AFC South: Colin McCarthy

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."

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 20-16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars:

Munchak
Injury talk: A year ago the Titans suffered a slew of injuries on the offensive line, and it was often difficult for them to field a functional group. That’s a bad scenario, suffering multiple serious injuries at the same position. Otherwise, you’re like most other teams. Mike Munchak continues to talk as if the Week 1 knee injury to running back Shonn Greene was season-altering. It’s great that Greene is feeling good and making a contribution, but losing him for a stretch and then not having him at 100 percent shouldn’t have had such a big bearing on this team. Losing quarterback Jake Locker was big, of course. But otherwise the Titans have had a pretty healthy season. Yes, Brian Schwenke’s ankle injury has lessened the rookie center’s game. But the idea that the line hasn’t had sufficient time to jell because of dings is way overstated. Injured/altered lines in Seattle and Miami have functioned well enough, no? There are banged-up guys on the rosters of all the teams the Titans are playing, too. Munchak looks primed to oversell injuries as part of the reason his team hasn’t lived up to his promise of not disappointing fans this season. Tommy Smith and Ruston Webster shouldn’t put too much stock into that. And Munchak shouldn’t expect perfect health if he’s coach in 2014.

Reinforcement: Here’s hoping a successful game against a bad team doesn’t do much to prompt ownership to buy in to antiquated thinking where the Titans continue to want to be predominantly a run team. There is a place for the running game and dangerous backs. But Tennessee has overemphasized it with limited success, and running against a bunch of Jaguars backups shouldn’t fuel the continued dedication to the approach in a passing, quarterback league. The Titans need to focus on quarterback above all else, not further commit to the desire to throw it when they want to as opposed to when they need to.

Shuffling backers: In the two previous games, the Titans gave a large share of the weakside linebacker work to rookie Zaviar Gooden. Sunday he was inactive. Munchak said the team decided to sacrifice a linebacker for an extra receiver as they thought the heat would have a bearing on the wideouts. They also wanted to see Colin McCarthy play the weak side. That’s fine. But it looks like they are having trouble making up their minds about who their best guys are. And that’s a significant problem in Week 16.

Confusing use: I’m a giant believer in maximizing threatening weapons. Jackie Battle is the Titans’ third running back for a reason, and he’s not at all threatening as a pass-catcher. Maybe give him some snaps in passing situations to lessen the pass-protecting responsibilities of Chris Johnson, who’s pretty good at picking up rushers. He’s playing too much, and against the Jaguars, he was splitting out wide in empty formations. I didn’t get to talk to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains after this game, but I certainly will ask him soon what makes Battle in a receiver position a good idea.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 14

December, 9, 2013
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DENVER -- An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 51-28 loss to the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

Pressure on Peyton: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has been the Titans' best player this season, and a week ago in Indianapolis he was a monster the Colts simply couldn’t handle. In Denver, the Broncos' interior line kept him quiet -- he was credited with one tackle. He told me interior pressure was the key to forcing quarterback Peyton Manning into a mistake. There was none. Manning threw the ball 59 times and he didn’t turn it over. The Titans had the seventh-best pass defense in the league and had allowed eight touchdown passes heading into this game. Manning threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns. The Titans didn’t sack him and hit him just once. That’s hardly the recipe to rattle a big-time quarterback.

[+] EnlargeBernard Pollard
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos put up 551 yards against Bernard Pollard and the Tennessee defense.
Persecution complex: The Titans' secondary was upset over the way the game was officiated, and clearly feel Manning gets the benefit of the doubt from the zebras. Maybe he does get some of it, but calls against the Titans didn’t account for the Broncos’ 51 points. Tennessee needs to be careful about blaming the officials too much, and themselves not enough. They were the victims of a bad call against Bernard Pollard early in the third quarter. But that didn’t unhinge them or determine the game. Sure, Pollard’s been an outspoken critic of rules and officiating. Is that really enough for the league’s officiating department to pick the Titans as a target? I sure don’t think so.

