AFC South: Gerald McRath

Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak intends to play starters into the third quarter against the Saints on Saturday night, says John McClain.

In Randy Bullocks versus Shayne Graham, the Texans have a kicking controversy, says McClain.

Notes from Kubiak's Sunday news conference from Nick Scurfield of the team's website. Brian Cushing has sore ribs.

Indianapolis Colts

It is not too early to get giddy about Andrew Luck, says Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. “Yes, it’s preseason. But we are seeing things, already, that presage imminent greatness.”

Injuries to Austin Collie, Cory Redding and Robert Mathis are a concern for the Colts coming out of the preseason loss in Pittsburgh, says Mike Chappell of the Star.

Chappell was impressed with Luck’s bounce-back qualities.

Grading out the Colts against the Steelers, with Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher report.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars shift into regular-season practice mode today, and Mike Mularkey was pleased with what was accomplished at camp, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

Chad Henne isn’t challenging Blaine Gabbert for the starting spot, he’s working to hold off Jordan Palmer for the backup role. Mularkey says Henne remains the No. 2, says Stellino.

Tennessee Titans

Linebacker Gerald McRath is going to get his knee fixed, which means he’s out for the season, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. There is an element of good fortune here, actually. I don’t think McRath was going to make the team, and now he gets his 2012 salary and rehabilitates on the team’s watch.

Chris Johnson says he underestimated the impact his holdout would have on his play last season, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean.

AFC South links: Contract year for Schaub

July, 3, 2012
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Houston Texans

Because Matt Schaub is entering the final year of his contract, there will be a lot of speculation about his future, writes Stephanie Stradley of the Houston Chronicle.

Indianapolis Colts

Craig Kelley of the team's website catches up with new wide receivers coach Charlie Williams for a conversation.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars need to get kicker Josh Scobee signed, writes Chet Fussman of the Florida Times-Union.

John Oesder of the team's website catches up with rookie cornerback Mike Harris for a conversation.

Tennessee Titans

Linebacker Gerald McRath says this is a big season, in part because he's entering the final year of his rookie contract, writes David Climer of the Tennessean.
The Titans need a pass-rusher and a center. In a year they could really need a free safety. The right kind of receiver would be intriguing.

One spot we’ve not talked much about is linebacker. They spent a second-rounder on strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers last year, when they also found a dynamic middle linebacker in fourth-rounder Colin McCarthy.

Veteran Will Witherspoon is on the weak side. He has some big games, and some where he seems kind of invisible. The team can find a bigger guy who’s more of a playmaker for the spot, be it now or in 2013.

The depth is poor. Gerald McRath was a starter in 2010 and didn’t take advantage of the chance. He was only occasionally situational last season. Patrick Bailey and Tim Shaw can fill in for a bit, but they are primarily special-teamers.

I don’t think Tennessee will go linebacker at No. 20, but Alabama’s Dont'a Hightower or Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw could be in play.

More likely the Titans will tab someone a bit later like Cal’s Mychal Kendricks or someone further down like Utah State’s Bobby Wagner.
Keith Millard MPS/Getty ImagesKeith Millard, the Titans' new pass rush coach, collected 58 sacks over his eight-season career.

NASHVILLE -- After 15 minutes on the phone with Keith Millard, I was ready to rush the passer.

The newest addition to Titans coach Mike Munchak’s staff won’t oversee a position but a skill set. And although Millard will spend a lot of time with defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and his group, he’ll also rove and talk nuances of getting to the quarterback with linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks.

His initial speech will go like this:

“Before you even start, you’ve got to pick a line and you’ve got to stay on that line. And that goes for every position, no matter what you are doing. It’s from wherever you start to the quarterback and that thing can’t vary. You know the old saying the shortest distance between two spots is a straight line? That’s as true in pass rush as there is. You stay on that line, get your blocker off it. Now how you do that is where it gets interesting, where technique and fundamentals come in.”

Tennessee needs to rush the passer better than it did last season, which was its first without Jim Washburn since 1998. The former defensive line coach, now in Philadelphia, pieced together an effective four-man rush most of the time.

After Munchak hired Jerry Gray as defensive coordinator, the team concluded that getting to the quarterback at all costs wasn’t the way to go because the run defense suffered.

In Year 1 of the new regime, the team sacked the quarterback less -- managing just 28 sacks, 31st in sacks per play in the NFL -- and was still just 24th against the run.

Both the personnel and the coaching need to be better.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
Brett Davis/US PresswireThe Titans brought in former Raider Kamerion Wimbley to boost their pass rush.
Enter Kamerion Wimbley, the former Oakland Raider whom the Titans pounced on when he was released. Enter Millard.

Wimbley should be a boost for the pass rush. He’s worked a lot in his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker but in Tennessee he’ll be a 4-3 end. He can rush the passer well from there, but the team could put his durability to the test if he’s on the field for too many snaps.

Millard’s a big believer in a four-man rush, as the Titans have long been. But if they can’t get to the quality quarterbacks they are scheduled to face in 2012 with just four rushers, they should be better equipped to bring more blitzers than they have been in some time after Millard coaches them up.

“I’m thrilled about Millard,” Titans outside linebacker Gerald McRath said. “For me, I’ve never had someone who took time to teach me pass rush. You can fine tune a skill, and that’s a skill that makes you more valuable to your team. I think that will be great, that you can have someone who can focus on that.”

Munchak and Gray talked about the idea early on after the new staff was assembled. It didn’t come together during the initial staff assembly and the lockout. But then Millard came free after Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay staff were let go.

Millard played nine seasons as an NFL defensive lineman, primarily with Minnesota. He coached in Denver and Oakland before spending 2011 in Tampa Bay.

Although he’s worked mostly as a defensive line coach, he was a pass rush coach at times with the Broncos and Raiders.

Specialized coaches are increasingly popular in the NFL. Many 3-4 teams have outside linebacker coaches. Some teams have cornerback and safety coaches in their secondary, or a coach who concentrates on the nickel defensive backs.

