ quarterback, at least in Tennessee. The fourth-year quarterback started last season well, then he got hurt, didn’t shine when he came back and ultimately suffered another season-ending injury. Now he’s got his third offensive coordinator in Jason Michael and a new playcaller and head coach in Ken Whisenhunt.

The Titans would love to see him blossom into the player they thought he could be when they tabbed him eighth overall in 2011. But they began to line up a contingency plan for beyond 2014 when they drafted LSU's Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round.

The team declined to execute Locker’s option for 2015, and he’ll be a free agent after this season. He needs to prove himself worthy of a new contract or the Titans will be prepared to go a different direction next season -- or maybe even sooner.

Things are set up for him to succeed with an upgraded coaching staff, a running game that should be better with a committee instead of Chris Johnson’s deteriorating vision, a reshaped defense and what should be a far easier schedule. But plenty of league insiders and outside critics have little faith Locker can be an effective long-term starter on a winning team.

The new 3-4 defense: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton will bring people from different spots and has some rushers who can play as deeper outside linebackers or line up in a three-point stance as if they are defensive ends. We don’t know if they added enough, but out of Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, converted end Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers, there could be ample edge rush.

The team’s best defensive player, DT Jurrell Casey, will now be playing a lot on a three-man line. But the Titans promise his duties will not change much and say he actually will get more one-on-ones -- because offenses won’t be able to help on him before getting to a linebacker who will be at the line of scrimmage a lot sooner.

Horton quickly won the respect of the team based on his fine résumé and calm but purposeful no-nonsense demeanor. He said small guys who can hit and big guys who can run will have a major say in whether the Titans are successful.

Houston and Indianapolis made the playoffs in their first seasons following recent transitions to a 3-4. The Titans know the scheme change doesn’t buy them patience.

Whisenhunt’s weapons: The Titans signed pint-size Dexter McCluster to be a weapon in Whisenhunt’s offense. McCluster played receiver and running back in Kansas City, but the Titans will look to him as part of the backfield committee, where he figures to catch a lot of passes coming out of the backfield.

Bishop Sankey was the first running back taken in the draft and should be a more direct, decisive back than Johnson, though he certainly doesn’t bring CJ’s speed. Shonn Greene will have short-yardage chances. Are those three enough to take heat off the passing game?

The Titans are counting on a big jump from blazing outside receiver Justin Hunter. Kendall Wright was the best player on offense. And while Nate Washington is aging, he has been dependable and productive. Along with tight end Delanie Walker there are options for Whisenhunt to be inventive with, but we don’t know what will work.
A guy has to be rated to be overrated, which makes sorting through overrated guys a very subjective and dangerous exercise.

Pete Prisco of CBS Sports rates Tennessee Titans tackle Michael Oher as the most overrated member of the team.


Who is the most overrated Tennessee Titan?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,272)

The case for Oher: Some scouts and evaluators feel his game was best when he was a rookie in Baltimore and gradually faded, and the Titans went and handed him a four-year, $20 million contract. They do have an out after one year and $6 million.

So who else is a candidate?

Running back Shonn Greene was 2013’s Oher, a debatable signing that got more money than he seemed to be worth: $10 million for three years. He can be good in short-yardage situations, but as the running back market was starting to fade the Titans jumped out and gave a limited guy a lot. His knee injury limited him in his first season.

Defensive tackle Sammie Hill wasn’t as big an impact guy as the Titans had to be expecting when they signed him in 2013 to a three-year deal worth over $11 million. He was an element of the team's push to get bigger and stop the run better. He's not working as a nose tackle in the new 3-4.

Outside linebacker Akeem Ayers has dealt with some injuries in his first three years. The old coaching staff never had a great feel for how to use the 2011 second-round pick. He should be better suited to the 3-4, but he’s going to have to rush better and play better in space when he’s asked to.

Free safety Michael Griffin was better in 2013 than he had been the few years before. I often say he needs to be surrounded by talent to be good, and he asks me who is that not the case for? But a guy with his contract -- he’s in year three of a five-year, $35 million deal -- should be a guy making others better, not needing others to help make him better.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans linebackers played well in the first month of 2013. They gradually deteriorated from there.

It wound up an awful year for the group, where Akeem Ayers started 14 games, Zach Brown started 13, Moise Fokou 12, Colin McCarthy five and Zaviar Gooden one.

