AFC South: Gregg WIlliams

NEW YORK -- A good share of Tennessee Titans devotees latched on to Gregg Williams in 2013.

The team’s senior assistant/defense helped change Tennessee’s defense for the better.

But the degree of public support for Williams as a defensive coordinator candidate once Mike Munchak was fired surprised me.

Now Williams is heading back to St. Louis for the reunion with Jeff Fisher that was slated for 2012, before Williams was sidetracked by his Bountygate suspension.

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
AP Photo/Mark DuncanRay Horton likes the speed and effort he's seen on tape from the Titans' 2013 defense.
In the meantime, the Titans have fresh defensive leadership in Ray Horton.

And Horton has the one big quality people like so much in Williams: Swagger.

He was formally introduced by the Titans on Wednesday and visited with us on the Midday 180, too.

He said he’s excited to be reunited with Ken Whisenhunt, who he called “a dynamic, proven, play-calling, winning coach” and he told us something I suspect will become a sound byte with staying power: “We’re going to get the damn job done.”

He likes the speed and effort he’s seen on tape from the 2013 defense, and said it’s the staff’s job to turn those things into wins.

“I want my players to be very disciplined, to be in the right place at the right time, and never, never, never let your teammates down,” he said. “...You better have good technique, you better be fundamentally sound, you better know how to take care of your responsibility.”

Horton’s played in and coached in a total of five Super Bowls.

He’s won three times -- Super Bowl XXVII as a player for Dallas, and Super Bowls XL and XLIII as a coach with Pittsburgh. But it’s the two losses he was part of that he says are most memorable.

He lists Super Bowl XXIII when San Francisco’s John Taylor caught the game-winning touchdown against his Bengals, and the Green Bay Packers win in Dallas against Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.

“I remember the losses not the wins,” he said. “The wins are easy. You just take your hardware, your ring, you go home and you wear it ... The losses, they haunt you.”

We were on Radio Row at the Super Bowl and Horton was in Nashville when we spoke.

“I truly believe this with all my heart,” he said. “What players want is to be where you guys are right now. The first week of February, they want to be in that city where you guys are.”

By Friday night, Horton will have watched every snap of every player.

Next week he and the staff will begin to discuss how to maximize what they have, accentuating strengths, hiding weaknesses and determining needs.

Fans should be energized by the reviews Whisenhunt has received for getting Horton, and about what Horton has said so far.

I anticipate that while fans will remember Williams’ contribution fondly, they will be quite happy with the man who got the job.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe behind the scenes, Mike Munchak and the Titans organization gave Jerry Gray the business for foolish things he did while he was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator the last three seasons.

Publicly, they were supportive and loyal to a guy who defaulted to an overly passive defense and who needed to be propped up in his third year by Gregg Williams.

Gray
Gray made at least two public comments that were thoughtless and resulted in fines he didn’t feel were his fault -- one about how his defense should deliver hits that required a cart to take the victims off the field and another on the sideline near the end of a game about officials qualifying as three blind mice.

The fines that resulted were, of course, the fault of those that reported it, not the guy who said it.

It was incongruous with Munchak’s pledge that every member of the Titans should “be a pro,” know his job, do his job and be accountable.

Gray should have been told by his bosses that insulting officials isn’t a great idea and to be smarter. Perhaps he was. But to protect him from himself the Titans also changed a policy, limiting who could be on the sideline for the final two minutes of the game. Call it the Jerry Gray rule.

Monday in Mobile, Ala., John Glennon of The Tennessean ran into Gray.



Mike Munchak is a loyal guy. Had he hired a better coordinator, or cut ties with the only one he hired, the former Titans head coach might still have his job.

If Munchak and the Titans don’t read that line from Gray and think, “WE wish we cut HIM out of OUR lives” a year or two before his contract ran out, they’ve got tremendous restraint.

NASHILLE, Tenn. -- During his final two years as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Ken Whisenhunt’s wanted a Pittsburgh style, 2-gapping, 3-4 defense.

He could adjust given his second head-coaching job, with the Tennessee Titans. But if we're forecasting scheme, that might be the most likely defense we'll see.

What's that mean regarding potential coordinators on the other side of the ball for Whisenhunt, who played as an NFL tight end and is an offensive coach?

If defensive coordinator Ray Horton is fired by the Cleveland Browns, who are still searching for a head coach, he’d likely be a prime candidate to re-join Whisenhunt, for whom he worked with the Cardinals. It was Horton who went from Pittsburgh to Arizona to run that scheme for the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
AP Photo/Mark DuncanIf Ray Horton is not retained when the Browns hire a new coach, he could be a prime candidate to join Ken Whisenhunt's staff.
A couple others I think could be defensive coordinator possibilities: Green Bay’s inside linebackers coach Winston Moss and Baltimore’s secondary coach Teryl Austin, who coached Arizona’s secondary for Whisenhunt from 2007-09.

The Packers or Ravens would have to be willing to let them go in order for Whisenhunt to get them.

Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler is someone Whisenhunt coveted for the role in his first go-round as a head coach. But Pittsburgh wouldn't let Butler go then and it's unlikely it will let him go now.