Shuffling backers: The Titans used Colin McCarthy and even rookie Zaviar Gooden some at linebacker on Sunday, and not as the result of any injuries to their regular trio of Moise Fokou, Akeem Ayers or Zach Brown. Maybe they had some great rationale, but it seemed like the sort of lineup fiddling in Week 14 that suggests a team doesn’t have enough in its core guys and needs to mess around to find something. McCarthy made four tackles and Gooden four while Ayers wasn’t on the stat sheet. So maybe it was smart.

Too quiet: The Titans' best offensive weapon is receiver Kendall Wright, who works a lot out of the slot. One of the Broncos' best pieces on defense is nickel corner Chris Harris. Harris did his part to hold Wright to his fewest catches (two) and fewest yards (17) since opening day. Since the Titans’ win in Pittsburgh, Wright has had at least three catches and at least 54 yards in every game. With Delanie Walker out of the lineup with a concussion, the Titans were down one key weapon. Justin Hunter had four catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. No one else had more than two catches or 24 receiving yards.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 11

November, 15, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 30-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at LP Field:

Foku
Missing Fokou: When linebacker Moise Fokou hurt his knee Oct. 13 at Seattle, some of us believed the Titans might be better off with Colin McCarthy plugged in at middle linebacker. It’s not as though McCarthy’s been terrible, but three of the four games without Fokou have been run-defense disasters -- 153 yards to San Francisco, 160 to St. Louis and 137 to Indianapolis. (There was a 54-yard game against Jacksonville, too.) Getting Fokou back might not be the answer, but this was a better defense when he was running it.

Special teams: Of all the moves Mike Munchak made, firing Alan Lowry might have been the biggest. Current special teams coach Nate Kaczor isn't making the mistakes, and his units have been hard-hit by the injuries, but the Titans have been far more likely to commit a gaffe on special teams than produce a play. Every team in the league should have a guy they can call up from the practice squad who can field kicks and punts and secure the ball. Devon Wylie's kick return fumble -- which was the result of him bumping into a teammate -- was an absolute killer.

Fitzpatrick
Third and short: I’m fine with the Titans’ willingness to throw in an unconventional situation. They converted an early third-and-1 with a 12-yard pass to Delanie Walker. But the second time they faced third-and-1, when they were running the ball well, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw incomplete for Kendall Wright to stall a drive after just three plays. Shouldn't a team trying to create a we-can-run-when-we-want MO at least allow for the possibility of running it by not going with the empty backfield? They went empty on a third-and-2 a bit later, and converted thanks to a roughing call against Robert Mathis.

Covering Coby Fleener: The tight end wound up with eight catches for 107 yards and was a key to the Colts’ win. The Titans have been far better against tight ends this season than the past couple years, mostly because safety George Wilson's been part of the dime and three-safety nickel packages. Wilson played one snap on defense, and the Titans defended Fleener with base and regular nickel personnel. The three top cornerbacks, free safety Michael Griffin and strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers were all involved in tackling him.
Akeem AyersAP Photo/Tom GannamAkeem Ayers Ayers had three tackles and a pass defensed in the Titans' win against the Rams.
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."

RTC: Titans hope Preston not claimed

October, 17, 2013
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Reading the coverage of the Tennessee Titans…

A limping Jake Locker was back to work -- partial work -- for the Titans at practice on Wednesday, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Colin McCarthy’s been surly recently, but with a chance to start again he’s more like he used to be, writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

The Titans want to add receiver Michael Preston, cut on Wednesday because of linebacker depth issues, to their practice squad, writes Glennon. The numbers game finally caught up to Preston, writes David Boclair of the Nashville Post.

Running through injuries with Glennon. Bernard Pollard and Derrick Morgan were among the guys who didn’t practice Wednesday.