A coach like Millard qualifies as being outside the box for the Titans. He gets fired up talking about his office, and initially makes it sound big. Then you realize he means big enough to have three or maybe four guys in there at a time to go over pass-rush nuances.

“Not only is he going to be doing D-line, and that’s a good thing, we’re going to be sending him linebackers and safeties and things like that,” said Gray, who played nine seasons as a cover corner. “I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t know anything about blitzing. Beating a running back, I can tell you, but I’ve never felt that. So I really don’t know how it feels.

“He’ll be able to help us, more than saying ‘Hey, I’ve got a clear open spot for you to hit the quarterback.’ The best thing you can do is offer a one-on-one. Now show me how to win the one-on-one. That’s what he’s going to be doing.”

Warren Sapp, who’s widely regarded as an all-time great pass-rushing tackle, raved about Millard’s influence on him to The Tennessean after the Titans made the hire.

[+] EnlargeKeith Millard
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIKeith Millard has had coaching stints with the Broncos, Raiders and Buccaneers.
Gray still emphasizes the need for players to stop the run. Millard and Gray talk about earning the right to pass rush. And nothing does that more than stuffing a run play on first down to help create second- and third-and-long situations.

Millard calls himself a self-taught pass-rusher.

He’s eager to share what he knows, and says it will be a lot more about feet than hands for both blitzers and guys who make a living rushing the passer. For Millard, that second group generally falls into two styles, straight-liners (like Kyle Vanden Bosch or Jason Taylor) and basketball types (like Sapp and Derrick Burgess).

“I think doing it myself from different positions has given me a real edge at teaching the true fundamentals,” Millard said. “Being able to study blockers and find their weaknesses and how to take advantage of them. I’m really about teaching the concept of getting the blocker on your terms and how to do that. It’s not so much a repertoire with your hands as it is your footwork and trying to work a blocker’s weaknesses against him.

“Hands are really just kind of a second nature thing. When you really get down to it, it’s about feet. Getting blockers off balance and using your hands to keep them off balance. Whether you are bull-rushing, whether you are going from one edge to the other and back, it’s really got to be about balance and footwork and your approach -- getting to a point where you own that guy, you know where his weaknesses are and you just continually, constantly, work on those weaknesses. There is a lot that goes into that.”

Millard will spell out for a guy what his body has to do to counter the body trying to block him: flipping hips, making yourself small, understanding what blockers are doing with their hands. Get the guy in your way off balance and keep him off balance.

It seems uncertain just where and how Millard will fit into the regular practice schedule, but he’s certain to work with specific guys before and after practices and outside of regular meeting times.

Those office sessions will be kept small -- he'll rarely work with more than two linebackers or two defensive backs at a time.

If he’s what Munchak and Gray expect, the Titans will do a far better job of getting from Point A to the quarterback and the defense will make big gains.

Millard’s motivated me. I’m heading outside right now to see about making myself small and finding the best way to stay on my straight line.
Matt HasselbeckJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMatt Hasselbeck had problems connecting with his receivers and ended the day with a 72.0 rating.
PITTSBURGH -- The angry words built up in a somber locker room, and reserved players contemplating an awful loss started to spit them out.

The Tennessee Titans were “disgusted” over their 38-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. They were ticked off that they “got kicked around" and were recipients of “an old-fashioned butt whooping.”

“They kicked our butts and we kicked our own butts,” defensive end Dave Ball said, referring to a scene where Jim Carrey’s character beats himself up in a bathroom in the movie “Liar Liar." "It was a perfect s--- storm."

But Ball and others who so eloquently discussed the result were quick to sandwich it with resolve regarding the potential for it to be duplicated.

“You’re not going to see this Titans team again,” Ball said. “I guarantee that. You’re not going to see the same thing happen again.”

Tennessee is 3-2 heading into its bye, and with Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis all dropping games too, the Titans didn’t lose any ground in the AFC South standings.

“That’s good,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

That’s about all that’s good from the day.

A look at three elements of the disaster:

The start: Tennessee marched 69 yards on 13 plays on a game-opening drive but stalled badly in the red zone with two penalties, an incomplete pass and a sack.

Rob Bironas' 29-yard field goal felt like a win for the Steelers, and when Antonio Brown returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to midfield, things really started to lean in Pittsburgh’s favor.

“After that we really stalled,” Hasselbeck said. “We didn’t look like we looked on the first drive.”

The Titans' next five series produced two first downs and 49 yards. It was 28-3 by the time they put together another effective drive.

The timing was off, with Hasselbeck frequently throwing behind guys -- some of it inaccuracy, some of it bad communication or lingering unfamiliarity. The team was in two-minute drive mode starting with its second drive of the second half.

“I just have more questions than answers right now,” Hasselbeck said.

Coach Mike Munchak didn't like the idea that a field goal instead of a touchdown was that big a letdown at the start.

"I hope we're not going to go into the tank because we got held to three points instead of seven," he said.

It wasn't the only reason but it helped.

Ben Roethlisberger: Cornerback Cortland Finnegan knew the Titans were thoroughly outplayed, but the corner who picked Roethlisberger's one really bad pass raised his eyebrows in surprise when he was told the Steelers' quarterback threw five touchdowns.

Coming into Pittsburgh, the Titans had faced Luke McCown, Joe Flacco, Kyle Orton and Colt McCoy. Hardly a murderer’s row of quarterbacks.

The Steelers smartly adjusted their offense for their quarterback, who has a sprained left foot. He didn’t hold the ball for a long time and scramble around like he typically does. He got rid of it pretty quickly while benefiting from some max protection that aided a beat-up line.

In such circumstances, the defense then needs to keep things in front of it, hit pass-catchers quickly and limit first downs.

The Titans didn’t.

“They used a different game plan than last week against the Texans,” end Jason Jones said. “They were going to max protect or they were going to get it out quick. We had our opportunities to get to him and didn’t. But it was dink and dunk and max protect.”

Rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey had the Titans' lone sack.

Special teams: The Steelers crushed the Titans with that big kickoff return from Brown and a fake punt where Daniel Sepulveda threw a 33-yard pass to Ryan Mundy.

Even when the Titans did good things on special teams, they turned bad.

The Titans recovered a third-quarter onsides kick after cutting the lead to 28-10, but Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel got a piece of Hasselbeck’s throw on the very next play and LaMarr Woodley picked it off. When linebacker Tim Shaw blocked a Sepulveda punt in the fourth quarter, Finnegan returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. But an illegal block in the back call against Jamie Harper wiped away the score.

“It’s a three-phase game, and special teams we’ve got to pick it up,” said linebacker Gerald McRath. “We’ve definitely got to pull our weight. We let the team down.”

Moving forward ...

The Titans pulled off a 3-1 first-quarter record after dropping their opener with a lousy performance in Jacksonville. Hasselbeck said they hope to match it in the season's second quarter. They'll have to win three in a row at home after their bye to do so: against Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

That good start began to create some hype, and the Titans said they hadn’t bought in. But if any self-satisfaction had crept in anywhere, the Steelers snuffed it out.

“I just feel that you can feel people patting you on the back and that’s not what helps you win games,” Hasselbeck said. “I think typically what helps you in games is hard work and feeling like you’ve got something to prove and feeling like you’ve got to give everything you’ve got.

“I’m just slow to accept that stuff.”

After this dud, you can see why that’s the safe route.

AFC South Stock Watch

September, 13, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Kerry Collins, Indianapolis Colts quarterback and his pass protection. Collins was shaky early and by the time he settled down later the game was out of reach and the Texans had let up a bit. His protection was often overwhelmed by the Texans’ new 3-4 front, which got great effort and often overwhelmed an offensive line with three inexperienced starters. Collins can’t hold the ball as long, must hold it tighter when he might get hit and needs better work in front of him to have a chance.

2. Tennessee Titans special teams and new-found discipline. Four penalties on special teams in the first half didn’t suggest this team has evolved a great deal from the sloppy and careless crew Jeff Fisher left behind. There is no name in the game book for the first ineligible player downfield call, though it appeared to be Akeem Ayers. Jared Cook committed the same foul, Michael Griffin ran into the punter and Gerald McRath made an illegal block above the waist on a punt return.

3. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans running back. Much is being made of him getting only nine carries, but that’s not the biggest issue considering how the Titans hardly had possession against the Jaguars. He had six catches, too. In 15 touches, he had only 49 yards. That’s 3.3 yards a touch. If that’s all he can get, a defense is stacking up to stop him. If so, the Titans have to be able to make teams pay with deep stuff. And while Kenny Britt had a big day, it was on only five catches.

RISING

[+] EnlargeDeji Karim
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackDeji Karim gives the Jaguars some options at running back if they want to ease Maurice Jones-Drew back.
1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans defensive end. Veterans Mario Williams and Antonio Smith got more notoriety but Watt was consistently disruptive in the Texans’ win over the Colts and deserves mention, as well. Effort isn’t going to be a question for this group and Watt’s as high-energy a player as you can find. He was the division’s most impactful rookie on opening day and he didn’t look like he will require any adjustment period to the pro game, at all.

2. Deji Karim, Jacksonville Jaguars running back. Maurice Jones-Drew wanted to be used more, but Karim’s play gave the Jaguars the option of keeping MJD on a pitch count. He’s coming off offseason knee surgery and the team wants to ensure his work is measured this season. Karim stumbled too often early, but found his footing. He was more dangerous as a receiver, with three catches for 39 yards, including a fantastic third-down conversion where he made two tackles miss after he’d run out of room short of the sticks.

3. Ben Tate, Houston Texans running back. Who knows what 2010 would have held for Tate if he hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury in the first preseason game of his rookie year. A year later, he’s part of a crowded backfield. But following a nice preseason, with Arian Foster in street clothes and Derrick Ward sidelined with a knee injury, he became the lead guy. He did what a back in the Texans’ offense is now expected to do against the Colts: He consistently got to the second level, found room and was difficult to bring down.
One game that doesn’t count in the standings doesn’t give us a lot. But out of the Titans’ Saturday night win against the Vikings, I saw one change that I think is highly representative of what’s going on at the start of the Mike Munchak era.

Two moves since 2010 have bumped Gerald McRath out of the starting lineup as an outside linebacker. Akeem Ayers was drafted to play the strongside, and the addition of Barrett Ruud to man the middle means Will Witherspoon in now on the weakside. That is probably the team’s best lineup at linebacker in its base defense.

I have been critical of the lack of plays from the linebackers last season, particularly from McRath and the departed Stephen Tulloch.

Jeff Fisher and his coordinator, Chuck Cecil, stubbornly took McRath, a good pass defender, out on third downs, and left Tulloch, a weak pass defender, on the field. It was experience-over-skill-set stubbornness.

Right now, Munchak and coordinator Jerry Gray are pulling both Witherspoon and Ayers off the field in nickel and sending McRath on to join Ruud.

Whether it’s what the defense is doing on opening day in Jacksonville remains to be seen.

But it’s a clear illustration of the basic principle most good coordinators try to key on: Putting players in situations that maximize their chances to do what they are best at and keeping them out of situations where they do not excel.

If this is McRath’s role, he’s got a lot better chance to make plays than he did last season, when things were backwards and he was in base but not in nickel.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans severed ties with their coach and quarterback and set about for a fresh start.

They’ll suffer from time lost with the lockout, but in Mike Munchak, a largely new staff and a new combo of quarterbacks in Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, the franchise hasn’t just turned a page.

It’s opened a new book.

The early chapters could well be choppy and rough.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is looking for a bigger defense that will stop the run first, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is bringing a scholarly approach to a group used to being screamed at. The Titans have new signal-callers on offense and defense (middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay), so there is a lot of new stuff to cover.