Gregg Williams was a 4-3 guy coming up with the Oilers/Titans, as head coach in Buffalo, as coordinator in Washington and Jacksonville. He did run some 3-4 in New Orleans, where he coaches a Super Bowl-wining defense.

Williams did well as a senior assistant/defense for Mike Munchak in 2013. His contract recently expired. He seems like an unlikely guy for Whisenhunt to want, but who knows what options the new coach will wind up with?

His two earlier defensive coordinators in Arizona -- Clancy Pendergast in 2007-08 and Billy Davis in 2009-10 -- ran hybrid fronts. But ultimately Whisenhunt landed on Horton and that 3-4.

If Whisenhunt puts the Titans on a course for a 3-4 defense, he’ll likely need some time to get them there. In the traditional version of the scheme, linemen generally take on the man across from them and are expected to clog the gap on either side of the blocker depending on how a play develops. The linebackers fill in and make the bulk of the plays.

The Titans’ best defensive player, Jurrell Casey, is a 4-3 tackle who would surely become a 3-4 end. Big nose tackles who demand a double team are hard to find, though perhaps 328-pound Sammie Hill could make the conversion.

The Titans linebackers were very unproductive in 2013 after a good start. None scream out to me that they’d be better standing up and adding some coverage duties, though Akeem Ayers was projected by many in that role when he came out of UCLA. I didn’t think the Titans had one sufficient middle linebacker, better yet two who could be tackling machines sharing the inside.

Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano got good results running a hybrid in his first season converting a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2012, and in his second season the team was better stocked for his preferred front. But he had Robert Mathis, a pass-rushing demon at end who’s taken well to playing as an outside linebacker.

When he’s formally introduced Tuesday, we’ll hear from Whisenhunt about his plans for Tennessee’s defense.
Eric Decker, Jason McCourty AP Photo Jason McCourty, right, and the Titans' secondary face a formidable challenge in defending Eric Decker and the Broncos' passing attack.
It seemed a little out of place, but as the Denver Broncos were about to get to work on the Tennessee Titans this week, quarterback Peyton Manning said he was going to prepare for an "unfamiliar opponent."

Granted, Manning hasn't faced a Titans team with Mike Munchak as its head coach, but he has faced Tennessee 19 times previously in his career (including a playoff game in the 1999 season), all with the Indianapolis Colts. So, while this is the Titans' first look at Manning in a Broncos uniform, the quarterback is a familiar face as Denver tries to keep its grip on home-field advantage in the postseason.

Here, ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Paul, you've been around the team since it arrived in Tennessee and, before we get to the on-field matchup, how would you say the team has dealt with franchise founder Bud Adams' death earlier this season? Who is making the decisions now and who will make them in the coming offseason, both on and off the field?

Kuharsky: It was a big loss, of course, for Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster and team employees who worked for Adams for a long time. Most of the players hardly knew him, as he was not around much in his final couple of years, when his health began to fail. So there is a lot of uncertainty now. Three branches of Adams' family share control of the franchise, and Bud's son-in-law, Tommy Smith, is the team president and CEO. He's apparently been paying close attention to things in anticipation of taking over. But we know very little about how he will operate going forward. That means there is some tension, because not every team employee knows if he's secure. That starts with the struggling head coach, Munchak.

Leadership in Denver appeared to remain strong as Jack Del Rio stepped in for John Fox. How much of a boost will Fox's return give the team?

Legwold: Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, earned praise from everyone in the organization, including Fox and the players, for how things were handled in the head coach's absence following open-heart surgery. His return has given the team an emotional boost, because after a month away, Fox came back feeling better than he had in some time and enthusiastic to see where this season can go. It should help the Broncos avoid a late-season stumble as they try to get home-field advantage for the playoffs again. Tactically speaking, not much will change. Coordinator Adam Gase is still calling the plays on offense -- Del Rio has said that, other than being a sounding board from time to time, he left the offense solely in Gase's hands during Fox's absence. Del Rio will continue to call the defense on game day as he has all season. Overall, though, it's likely Fox's return will keep the Broncos from hitting an emotional lull over the final month of the regular season.

On the field, the Titans have seen Manning plenty over the years. How do you think Tennessee will approach things on defense and does it see some differences in the Broncos' offense compared to what it saw from the Manning-led Colts?

Kuharsky: Well, it's a relief the Titans don't see Edgerrin James, I am sure. And while Denver's pass-catchers are a remarkable bunch, I'm not sure there is a Marvin Harrison in it yet. They know blitzing Manning can be fruitless no matter what matchups they like against offensive linemen. They'll try to be unpredictable and force him to throw to a certain spot a few times. But plenty of teams have that idea and fail with it. Under Gregg Williams' influence, the Titans have used an ever-shifting front, and we know that's a popular way to play against Manning in an attempt to minimize his ability to make pre-snap reads. The front is pretty good, especially Jurrell Casey, though there is no dominant edge rusher. The secondary has been quite good. It's the linebackers, particularly in pass coverage, who seem vulnerable to me, and I don't know what the Titans will do there to prevent abuse. Bernard Pollard's been a leader whose play has matched his talk, but the Titans have kept him out of tough coverage situations and I wonder whether Manning will find ways to try to go at him.

The Titans are rooting for freezing temperatures even though they've been awful themselves in their past two frigid games. I know some all-time great quarterbacks have excelled in the cold even if they haven't loved it. How much of an issue is it for Manning at this stage of his career?