[+] EnlargeZach Brown
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsZach Brown and the Titans linebackers are ready to put a frustrating 2013 behind them.
Collectively, they had six sacks, three interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Brown and McCarthy clearly had troubles with defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and/or first-year linebacker coach Chet Parlavecchio. Parlavecchio was an immensely likeable guy and a close friend of Mike Munchak’s. But he was almost certainly cast as a position coach too soon, and was unable to squeeze consistency and improvement out of the group.

McCarthy said he, Ayers and Brown gave the Titans an injection of young talent in the past few years.

“It was tough to be successful to say the least,” he said of 2013. “A lot of linebackers battled with different things, and a lot of guys weren’t happy. But I think with the changes Ruston Webster made, bringing Coach (Ken) Whisenhunt, with the defensive coaches we have now, it’s a breath of fresh air. Guys are excited, me in particular.”

The best guys will play and these coaches will shoot players straight, not tell them what they want to hear, McCarthy said.

“I put last year behind me,” Brown said. “With our coaches now, we communicate a lot more [so] the players have a better time in communication with people. Last year everybody was just kind of looking out for himself. This year is different.

“Everybody’s a team. You feel it in the building, the atmosphere has changed.”

Brown became symbolic at the end of last season, benched, confused and disenchanted with the coaches.

“I’m anxious to play again, because last year before I got hurt I think I was leading the league in tackles,” he said. “I want my name to be up there at the top, along with our defense ...

“I do honestly feel that they did use me as a scapegoat last year, but I really can’t do nothing about me playing. Them sitting me down, it wasn’t my fault. If you’re going to sit down one of your best players, there isn’t anything I can do about it. All I could do was sit and watch.”

McCarthy’s got an injury history and fell behind with a tweaked hamstring that cost him most of training camp.

“Once I did that I was kind of put aside, I got moved around a lot, I got told a lot of different things and things didn’t happen,” McCarthy said. “Frustration kicked in Week 11, Week 12 and just with the way we were doing, it was a tough year ...

“(Now), I’m being positive, I’m excited about the change."
JohnsonRon Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsChris Johnson didn't reveal he played most of the season with a torn meniscus until this week.
NEW YORK -- Chris Johnson had surgery to clean up a torn meniscus that he said he played with for 13 games in 2013.

Whatever questions I have had about Johnson, none have ever been about his toughness. He's been a durable back for the Tennessee Titans. That is a rare and admirable quality.

I am sure the tear hampered him to some degree. But I bet he'd say if he's healthy enough to play, he's healthy enough to find more than 3.9 yards a carry, which was the primary issue for Johnson in the recently completed season.

From ESPN's injury expert, Stephania Bell:

“There are numerous different types of tears. A small one may not have bothered him much. Remember Maurice Jones-Drew did the same thing a few years ago and had it cleaned up after season.”

Johnson is the second member of the Titans to reveal an injury played a part in the 2013 season well after it had ended. Linebacker Akeem Ayers tweeted on Jan. 17 about having played the whole year with a troublesome knee.

Johnson revealed his knee issue on Monday. He had surgery and tweeted that it was a success.

The injuries in question belong to Johnson and Ayers. If they aren't missing practices or games, the team isn't obligated to mention them in injury reports. I respect their right to choose what to say and what not to say.

But keeping injuries secret doesn't serve players well in the perception department. Perhaps now we're saying, “Wow, he toughed it out and that's impressive.” But if a guy fails to perform to expectations like both Johnson and Ayers did this year, they get criticized for it, and I think that's fair. They had ample opportunity to give us a hint.

Guys keep injuries as quiet as they can for several reasons.

  1. They don't want to alert opponents to a problem that could be exploited.
  2. They don't want to appear to be complaining or making excuses.
  3. Their coaches and teams mandate they keep a lid on it.

Regarding No. 1: Plenty of guys tell you it's hard at full speed to concentrate on an opponent's body part. Are you worried about getting the speedy Johnson to the ground, or are you worried about getting him to the ground while focusing on a knee? Good luck if you go for the second approach.

Regarding No. 2: I'd never hit a guy for saying, “There is an issue affecting things here that I'll tell you about after the season. It's not an excuse, I'm just telling you there is more to it than you may think.” Andy Levitre basically did that this season and his hip issue came to light at the end. He didn't get criticized at all for making excuses or being soft.

Regarding No. 3: It's your injury, and you get to decide how to treat it and what to say about it, not your coach. It's very easy for a coach to minimize something serious, and it can ruin a reputation. See Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville saying Fred Taylor had a groin strain when he actually had a muscle torn off the bone. The running back became “Fragile Fred” because he was a good soldier and allowed his team to control information about his injury.