But external expectations are low. If the Titans can get their best player, Chris Johnson, on the field and make strides on defense, it’s not impossible to improve on last season's disastrous 6-10 record.

Munchak preaches the virtues of being a true professional -- know what to do and do it. The question is, does he have enough talented guys who can win football games following that mantra?

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Johnson be around?

It’s hard to imagine his sitting out the season. The flamboyant running back loves the NFL stage and is one of the league’s most dynamic players. He's certainly scheduled to be underpaid at $1.065 million, though. The Titans won’t negotiate if he’s not at camp, but he won’t come to camp without a new deal. There are no signs of any real movement.

Johnson is not fired up about a compromise that would have him join the team but not practice until a deal is reached. Someone will bend. But in the meantime, we’re likely to see a much less threatening offense.

“It’s tough to tell how long it takes to become an issue,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “Once he’s here he’s here, and we start working with him. We’ll be a different team without him. He's definitely one of the top two if not the best running back in the league. A special player, very dynamic. It makes for a different kind of offense when he’s not in there.

“The plays wouldn’t change. Just without having his speed in there, people would play us differently. I wouldn’t say it would necessarily be a worse offense. It would just be someone else running it, Javon Ringer or the rookie (Jamie Harper). It wouldn’t have CJ’s dynamic and people having to worry about his speed.”

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Chris Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Titans will be a different team if they are without Chris Johnson, who rushed for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
If defenses aren't worrying about that speed, things will be far more difficult for Hasselbeck and the team’s other best weapons, receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook.

2. How will Munchak’s style translate?

He’s a Hall of Fame player, and he’s been a top position coach for years. Odds are Munchak can coach a football team.

“He’s his own man,” linebacker Gerald McRath said. “Everybody is going to have to sit back and watch, but it’s definitely going to be different. He has that personality. He wants to establish something that’s his, something that he’s worked hard for. I feel like it’s a great opportunity. It’s a privilege just to be involved in that, to be able to put into some of that.”

The question really is about his CEO role. How does he deal with the late-night calls about DUIs or the overeating defensive lineman? How does he react to the city calling for the starting quarterback’s head or the player enduring stuff at home that’s hurting his play?

Munchak has talked about accountability and discipline and consequences, things that all had slipped at the end for Jeff Fisher. Can he enforce all that effectively?

One other thing: Fisher was great with rules and clock management. In Munchak’s first turn in the primary headset, it will be interesting to see how he fares in those departments.

3. Can the Titans stay healthy up front?

Part of the Titans’ push to be bigger up front on defense is about being better against the run. Part of it is about being more rugged deep into the season. Some of Tennessee’s speed rushers in recent years wore down late, and the Titans suffered for it.

Tracy Rocker has big shoes to fill as defensive line coach, where Jim Washburn had a great run of success. Can Gray and Rocker show the discipline to pace the linemen the way they are talking about doing now?

“I think we have to be real smart this year because our [defensive linemen], for some reason, get hurt quite a bit,” Munchak said. “We have to limit their plays not only in games but in practice so you don’t lose guys. ... We have to find a way to keep them healthy. You can’t control all that, but we have to be smart.”

BIGGEST SURPRISE

It’s early, of course. But the team is talking up Cook again, and this time, he seems prepared to live up to it. The tight end is running plenty of routes that take him deeper than most tight ends, and the quarterbacks are thrilled to have such a big target stretching the field. He seems to be responding better to Palmer's mellow approach than he did to Mike Heimerdinger's high intensity.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Britt’s offseason was filled with off-the-field issues. The Titans gave him a clean slate coming in, but hamstring problems have kept him out of camp so far. He said that he thought yoga was going to help him solve such problems but that his instructor apparently took the money and ran with it. The Titans are already without their most dynamic player in Johnson. With Britt sidelined, they are also missing No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • McRath is probably the odd man out in the linebacker shuffle unless he makes a charge to overtake Will Witherspoon on the weak side. McRath knows he didn’t make enough plays last year, but he’s saying the right things and carrying himself the right way. Maybe he’ll be a special-teams stud if he isn’t playing defense.
  • [+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
    Don McPeak/US PRESSWIRENew coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, will have high expectations for his interior line.
  • The pressure is on the Titans' interior offensive line. Munchak and O-line coach Bruce Matthews, both Hall of Fame linemen, expect Leroy Harris, Eugene Amano and Jake Scott to play better in their second season all together. If they don’t, we’ll call it part missed assessment and part blown confidence. Keeping Hasselbeck upright and healthy is a huge deal.
  • I’m not sure how the Titans will distribute their tight ends without tipping their intentions. Cook is the receiver and Craig Stevens is the blocker. Veteran addition Daniel Graham can do both but is more of a blocker.
  • Jordan Babineaux was lured to the Titans from Seattle largely because of his relationship with Gray when both were with the Seahawks. They shouldn’t do anything that entails Michael Griffin playing anything but center field. And Babineaux is more a free than a strong safety, but the Titans will blur the distinction. Can he challenge for Chris Hope’s job? If he does, will Hope take a pay cut to stay?
  • The Titans actually have reasonable depth at cornerback. Cortland Finnegan needs to produce big in a contract year, and Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty are up-and-comers. Ryan Mouton was lost for the year with an Achilles injury, but veteran addition Frank Walker made a nice early impression.
  • This team always has an undrafted receiver who creates buzz early. This time it looks to be Michael Preston out of Heidelberg. He has nice size and athleticism.
  • There’s not enough evidence to know whether seventh-round CB Tommie Campbell can play yet. But he certainly had physical attributes that make receivers take notice. Receiver Yamon Figurs recently went against him and came away muttering that Campbell was the biggest corner he’s seen. Figurs said Campbell, who is 6-foot-3, was “like a giraffe.”
  • Jake Locker has shown steady improvement and has been far better early on that I expected he would be.
  • If the Titans are going to be a lot better on defense, second-year end Derrick Morgan and second-round pick Akeem Ayers, a strongside linebacker, will have a lot to do with it. Morgan is a very good player, and Ayers brings the Titans size they’ve not had at linebacker since the franchise relocated.
  • Leadership was a giant issue last season. There was hardly any when things got tough. The Titans' additions could solve that. Hasselbeck, Graham, Ruud and Ayers are going to be big in that department.
  • Even if Justin Gage has a huge preseason, the Titans should consider moving on if everyone else is healthy. He’s simply not been a steady enough playmaker, and if his presence is going to keep the team from exploring the upside of someone like Damian Williams, it’s not the right move.
  • Where does recently added, versatile veteran offensive lineman Pat McQuistan fit in? The Titans have a lot of young linemen they like, but his case for edging somebody out will include his experience at every position but center. That could increase their flexibility on the bench.