Legwold: That is the elephant in the room with the Broncos given their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January. Manning threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in that game, even though the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees. But folks seem to remember a wobbly incompletion here and there to go with an interception to close out the Broncos' final possession. Until Manning simply cranks it up on a cold day and the Broncos get a key victory, people are going to ask him about it. He had spots in the overtime loss to New England two weeks ago -- in frigid, windy conditions -- in which he threw as well as he ever has, particularly on a sideline pass to Demaryius Thomas and a touchdown throw to tight end Jacob Tamme. It's not so much his arm that has been an issue post-surgery, it's his grip when he throws. Overall, though, the Broncos push the pace more on offense at home. Manning has terrorized defenses that have played a lot of man coverages against the Broncos' offense, including his five-touchdown game last weekend in Kansas City. The Broncos like that matchup in any weather.

Denver has some injuries on defense that have affected how it plays, especially with the run defense. Where does Chris Johnson fit in the Titans' offense these days?

Kuharsky: He's really had one big game all season. Even when he seems to get going, the Titans can't find a rhythm or a way to stick with him. This was supposed to be a run-reliant, run-dominant team. It isn't. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now the quarterback, the Titans like to put him in an empty set and let him do his thing. It's been good at times, but it doesn't do much to enhance the chances of the running game. Johnson doesn't get yards after contact. So if he doesn't find a big hole, he's not going to do a lot of damage. Watch out on a screen or little flip pass -- that's where Johnson has been more threatening.

Denver's defense has dealt with quite a few injuries and Von Miller's suspension. How's his health and how is that group playing together?

Legwold: The Broncos have yet to play the 11 starters on defense in any game this season they expected to have coming out of training camp. They never will now that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson has been moved to injured reserve. Vickerson was a big part of the plan on early downs -- and the Chiefs tested the middle of the defense plenty this past Sunday, so the Broncos are working through some adjustments there. Champ Bailey (left foot) has played in just three games this season -- just one from start to finish -- and safety Rahim Moore is on injured reserve/designated to return. (The Broncos hope Moore will be back for the postseason.) Toss in Derek Wolfe and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie not being in the lineup against the Chiefs and the Broncos are not nearly as consistent as they were last season, when they were a top-five defense. Miller has had moments of top-shelf play since his return, but hasn't been a consistent force like he was last season.

Double Coverage: Titans at Rams

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
12:00
PM ET
Alterraun Verner and Chris LongUSA TODAY SportsTitans CB Alterraun Verner and Rams DE Chris Long are two of the league's best at their positions.
.
Any time the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans meet, memories of Super Bowl XXXIV are sure to come to the fore. In one of the greatest Super Bowl finishes of all time, the Rams emerged with their lone championship during their time in St. Louis.

A lot has changed since, but neither team has managed to get back to the promised land and it seems like a long shot either will this season. This week, the Rams and Titans renew acquaintances at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss some things worth watching, including an interesting role reversal for one of the key figures in that Super Bowl.

Wagoner: Well, it's pretty obvious what the big story is going to be this week. Jeff Fisher is facing his former team for the first time since taking over as the coach in St. Louis. As is to be expected, Fisher is downplaying that whole angle, but you were around him a lot in his years in Nashville. Do you expect Fisher to have a little something extra for his old team this week?

Kuharsky: It would be so much better if it were in Nashville. Then we’d have the crowd reaction as a part of it, too. Still, it’s intriguing. He will definitely have something (or some things) drawn up that he feels will uniquely exploit the schemes and styles of his former underlings Mike Munchak, Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams. If those things work, I’d expect Fisher will then talk about how one of his assistants who was once in Tennessee -- Chuck Cecil, Dave McGinnis or even Ray Sherman -- was instrumental in the design. Fisher didn’t leave with hard feelings, and I believe he wishes the organization well. Still, any proud former employee in this sort of circumstance wants to outperform the former employer. He’s talked about it meaning more for the guys on the roster who were once Titans.

Jared Cook had a monster opening day but has been quiet since. Cortland Finnegan missed some time hurt. What’s the status of those guys?

Wagoner: Cook has really struggled dealing with teams giving him more attention and, more specifically, being physical with him at the line of scrimmage and downfield. He stopped on a route last week against Seattle, and it resulted in an interception. The Rams have gone back to more of a power running scheme that has also limited his snaps because he doesn’t bring much to the table as a blocker. Finnegan won’t say it, but I believe he was banged up at the beginning of the season; his first four games were downright brutal. He returned last week against Seattle, and for now he’s working exclusively in the nickel as the team’s third corner rather than just bumping inside in those situations. Given that he’s only a little more than a year into a monster contract, it’s hard to categorize him as anything but a disappointment for the price.

A lot will be made of the Fisher-Tennessee connection, but I’m more intrigued by the Gregg Williams situation. The way things went down with him and the Rams, and between Williams’ son Blake and the Rams, had to have created some tension on all sides. What has Williams’ impact been down there in Tennessee, and what exactly is his role?