The defensive backs were good in Seattle, the offensive line was not, writes Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What’s the most important step you take on any given play.

I recently toured the Titans locker room asking that question. A lot of guys said it’s the first step, and that didn’t surprise me. But in getting the same answer from guys at different positions, I got different rationale.

Let’s run through the replies.

Running back Chris Johnson: “The step is once you see the hole, you’ve got to hit it. You can’t really hesitate. In the whole game you might have two maybe three big home run plays where it’s going to open up for you and you can’t hesitate, you have to hit it. Once you see the hole, that step, you’ve got to hit it. Your mind is making a decision with your feet.”

[+] EnlargeCraig Stevens
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesTight End Craig Stevens says he has to be set by his second step to be ready to make contact.
Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh: “Your eyes tell you which step to take, the first step. It’s having your eyes on the receiver and going off of the right thing. It really just depends on what the receiver does. I mean we’re basing everything on the receiver. Your eyes tell you everything.”

Receiver Kenny Britt: “It depends on what route it is. Most of it is being precise all the time with the quarterback. Depending on whether they are blitzing and what the coverage is, you’ve to be in the right place at the right time. You’re starting point is everything to your route, you have to get off the line of scrimmage. You’ve got to know if he’s going to press you, if he’s going to ball on you. It’s about getting off the line clean.”

Safety George Wilson: “A lot of time it’s that first one. You’re trying to get that run-pass key. If it’s pass and you step up in the hard play action sometime that’ll take you out of position for where you are supposed to be to defend the pass. It’s important that you have your eyes in the right place every place so that your first step is the right step.”

Defensive tackle Sammie Hill: “The first step. Get off the ball first. If I beat my man, nine times out of 10 I’ll cause disruption in the backfield. …Now my man is back to defense and I’m on offense, he’s got to figure out what we’re doing. If he’s first, you’ve got to work like hell to get back in position.”

Left tackle Michael Roos: “The first one. It’s the one that starts all your other steps. If your first one is too wide, you’re going to compensate, try to make up for it. It might be wider, you might cross over. On a pass set if your foot’s not square, perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, that means your body is turned, now you get an inside move, you can’t turn, correct yourself as fast. You’ve got to gain the right amount of ground otherwise everything falls apart after that.”

Fullback Quinn Johnson: “It’s pretty much the same thing as the offensive line, it’s the first step. It’s like Coach [Sylvester] Croom tells me, if I take the wrong first step, everything else moves downhill. I’m off course and everything goes off timing. I watch it on film. When I take the wrong first step, everything else goes bad. When I take the right step, everything else goes good.”

Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy: “First step. Obviously, downhill. As a linebacker you’re playing run first, pass second. Getting your run-pass key and reacting as fast as you can off of that.”

Tight end Craig Stevens: “You’ve got to get off the ball as quick as you can and make that first play-side step. But then really my most important step is my second step, because it brings your whole body with it and that’s where your power is. Whenever I’m run blocking, I’m always making contact on my second step. Short, quick step. Get your two feet on the ground as quick as you can.”

Kicker Rob Bironas: “Has to be the first step, yeah. If the first step’s wrong, the next step’s wrong, the whole thing’s wrong. If you step off the wrong direction or over-stride, then you are trying to make up for that the whole way. In my case, it’s a jab step and then two steps to the ball. I just roll into or fall into my jab step. It’s just five, six inches with my left foot.”

My 53-man Tennessee Titans roster

August, 30, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rather than tell you this is what’s going to happen, I’ll tell you this is what would happen if I had influence in the Tennessee Titans meeting room when final cuts will be decided.

Some cuts are already trickling out from Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, so check his Twitter feed.

Quarterbacks: Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick

There just is no room for Rusty Smith and there isn’t a need for a third quarterback unless things go incredibly wrong. The difference between a random third guy and Smith isn’t giant.

Running backs: Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle, Quinn Johnson (FB)

Battle has to contribute on special teams, but he was better than Jalen Parmele through the preseason. Wyatt says Parmele is already gone. Johnson’s been hurt and could lose out to Collin Mooney.

Wide receivers: Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Justin Hunter, Michael Preston, Marc Mariani (return specialist)

Preston is one of the best 53 players on the team. Even though he won’t be active on Sundays if everyone’s healthy, you keep extra quality depth at one spot if it’s better than weaker depth at another spot. Once he’s healthy, Mariani isn’t as explosive as a punt returner as Darius Reynaud, but will more regularly get 10 yards.

Tight ends: Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson

No need for a fourth on the 53. Sign Jack Doyle to the practice squad

Offensive linemen: Tackles Michael Roos, David Stewart, Mike Otto, Byron Stingily. Interior: Andy Levitre, Chance Warmack, Rob Turner, Brian Schwenke, Fernando Velasco

Velasco is guaranteed $2.02 million under his tender contract out of restricted free agency. I’m not sure he should stick over Scott Solomon at linebacker or Stefan Charles at defensive tackle. But the big push for revamping the line and the desire for depth after last year’s slew of injuries makes me feel like they will stay loaded.

Defensive ends: Derrick Morgan, Ropati Pitoitua, Kamerion Wimbley, Lavar Edwards, Keyunta Dawson.

Dawson is a good guy to have. I can see him staying and the Titans going five ends as opposed to six tackles. But linebacker Akeem Ayers is a nickel end so he factors in here as well.

Defensive tackles: Jurrell Casey, Sammie Hill, Mike Martin, Antonio Johnson, Karl Klug (swing)

I’ve got Stefan Charles over DaJohn Harris but neither making it. If one of them sticks, it’s the last defensive line spot probably over Dawson. I see Charles on the practice squad.

Linebackers: Akeem Ayers, Moise Fokou, Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden, Colin McCarthy, Patrick Bailey

Scott Solomon is one of my last two cuts. I want to keep seven 'backers. The seventh guy would be a trade-off for Velasco, I think. Solomon is versatile, seems to be catching on to the position change and can still play end if needed. He’s not practice squad eligible. I just can’t fit him here. I might keep him over Bailey but I don’t think they rank him that way.

Safeties: Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard, George Wilson, Daimion Stafford

The fourth spot isn’t strong and Stafford could probably go to the practice squad. But if they choose a veteran -- Al Afalava or Corey Lynch -- as the fourth I could see them trying to upgrade it with an outsider.

Cornerbacks: Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Tommie Campbell, Coty Sensabaugh, Blidi Wreh-Wilson

I’d expect Khalid Wooten on the practice squad.

Kicker: Rob Bironas

Punter: Brett Kern

Long-snapper: Beau Brinkley
Reading the coverage of the Tennessee Titans ...

First-down success in the preseason has set the Titans up for far easier down-and-distance work, says John Glennon of The Tennessean. Against Atlanta, “the first team averaged more than 9 yards per play on 20 first-down attempts.”

To which I say: Nine yards per first-down play is ridiculous. The first drive on the second quarter had a huge bearing on those numbers, when the Titans hit passes of 18 and 6 yards before getting a 19-yard run from Chris Johnson.

Often-injured middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is looking at Thursday night’s game in Minnesota as an audition, as he looks to re-establish himself, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: McCarthy’s not getting cut. His durability is a frustration and may cap his ceiling. But there is no other contender for backup middle linebacker behind Moise Fokou.

Kerry Collins is replacing Keith Bulluck for the broadcast of the final Titans preseason game, says Wyatt.

The options for injured returner/receiver Marc Mariani, from Glennon.

“The Titans played base 4-3, 4-2-5 nickel with a cornerback, 4-2-5 nickel with a safety, and what looked like 4-1-6 dime with three safeties and three corners. This was more personnel diversity than I noticed the previous two games,” says Tom Gower of Total Titans in a review of the defense against Atlanta.
Reading the coverage of the Titans…



Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy (hamstring) practiced for the first time in three weeks, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: The guy is a really good player, but his injury history means the Titans simply can’t count on him as a regular presence.