It's a tough spot. There is no easy way to sort through it, and there are avenues for criticism no matter what a guy's approach is.

We'll get a better sense of how much the injuries held Johnson and Ayers back when they're fully healthy and back on the field.

But if their injuries were a big factor in their lack of production, their images and reputations would have been far better served by indicating something was going on.

The next big thing: Titans

January, 22, 2014
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What’s next for the Tennessee Titans?

Once Ken Whisenhunt fills out his staff, the Titans need to assess their roster and decide who fits at his scheduled price and who doesn’t.

The biggest question is Jake Locker at quarterback. Indications are Locker will have every chance to be the Titans’ guy in 2014, but the team could still look to add another QB.

But more broadly, the team needs to sort out its defensive front.

A shift to a hybrid front that will feature plenty of 3-4 is coming.

I’m sure they see defensive tackle Jurrell Casey as a fit for the scheme, and he’ll likely be an end in the 3-4. Akeem Ayers came into the league projected by many as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Beyond those guys, who do the ends and outside linebackers sort out? Does Sammie Hill project as the nose tackle? How badly does a team that often didn’t have a quality middle linebacker need to add in order to field two quality inside linebackers?

Those are among the big questions the Titans have to answer as they plot what to do in free agency and the draft.

Survey says: Worst pain ever

November, 20, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For this installment of “Survey Says” I asked Titans, “What’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt?”

Defensive tackle Antonio Johnson: “My ACL injury, I would say. In 2007, my rookie year. It was excruciating. It felt like hell. Painful, very painful, I would say the first couple days coming out of surgery, when they have to bend it, fresh out of surgery, The bending of the knee trying to get the flexion back, that’s the most painful thing I ever felt. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Coming out of surgery it was just that throbbing feeling, like it’s got a heart in it.”

Guard Chance Warmack: “I dislocated the ring finger on my left hand in the Auburn game. I had to play with it for two games, the Georgia game and the Notre Dame game. It never had a chance to heal properly. I buddy-taped it. I remember the Georgia game, it kept popping out, we had to keep popping it back in. It felt like my finger was going to fall off. I was blocking with four fingers.”

Wide receiver Nate Washington: “I was playing basketball and I got hit in the eye and my eye was open so the guy actually moved my eyeball a little bit. I had a patch on my eye for about two weeks. I was 20, 21 years old. It was excruciating pain. I did not know it would hurt like that, I couldn’t open my eye for about two weeks. Black eye, eyeball was red. Worst football injury was a hip pointer, because you can do absolutely nothing. No loud talking, no sudden movements, no sneezing, no coughing. I’ve broken bones before but hip pointer is the most immobilizing nagging thing. But the eye was worse.”

Linebacker Akeem Ayers: “My appendix, this year, right before the season started. That s--- was terrible. It was kind of like a sharp, endless pain type of deal. This was there for about 12 hours, just non-stop until it was taken out. It was like a knife and some punches at the same time.

[+] EnlargeCraig Stevens
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsCraig Stevens said his broken rib was "the most excruciating pain I've ever felt."
Guard Andy Levitre: Getting pleurisy. It’s an inflamed lung, so every time you breath, it feels like you are getting stabbed in your chest, but it’s your lung rubbing up against your rib cage. I feel like that’s the most painful thing I ever had, it was in college. I had it for a few days and it bough me to tears, it was that bad. It was insane. I couldn’t take full breaths. That was bad. I ended up going to the ER. I tried to tough it out for a few days and then I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Tight end Craig Stevens: “When I broke my rib, by far the most pain ever. Two years ago we were playing Cleveland and Eugene Amano came and landed with his knee right here (points to left side of his torso.) I couldn’t get up or anything and then it kind of clicked back in and I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s not so bad.’ Then I ran down there and I actually made a tackle and fell on the ground. I couldn’t get up. For about a week, it was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt. I couldn’t move. I would lay down and I couldn’t get up, I needed help to get up, that’s how bad it was. It eventually healed. It would heal and I would play with it and re-break it before it had a chance to really heal up. Every time I re-broke it, it was like I’d go back to square one with that pain. After about four weeks of re-breaking it, I took a game off, then I started feeling better."