Kuharsky: By title, he’s senior assistant/defense. In practice, he’s not-quite defensive coordinator. Gray is still calling the plays, but Williams’ influence is undeniable. This defense had no personality or attitude last season. Now it’s the backbone of the team. It mixes it up and disguises its looks up front, it blitzes more often and it plays far more man-to-man. Bernard Pollard has been a great fit who has talked with swagger and backed it up. Some guys most people have never heard of -- defensive end Ropati Pitoitua and middle linebacker Moise Fokou -- have been very good additions. Williams certainly had a say in bringing those guys in. He has stayed in the background and seems comfortable there. I would imagine he and Gray are excited to put together a plan to make Kellen Clemens uncomfortable.

How do you think Clemens will respond in his second start since Sam Bradford went down?

Wagoner: To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Mr. Dennis Green, Clemens proved last week against Seattle that he is what we thought he was. He’s a tough, gritty, consummate professional who can occasionally extend plays with his legs and make something happen. He’s also consistently inaccurate, a bit indecisive and has a knack for costly turnovers (though his two interceptions Monday night weren’t completely his fault). Another week to work with the starters should help, but he was a bit sore after Monday night’s game against Seattle. The Rams don’t need him to throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns, but they do need him to convert in the red zone and not turn the ball over.

There are something like 16 players from the Fisher era remaining in Tennessee, one of whom is running back Chris Johnson. The Rams have been better defending the run the past two weeks, but they need to prove they can keep doing it. It appears Johnson has struggled after the team made efforts to help him in the offseason. What’s going on with Johnson, and is he (and the Titans' offensive line) capable of taking advantage of the Rams’ run defense?

Kuharsky: The Titans are built on a philosophy of throwing it when they want to, not when they have to. That’s a mistake because the revamped line and Johnson are not equipped to run it they way they think they can. Jets fans get a kick out of this, but to a large degree the Titans' hope things will get better comes from Shonn Greene. The bigger back was brought in as a compliment to CJ, but he got hurt in the opener and made it back only the week before the bye; he has hardly played. They need him to emerge and contribute. Based on current numbers, the Rams are the third-softest run defense the Titans will have seen this season. If they can’t run Sunday, it will really speak to their issues.

Chris Long and Robert Quinn looked really good against Seattle. Have they been giving everyone problems like that?

Wagoner: Quinn certainly has. Through the first half of the season, he’s really starting to realize his immense potential. I believe he’s the Rams’ best player right now, and have felt that way since the beginning of the season. He’s an athletic freak who gives slower tackles problems. He feasts on inferior players, but he can get it done against good tackles as well. Long was banged up earlier in the season but has battled through it and is starting to find his stride. Given the situation on offense right now, the Rams need this duo to take over games on a regular basis and set the tone for a defense that, before last week, had largely disappointed this season.

.

Double Coverage: Jets at Titans

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
12:00
PM ET
Jake Locker and Bilal PowellUSA TODAY SportsJake Locker, left, and Bilal Powell hope to build on big games when their teams meet Sunday.
Preseason expectations for the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans were poor, at best. Rex Ryan and Mike Munchak were at the top of the list of coaches on the hot seat. They had questions at quarterback and critics wondering about the caliber of their defensive playmakers.

Those questions still exist.

But three games into the season, entering a head-to-head matchup in Nashville, each stands at 2-1. They each won last week despite major penalty problems.

The Titans' offseason included more than $100 million spent on a big group of free agents and a revamping of the coaching staff, including the addition of senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams.

The Jets were much about turmoil, particularly with the drafting of quarterback Geno Smith and his competition with Mark Sanchez. To set up the game, ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Jets reporter Rich Cimini got together to break things down:

Paul Kuharsky: How, Rich, have the Jets pulled off this start after such an ugly offseason?

Rich Cimini: You're right, Paul, it was an ugly offseason. Ugly preseason, too, with a rigged quarterback competition that ended with Sanchez's shoulder injury. But to its credit, this team has stayed focused and confident. It's too early to say the Jets have arrived, but they're playing good defense. For a change, they actually have a front three/four that can put pressure on the quarterback. In the past, Ryan had to rely on exotic blitzes to generate the heat. Now he has a young, talented defensive line led by Muhammad Wilkerson. Seven of their eight sacks last week came on four-man rushes. The offense exploded last week, for one of the most prolific days in team history -- if you can believe it -- but I think a lot of that can be attributed to a lousy Buffalo secondary. Smith has a big arm, but he's prone to two or three big mistakes per game. He already has seven turnovers, compared to none for Jake Locker. What can you say about Locker's development?

Kuharsky: He's really made nice, steady progress. I like my quarterback to do more than not make giant mistakes, and Locker showed last week that he might be capable of more. The Titans love his intangibles. In a lot of ways, they drafted him because he's the anti-Vince Young. Locker prepares well, works hard, understands the hard parts of being an NFL quarterback and earns the respect of his teammates and coaches. He's blazing fast and can really throw. He changed protections twice in the game-winning drive against San Diego, which is real progress. Still, it's a run-first team that wants to hand the ball to Chris Johnson and, when he's healthy, Shonn Greene. (I know Jets fans are sad he's out this week.) The Titans rebuilt their interior line to protect better, but even more so, they can establish and count on the run. How is the Jets' front as a run-stopping group, and how are the Jets running the ball to take some of the burden off the rookie quarterback?