Receiver Kevin Walter is expected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Guard Chance Warmack sees getting to the second level as solving a puzzle, says David Boclair of The Nashville Post. Last week he chased the wrong guy a couple of times.

To which I say: It's fun to watch Warmack on the move.

Vote for the top 15 players of the Titans’ first 15 years in a poll for The Tennessean’s special section.

The team website takes a look at the Titans-Falcons game in 1999 that was the first meaningful game at what was then known as Adelphia Coliseum.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Look at the Tennessee Titans from any angle and the focus winds up on the same spot: starting quarterback Jake Locker.

The Titans did a lot of overhauling after a miserable 6-10 season. All of it puts the third-year quarterback in a better position to succeed.

“I think throwing with confidence makes a big difference, and that’s what I feel like I am doing this year,” Locker said.

The Titans parted with Matt Hasselbeck and brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick as the No. 2. They are confidant Fitzpatrick can step in and win games if needed, but they have no leash on Locker. The entire organization is committed to him and believes he’s the right guy to quarterback the team to a turnaround.

“He’s really taken ownership,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can see he’s a confident guy, and that’s one thing that you really need as a quarterback. He’s really worked at his game mentally. We’re progression-based now, and he’s really trying to take it to the next level in terms of his footwork and accuracy. This whole offseason I’ve definitely seen improvement.”

Locker will be running an easier, more straightforward system. He’s got a "move" tight end in Delanie Walker (not currently healthy) who adds a dynamic the Titans haven’t had since Locker was drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2011. The receivers are deep and talented. The offensive line could be a dominant group, which should mean a Chris Johnson/Shonn Greene run game will provide great balance. And the defense should get Locker the ball back more often and with better field position.

I’ve seen steady progress and more consistent play in recent practices. But he needs to carry that over into games, and he needs to address two things that might qualify as habits: a tendency to start slow, and a propensity to throw more comfortably and more accurately to his left than to his right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceThe Titans hope to give pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley a lighter workload this season.
1. The pass rush. The Titans generated a reasonable total of 39 sacks last season, with 6.5 from Derrick Morgan and six apiece from Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers. The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens ran the same number of defensive plays (1,086), and they had 37 sacks.

But no single player on the Titans’ defensive front ranked as a scheme-changer that offenses had to account for before every play. And the committee work in conjunction with coverage that was far too soft, far too frequently, played a big role in allowing a league-worst 471 points.

They didn’t change a lot at end. They added size in end Ropati Pitoitua, who figures to play a lot of run downs, and depth in fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards. Ayers will be a much more regular presence as a pass-rusher, and both Morgan and Wimbley will play much less than 80 percent of the snaps, which wore them down a year ago. Does all that and a more aggressive scheme influenced by Gregg Williams turn the Titans into a more threatening pass-rushing team? I can’t say yes yet.

2. Two important coaches. Dowell Loggains took over as offensive coordinator with five games left last season, but it’s not like he could revamp everything Chris Palmer was doing. Given an offseason, he has. These Titans will be less reactive and try to dictate more, and the options routes that complicated things and counted on receivers and the quarterback to read things the same way are gone. Things are tailored to Locker now, and Loggains has more talent at his disposal than Palmer did in 2011 or 2012.

On defense, Williams returns from his year in Bountygate exile with a simple promise he expected would help him win players over: That he can make them better. He’s not the same guy he was back when he was the Titans' defensive coordinator from 1997-2000, but the season suspension certainly made him reflect and he comes back a different guy from the one who was coordinator for the Saints. I suspect he will positively impact key guys on this defense like Ayers, cornerback Tommie Campbell, safety Michael Griffin and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.