First look: Titans' depth chart

August, 8, 2011
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The Titans' initial depth chart is out, and although it's unofficial, temporary and fluid, it does offer some interesting notes and discussion points.

Of note:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans got what they were looking for at Matt Hasselbeck's first practice and said what you’d expect they’d say afterwards.

The tempo picked up, and while there were plenty of bumps, everyone was upbeat about what unfolded. At the same time, Jake Locker, working at the second quarterback, continued to show improvement and had a very nice night.

“I think I reverted back to some of my old stuff, but Geno [center Eugene Amano] and those guys up front did a great job of just hanging in there with me, snapping the ball,” Hasselbeck said. “I think I only went the wrong way once, that anybody noticed anyway.

“I have to learn it and I have to unlearn this stuff. What was once ‘green’ is now ‘red’ and what was ‘red’ is now ‘blue.’ In a competitive situation where everything is going real fast, everything just reverts.”

He said he’s getting way more from Locker, Rusty Smith and Brett Ratliff then they are getting from him so far and that quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains has been a great resource for scouting reports on his new teammates.

Coach Mike Munchak said the increased tempo allowed him to add an extra red zone period at the end of practice.

Said receiver Justin Gage: “In a day or two Matt will be right there with the rest of us. You can tell just from today, he’s a fast learner, he learns from his mistakes.”

A few other notes out of the Titans’ evening session on Thursday:
  • Munchak indicated second-round pick Akeem Ayers is in line to play the strongside and Barrett Ruud was the first team middle linebacker out of the gate as you’d expect. That leaves the Titans with a battle between Will Witherspoon and Gerald McRath for the starting weakside job.
  • The Titans are blurring the line between free and string safety and Munchak declined to say Chris Hope is solidly in place as a starter before the new free agent acquisition, Jordan Babineaux, even walks in the door. He’ll get a chance to compete.
  • Titans’ union rep Jake Scott said he believes because there is only one company claiming it can accurately test for HGH, that he is skeptical of the accuracy of the testing. He’s for it in principle. “But their motives are questionable. Their incentive is to catch people,” he said. “If they don’t catch anybody, nobody thinks their test works.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some quick thoughts on Tennessee's opening practice of training camp, before a run to the airport.
  • With Matt Hasselbeck looking on, unable to practice until Thursday, Jake Locker worked as the starting quarterback. He had a several very shaky throws before the defense was even part of things -- a short ball to the left that sailed well over Lavelle Hawkins, a short pass wobbled over the middle that may have slipped out of his hand, a high deep ball that amounted to a punt Jared Cook had to wait on. But he settled down as the practice went on and didn’t look out of place.
  • Kenny Britt didn’t practice. He ran in the morning and the team is being careful early with a guy who had a hamstring issue last season. He looks to be fit, thin even.
  • Without Britt, Nate Washington and Justin Gage worked as the starting receivers with things rotating quickly. Joe Tronzo was the fullback leading Javon Ringer. Fernando Velasco plugged into Leroy Harris’ left guard slot. (Jim Wyatt broke the news during practice that Harris agreed to return with a two-year deal.)
  • The starting defensive line, left to right, was William Hayes, Jovan Haye, Jurrell Casey and Jason Jones. Will Witherspoon was a middle linebacker between Akeem Ayers and Gerald McRath. Alterraun Verner was at corner opposite Cortland Finnegan.
  • While Ayers is bigger than any Titans linebacker in memory, the most impressive size was in free agent defensive tackle Shaun Smith (325), who can't yet practice, and Haye. Haye played last year at 275 and told me he’s now 312, heaviest in his life. He feels way more powerful. Protein shakes, his wife’s cooking and heavy weights helped him bulk up to line up with the new staff’s emphasis on size. He’s benched 405 when he never topped 315 before.
  • Chris Hope was here and at strong safety. He was due a $500,000 roster bonus Friday and there has been no news of a restructured deal. That means he got it and isn’t going anywhere unless something big changes between now and opening day.
  • The coaches are a vocal bunch. Two of note I didn’t hear were offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews. No surprise there. McRath dropped a tipped ball for a pick and linebackers coach Frank Bush told him: “Don’t be afraid to be a hero. All they’re going to do is put your name in the paper.”
  • Receiver coach Dave Ragone drilled the first pass of one positional drill into the facemask shield of Nate Washington. He warned that balls would be on guys fast out of their breaks, but this bullet may have been too fast and too early for Jerry Rice. Washington had to wipe down the shield before getting into back into line.
  • The Titans voted to reconstitute the NFLPA.
In different schemes under different coaches, players at the same position can be asked to do quite different things.

Still, looking back at 2010, I was struck by the lack of plays the Titans linebackers made.

Stephen Tulloch, who may be about to sign in Detroit, was credited with 169 tackles last season and didn’t force a fumble. The team sold Gerald McRath as a play-maker, and he made 60 tackles. didn’t force a fumble, didn't recover a fumble and didn't have an interception.

With the help of ESPN Stats and Info and profootball-reference.com, I put together two lists to gauge linebacker productivity beyond tackles around the league so I could compare the AFC South units.

Of course 3-4 defenses fare best here -- they play more linebackers and are built to have linebackers make more plays.