Cimini: Bilal Powell is coming off a career day (149 rushing yards), but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg isn't married to the idea of running the ball to take pressure off Smith. He has been pretty aggressive with his play calling, allowing Smith to attack downfield. In fact, he has nine completions on attempts that went 21 yards or longer, tied with Aaron Rodgers for the league lead. As for stopping the run, the front seven is doing a nice job. It's a younger, faster front seven than the one you saw last December in Nashville. Linebacker DeMario Davis, nose tackle Damon Harrison and rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson have injected much-needed speed into the defense. They have held a couple of good backs in check, namely Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller. I'm really curious to see how they handle Locker and Johnson. Talk to me about the Titans' defense. Sounds like Williams has brought a different dynamic.

Kuharsky: Yeah, Jerry Gray might still have the defensive coordinator title and might still be calling the game. But the Titans are running stuff he never thought to install or call on his own, and they've got an attitude he wasn't able to instill without Williams. The Titans are blitzing more, they are playing more press coverage, they are hitting harder, they are more assertive and their confidence and swagger is well beyond what we saw last season. Williams is completely in the background, low-keying it. If the defense plays as it has, he could re-emerge as a candidate for coordinator jobs after just one year back from his suspension. Rex seems to have backed off the crazy pronouncements and is more low-key himself. Same guy being a bit more guarded, or is there more change to it than that?

Cimini: Ryan is in self-preservation mode. He has a new boss, general manager John Idzik, a buttoned-down guy whose objective was to send the circus out of town. He has changed the culture around the organization, and Ryan has bought into that mentality. So yes, the old bravado is gone. Selfishly, as a reporter, I liked the old Rex because he gave us plenty to write about. Another reason for the change in his approach, I think, is he realizes this is a fairly young team (three or four rookies in the starting lineup) and he doesn't want to put extra pressure on them by making outrageous statements. As a result, it's a lot quieter around here. Bummer.

Kuharsky: It’s always quiet down here, Rich. Hopefully, someone will make some sort of noise Sunday. I’m thinking it’s unlikely to be a Jets receiver. I know Stephen Hill did some good work against the Bills. But the Titans' pass rush and coverage might be fine against Smith and his receivers. They don’t rate very well, do they?

Cimini: Astute observation, Paul. The Jets picked on a couple of backup cornerbacks for the Bills, racking up numbers you'd expect to see from Peyton Manning and the Broncos. It won't be that easy against the Titans. Hill is talented, yes, but he's wildly inconsistent. He'll make your heart race with a big play, but he'll also break it with an easy drop. Santonio Holmes remains their best receiver. Last week's big game notwithstanding, he's not the Holmes of a few years ago, still not 100 percent after foot surgery. Bottom line: This is still a receiving corps with questions.

.
Rivers/LockerUSA TODAY SportsJake Locker, right, will try to keep up with Philip Rivers and the Chargers, who have scored 61 points through two games.
The San Diego Chargers are the Tennessee Titans' white whale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s Jake Locker coming along?

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

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

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

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

Kuharsky: The best guys so far haven’t been the ends. Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley should key the rush. Ayers moves from stongside linebacker to end on rush downs but has been limited by a bad ankle. Tackle Jurrell Casey and weakside linebacker Zach Brown have been the best rushers so far. The fronts are less predictable and the blitzes more frequent. That’s the influence of defensive assistant Gregg Williams. This defense is far better than I expected.
Matt Schaub and Jake LockerGetty Images, AP PhotoQuarterbacks Matt Schaub and Jake Locker look to lead their respective teams to a 2-0 start.
Titans owner Bud Adams is vilified in Houston because he took the Oilers out of town. The aging, eccentric Adams still lives in Houston, and he’s expected to attend Sunday's Titans-Texans game.

The Texans are coming off a wonderful 31-28 comeback win in San Diego. The Titans took care of the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Inevitably, an opening-day win gives a team some reassurance about its plan and course. The Titans' buy-in is certainly high.

Had the Texans lost to the Chargers, I imagine this week's themes would revolve around the carryover of issues that killed them late last season.

The comeback from a 28-7 deficit changed that. They’re the two time-defending division champions. Even so, Tania Ganguli, how much of a boost did that comeback give them?

Tania Ganguli: It gave them a big one. Coming back from big deficits was something they struggled with last year. That led to the Texans being labeled as a team that wasn't built to come from behind because their running game is such a big part of their offense. They showed an ability to pass their way out of a big hole. Quarterback Matt Schaub was excellent in the third quarter, spearheading the recovery. Defensively, they showed the ability to adjust. After the Chargers' third-quarter-opening touchdown, San Diego had 10 yards of total offense the rest of the half. Incredible.

How has Gregg Williams changed the Titans' defense?

Paul Kuharsky: He’s not the coordinator, and Jerry Gray continues to call the plays. But Tennessee really mixed up its fronts against the Steelers. They didn’t blitz an immense amount but they were more unpredictable and more aggressive than they had been last year.

I certainly felt like we were seeing Williams’ influence in those areas. Williams has certainly had a positive bearing on their aggressive approach to the game and on the team’s attitude. If guys like tackle Jurrell Casey and linebacker Zach Brown play like they did in the opener, they’ve developed some playmakers. If guys like end Ropati Pitoitua and linebacker Moise Fokou keep up their play from the opener, they’ve added some quality new pieces.