Tight end Delanie Walker: “Probably when I broke my jaw two years ago against Seattle. Dec. 24. After the morphine wore off, that’s when it was worse. The flight was two hours, and that’s about when it wore off. That’s when I felt it. It just felt like someone was kicking me in the mouth nonstop, over and over. Took me three weeks to recover. I played in the NFC Championship Game.”

Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh: “Probably when I broke my leg in high school. I broke my fibula, I had to have surgery. It was a 10 on a scale of 1-10.”

Defensive tackle Mike Martin: “When my shoulder came out. Kind of came in, came out, slipped a little bit in college, my senior year against Illinois. I was going to tackle Juice Williams, get a sack and my linebacker came and hit the back of my shoulder, slipped it out, it was horrible. It reverberated all through my body, it felt like it was going through all my limbs, that’s how bad it was initially.”

Titans don't know how to recover

November, 15, 2013
Devon WylieAP Photo/Mark ZaleskiThe game pivoted the Colts' way when they fell on a third-quarter fumble by the Titans' Devon Wylie.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Every team in the NFL has regular conversations about withstanding adversity. Good teams fight through down moments and have a clear understanding that those bad stretches are not the same as zeros on the game clock.

Thursday night at LP Field, the Indianapolis Colts gave up four first downs and 41 penalty yards during a second-quarter defensive series. They were a crumbling, undisciplined mess.

Yet they ultimately gathered themselves, recovered and beat the Tennessee Titans by a 30-27 score.

The Titans, meanwhile, saw their new return man run a kickoff into the back of one of his teammates and fumble. And after Devon Wylie bumped into Craig Stevens and gave away the turnover early in the third quarter, the hosts fell apart and never regained their balance.

That’s pretty much the story of the Titans, who have lost five of their past six games. They don’t really know how to recover from mistakes, and they are party to the other team doing it pretty regularly.

“We see what we’re doing,” strong safety Bernard Pollard said. “These teams are not better than us. They might handle certain things better than us, but they are not better than us.”

With apologies to Pollard, the fact that opponents handle certain things better than the Titans is precisely what makes those opponents better.

This is a downtrodden bunch that once had a 3-1 record to validate the in-house expectations built with an offseason of free-agent activity, coaching-staff alterations and promises from coach Mike Munchak that they wouldn’t disappoint.

Now, at 4-6, they are three games and a tiebreaker out of the lead in the AFC South with six games to play. They remain alive for the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs only because there are so many other bad teams bunched together. But some of them can start pulling away Sunday.

“We’ve still got six games to pull something together and do something,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “A lot of it’s probably out of our hands now. I don’t know what’s going to happen this weekend or whatnot.”

The Titans were practically apathetic at the start of last weekend's loss to the previously winless Jaguars. Thursday night they started off far better, unveiling a hurry-up, no-huddle offense that played to the strengths of Ryan Fitzpatrick, their quarterback the rest of the way after Jake Locker’s season-ending foot injury.

They built leads of 14-0 and 17-3 in the first half, but then they watched the Colts march 74 yards in 11 plays to open the second half with a touchdown. Wylie’s gaffe followed, and it took only two plays for Indianapolis to get to the end zone again and take its first lead, 20-17. The Titans didn’t roll over, but they never got the lead back.

Maybe the Titans could have won if they had held the Colts to a field goal on big fourth-quarter drive. Instead, linebacker Akeem Ayers hit Andrew Luck late after a handoff -- not even on a pass play -- for an unnecessary-roughness penalty that positioned Indianapolis for a touchdown that built the late lead to 30-20.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiTwo plays after the Titans fumbled away a kickoff, Andrew Luck's TD run put the Colts ahead for good.
All of which set up the same postgame questions: What’s wrong? Why is this happening? Why can’t you fix it?

“We are who we are,” defensive end Derrick Morgan said. “There are no excuses; there’s no explanation. We can sit here and talk for an hour, but we are what we put on that field. ... You can only talk so much. We’ve been talking the last several weeks, and we haven’t been getting the results that we want. We didn’t go do it.

“We keep having the same conversation. We just went downhill from a good start. We’ve got all the talent in the world, but it’s not showing up on game day. ... Obviously we don’t [know how to win]. We’ve been losing close games, games that we think we should have won. We’re not finishing.”

The Titans don’t do much dictating; instead, they’re always trying to respond.

And then they wind up in position to look at something like the Colts’ 32 carries for 137 yards and hear Munchak say, “They ran the ball much better than they should have been able to.”