The first list looks at the combined total of forced fumbles, fumbles recovered and interceptions by linebackers.
  • Jacksonville, 3, 32nd
  • Houston, 4, 30th
  • Indianapolis, 5, tied 29th
  • Tennessee, 6, tied 26th

The top five were Pittsburgh (28), New England (17), New Orleans (15), Carolina (14) and Dallas (14). Of that group, only Carolina ran a 4-3.

The second list added in sacks, benefiting 3-4 teams even more. The entire AFC South ran 4-3 defenses last season. Houston is transitioning to a 3-4 now.
  • Jacksonville, 6.5, tied for 32nd
  • Houston, 7.5, 31st
  • Indianapolis, 8.5, tied for 29th
  • Tennessee, 11.5, 27th

The top five were Pittsburgh (60.5), San Diego (42.5), Green Bay (39), Dallas (37.5) and New England (34.5). Those are all 3-4s. The top 4-3 defense in this was Carolina, 15th with 22.

Perhaps I have unreasonable expectations. I want my linebackers who are always around the ball to do more than tackle. The occasional forced fumble can turn a game.

I understand big names like Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans and Gary Brackett missed significant time last season.

But Houston’s Cushing had four sacks, four picks and two forced fumbles when he was rookie of the year in 2009. That total of 10 was better than three AFC South teams got out of all their linebackers in 2011.

Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith had three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 1.5 sacks and an interception, in 2010. That was better than the Jaguars’ entire linebacker production all of last season and matched Houston’s.

I asked Tennessee’s Gerald McRath about the Titans lack of linebacker plays in 2010.

“We just didn’t make the plays,” he said. “There is no excuse in that. We have to take some steps to get better and to get back to where the Tennessee Titans are known for their style of play. That being said, the linebackers are going to have to step it up.”

Bottom line: Everyone in the division needs better linebacker play, even if they aren’t constructed to feature them. The Titans drafted Akeem Ayers. The Texans draft Brooks Reed. The Jaguars just signed Paul Posluszny.

There may be more attempts at upgrades to come.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans certainly got some good out of a two-hour, player organized practice session that included more than 50 participants on Wednesday morning at Father Ryan High School.

Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and guard Jake Scott deserve credit for getting so many players out.

Of note:

  • Eugene Amano and Jake Scott
    Paul Kuharsky/ESPN.comOffensive linemen Eugene Amano, left, and Jake Scott work against each other.
    Running back Chris Johnson was part of things. He said his contract isn’t on his mind right now and declared that he expects rookie quarterback Jake Locker to start right out of the gate. Here’s the news story.
  • Locker had some nice moments and some that were not so good. About what you’d expect. He certainly threw the ball better than Brett Ratliff. And he didn’t go the Joe Cool route like Ratliff and Rusty Smith, who practiced in sunglasses.
  • The host school’s football staff ran the individual position drills, which had to be a cool thing for most of them. From the stretch through some team work, players seemed to strike just the right measure of laughs with work.
  • Safety Michael Griffin said the defense just worked through basic coverages. Players expect the new defense, coordinated by Jerry Gray will touch on them all. They thought running through basics rather than trying to learn and execute anything new was the smart approach.
  • Among the notables under contract who were missing -- and let’s be clear they didn’t have to be there and could have had very legitimate reasons for not making it -- were Michael Roos, David Stewart, Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins, Alterraun Verner, William Hayes and Brett Kern. Justin Gage was a late arrival and just watched.
  • Without their own receivers, the Titans benefited from the presence of three quality outsiders: Derrick Mason of the Ravens, Golden Tate of the Seahawks and Patrick Turner of the Jets. Mason started his career with Tennessee and still has an area home while Tate and Turner are both from Nashville. Tate went to Father Ryan arch rival Pope John Paul II, and wore his purple Ryan shirt inside out.
  • Gerald McRath and Akeem Ayers
    Paul Kuharsky/ESPN.comLinebacker Gerald McRath coaches up second-round pick Akeem Ayers.
    Several players who are not under contract for 2011 participated: defensive end Dave Ball, guard Leroy Harris, linebacker Tim Shaw and safety Donnie Nickey. Nickey had a big, early collision in seven-on-seven work with Marc Mariani as both went up for a pass from Ratliff that put the receiver at risk. It was the only obvious injury scare of the day. Both bounced up.
  • Plays of note: Mariani dropped a well-thrown deep ball from Locker after slipping behind multiple defenders. Corner Jason McCourty dropped a pick of a pass that bounced off Jared Cook; Ratliff threw an incredibly bad, incomplete pass down the deep middle, a duck that wobbled more than a lot of punts do.
  • Among the guys I saw doing a great deal of leading of young guys were Scott, Ball, defensive back Vincent Fuller and linebacker Gerald McRath.
  • The Titans will have another session Thursday.
Is Stephen Tulloch on his way out?

Titans fourth-round linebacker Colin McCarthy (out of Miami) knows of Tulloch. Though they have not met, they share agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Tulloch is the Titans' incumbent middle linebacker. He made a ton of tackles but hardly a big play last season, when he was part of the team’s inability to slow tight ends. He stayed away from the team last offseason, upset over not getting a long-term deal. He got tendered at a first-round level and won’ be unrestricted if we’re under 2010 rules. If a new deal is struck where four years of service qualifies a guy for unrestricted free agency, he will be able to test the market.

But he won’t be happy if that’s all he can get. He and the team see his value very differently.

And McCarthy is the second new linebacker for Tennessee, which took strongsider Akeem Ayers in the second round and is looking to get bigger. I’d say outside linebacker Gerald McRath is no longer a guaranteed starter either.

The Titans and McCarthy both said he can play inside or out.

With or without Tulloch, the team has got increased flexibility.
D. A. Wade from Orlando writes: Assuming the NFL CBA issue doesn't resolve before the draft in April, how does a team determine its draft needs? Do NFL teams operate on the assumption that all free agents will be lost, or do they assume the free agents will be retained, or is it a case-by-case basis? Or do teams draft without regard to their needs? Thanks for the insight.

Paul Kuharsky: I would think they‘d expect there will be some form of free agency at some point.

So it’ll be an interesting flip -- for years if you didn’t get something in free agency, you’d say, “Well, we address it in the draft.” Now you’ll say, “If we didn’t get it in the draft, we can get it in free agency.”

The wrench this time is a team may not have worked real hard to retain its own guys in February because it didn’t want to give out bonuses heading toward a lockout.

But in a league where more and more of the quality programs are draft builders, it almost seems to make more sense with the draft first, particularly if those salaries are in line to wind up more manageable.

I think bad, panicky teams will panic and force need in the draft, while better non-panicky teams won’t, and will get even better.


Cory from Denver writes: If there is a lockout and the NFL season is lost, what happens to Indianapolis hosting the Super Bowl? Do they host the following year or lose out completely? Thanks.

Paul Kuharsky: Can’t take away New Orleans’ Super Bowl in 2013 or NY/NJ’s in 2014. Presumably Indy would go to the back of the line and get the game played in 2015.

But the season won’t be lost. Players won’t be able to hold out that long.


Jim in Greenville, S.C., writes: With the draft so full of DTs in the first 2 rounds, could you see the Titans going to a 3-4 by taking someone like Marcell Dareus in the first and Drake Nevis (LSU) in the second or is it far more complicated than that? I'd love to see Jason Jones on the outside of a 3-4. Would he fit there? Would he stay healthier in that rather than the current circumstance?

Paul Kuharsky: It’s amazing how many people like to suggest the Titans should go to a 3-4. Even if they intend to go bigger at defensive end and part with Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford, all free agents, they still have some of their best players on the defensive line -- Jones, Derrick Morgan, William Hayes. Their three linebackers last year were unproductive, and Stephen Tulloch is a free agent to be. So you want a team with two starting linebackers who were unproductive, Gerald McRath and Will Witherspoon, to change to a defense that calls for more linebackers? I’m not following the logic no matter who they can draft. It’s a two-year transition minimum, and they’ve got personnel that can be effective in a better 4-3.


Jeff in Nashville writes: Are we going to get a follow-up article to your "Cocky Mallett..." article that details how impressively he threw the ball today? His on field performance has garnered rave reviews across the board and one person even said it was the best QB performance at the combine in the last 10 years. When should we expect that article?

Paul Kuharsky: So defensive. Are you related to him or just a passionate Arkansas fan? Apparently you stopped paying attention right after you read the entry you didn’t like.

Here’s a piece I did less than 24 hours later on how the interviews can be over-interpreted. Did you also miss this one highlighting Mallett’s workout?

Also you do know that he SHOULD dominate a workout with no defenders or decision-making involved, right?


Chris in Phoenix writes: What are the odds that the Colts look into the recently released Tommie Harris since both Antonio Johnson and Dan Muir are currently FA's as well? I would also like to know your thoughts on the impact he would have with his unique speed at the defensive tackle position playing alongside Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Paul Kuharsky: I don’t think the Colts are in a panic over the contract status of Daniel Muir or Antonio Johnson. I could see the Colts drafting a guy to be a front-liner with Fili Moala.

I would have been very surprised to see the Colts active cutting players before free agency.


Logan in Duluth, Minn., writes: In regards to the NFL schedule length, I was wondering why they have to have either 16 or 18 games. Would it not possible to drop two preseason games and add one regular season game? Is it because of playoff tie breakers?

Paul Kuharsky: An odd number of games is sloppy. Then some teams have an extra home game, others have one fewer. How does that affect competitive balance as teams vie for the same division crown or playoff berth?

And they would never drop two preseason to add one regular season. They have to have the same number of total gates or more, otherwise they are giving up money and they won’t be doing that.


Titansfan from Dover, Del., writes: What is the situation with Chris Johnson's contract?

Paul Kuharsky: He’s under contract. They can’t talk about an extension until July, presuming a new CBA is in place by then. A player/team can’t renegotiate the same deal twice inside a year.


Jesse in Muncie, Ind., writes: I am trying to find the complete draft order, but I can only get the first round. Are all seven rounds not yet determined? If that's the case, when will they be set?

Paul Kuharsky: Three rounds are set. Compensatory selections are announced in late March, and they start at the end of the third round and are tacked on to the end of every round after that. That’s why there isn’t a seven-round order yet.


Brent H. at Columbia, Tenn., writes: With the Broncos turning to Kyle Orton as the starter to open camp, could the Titans target Tim Tebow as a possible trade candidate as the QB of the future? He may not have the skills to be the answer immediately, but will be as ready as any rookie QB that we draft, and possesses great intangibles and leadership that the Titans have lacked from their QB position in the past (see Vince Young).

Paul Kuharsky: The Broncos have no idea who will start. John Fox and his staff have not been on the field with those guys. It doesn’t matter what they say right now.

If the Titans scouts weren’t high on Tebow a year ago, why are the high on him now?

They don’t need a quarterback with physical gifts OR with intangibles. They need one with both. Who cares if Tebow can lead if he can’t throw?


Jwill25 from Columbia, S.C., writes: Now that it seems like the Raiders will not be able to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, would it make since for the Colts to cut Kelvin Hayden? Hayden is scheduled to make a little over $9 million next season and for $4-5 million more we can get a top-notch cornerback in his prime that can hold up a hold season. Not to mention the numbers he produces turnover-wise is worth that much alone. I really believe he could do for us what Charles Woodson does for Green Bay. What are your thoughts?

Paul Kuharsky: That’s not what Hayden is scheduled to make, it’s what he’ll count against the cap. He’s scheduled to make $6.015 million. Asomugha will cost a lot more than that.

And Jim Irsay has publicly said they won’t chase Asomugha. So that basically ends that.


Jonathan in Nashville writes: Chris Johnson Trade!?!?I happened to catch the tail-end of a conversation on XM Radio this morning that the Titans were going to "Shop" CJ around for a QB trade, is this true and if so why would they give up their best offensive player?