What’s Wade Phillips doing with his new pieces, and will we see all of them?

Ganguli: Ed Reed is getting healthier, but we won't know his status until Friday afternoon. He will have a lot of free rein to dictate what he does, just like he did in Baltimore. He's helped other players and helped his coaches by offering suggestions on things he's seen. I asked Phillips if he is more inclined to listen to Reed than other players and Phillips said Reed's suggestions are better than most players.

When the Texans drafted safety D.J. Swearinger, they knew they were in dime so often that even as the third safety he'd see the field a lot. Swearinger was on the field for 55 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps Monday in San Diego.

Joe Mays was solid starting at inside linebacker on Sunday. Given Darryl Sharpton's injury history, he's a very important piece the Texans added during training camp.

We could include Whitney Mercilus and Earl Mitchell as somewhat new pieces -- full-time starters at outside linebacker and nose tackle. Both had big nights in San Diego. Mercilus hit Philip Rivers on the pass that Brian Cushing intercepted. Mercilus also had an early sack, giving Phillips the outside pass rush he needs. Mitchell's most important play came when he chased down running back Ryan Mathews as he ran with a pass. Mitchell stopped Mathews two yards short of a first down. Rivers' next pass fell incomplete, and that was the last time the Chargers had the ball.

You mentioned Casey earlier. He's been fairly talkative lately, and apparently has played well, too. Will he cause problems for the Texans?

Kuharsky: If the Titans have a chance at a second consecutive upset, Casey will have to be disruptive. The 2011 third-round pick out of USC had a very solid rookie season, but last season he hurt an elbow in the preseason and had a couple of other injuries slow down his growth. He’s healthy now and could be on course to be a Geno Atkins type of player. I know some Texans fans bristled that he dared talk confidently. But I’m guessing those same fans were OK with someone like Antonio Smith talking before he’d done much, either.

If Casey draws double-teams from the Texans' offensive line, then others need to apply pressure. End Derrick Morgan and strongside linebacker/nickel end Akeem Ayers are the top candidates there, though Brown is the one who charged out the strongest last week.

The Titans usually think if they can rattle Schaub they’ll be in good shape, but last week Schaub was rattled in the first half and bounced back quite well against the Chargers. Do you expect him to be the first-half guy, the second-half guy, or something in between?

Ganguli: The defense he'll play is a little bit better this week, and their aggressiveness will present a challenge for Schaub. His QBR was much better against four or fewer pass-rushers than it was against five or more, though he did throw all three touchdowns against extra pressure. On the other hand, I think Schaub will be more comfortable with receivers like DeAndre Hopkins, who caught five passes in his NFL debut. I expect something in between first- and second-half Schaub. Schaub has more career touchdown passes against the Titans (17) than he does against any other opponent, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Worth noting, though: I don't think he’ll be put in the same position he was in last week. The Titans don't have the offensive firepower to bury another team early, do they?

Kuharsky: I wouldn’t think so. The offensive line is way better and they should find some runs. But the passing offense is unproven. They have a group of quality receivers and a nice new tight end in Delanie Walker. The next step would be for them to show they can make consistent plays in the passing game with some big-chunk plays.

A lot of that comes down to what Jake Locker can do. The third-year quarterback has made steady improvements recently. But one of their objectives is to shape a game where too much doesn’t land on his shoulders. They want to throw it when they want to, not when they have to. I expect the Texans will make them have to.

Also, the last time Locker played at Reliant, he failed to make an adjustment at the line and got crushed by a blitzing Glover Quin. The resulting shoulder injury cost him time and slowed his progress. He’ll need to do better on the fly.

Pressure’s on him. Pressure’s on you. First home game with ESPN.com since taking over the Texans. What happened to the guy who used to monitor that team for us?

Ganguli: I heard he got run off due to his refusal to pronounce the H in Houston.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 1

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
12:00
PM ET
An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 16-9 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

The defensive mentality: As the 2012 season ended, the Titans were already talking about the need to be more aggressive. Then Mike Munchak brought in Gregg Williams as a senior assistant/defense.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJurrell Casey and the Titans sacked Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger five times in Week 1.
Munchak emphasized that defensive coordinator Jerry Gray called the Pittsburgh game. And the Titans didn’t go crazy with blitzing the way Williams’s defenses have in the past.

But the defense was well-prepared to keep Ben Roethlisberger hemmed in the pocket. The Titans sacked him five times. Though the Steelers found some plays to Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jericho Cotchery, the biggest pass play was 22 yards.

Williams' influence and the swagger he brings seemed to be at work, at least to a degree. As I’ve said before, Gray is in a no-win situation. We’ll look at improvements because of Williams, and if they are bad we’ll say it’s the same old stuff.

Jake Locker's poise: One of his biggest issues has been his desire to do too much. So one of the Titans' biggest goals has been to shape a team that can shape games where he doesn’t feel like he has to overreach. And he didn’t overreach in Pittsburgh.

He was calm and efficient. He misfired a few times. But we’ve said in the right sort of context he could be a bit like former Titans quarterback Steve McNair, where the numbers don’t always look as good as the quarterbacking.

That was the case here. Locker did his part.