The Colts are an incredibly annoying and frustrating team for the Titans. When the AFC South was formed in 2002, Peyton Manning and Indy were kings of the division forever. When he got hurt and then was released, the division door opened, but it was Houston that walked through. Now Luck is in place and seems poised to begin a reign similar to Manning’s.

The Colts and their quarterback seem to have DNA that means they can withstand tough stuff and find ways to win.

The Titans, to put it simply, don't.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 9

November, 4, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 28-21 win over the St. Louis Rams:

His role now: Kenny Britt is a run blocker and a decoy. He can be effective in the first role; defenses surely welcome him on to the field in the second. He was targeted only once by Jake Locker on Sunday, and while Cortland Finnegan's interception was the result of a bad throw more than anything Britt did, you can’t help but think the percentages of something good happening when Britt is the target are low. Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Damian Williams are all more threatening. Nate Washington was a go-to guy for Locker before his injury and has caught only three passes in two games since Locker’s return. The Titans should be focused on getting Washington going again well ahead of being concerned about Britt.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Kenny Britt
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesCortland Finnegan will likely have to restructure his contract in order to return to the Rams in 2014.
Ayers as a factor: They’ve tried a bunch of different things with Akeem Ayers since drafting him in the second round out of UCLA in 2011. He’s still not an impact guy. In St. Louis, he didn’t come off the field, playing his usual strongside linebacker spot in base and as the Mike in the nickel. In such situations, his forte should be as a run stopper, but the Rams ran for 160 yards and 5.0 yards per attempt. On Sunday, they abandoned the idea of him as a situational end. It’s impressive that the defense has been what it has been through eight games with no consistent presence from Ayers.

Um, about that missed call: I’ve been critical of the Titans bemoaning the officials a bit too frequently, as if the NFL has some rationale for picking on them. But I liked Washington’s approach when talking about Jake Locker’s second interception in St. Louis. Washington didn’t get to where Locker was throwing because he was held up by former teammate Cortland Finnegan. The play drew no flag and was an easy interception for safety Rodney McLeod. “Cortland did a great job of holding me, flat out,” Washington said. “Rookie back judge [Dale Shaw], it’s his first year. So I’m not going to go toO far with it, I don’t want to get fined. But at the same time, let’s just say Cortland did a good job of being Cortland.” Nice work by Washington knowing Shaw’s résumé.

Um, about that one snap: Jurrell Casey is one of the Titans' best defenders and the defensive tackle has a team-high six sacks. He’s a problem-causer. No need to outsmart yourself and drop him into coverage on an athletic, speedy tight end like Jared Cook. It made for an easy 17-yard completion to Cook and didn’t make a lot of sense. I believe future teams on the schedule would love to see Casey moving backward instead of forward.
Akeem AyersAP Photo/Tom Gannam
ST. LOUIS -- For six games, middle linebacker Moise Fokou ran the Tennessee Titans' defense, wearing the coach-to-player speaker in his green-dotted helmet.

After Fokou hurt a knee in Seattle on Oct. 13, his replacement, Colin McCarthy, did the job against San Francisco.

But the Titans came out of the bye with a new player charged with the job.

Strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers called the plays and didn’t leave the field, playing as the middle linebacker in nickel during Tennessee’s 28-21 win against the Rams.

"Coach (Jerry) Gray and coach (Gregg) Williams wanted to try something different," Ayers said. "Last year we had a lot of success in our nickel package when we had me and Zach Brown as the two nickel linebackers late in the season. They just thought it would be good for us after doing a lot of self-scouting in the bye week to come out and do something different."

He played every snap at strongside linebacker in base and at "Mike" in nickel, the most he’s played all season.

I don’t know that his increased presence and role had any great bearing on the team, but it did mark a notable change.

Ayers finished with three tackles and a pass defensed. McCarthy, even playing less, led the team with nine tackles on a day when the Titans played poor run defense, allowing rookie running back Zac Stacy 127 yards on 27 carries, and the Rams 5.0 yards per rush attempt.

Turning to Ayers as the defensive play-caller and with a full-time role might have been just a one-game thing. The Rams are run-first team, and Ayers is better as a run-defender than in coverage.

With Greg Williams added to the defensive staff and the Titans still unsure of how to deploy their second-round pick from 2011, they set out this season to use Ayers as a base linebacker and a nickel defensive end, but he’s not stood out much in either role.

It still needs sorting out, and once Fokou is healthy I expect he’ll be back in the middle as the every-down linebacker and play-caller.