Paul Kuharsky: Not true. If it was true, why would the team be talking about it?

A top three running back is not worth a top 10 or 15 quarterback. Who’s trading a good quarterback for a good running back, when the rushing champ was undrafted and the good quarterbacks are almost all high picks?


Drew from Richmond, Va., writes: Any info on this DeMario Pressley? I mean from what I can put together he is essentially a second year player when it comes to playing time who has not proven that he is a playmaker much less a starter. The Colts already have six men listed at defensive tackle. Can we expect a few guys getting cut off that list, and how did this guy grab attention when there are bigger names on the market at that position? I agree that the Colts need to strengthen the run defense and start with the middle of the line but is this guy close to an answer?

Paul Kuharsky: I wouldn’t get excited about Houston’s toss-offs. Maybe he’s a serviceable, back-of-the-rotation guy.

Claiming a guy off waivers is a much cheaper and lower-risk option than signing Shaun Rogers or Tommie Harris or Marcus Stroud. They never said Pressley is a big answer. Such an addition means they think he’s worth bringing in and working with. He could easily be cut two weeks after coaches get to know him. Having him means nothing about their willingness to draft or look at a free agent later.

That said, don’t get caught up in big names. Did you know a lot about Antoine Bethea before they brought him in? Robert Mathis? Jerraud Powers?


Joe in Murfreesburo, Tenn., writes: Mel Kiper Jr. has the Titans taking a DE at #8 in the draft. I don't know if Mel remembers, but the Titans are fine at defensive end. They don't need to re-sign Jason Babin. In fact, they might be better off avoiding a big deal if it turns out he was just a one-year wonder. Derrick Morgan will be back, and he will be ready to go with Dave Ball OR Babin on the other side. Either way, they have much bigger needs than to draft another defensive end, when they will basically have a first-round rookie in Morgan next year. Talk some sense into the man Paul, we need a QB.

Paul Kuharsky: Of course they need a quarterback. But if they don’t like an option they have at No. 8, they’d be dumb to force it.

Babin, Ball and Ford are all en route to unrestricted free agency, they are all undersized and they all faded down the stretch. There is great defensive end talent high in this draft and the Titans have indicated they’d like to have more well-rounded, sturdy guys at the spot.

I’d have no problem with the Titans taking an end to go with Morgan and Hayes. A sustained pass rush that can defend the runs makes everyone better -- including a second-round quarterback.


Jarell from Atlanta by way of Gary, Ind., writes: I read a piece you linked the other day about the Colts free agents. I was shocked to realize how many of our guys are going to be up for free agency, who do you think we keep, specifically between Joseph Addai and Melvin Bullitt? I think Charlie Johnson is a talent, though not the best option at tackle, but the only option we have right now. And what about the tackles... Antonio Johnson came on last season at the end, and can be the reason why the rush defense fell behind while he was out in the playoffs. And Daniel Muir has become a staple in our community...what do you think?

Paul Kuharsky: Well first, I think being a staple in the community doesn’t mean much if you’re a middling player looking for a contract.

I don’t see them choosing between Addai and Bullitt and don’t know why you do.

Think they’d like to have Addai, Bullitt, Johnson, Johnson, Muir and Clint Session all back. They generally work hard to keep their own. I don’t think Addai, either Johnson or Muir draw a lot of interest from other teams. They are all tailored to the Colts, a team that works hard to keep core, valuable guys they drafted or brought in as rookies.

A quality O-line pickup could mean Charlie Johnson is moved to guard or sixth man. A quality defensive tackle in the draft or free agency could mean the end of Antonio Johnson or Muir.

Bullitt may be the toughest to retain because there is a lot of safety need around the league. The Texans and Jaguars would both be wise to chase him.

***

We’re Colts and Titans heavy, so I tweeted a request for Texans and Jaguars questions and did a rapid fire Twitter session. (I’m @ESPN_AFCSouth.)

@JoeDowntownVS2 so have the texans still decided safety dosent matters even after last year?

PK: Should have looked at available guys. But they still have draft and real free agency. If they don't act then, they're nuts.

@TheMizellGroup being that Garrard never seems to close out the season we know have consecutive seasons in the "L" are we drafting a QB

PK: Absolutely they'll look hard at a developmental QB.

@DustyGmoe With the signings yesterday from #Texans, can you tell where they will go in the first two rounds?

PK: Defense, defense, defense. OLB, FS, SS, CB and despite what they say, DT.

@baron_von_brad any other team make a play for Hawk?

PK: Don't think there was time and he may not have been interested knowing they were working on a new deal.

@HoustonDiehards is gerald sebsabaugh's history w/ Wade going to land him in Houston once free agency happens? Or are we counting on Nolan?

PK: Nolan in the mix. I hope they do better than Sensabaugh.

@tntitansfan10 how much long will Garrard be Jags QB?

PK: Five or six games if they aren't good ones.

@JasonEmbry With Texans' defensive changes, what does future hold for Okoye? And should Texans upgrade No. 2 WR?

PK: Will get a chance to play 3-4 end for Wade. I'd like to see another option at No. 2, though they invested in Walter.

@Hodari11 Does Rahean Mathis have any trade value?Trade now instead of getting nothing when he leavesWants alot more than he is worth

PK: It's not baseball, where you trade a vet for prospects before he's done. They need Mathis, too young in secondary without him.

@AnnaMegan Is getting a new deal for Vonta Leach a must for Texans?

PK: He was very good last year and I wouldn't mess with the formula. But FBs are generally replaceable.

@eggsngrits Not a #Texans fan, but I have to ask: Why would Arian Foster report to camp for a one-year $480k tender offer?

PK: Because he's under contract to do so. I think they'll try to reward him, but they get a financial reward for grabbing him.

@sumpteravada if we had had the social network we hve now n the 80s...wud Marino/Montana/Moon/Elway been held under the microscope?

PK: Their lives would have been different for sure.

***

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