3. The offensive line. Last season was a disaster, as the Titans had to call on more depth than any team can have. But the franchise counted on coach Mike Munchak and another offensive line Hall of Famer, line coach Bruce Matthews, to develop guys. A couple they counted on who never reached the expected level are gone now, and the Titans have much better players in place of Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano.

With a line of Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco/Robert Turner/Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack and David Stewart, Tennessee feels like it has re-identified its identity.

“If we’re going to win, it’s going to be because our offensive line is a lot better than it was last year, and we’re physical, and we’re relentless, and we’re going to move people around on both sides of the ball,” Munchak said at the start of camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

They identified last season’s issues and have addressed them all in some fashion. That’s with coaching staff alterations, changes in thinking and scheme, major player additions in free agency and a draft that looks solid. This isn’t a team that sat back and assumed that given another year of seasoning, its 6-10 record could turn into 10-6. It took action. Now we have to find out if the moves and changes total up and produce a big difference in overall outcome.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker and Chandler Jones
AP Photo/Joe HowelThe Titans need QB Jake Locker to make big strides quickly if they are to survive a tough early schedule.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The unproven quarterback and the schedule. The Titans open at Pittsburgh and at Houston, and also play San Diego, a team Tennessee always struggles with, at Seattle and San Francisco before the Oct. 27 bye. It’s impossible to predict how the competition will be. But through the first seven games, 4-3 might qualify as pretty good but might still leave them having to chase to get into playoff contention.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Campbell has looked really good, and his physical makeup is tremendous, but is he ready to handle the mental end of the job? The team wants to play more press, physical coverage, and he’s suited to do so. They hyped him a year ago in camp then didn’t trust him enough to play him. We heard even better things about him this offseason, but recently they’ve put out the word not to count out Alterraun Verner and Campbell was tentative in the preseason opener. If they can’t get Campbell onto the field given his physical characteristics, I’ll question the effectiveness of the coaches who have raved so regularly.
  • Linebacker Colin McCarthy finally climbed back into the starting unit recently, then was sidelined the very next day with a hamstring injury. He’s a good player, but he’s always dealing with something. They are prepared to go with Moise Fokou, and I expect it’ll be very much a two-down job. The Titans are relying on all defenders getting a signal from the sideline, so the coach-to-player communication device won’t be a factor that helps keep a middle linebacker on the field.
  • Undrafted kicker Maikon Bonani has a giant leg, but he has to improve his control. Rob Bironas is recovering from back issues.
  • Weakside linebacker Zach Brown came into the league facing a charge by a prominent draft analyst that he was allergic to contact. He’s been anything but, and his growth as a rookie was a bright spot. He and rookie Zaviar Gooden are blazers at linebacker who can help the Titans deal with some of the tough coverage mismatches created against other offenses.
  • I expect offenses to target strong safety Bernard Pollard in the passing game. He’s an in-the-box safety, though he bristles at conversation about his coverage skills. The Titans plan to use George Wilson also, and he’s a more sound coverage safety. Pollard has brought needed swagger. But I wonder if Wilson won’t ultimately wind up with more snaps.
  • Two eye-catching undrafted rookies at camp have been tight end Jack Doyle and defensive tackle Stefan Charles.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

By Gary Kubiak’s count, just seven of his 15 linebackers are practicing, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

The Texans have been drawing record crowds at training camp. Says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Kubiak believes an element of early struggle for a top rookie makes him stronger in the end, says McClain.

Deion Sanders talked to the Texans' defensive backs, and you can watch it here through the team’s website. (Video.)

Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne are passing around the unofficial team presidency, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

Robert Mathis says not being with Dwight Freeney is still weird, says Michael Marot of the Associated Press.

A collection of videos from the Star. Griff Whalen’s having a great camp where the depth at receiver is limited. With Darrius Heyward-Bey out with a knee sprain, Whalen figures to play a lot in the preseason opener Sunday against Buffalo.

Speed up the clock and let’s get to meaningful games, says Phillip B. Wilson of the Star.

Is Antony Castonzo’s new look part of being the longest-running incumbent on the Colts’ offensive line? Heather Bremer of the Anderson Herald Bulletin looks at Castonzo.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Rookie receiver Ace Sanders is having a sensational training camp according to Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union.

Practice highlights included a Blaine Gabbert-to-Tobias Palmer bomb and an Alan Ball interception of Gabbert, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

Cecil Shorts left practice with a calf injury, says the AP.

Quarterbacks Gabbert and Chad Henne, who share the top line on the depth chart, are not keeping score, says John Oehser of the team's website.

Tennessee Titans

Rookie wide receiver Justin Hunter bristles at questions about his toughness, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Jake Locker had a slow start to practice, says Wyatt in his Monday practice report.

Multiple Titans are pleased to see Vince Young getting another chance, says Wyatt.

Moise Fokou has made the Titans' middle linebacker spot a competition with Colin McCarthy, says Teresa Walker of the Associated Press.

To which I say: McCarthy recently rejoined the starters and lasted a whole day before he developed a right hamstring issue that will keep him out of the preseason opener.

RTC: Colts talking run offense

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
7:43
AM ET
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

DeAndre Hopkins is emulating Andre Johnson to the point where he’s beating the veteran to the hot tub for a morning soak, says Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle.

Joe Mays hopes fans forgive him for last year’s hit on Matt Schaub, says Tania Ganguli of the Chronicle.

Rookie right tackle Brennan Williams needed to have fluid drained from his recently scoped knee, says Robertson.

Hopkins was well covered by Jonathan Joseph on two one-on-one red zone snaps but the rookie receiver still managed to win both, says Lance Zierlein of Z Report.

Indianapolis Colts

Among five Wednesday observations from Chappell, John Chapman’s penetration from nose tackle.

Greg Toler was on the sideline at the end of practice with a concussion, according to The Associated Press.

Owner Jim Irsay and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton are both talking about the importance of running the ball, which kind of makes Andrew Mishler of Stampede Blue wary.

Ryan Lilja signed with Denver, where he’s reuniting with Peyton Manning, says the AP. The two had great success as teammates with the Colts.

Coby Fleener is generating buzz, says Marcus Dugan of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are preaching that “it’s all about the ball” as the defense searches for takeaways, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Luke Joeckel’s avoided looking like a rookie in the early days of Jaguars training camp, says Hays Carlyon of the Times-Union.

Denard Robinson was out to practice to catch passes 20 minutes early, says O’Halloran’s in the T-U’s daily camp report.

Blaine Gabbert said he’ll be all the way back in practice today with his sprained right ankle "unless something magical pops up," says AP’s Mark Long.

Gus Bradley said eight or nine reps in a row for the defense might have been too much, from Wednesday’s “Inside the Jaguars” episode from Jaguars.com.

Geno Hayes is looking at his first year with the Jaguars as a reinvention, says John Oehser of the team's website.

Tennessee Titans

With running backs reliant on instincts, how much do running back coaches influence what their guys do? John Glennon of The Tennessean considers the question.

Kenny Britt tied something new this offseason and mostly stayed out of New Jersey, says Glennon.

Ryan Fitzpatrick swallowed his pride a little to sign for a backup job with the Titans, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Former Titans running back Jamie Harper is asking for support after an arrest, says Wyatt.

Colin McCarthy was back working as the starting middle linebacker on Wednesday, says Glennon.

David Stewart’s had a picture of him and Bernard Pollard ready to fight each other in a Titans-Chiefs game from 2009, for some time. The Titans right tackle asked the team’s new strong safety to sign it, says Teresa Walker of the AP.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some of what I noticed at Tennessee Titans practice Sunday night:

The Oklahoma Drill -- I cringe when I see it because I think of how Jacksonville defensive lineman Tyson Alualu suffered an unnecessary knee injury as part of Jack Del Rio's version. What the Titans did here wasn't nearly as extensive and Mike Munchak emphasized how he doesn't believe it's risky.

They did some work with linebackers and offensive linemen Saturday and then looked for coaches to request matchups today. They intend to do something like that, something competitive in practice, on the nights they are in pads.

"It's a safe thing, there not a whole lot that can go wrong there," Munchak said. "There are only a couple bodies in the way, it's low impact."

I'm not sure about the low impact part.

Michael Roos won against Kamerion Wimbley, Fernando Velasco beat Colin McCarthy, Taylor Thompson got the decision over Michael Griffin, and the timing on a Quinn Johnson-Bernard Pollard snap was messed up so it was hard to judge fairly.

Jake Locker -- The quarterback performed better than he did during Friday's practice. The offense as a whole, which got beaten pretty badly Saturday afternoon, bounced back nicely.

I saw him throw a dart in red zone work to Damian Williams in the back left of the end zone, a ball Williams caught with Tommie Campbell practically draped over him.

One sequence was particularly good.

Locker hit Kendall Wright on a midrange pass at the right sideline. Wright dove, pulled it in, and his shoulder landed in bounds. The next play Locker found Nate Washington in stride well down the right sideline for a big play on Jason McCourty.

Locker also took off a couple times on plays that would have produced real headaches for a defense in live action.

Drops or fumbles -- Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains isn't standing for them.

When Darius Reynaud fumbled, it might have been the result of a botched handoff, but it didn't matter. "Give me a new running back," Loggains shouted, motioning to the rest of the offense. "That can't happen."

Craig Stevens and receiver Roberto Wallace got similar requests to leave the offense after drops.

Fitzpatrick's block -- On a play where Reynaud started to run right but then cut back, backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick joined the blocking caravan and kept Alterraun Verner out of the play.

The crowd ate it up.

"I think he knew that, that he's wearing the red jersey and no one was going to hurt him," Munchak said. "You can see the energy it brings, I think quarterbacks realize that. They can get involved in a play like that when someone reverses fields, they can maybe get a cheap block and not get hurt on it. It brought a lot of energy to the practice for sure."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The coach-to-defender communication device isn’t going to play much of a role for the Titans in terms of keeping a middle linebacker on the field every down.

Maybe the starting middle linebacker, be it incumbent Colin McCarthy or challenger Moise Fokou, is a three-down player. Or maybe he’s very much a two-down player the way Barron Wortham was when Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams coached the Titans' defense together.

With second-year outside linebacker Zach Brown and third-rounder Zaviar Gooden among the fastest outside linebacker in the NFL, there could be times the Titans turn to two coverage backers. With Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard and George Wilson on the roster, there will be times the team plays three safeties -- and in many of those instances Pollard could be working as if he’s a linebacker. We may see more dime with just one linebacker on the field.

Gray, the defensive coordinator, said McCarthy or Fokou will have the responsibility of calling the defense and getting people organized.

But that doesn’t mean someone else won’t be doing the job when sub-packages are deployed, and that may be as often as it’s been since the franchise moved to Tennessee.

There are a lot of options.

And because there are, players won’t rely on a guy in the huddle to make the call. They’ll rely on getting it from the coaches themselves.

“The good thing is we’re not even using coach-to-helmet this training camp,” Gray said. “We’re signaling everything. They don’t know who’s going to signal, because we’ve got three or four guys signaling, like baseball. So if you want to video, that’s going to be out -- not a shot.

“The thing I think we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to be smarter. Because if the Mike linebacker is not there, it got us like that last year. We’ve got to learn the signals and we’re making everybody learn signals, we’re going through signal-calling meetings and those things. I think we’ve got to make sure we’re ahead of the curve, not waiting until something happens. Let’s go out and make it happen, be in front of it.”

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