In the meantime, it might have given Ayers a bit of a confidence boost that the team factored him into this plan in a bigger way.

"It was a different position for Akeem to be in," safety George Wilson said. "He did an outstanding job getting us the calls, getting us lined up. Anytime you have a guy who hasn’t played it, you’re going to have a few plays where you get some calls mixed up or we don’t get a call. But that didn’t happen much at all. We were able to get lined up and keep the ball in front of us. That was the goal."

It wasn’t a good defensive day, overall. The Titans did have some good moments, however. St. Louis got the ball twice on turnovers, and Tennessee put on the brakes after the sudden changes, allowing the Rams to convert them into zero points.

And after Jake Locker's second interception looked like it would position the Rams for a clock-milking, game-winning drive, the Titans' defense got the ball back.

Jurrell Casey stripped Kellen Clemens at the Rams’ 17-yard line, Derrick Morgan recovered it at the 19, and Chris Johnson took the next play into the end zone for a 28-21 lead that held up as the final score.

"In sudden-change situations, we won on both sides of the ball," Casey said.

The Titans' defense has been reliable and consistent. But they’ve now allowed touchdowns the past six times opponents have crossed their 20 yard line, they’ve allowed more than 150 rushing yards three games in a row, and they’ve given up a 45 percent third-down conversion rate the past two weeks when it was 27 percent before that.

"For some reason, the last two games that we played, we’ve been slipping," Casey said. "So we’ve got to get back to what we were doing the first couple weeks and turn the game back around."

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 7

October, 21, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday:

[+] EnlargeKenny Britt
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsTitans wide receiver Kenny Britt and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown exchange words during the second half of their Week 7 game on Sunday.
The biggest cause for hope: It's not as much in the Titans’ locker room as it is on their schedule. They just lost to teams with the fifth-, second- and eighth-ranked defenses. There is no debating how tough a stretch it was, and they faced the first two with their backup quarterback. Their next three games come against teams currently ranked 21st, 27th and 17th. The Titans have to show us it’s been about their opponents, and not their insufficiencies, by moving the ball far more effectively when they return to action.

Woe is them: Maybe officials blew the unnecessary roughness call against Akeem Ayers that undid a Bernard Pollard interception and set up an early 49ers touchdown. But the Titans can’t point to it as the root of their undoing; I don’t believe they were going to win that game even without that call. Later, when he was involved in a scrap, Pollard said the play was blown dead, after which someone was tackling him. “If we were to do that, we wonder what it would have been like,” he said. The men in black and white aren't targeting the Titans. What would their incentive be to do so?

What to do with Kenny Britt: The struggling receiver played 19 snaps, 32 percent of the team’s offensive plays. He let cornerback Tarell Brown get in his head late in the game, shoving him after drawing a pass interference call then committing an unnecessary roughness call when he tangled with Brown on the next play. Losing his cool that way does nothing to help him climb out of the deep hole he’s in. Tight end Delanie Walker called Britt out on it.

Re-evaluation time: I don’t get the sense that there is anyone on defense whose heart isn't in it, and the only guy on the team currently who’s got an issue about being in the way is Britt. But Pollard sent a message as the Titans head into their week off. “This is a week where guys need to re-evaluate themselves,” Pollard said. “This is for anybody: If you don’t want to help us, get out of our way. Talk to Ruston [Webster]. Go talk to the head coach. Get out of our way.” What’s in the way is the production on offense, and the inability to establish and maintain a run game. If they can’t solve that, their troubles will continue.

Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Titans

October, 20, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Reaction from the Tennessee Titans' 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at LP Field.

What it means: The Titans dropped their third consecutive game and showed just how far away they are from being the 49ers, a team they’d like to emulate in construction and style. The offense produced minimal big plays of note and the defense had no answers for San Francisco, which built a 24-0 lead and kept the Titans scoreless into the third quarter.

Stock watch: Return man Darius Reynaud -- down. Reynaud continues to struggle. He tried to circle back and change direction after fielding one punt, allowed a kickoff to bounce over his head, fair caught a low punt that might have provided an opportunity at a return and muffed a punt to allow the 49ers an end zone recovery for a touchdown. It was a continuation of recent poor decision-making, which somehow earned him some early snaps at wide receiver in this game. He was targeted on one and dropped the pass. On the bright side, he made a tackle on the opening kickoff of the second half.

Worth it? Jake Locker was back earlier than expected from hip and knee injuries. He played fine, with a bad pick that looked like the one Ryan Fitzpatrick threw last week, and a nice touchdown pass to Delanie Walker to go with a screen that Chris Johnson turned into a long score. Locker seems to have come out of it OK, so the Titans didn’t get punished for taking the risk with him before their bye.

Turning point: Bernard Pollard had an interception washed away in the second quarter when Akeem Ayers was called for a low hit on Colin Kaepernick. That gave the 49ers a first down, and three plays later, Kaepernick weaved 20 yards into the end zone for a touchdown that put San Francisco up 10-0.

What’s next: The Titans have a week off to sort out what’s wrong before they head to St. Louis to face the Rams, coached by a guy the franchise knows well, Jeff Fisher.
Rivers/LockerUSA TODAY SportsJake Locker, right, will try to keep up with Philip Rivers and the Chargers, who have scored 61 points through two games.
The San Diego Chargers are the Tennessee Titans' white whale.

The teams don’t play that frequently -- just nine times since 1993, including a wild-card playoff matchup in January 2008. The franchises have undergone all sorts of changes during that span, but one thing has remained consistent when they meet: The Chargers always win.

Bill Williamson, why do you think that is, and what are the odds it continues?

Bill Williamson: I don’t see the Chargers' history with the Titans being a factor. I know in Nashville the word "Chargers" makes fans cringe because of the history. Both teams are rebuilding and trending upward. These are two similar teams, and they will both be in the AFC conversation in the coming years.

The Titans made a lot of changes. This isn’t the team the Chargers beat 38-10 last September. What’s the biggest difference?

Paul Kuharsky: The central part of the offseason revamp was the offensive line. The Titans have three new starters on the interior with left guard Andy Levitre, center Rob Turner and right guard Chance Warmack. Turner has been shaky, however, and Warmack is a rookie who is going to take some lumps when he’s across from someone like J.J. Watt. The group hasn’t jelled yet, but the run-blocking has been pretty good.

We've seen the good Philip Rivers and the bad Philip Rivers over the years. With the new regime in place, what is your feeling on who he will be now?

Williamson: I might be the wrong person to ask, Paul. I’ve always been high on Rivers. Yes, his play sank the past two seasons and he committed 47 turnovers during that span. But it wasn’t all on him. The previous regime in San Diego let go of a lot of skill-position talent, and the offensive line was decimated by injuries. Rivers didn’t have much help. He was pressing as a result. So far under head coach Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterback coach Frank Reich, Rivers has looked re-energized. He has looked relaxed and confident over the first two weeks. He has shown that he is still a high-level player. Stopping him is the main challenge for the Titans.

How’s Jake Locker coming along?

Kuharsky: He made a bad throw on a crucial third-and-1 late in regulation in the loss to the Texans. The Titans have hardly turned him loose so far. But since the start of camp, he’s shown steady progress. I’m not a complete believer by any means, but I think he has a chance and I didn’t always feel that way. We still haven’t seen some aspects of the offense that should be featured for him. Maybe this week he’ll run around more and we’ll see more boots and rollouts.

I’m curious about one of the guys who will be chasing Locker. The Titans have seen a great deal of Dwight Freeney over the years. How has he fit in the defensive scheme there?

Williamson: An old foe, indeed. Freeney is in a tough spot. He was signed (and paid well) to be the Chargers’ primary edge pass-rusher after 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram blew out his knee in May. But at 33, Freeney is best suited as a rotational player. He has half a sack this season. He has been active and will give his best effort, but he needs help. It would be a stretch to think he can still be a premier player. But he knows the Titans, and I’m sure he will be motivated to perform well Sunday.

What can Rivers and the Chargers' offensive line expect from the Titans’ pass rush?

Kuharsky: The best guys so far haven’t been the ends. Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley should key the rush. Ayers moves from stongside linebacker to end on rush downs but has been limited by a bad ankle. Tackle Jurrell Casey and weakside linebacker Zach Brown have been the best rushers so far. The fronts are less predictable and the blitzes more frequent. That’s the influence of defensive assistant Gregg Williams. This defense is far better than I expected.

Titans have to defend TEs far better

September, 12, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One weak area of the Tennessee Titans' defense the past couple seasons wasn’t tested in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With Heath Miller out injured, the Steelers were unthreatening at tight end.

In Week 2, Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham of the Houston Texans will pose a much tougher challenge. In the Texans' opener against the San Diego Chargers, Daniels had five catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns, and Graham had four catches for 27 yards and a score.

[+] EnlargeZach Brown
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsThe Titans will often rely on Zach Brown to cover tight ends.
Has Tennessee improved at covering tight ends, or are Daniels and Graham poised to have a big day, picking up on the trend of the Mike Munchak-coached Titans?

Per John Parolin of ESPN Stats and Info, 24 percent of the catches made against the Titans since Munchak became head coach in 2011 have been made by tight ends. That is only the 17th-highest percentage in the league.

The troublesome number: Those catches have accounted for 24 percent of the receiving yardage against Tennessee, the fourth-highest percentage in the league.

Strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers has been a key cog in the effort defending tight ends the past two seasons, but it has not been his forte. Now he’s a line-of-scrimmage player most of the time, and an end in nickel situations.

“It’s being disciplined and keeping your eyes on you man, really,” Ayers said about covering Houston's tight ends. “My first two years here, I was doing a lot of covering. So I experienced firsthand when I got the tight end, I took my eyes off him for one second and he’s running across the field.”

Now Ayers will look to provide pass pressure that will help everyone in coverage.

More often, weakside linebacker Zach Brown will be the linebacker involved in covering the tight end.

Brown made it sound simple -- probably too simple -- when I spoke to him about it late in the preseason.

“You’ve just got to be disciplined with your eyes and know what routes the tight end runs,” he said. “The tight end really don’t run a lot of routes unless you’re Vernon Davis. Other than that, tight ends run two or three routes.”

So eye discipline against guys that run only two or three routes was that bad?

We’ll need to see significant improvement in that department for the Titans to limit Daniels and Graham.

A few weeks ago, senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams spoke of tight end coverage issues the Titans' defense had before he joined the staff.

“Maybe some of the teams they’ve played have been high-profile threats on those teams and maybe diminished receivers on those teams,” Williams said. “We’re going to have teams each week that are going to pose talent threats, and we’re going to have to matchup talent threats.”

Over the past two seasons, the Titans gave up big plays to Daniel Fells of the Denver Broncos, Ben Watson of the Cleveland Browns, Joel Dreessen of Houston, Colin Cochart of the Cincinnati Bengals, Dante Rosario of San Diego, Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings, and Jeff Cumberland of the New York Jets.

Those guys hardly qualify as high-profile threats, and hardly ranked high on the list of people the Titans had to worry about -- at least until the games began to unfold.

Daniels is a high-profile threat, but he’s not the Texans' highest-profile threat. To win in Houston, the Titans will have to get some degree of a handle on both Andre Johnson and Daniels.
A look at the snap report from the NFL for the Titans in their win over Pittsburgh.

Offense, 67 total snaps
LT Michael Roos, 67
LG Andy Levitre, 67
C Rob Turner, 67
RG Chance Warmack, 67
RT David Stewart, 67
QB Jake Locker, 67

TE Delanie Walker, 51
TE Craig Stevens, 49
RB Chris Johnson, 43
WR Kenny Britt, 43
WR Nate Washington, 38
WR Damian Williams, 27
TE Taylor Thompson, 25
RB Jackie Battle, 19
WR Kendall Wright, 19
FB Collin Mooney, 17
RB Shonn Greene, 4

Greene got hurt early or would likely have had most of Battle’s snaps. The team said Wright’s preseason knee injury wasn’t going to be an issue, but he should get more than that if he’s fine -- especially when Britt is ineffective.

Defense, 53 total snaps
CB Jason McCourty, 53
LB Moise Fokou, 53
LB Zach Brown, 53
FS Michael Griffin, 53

CB Alterraun Verner, 52
SS Bernard Pollard. 51
DE Derrick Morgan, 49
DT Jurrell Casey, 45
CB Coty Sensabaugh, 36
LB-DE Akeem Ayers, 29
DE Kamerion Wimbley, 27
DL Karl Klug, 23
DE Ropati Pitoitua, 19
DT Mike Martin, 17
DT Sammie Hill, 17
S George Wilson, 3
DT Antonio Johnson, 3

The Titans are supposed to be reducing Morgan’s snaps, but Ayers is coming off an ankle injury and they were clearly measuring his work. He wasn’t very effective. Pitoitua showed well. Hill was a big free-agent addition. He had an elbow injury in the preseason and I would expect more action from him.

Four Titans played 18 special-teams snaps: Patrick Bailey, Tommie Campbell, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Daimion Stafford.

Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was the only active player who didn't take the field.