I think his confidence grew through a preseason where he showed steady improvement. And I am sure it will grow some more from helping engineer a tough win in a tough place against a tough defense.

Three tight ends: The Titans used a three-tight-end formation quite a bit, mostly with Damian Williams on the field as the lone receiver and a running back behind Locker.

It was pretty effective, but going forward the Titans will have to do more to show they can be balanced when Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson are on the field together.

By the count of Terry McCormick of Titan Insider, the Titans gave up a sack and threw just twice in 17 snaps with three tight ends, some of which was with Williams and a back, and some of which was with two backs. Locker threw incomplete once and connected on a 13-yard pass to wide receiver Nate Washington.

Williams said it won’t be too predictable.

“Sometime in that formation, you’ve got three tight ends and a receiver, that’s four eligible receivers that are capable of catching the ball,” he said. “You do have to throw out of it to keep them honest.”

Third-down defense: The Titans gave up some third-and-long conversions in their preseason game in Cincinnati that were of particular concern. The Steelers converted third-and-8, third-and-9 and third-and-8, respectively, on their opening possession.

That left me thinking the Titans were going to have some serious issues. But they settled down and played really well on third down the rest of the way, allowing the Steelers to convert just one of 10 the rest of the game.

“We knew those weren’t good on our part and those third downs were long, we weren’t happy,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “We came back to the sideline and said, ‘We can’t have that happen.’ We were able to respond.”

Titans lacking 'the guy' on defense

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
2:56
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Not every good or great defense in the NFL has a signpost guy who’s the big issue for the competition.

The best defenses for the Tennessee Titans have, however.

Defensive end Jevon Kearse arrived in 1999 and proved to be the missing ingredient, booting the Titans defense to a Super Bowl level with his explosive edge rush. He notched 36 sacks in his first three seasons. The 2000 team was the NFL’s No. 1 defense.

Albert Haynesworth was an incredible defensive tackle for the Titans in 2007 and 2008, with 14.5 sacks from defensive tackle. Tennessee was fifth in defense the first year and seventh the second.

Like Kearse, Haynesworth created panic and forced offenses to account for him at all times.

Perhaps these Titans have upgraded and will be collectively successful. They lack a singular, dominant player who dictates double teams or constant concern.

“We’d hope that there is more than just that guy,” senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams said recently. “Kearse here was that guy. But when I went other places and had top defenses in the league, we had a multitude of just really good guys. Maybe not a dominant, take-over-the-game guy, maybe not a lot of Pro Bowlers on those teams, but top-ranked defenses.

“We’ve got to have more than just one guy. We’ve got to have several guys that people have to account for and/or know because they can be threats.”

The better scenario, of course, is having the one guy, and having him surrounded by the kind of really good guys Williams speaks about.

Kearse played with solid defenders like cornerback Samari Rolle, safety Blaine Bishop (for two of those years) and linebacker Randall Godfrey. Haynesworth had end Kyle Vanden Bosch, linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton and cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

The Titans have a lot guys who can potentially be high-quality defenders: tackle Jurrell Casey, end Derrick Morgan and linebacker/end Akeem Ayers head my list. It’s hard to imagine any of them jumping the Kearse-Haynesworth level of production.

Casey got a big compliment from Jerricho Cotchery, the Steelers receiver, on Wednesday.

“I'm supposed to be looking at DBs, but you can't help but see No. 99 up front, big Casey," Cotchery told my Pittsburgh colleague, Scott Brown. "He's everywhere, especially when you look at the Atlanta game in the preseason. He's just all over the place. He stands out even when you're watching the back end of it.”

Maybe Casey will wind up being a singular force for the Titans.

They don't intend to worry about it as they get to work.

“I say we go to work with the guys that we have,” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “We can’t really worry about what we don’t have, but we can worry about how effective we can be with what we do have.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans made the right choice in going with Alterraun Verner over Tommie Campbell as their starting cornerback opposite Jason McCourty.

Campbell is bigger, stronger and faster, which prompted the Titans to over-tout him in training camp in 2012 and again this year.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was a physically gifted cornerback, too, when he played for the Rams, Oilers and Buccaneers. Gray earned four Pro Bowl appearances from 1985-93.

A year ago, the Titans were looking for Campbell to either win an outside job as a starter or prove capable of taking over an outside job in the nickel package, allowing Verner to shift inside. After a camp full of hype about Campbell, the Titans then pulled an opening-day surprise with Ryan Mouton playing nickel.

[+] EnlargeTommie Campbell
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTommie Campbell was not able to beat out Alterraun Verner as the starting cornerback.
Gray has talked about how important it is for a corner to be smart, and that is one of Verner's top qualities. At another point the coordinator spoke of how, given a raw player with great speed, he would be able to shape him into an effective player. Campbell fits in that category.

Today’s development is mostly about Campbell. He failed to seize a massive opportunity heading into his third year. The Titans wanted him to win the job and he couldn't navigate the road they paved for him.

But it’s an indictment of Gray and the defensive coaches, too. They’ve either overestimated Campbell, failed to develop him or both.

Here’s Mike Munchak’s positive spin when I asked about Gray’s failure to mold the Campbell clay into what he indicated he could:

“Well it’s not over yet, Tommie’s still here, Tommie’s still part of our team. I guess the timing for everyone is always different, how quickly they come on, how they can contribute, how quickly they can take over a position. It’s still a work in progress and like I said, give Vern some credit too for playing well and doing a good job. We still have both of them on our football team and this conversation can change quickly depending on what happens. He’s still in it, he’s still able to keep getting better, as far as who’s first, it’s going to be Vern.

Getting limited second team reps in practice and working on the scout team does not provide the same opportunity to get better that Campbell had through the summer, camp and the preseason.

Campbell was not in the Titans’ locker room during a lengthy period during which it was open to the media Monday. A team official said he didn’t know where Campbell was.

Free safety Michael Griffin said Campbell is still learning some of the nuances of playing cornerback in games.

“In practice, Tommie does a good job, he plays physical,” Griffin said. “When it comes to the games, I guess the hardest part is trying to understand what’s legal, what’s not legal. Because he gets away with a lot of things at practice. But I wouldn’t count Tommie out, you never know when his name may be called.”

Verner was gracious, saying he and Campbell are friends who were rooting for each other and wanted it to come down to who made more plays and not be about either of them failing.

I like Verner and think he’s a heady football player. His training camp body of work was better.

But the 2012 Titans gave up the most points in the NFL and the most points in franchise history. The team ranked 26th in pass defense.

And so the solution in the secondary was to sub out a subpar strong safety, Jordan Babineaux, with Bernard Pollard. Pollard is a better player, but he’s not an ace in coverage, though, he doesn’t care for people to say so.

Of the Titans first five defensive backs, four of them -- McCourty, Verner, Griffin and nickel back Coty Sensabaugh -- are the same as they were last year.

Perhaps that group matures and plays better and has a better pass rush in front of it.

But the Titans strategy with regard to the pass rush wasn’t to add a premier pass-rusher. It was to bring in run defenders to reduce the workload of the rushers already in place.

Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers will be the primary edge pass-rushers with Kamerion Wimbley getting work too. Those three, too, were part of the defense that let teams score an average of 29.4 points a game.

With Gregg Williams’ influence, they will surely blitz more.

My big lingering question is, "Did the Titans change enough on defense?"

The Pittsburgh game will begin to tell the story.

But the offense might want to aim to score 30.

What to watch: Falcons-Titans

August, 24, 2013
8/24/13
10:44
AM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Three things I’ll be watching closely tonight as the Titans host the Atlanta Falcons in a game Tennessee treats as its dress rehearsal for the regular season.

Verner and Turner: The competitions at cornerback and center aren’t over. But unless the wheels come off for Alterraun Verner and/or Rob Turner they should hold on to their lead and be the guys to start on opening day in Pittsburgh on Sept. 18. Verner doesn’t have the physical gifts of Tommie Campbell, but he’s simply a better, more instinctive and smarter football player. Turner will add more of a nasty edge than Fernando Velasco.

Win more head to head on defense: Through two games the Titans' front-line defenders have repeatedly failed to get off blocks and attack the way this team intends to. Senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams said this week that a lot of those guys who stayed blocked are guys who don’t wind up making teams. But the guys who are certain to be around need to change the tone, be the aggressors and make more plays. There is no real scheming going on, so right now, it’s far more about what you can do against the guy trying to stop you.

Sticky fingers: The Titans' starting receivers, Kenny Britt and Nate Washington, had costly drops in last week’s loss in Cincinnati. So did undrafted rookie tight end Jack Doyle. They all messed up the rhythm, flow and pace of the offense. If quarterback Jake Locker plays as well as he did a week ago and his targets can hold on to what he throws to them, we should see some additional progress for the passing game.
Reading the coverage of the Tennessean Titans ...

Center Rob Turner and cornerback Alterraun Verner will start the third preseason game. While the competition at their spots are not over, Mike Munchak says the battles are leaning toward those two, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Gregg Williams ended his silence and said he’s maintaining his aggressive style in his first year back from suspension, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Safety George Wilson got fined by the NFL for a horse collar tackle against the Bengals, reports Wyatt.

The Titans anticipate seeing a no-huddle offense from Atlanta Saturday night, says Craig Peters of the Titans team web site.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans defenders have had some issues getting off of blocks in their first two preseason games.

“Some of those guys that are staying blocked are the ones who have trouble making teams, you know?" Gregg Williams said. “The guys that get off blocks are the ones making teams."

The Titans' senior assistant/defense spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since the Titans opened training camp July 25.

Here's the news story that covers much of what he said.

Williams said he hasn't talked because he doesn’t want things to be about him; he wants it to be about the players. But in staying silent, he’s set himself apart from the rest of the coaches on Mike Munchak’s staff, all of whom have spoken.

Part of the defensive struggles in the preseason have been adjusting to the pace in games the team hasn't planned for. Part of it has been working against new stuff it hasn't seen from its own offense, Williams said.

One other topic: the two things that qualify as his primary irritants with players.

"There is no excuse for a loaf in this league, there is no excuse for someone not appearing tough in our league," he said. "That's what this game is about. Players don't want to play with somebody next to them that don't get that and coaches don't want to coach them.

"Those are really the only things that bother me: When a guy is not 100 percent all the time when he has a chance to play this game and a lack of toughness."
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES