AFC South: Kevin Matthews

Reassessing the Titans' needs

April, 2, 2013
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We need to reserve judgment on just how well the Titans did with their free-agent haul. Several of their key additions -- like tight end Delanie Walker and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill -- are expected to graduate into bigger roles with their new team.

The Titans project they can handle that and excel with it. We’ll have to wait and see.

What I like most about what they’ve done is this: A team with a ton of needs as the 2013 NFL year began has far fewer now.

That creates a certain draft freedom. While there are still things they need, they need them far less desperately. If a guy they really want in the draft goes off the board a couple picks before they are up, it will be less tragic.

[+] EnlargeBernard Pollard
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Titans signed safety Bernard Pollard, hoping the former Raven can add fire and veteran leadership.
A review of what they needed as free agency opened, and some thoughts on what they need now.

Safety: Like it or not they are locked into Michael Griffin. So what they needed was a serious upgrade with regard to an in-the-box presence at the position who will allow Griffin to play as a center fielding free safety. Enter George Wilson and Bernard Pollard. They are veterans who are better than the options the Titans had in 2012, plus they bring leadership -- Wilson of a quieter variety, Pollard with a loud swagger. If they draft a kid to develop behind this group, that’d be fine, but it’s not a pressing need.

Guard: Andy Levitre was the best option on the market. Rob Turner and Chris Spencer are far better options than interior guys like Kevin Matthews or Deuce Lutui, who wound up playing last year. Ideally the Titans find a young stud to play right guard long term. But if the can’t get, or decide to pass on, Chance Warmack, Jonathan Cooper or Larry Warford they could still be OK.

Defensive end: Internally, it’s not been rated the need it was externally. They did add super-sized Ropati Pitoitua, but he doesn’t appear to be a guy who will spur the pass rush. I think they feel good about Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley, and will use Akeem Ayers more as a rusher. But I’d still rank an end that can boost the pass rush as a need.

Running back: They needed a short-yardage guy to serve in a complementary role with Chris Johnson, and found a guy they liked in Shonn Greene. Darius Reynaud is back, though he’s primarily a returner. A mid- or late-round back would make sense to increase their options if Johnson’s money is an issue next year and/or to compete with Jamie Harper for a role.

Defensive tackle: They showed no interest in bringing back Sen'Derrick Marks and found the size they wanted in Hill. With Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin, that’s a nice three-pack. Karl Klug is a question mark. This is a spot where they can definitely continue to add, even if they have high hopes for Klug and DaJohn Harris.

Cornerback: The one name that surfaced as a guy they courted was Keenan Lewis, the Steeler-turned-Saint. Depth at this position is shaky. Coty Sensabaugh did OK as a rookie nickel back. But ideally the Titans would get Alterraun Verner into the slot, even if he’s starting outside in the base defense. They need a better candidate that Tommie Campbell to play outside as the second or third guy. This could now rate as one of the top needs.

Tight end: Following the breakdown in talks with Jared Cook, the team decided against using the franchise tag on him. Walker is more equipped to shift around from the backfield to the line to the slot, and the Titans want to get back to using a guy like that. No remaining need with Craig Stevens, a solid blocker, and Taylor Thompson, a second-year project, in place.

Linebacker: Depth is the issue here, especially in the middle where Colin McCarthy gets hurt. Moise Fokou might help, and ideally the main addition would be a veteran upgrade over outgoing free agent Will Witherspoon. If Ayers moves forward to rush some as a defensive end, they’ll need a quality outside guy who can cover. A need, still, for sure.

Receiver -- I wasn’t thinking it was a spot they needed to address before the draft, but they looked at a lot of guys and signed Kevin Walter. He’s a reliable route runner who can work underneath and do well against zones for quarterback Jake Locker. But Walter isn’t explosive. I expect they’d like to add a draft pick who’s a smart, quality route runner with a little more ability for yards after the catch.
Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews always said he’d recuse himself on roster decisions involving his son, Tennessee interior offensive lineman Kevin Matthews.

It would have cost the Titans a tender of at least $1.323 million to retain his rights. With or without the input of Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Fame lineman, the Titans didn’t tender Kevin Matthews or interior offensive lineman Kyle DeVan.

Kevin Matthews and DeVan will become unrestricted free agents Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. At that point the Titans could sign them to deals at one-year base minimum salary. The third-year base salary minimum is $630,000.

It’s time, though, for the Titans to be finished with Matthews, the project who came out of Texas A&M in 2010.

The interior offensive line is expected to be revamped with two new starting guards. As they are brought in, via free agency and/or the draft, the team is likely to move on from two expensive veterans, Steve Hutchinson and Eugene Amano.

Leroy Harris and Deuce Lutui become unrestricted free agents Tuesday.

Tyler Horn was on the practice squad at the end of last season and Chris DeGeare was on the practice squad injured list.

The Titans now have Mitch Petrus and Kasey Studdard as their interior depth.

So Tennessee doesn't need only a couple starting guards. It needs a candidate or two to compete with Petrus and Studdard for backup roles as well.

Who calls the protections, and why?

December, 20, 2012
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Andrew LuckKim Klement/US PresswireRookie Andrew Luck of the Colts is among the QBs asked to call the bulk of his team's protections.

A young quarterback breaks the huddle and steps to the line. There is much to assess staring at him from across the line of scrimmage.

What’s the coverage? Is it better to run or pass against it? Is that safety really coming at me or is he disguising before backing off to be part of a Cover 2? I need to send that receiver in motion. How would the cornerback across from him react to that? Who’s hot here if someone comes free at me?

On top of all of that, in some systems, the quarterback is also setting the protections.

Is asking him to manage the blocking scheme putting too much on his plate?

Some teams think so, leaving those decisions mostly to the center and giving the quarterback power to make a simple switch. Other teams want their quarterback to control everything, and ask him to assess what needs to happen up front, not just downfield.

“Personally, I think it ties the quarterback into everything,” said Colts offensive coordinator and interim coach Bruce Arians, who asks rookie Andrew Luck to call protections most of the time. “I don’t think the center can see what the quarterback can see. When the center depends on the [middle linebacker] because of safety locations, he gets fooled too many times.

“The quarterback can see everyone’s body language and everything else. That’s his job. He’s got to know who the 'Mike' is, where the safeties are for him to know his hots and sights. There are a lot of offenses that the center does it because the quarterback doesn’t throw hots or sights, they don’t have them in their offense. I’m not one of those people.”

In Jacksonville, meanwhile, the Jaguars rely heavily on 13-year veteran center Brad Meester.

“It starts with the center, but everybody’s had the ability to get us in the right protection to obviously make us more sound,” coach Mike Mularkey said. “I think it’s a very user-friendly offense. I think because of players having to come in and learn the system yearly, you’ve got to be careful just how much you put on their plate. But I think our guys can handle it pretty well."

In Tennessee, Jake Locker doesn’t have the responsibility Luck does in the Colts' offense.

The linemen sort out the protections, with the center serving as the key communication person. Veteran backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said there is typically one guy whose interpretation serves as the default if there is any confusion. Once left guard Steve Hutchinson became comfortable in his new team’s system and before a knee injury knocked him out, he was that guy for Tennessee.

With Tennessee’s offensive line now stocked with backups, the lone remaining original starter, left tackle Michael Roos, surely has a louder voice.

The Titans lost Eugene Amano in the preseason and plugged Fernando Velasco in at center. When Hutchinson went down, they settled on Velasco shifting to left guard and Kevin Matthews as center. In Week 15, Matthews was lost for the remainder of the season with an ankle sprain. Third-stringer Kyle DeVan played the bulk of that game as the pivot. He could be there again Sunday in Green Bay, or the Titans could put Velasco back in the middle and play recent waiver claim Mitch Petrus at guard.

Got all that?

Whoever is doing the decision-making up front and whoever is communicating it, Locker has veto power. If he sees something he believes isn’t right for what the Titans are intending to run, he is expected to alter it.

The case for a quarterback setting protections starts with the view. Linemen in three- or four-point stances don’t see things as clearly as the quarterback, who can stand upright and scan the field before getting under center.

“They might start somewhere, we see where they start and we might say, ‘No, no, no, let’s do this’ or ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah let’s do that,'” Hasselbeck said. “Or if a team blitzes, we have different words that mean ‘same protection other side’ or whatever it is.”

The Texans and the Jaguars work in a similar fashion, where the line and quarterback work in conjunction. Both teams have veteran centers who typically get things started, Chris Myers in Houston and Meester in Jacksonville.

A couple of weeks ago when the Titans prepared for the Texans, offensive line coach Bruce Matthews made the quarterbacks aware of three especially difficult looks. If the center saw one of those, he’d take the lead and tell Locker what to check into.

At other times, the quarterback’s ability to recognize things he wasn’t advised about is very important.

“One thing that is big with me and veteran players in general is, you develop problem-solving skills,” Hasselbeck said.

On the bus or plane after the game, he might talk with a lineman or a blocking tight end who says he knew a certain play wasn’t going to work.

“The coaches don’t care if you change the play if you’re getting them out of a bad play,” Hasselbeck said. “They care if you change the play and you are getting them out of a decent or good play.

[+] EnlargeBrad Meester
Rob Foldy-USA TODAY SportsThe Jaguars rely on veteran center Brad Meester to make the majority of their protection calls.
“My advice to guys is just to scream ‘this play is not going to work’ or ‘check it.’ Something. I don’t need to know everything about why. I just need to know that someone along the line isn’t feeling good about their assignment. I can always get us into a decent play. Always.”

Some quarterbacks don’t want to be real involved in sorting out protections.

Mike Munchak was the Titans' offensive line coach while Steve McNair quarterbacked the Titans. He said McNair didn’t want to be concerned with setting protections. His safety blanket receiver, tight end Frank Wycheck, recalled McNair asking weekly what his “emergencies” would be against an opponent and making sure he had a solution in mind or was ready to freelance when he saw those.

But Hasselbeck thinks most coaches want it on the quarterback, at least to some degree. He was responsible for calling protections in Mike Holmgren’s scheme in Seattle. He likes not having to do it all when he’s playing in Tennessee.

“It’s partly 'best seat in the house,' it’s partly you’re expected to be the guy who spends the most hours at the facility watching the most amount of film,” he said. “You’re the coach on the field. You’re the guy that talks in the huddle."

Still, there are situations where he’s been told in meetings that top offensive linemen would just “feel it” when it came to certain stuff from a defense, and that the line would “just pick that up,” Hasselbeck said.

“That’s not a world I’ve ever lived in,” he said. “I’ve lived in a world where you use your cadence to try to get a tip. You move the protections. You tell the running backs exactly where to block. And if you have to throw hot, you have to throw hot. And that’s a hard way to live on the road or against certain guys.”

Munchak said the center can be fooled more easily, so the quarterback needs to be involved, but he doesn’t want Locker making constant protection decisions at the line.

A quarterback like Peyton Manning, who controls everything, can handle it. Munchak played with Warren Moon, who did the same during some of the run-and-shoot era.

“But for the most part, I don’t think a lot of quarterbacks are comfortable doing that,” Munchak said. “I don’t think they want to do it. I think it’s too much for them. And then all of a sudden they’re not making the throws and doing the things you want them to do. I think there is a place for a percentage of doing it, but not all the time.”

Some athletic quarterbacks wind up in situations where they have no real idea of where a protection might break down, but can make guys miss when they come free. Hasselbeck’s seen this year’s top three rookie quarterbacks -- Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson -- as well as Ben Roethlisberger do it this season.

When Hasselbeck was a backup behind Brett Favre in Green Bay, he saw it to an extreme.

“He knew how to pick things up, and he was very, very good at it,” Hasselbeck said. “But sometimes he just wouldn’t care. He was like, ‘Ah, I can get it off.’ And he’d get it off and take a shot in the chin. There is a price to be paid sometimes when you do it.

“I would lean on coaching it up.”

The Titans clearly hope Locker comes to buy himself time in the fashion that Roethlisberger, Luck, RG III and Wilson can and do.

Myers is a key leader for the Texans, and he carries a lot of responsibility for calling protections. He likes working with a veteran quarterback, in Matt Schaub, who participates in the process, and he likes having other offensive linemen who are capable of making calls or adjustments, too.

While Myers welcomes the play here and there when he doesn’t have to figure out the equation and solve it before the snap, he’s always ready and willing to do so.

“We have the quarterback do it, have a tackle do it sometimes when we have to fan out in certain play-actions,” Myers said. “So the responsibility isn’t solely on one guy, and I think that’s a great thing. We have the ability and the leadership and the people who have played long enough, we’re able to put it on everyone’s shoulders as opposed to just one guy.”
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

Texas used to be known for producing running backs. And while Adrian Peterson adds to the list, it’s Lone Star State quarterbacks that are a major export now, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

High school quarterbacks throw a lot more passes than they used to, which is a big reason the state is producing so many quality players at the position, says Randy Harvey of the Chronicle.

To which I say: We looked at how summer seven-on-seven ball helped Andrew Luck get early experience back in April.

Indianapolis Colts

Denver Nuggets coach George Karl hopes Chuck Pagano won’t push to return from cancer treatment too soon, says Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star.

To which I say: It's hard to know what the right thing is, and I have no issue trusting that Pagano will know and do what is right for him and for the team.

Take Luck out of the equation and who’s the Colts’ MVP, asks Phillip B. Wilson? No. 1 on his list of five is the clear choice: Reggie Wayne.

Colts players spent time and money helping out underprivileged youth, says Phil Richards of the Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars made nine roster moves, including putting rookie defensive end Andre Branch on injured reserve, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

To which I say: The Jaguars were counting on a spark from Branch as a rookie. But he was mostly silent in his rookie season, which ends with a thud.

Offensive line changes are a constant for the Jaguars, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

O’Halloran’s referee and penalty report.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans' defense has been trending in the right direction in the second half of season, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: The defensive improvement will be a major selling point for Mike Munchak keeping his job. Will it be enough to keep Jerry Gray in place as the defensive coordinator?

Jake Locker is throwing and running in fast company, but it’s too early to judge him by the company he keeps, says David Climer of The Tennessean.

Kevin Matthews is the fifth Titans offensive lineman heading for IR, says Wyatt.

Rapid Reaction: Titans 14, Jets 10

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thoughts on the Titans’ 14-10 victory over the Jets at LP Field:

What it means: The end of a three-game losing streak for Tennessee (5-9). Coach Mike Munchak can use a solid finish to prevent owner Bud Adams from considering a change after the season. Chris Johnson sprinted to a 94-yard touchdown that gave the Titans a lead in the first half. After the Jets pulled ahead in the third quarter, Jake Locker engineered what was probably the best drive of his young career and ran in from 13 yards out for what stood up as the winning score. The result knocked the Jets out of the AFC playoff picture.

Bad times for bad punts: Brett Kern shanked a punt out of the Titans' end zone to give the Jets some great field position late in the third quarter. New York drove 35 yards to a Mark Sanchez-to-Jeff Cumberland 17-yard touchdown pass. Linebacker Tim Shaw was in range, but had his back turned to the ball. Then, with 47 seconds left in the game, Kern punted 19 yards out of his own end zone, giving the Jets the ball at Tennessee's 25. Sanchez couldn't scoop up a low shotgun snap on the next play, running back Bilal Powell kicked it and Tennessee linebacker Zach Brown recovered it.

Rocky ground: While Locker made enough plays to win and got a bit of a signature drive, he missed on a lot of throws. He was long on multiple deep throws where receivers didn’t have a chance. Early in the fourth quarter with Kendall Wright open deep, Locker was late and short, allowing two defenders to get back in the play and break it up. Wright wound up getting hurt as he landed awkwardly on top of Antonio Cromartie.

Another injury: The Titans were already playing four replacement offensive linemen. They lost center Kevin Matthews late in the first quarter to a sprained right ankle. Kyle DeVan, who has been on and off the roster numerous times this season, played the rest of the game.

An awful number: The Titans committed a season-high 14 penalties for 111 yards. None was bigger than a personal foul against linebacker Will Witherspoon that extended a Jets drive near the end of the fourth quarter. Witherspoon was bailed out by Michael Griffin's interception on the first play after the two-minute warning, Griffin's second pick of the game.

Four picks: Tennessee made sure Sanchez’s miserable season stayed miserable, as Jason McCourty and Griffin each intercepted him twice.

What’s next: The Titans travel to Green Bay for their last road game and their final game against the NFC North. They’ve lost to Minnesota and Chicago and beaten Detroit.
Do the Titans have full reads on Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano going forward?

They should.

And now with another shuffling of the offensive line, they should complete their research on Fernando Velasco, Deuce Lutui and Kevin Matthews, too.

Tennessee flirted with a bunch of high quality, high-priced centers in the offseason, they stuck with the status quo. Incumbent center Amano suffered a triceps injury in camp and was lost for the year, and Velasco took over.

Now left guard Steve Hutchinson is on IR and guard Mitch Petrus has joined the team as a waiver claim from New England.

Jim Wyatt tweeted from Mike Munchak’s media talk following practice that Velasco is moving from center to left guard and Matthews will take over at center. Matthews played poorly at left guard in relief of Hutchinson in Sunday’s loss to Houston.

The offensive line has been better for Chris Johnson in recent weeks. Pass protection has allowed 25 sacks in 12 games.

Twenty-eight games into Munchak’s tenure as head coach and Bruce Matthews’ tenure as his close friend's offensive line coach, the line may not be a weakness, but it’s not a clear strength.

If the two Pro Football Hall of Famers -- two Oilers alumni of whom owner Bud Adams is especially proud -- are back next year, they have to field a quality line with quality depth.

As the franchise's longtime offensive line coach, Munchak frequently developed draft picks and the team didn't have to invest high picks at the position. He certainly got the benefit of the doubt with regard to linemen in his first two years as head coach.

It could be past time now to spend a high-value draft pick or two to help restock, whether he comes to such a decision or GM Ruston Webster pushes that development.

Are any of Harris, Amano, Velasco, Lutui and Kevin Matthews in line to start in 2013 under the same coaches? Would some combination of them provide good enough depth along with Mike Otto? Otto is the team's third tackle who's now taking over for injured right tackle David Stewart the rest of this season.

Velasco, Lutui and Matthews should play the next four games and have opportunities to upgrade the film that’s on record for them as job applications for 2013.

Here’s hoping for upgrades that better supplement left tackle Michael Roos, right tackle David Stewart (now out for the year with the broken leg) and Hutchinson. And better depth to go with Otto.

RTC: What ifs for the Titans

December, 5, 2012
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Reading the coverage…

Create the playoff field by playing out the remaining games with our playoff machine.

Reviewing the Texans’ win against the Titans with Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus.

Houston Texans

Veteran cornerback Stanford Routt has been added to help a depleted Texans secondary, says Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle.

To which I say: It would be great if he’s able to contribute. But I’d be cautious about expecting a savior, considering he’s been cut by two teams and has been floating around, available, for a while.

They aren’t as disrespected as the Falcons, but there is an air of boredom among the national media regarding the Texans, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report in his progress report.

Indianapolis Colts

Storylines for Titans-Colts starting with Jake Locker at quarterback for Tennessee this time instead of Matt Hasselbeck, from Phillip B. Wilson.

Five Colts finishes Wilson will never forget.

Dwight Freeney was disruptive in Detroit, according to Pro Football Focus’ Gordon McGuinness.

The latest accusations of misbehavior by Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will not result in NFL punishment, a league source told ESPN’s Ed Werder.

To which I say: What Mike McGlynn accused Suh and the Lions of apparently didn’t show on film.

The Colts defend tight ends very poorly, so it could be a big week for Jared Cook, says Dunlevy.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville is going to face Mark Sanchez at quarterback for the Jets, according to Twitter reports collected by Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

To which I say: The Jaguars need to put Rex Ryan in position to need to make a change again.

The Jaguars still have an open roster spot, says O’Halloran, who predicts a tight end will be added.

Daryl Smith had surgery on his groin in October and hasn’t played all season, but he’s stayed involved behind the scenes, says O’Halloran.

Cecil Shorts was good again before he was hurt, says John Castellane of Pro Football Focus.

The Jaguars have less to build on than any team in the league, says Dunlevy.

Tennessee Titans

John Glennon of The Tennessean looks at five plays that might have changed a lot for the Titans this season.

To which I say: Change these and they might be 6-6 instead of 4-8. The losses to the Colts and at Jacksonville could haunt these Titans for awhile.

Kevin Matthews is an easy mark for fans after a poor game in relief on the offensive line, says David Climer of The Tennessean.

David Stewart and Robert Johnson are on IR and Kyle DeVan and Daniel Baldridge are on the roster to help with offensive line depth, says Glennon.

The Titans have run well in short-yardage situations, says Dunlevy.
Jake LockerAP Photo/Joe HowellJared Crick and Houston's defense knocked Jake Locker around on their way to a playoff berth.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No champagne. No confetti. No cartwheels.

The Houston Texans left Tennessee happy, for sure. They weren’t about to pretend that clinching a playoff berth didn’t mean something.

But after a 24-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans, the Texans talked about it as a first step.

A year ago they were a breakthrough team, earning a surprising division title thanks to the combination of solid play and the Indianapolis Colts' collapse as Peyton Manning missed the season.

This year, the Texans were big favorites to win the division and make some noise in the playoffs a year after making the franchise's first appearance and winning its postseason first game.

“We expected it,” said defensive lineman J.J. Watt, the first player in league history to record 15 sacks and 15 pass break-ups. “We’re happy about it. But we’re not satisfied by it by any means.”

Qualifying for the postseason is a big deal, and doing it in Week 13 is especially good.

“We know we’re a good team, it wasn’t just a fluke year and we can make a run at the whole thing, I think,” defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. “Our next goal is clinch [the division], then to get home field. We’ll knock down one at a time.”

A few developments of note for both teams out of the Texans’ semi-suffocating win:

Depth remains a primary feature: Outside linebacker Brooks Reed missed the first of what’s likely to be at least three games with a groin injury, which prompted a shuffle that put rookie Whitney Mercilus at weakside linebacker in the base defense.

He accounted for two of Houston’s six sacks. That pass pressure was a necessity considering the Texans started off without starting corner Johnathan Joseph and backup corner Alan Ball. They also lost Brice McCain, the guy who started on the right side, to a foot injury.

With Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael seeing the first significant and meaningful playing time of their careers, the coverage was softer in the second half. That disruptive front batted four of Jake Locker's passes, two of which turned into interceptions.

Linebackers and defensive backs stayed tight on receivers and tight ends when the game was in any doubt, and came away with an additional 12 passes defensed -- including two by Harris and one by Carmichael.

"Everybody’s in the same room, same meetings and we raise them a certain way,” safety Glover Quin said of the ability of young guys to step in. “That’s just what we do."

Rookie receiver DeVier Posey is not in that meeting room, and coach Gary Kubiak said he would have been next in line to play as a corner if the team needed someone extra.

A turn for the Texans' defense: In overtime wins in Week 11 and 12, the Texans were very reliant on the offense. A versatile team that’s capable of winning in multiple ways didn’t have a problem with that. But the defense was anxious to return to the form it has shown earlier in the year.

Houston took the ball away six times, thanks to three interceptions and three fumbles. Following two of those turnovers, the offense had to move all of 7 yards to collect 10 points. A fumble recovery by Antonio Smith was ridiculously blown dead or there would have been another 7, as he wasn’t going to have much trouble with a big return for a score. A 45-yard punt return set up a 20-yard touchdown drive.

“The defense played great,” Watt said. “It’s what we’ve been looking for the last couple weeks and obviously we had some struggles. But today is what we’re used to, the way we’re used to playing: turnovers, momentum swings, big plays. That was our defense.”

Said Kubiak: “You come in here missing some key defensive players and you think you have got to play really well offensively. And we turn around and may have played as good a defensive game as we have played this year.”

Locker was rattled: It’s great that Titans second-year quarterback Locker shows great resolve and toughness and that he doesn’t give up. And I completely understand why the Titans tout those qualities in a player who still deserves plenty of time to grow and mature as well as more help in terms of protection and guys making catches for him.

But he wouldn’t need as much resolve if he threw more accurately, ran more freely and did more well early on. Yes, there will be ups and downs in every game and you want your guy to survive the downs. You also need fewer downs.

Titans coach Mike Munchak said Locker was rattled early.

Locker was just 8-for-22 in the first half for 96 yards, with the two tipped-ball picks and a passer rating of 12.7.

“I think he was pressing,” said Dowell Loggains, who took over as offensive coordinator early in the week. “I think he wanted to play perfect. I think this game meant a lot to him, he was really invested in what we were doing and he tried to play too perfect.”

Killer mistakes: Tennessee obviously made far too many mistakes to have a chance to win this one. All week the Titans talked about how they couldn’t afford to let the Texans march to a touchdown right out of the gate, and head off to build a lead.

But on the sixth play, Titans safety Michael Griffin did what he does so often -- took a bad angle and tried to do more than he needed to. He could have shoved Lestar Jean out of bounds after a middling gain. Instead, he flew by and Jean raced 54 yards for a touchdown to give the Texans that game-opening score Tennessee wanted so much to avoid.

Other mistakes that weren’t turnovers or sacks allowed killed drives, too, such as substitute offensive guard Kevin Matthews' penalty for holding Smith with 7:26 remaining in the game. Locker made a great run for a 28-yard gain that had the potential to rally his offense. But the penalty moved the Texans from the Houston 49-yard line back to the Tennessee 13.

“We’d gotten back into a rhythm and I think we all believed at that point we were going to win the game, get back into this thing, make it a seven-point game,” Loggains said. “He makes a heck of a run and it gets called back because of a penalty. That’s frustrating.”

Foster’s pace is fine: Remember early in the year when there was much hand-wringing about Arian Foster’s workload? He was going to wind up with 400 carries and that was going to prove catastrophic.

I suggested there would be days when the Texans didn’t need to rely on him so much, like this one. He had 14 carries, and so did Justin Forsett. Foster is now on pace for a reasonable 348 carries -- just 21 more than he had last season.

And odds are at least one game at the end of the regular season isn’t going to mean anything, which means he could get zero carries in that game and really reduce the total.

“We talked about kind of rotating a little more toward the end of the season,” Foster said. “But when they need me to carry the load, I’ll be ready to go.

“You always want the ball. I’m a competitor, I want to play. But I understand the big picture.”

Scouts Inc. offensive rankings

August, 22, 2012
8/22/12
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Earlier this week we looked at Scouts Inc.’s Top 200 NFL players.

Here I offer a peek at how the AFC South fared on the position-by-position list on offense. Keep in mind that Matt Williamson, who crafted these lists, couldn’t make them completely current. It’s a big project that doesn’t factor in the most recent developments of the preseason. Also, rookies are not included.

The first number is the rank at the position, the second number the grade. Players at the bottom of the list got a rank but not a grade.

Quarterbacks:
15) Matt Schaub (80)

22) Matt Hasselbeck (75)

26) Jake Locker (74)

29) Chad Henne (71)

36) Blaine Gabbert (NA)


My thoughts: No way Henne is better than Gabbert at this point. And while Hasselbeck and Locker may be close, the Titans clearly decided to flip the two.

Running backs:
3) Arian Foster (88)

5) Maurice Jones-Drew (87)

8) Chris Johnson (85)

38) Donald Brown (NA)

39) Rashad Jennings (NA)


My thoughts: I know Williamson likes Jennings and imagine he’ll have him moving up as he gets playing time. I think he’s a better back than Brown.

Fullbacks:
4) James Casey (66)

11) Greg Jones (62)

24) Quinn Johnson (51)

29) Brock Bolen (47)


My thoughts: Casey is miscast as a fullback. He can do what the Texans ask, but he should run like the wind when his contract expires after this year. As an H-back somewhere, he could put up serious numbers.

Wide receivers:
3) Andre Johnson (90)

20) Kenny Britt (81)

22) Reggie Wayne (81)

41) Austin Collie (NA)

42) Laurent Robinson (NA)


My thoughts: Questions abound. Will Johnson’s legs stay healthy? Collie’s future is in doubt now that he is recovering from another concussion. Britt’s likely to be suspended for a couple of games at the start of the season under the personal conduct policy.

Tight ends:
11) Owen Daniels (79)

16) Marcedes Lewis (77)

22) Jared Cook (76)

41) Craig Stevens (NA)


My thoughts: Daniels needs to stay healthy. Lewis needs to play like he did in 2010, not 2011. Cook needs to climb for the Titans to be what they think they can be.

Tackles:
5) Duane Brown (84)

11) Michael Roos (81)

14) Eugene Monroe (79)

43) Anthony Castonzo (NA)


My thoughts: Brown just got a big new contract. Roos is quiet and tends to be overlooked. The Jaguars are looking for Monroe to graduate to premier status at the position.

Guards:
18) Steve Hutchinson (77)

24) Eben Britton (74)

37) Wade Smith (NA)

45) Uche Nwaneri (NA)


My thoughts: Not a lot here. Hutchinson’s being counted on to improve the Titans’ interior. Britton is at guard now, but ideally would be at right tackle. Smith is a great fit in Houston’s scheme. Nwaneri seems low to me.

Center:
3) Chris Myers (82)

21) Brad Meester (75)

23) Samson Satele (74)

31) Eugene Amano (67)

34) Mike McGlynn (63)

42) Kevin Matthews (NA)


My thoughts: Myers got a big payday and is the leader of a line that should be very good even with a new right tackle and right guard. Meester is aging. Satele is replacing a fixture in Jeff Saturday. Amano’s on IR and McGlynn is playing guard when healthy.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No matter how badly you may have wanted to see him out of the starting lineup, take no joy in Eugene Amano’s torn triceps.

It means the Titans' incumbent center is out for the year, and a guy who was a banged-up weak link last year whose run blocking fell off is out of the mix.

While the Titans visited in the spring with high-priced potential free-agent replacements Scott Wells, Chris Myers, Jeff Saturday and Dan Koppen, it was Amano still in place on the initial depth chart.

Two Hall of Fame offensive linemen remained loyal to him, perhaps stubbornly so. Now Mike Munchak and his offensive line coach, Bruce Matthews, have a decision made for them. Fernando Velasco is in the spot and will slug it out with Bruce’s son, Kevin, who’s currently out, recovering from a concussion.

Bruce Matthews has said for Kevin to win the job, he'd have to be the best option by such a margin that it was obvious to everyone. I think he'll have a tough time doing that against Velasco.

I feel badly for Amano, that his shot at redemption disappears as he heads to IR and surgery. Munchak said Amano knew how severe the Thursday evening practice injury was when it happened, as players often do. Since then, the coach sensed in a talk with Amano that he was “depressed and disappointed.”

But Friday the run game created some serious room for Chris Johnson and his backups -- the sort of room you rarely see or detect at a practice where there is no tackling. It seemed the line was energized by the change. (I didn’t see the same thing in a storm-shortened practice at LP Field today.)

Velasco was the challenger for right guard, where Leroy Harris now seems more secure.

“Velasco’s been preparing for this moment and his moment is now,” Munchak said. “We’ll see how he handles it and then we’ll go from there.”

It would have been better for the change at center to have come out of competition.

No matter how it arrives, it may help things get better. I certainly don’t think they’ll get worse.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Notes and thoughts from the Titans Thursday night practice:
  • At his best, Jake Locker gives the Titans a big spark. But on a night like tonight, he came up far short of that -- hitting 1-of-10 or 11 passes in team periods with an interception to Jordan Babineaux, who wrestled a pass away from tight end Cameron Graham. The accuracy issue is alive and well. One miss was for a crossing Jared Cook on the left side in a ton of space near the line of scrimmage. He should be fielding an easy ball and turning upfield. Instead he was reaching for one that was beyond catchable. Locker did make one of the best throws of the night in a red zone period, but Nate Washington let a ball that was fit beautifully over his left shoulder bounce off his hands.
  • The other best ball was Matt Hasselbeck to Cook -- a looped throw up the right side that the tight end pulled in over defensive backs Christian Scott and linebacker Zach Brown.
  • Cook’s looking, and sounding, confident. He stoned Akeem Ayers in a rush drill pitting tight ends against linebackers as Ayers tried to run through him and found solid resistance. (Though in a team period just a bit later, Kamerion Wimbley zipped inside Cook into the backfield and “sacked” Hasselbeck.) Later Cook was chirping at middle linebacker Colin McCarthy about how he was beating him.
  • Center Eugene Amano left the field after suffering a triceps injury. He either got his arm caught up in something or banged it, Mike Munchak said. Kevin Matthews was already out with concussion symptoms. The Titans were intending to get Fernando Velasco back in the center mix, so he moved there. Life in the NFL: Amano was still down and in pain, being tended to by trainers, when the Titans simply moved 20 yards and resumed the team period the injury interrupted.
  • Receiver Kenny Britt looked to be running comfortably in rehab work on the side under the watch of strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson. Britt ran straight, in figure eights and laterally, appearing smooth and unbothered.
  • Recently signed rookie receiver Kendall Wright was not allowed to participate in any contact and the Titans reminded everyone. He ran some early routes, then watched. He was in a red jersey like the quarterbacks. He won’t be a full go until Saturday.
The rule about an early, unofficial depth chart: At many spots, it doesn’t mean a lot.

Still we have an initial guide of how players are likely to be deployed in early practices.

So here are some notes :
  • Rather than listing Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker as joint first-teamers, the incumbent veteran is listed as the No. 1 with Locker on the second team. That’s completely appropriate and says nothing about the competition they are both entering.
  • The starting offense here is two-back, which means fullback Quinn Johnson is a starter and tight end Jared Cook is the No. 2 tight end. But he’ll be on the field as much or more than "starter" Craig Stevens, and the Titans will be in two-tight plenty as well. Hopefully far more than two-back.
  • Damian Williams is listed as No. 2 behind Kenny Britt, with Kendall Wright third. That’s typical for rookie placement on a depth chart like this. Lavelle Hawkins is second to Nate Washington on the other side.
  • Same goes for defensive tackle Mike Martin (listed third), who can certainly pressure second-teamer Shaun Smith.
  • Newly signed Aaron Francisco is the No. 2 strong safety behind Jordan Babineaux.
  • Jon Cooper, a third-year center out of Oklahoma, is listed as the third-stringer behind Eugene Amano and Kevin Matthews, but he's ahead of undrafted rookie William Vlachos from Alabama. Again, likely a seniority/ experience thing.
  • Undrafted tight end Beau Brinkley is the one rookie listed in a “starting” slot. He’s the team’s top long-snapper right now, with Fernando Velasco behind him.

I did mention we shouldn't read too much into this, right?

Depth check: Tennessee Titans

July, 10, 2012
7/10/12
4:11
PM ET
I’ve been pondering depth in the AFC South, and thought as we await the start of training camps we should look at what position groups compose the deep end and which compose the shallow end on each roster.

Our last look is at Tennessee...

Deepest: A case could be made for wide receiver, considering the Titans have Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins. But with Britt’s health a concern, Wright untested and Williams and Hawkins still developing, I resist. So it’s quarterback. You need a franchise quarterback to win in the NFL, so having two may be oversold. But the Titans can win with veteran Matt Hasselbeck under center and they can win with second-year man Jake Locker. There aren’t a lot of teams with two legitimate QB options or a backup the caliber the Titans will have.

Thinnest: It’s the interior offensive line. Incumbent starting center Eugene Amano watched the team bring a parade of veteran centers through team headquarters during free agency, but come up empty. They have no great challengers to him, with Kevin Matthews at the top of the list. Leroy Harris is flipping sides to right guard and wasn’t great last season, either. The alternate option there is another unproven guy who was not drafted when he joined the team in 2008, Fernando Velasco.
Steve Hutchinson/Eugene AmanoUS PresswireThe Titans' Eugene Amano, right, should benefit greatly by working with Steve Hutchinson in 2012.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Though he played poorly last year and the Titans brought a parade of potential veteran replacements through town during free agency, Eugene Amano remains in place as the Titans' center.

He had surgery on his right knee and left ankle, and said the knee hampered him all of last season. He recently returned to action, and better health should help him if he retains his spot.

But even more significant is the new guy who will line up to his left, veteran guard Steve Hutchinson.

“He’s the glue of that offensive line right now,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “He’s a veteran that’s played a lot of snaps, he knows how to play the game and I think he settles everyone down up front…

“I’ve been very, very pleased with the run game in OTAs and minicamp, we’ve done a good job there. It looks like we’re in sync, all five guys are working well together and I’m anxious to get the pads on when we get back for camp.”

While the Titans offered QB Matt Hasselbeck excellent protection last season, the run game crumbled. Chris Johnson’s effort was ultimately questionable, but he wasn’t finding any room consistently and the ground effort ranked 31st in the league.

Coach Mike Munchak talked about how it was a collective problem that couldn’t be pinned on one or two people: Johnson didn’t always make the right decisions, the offensive line had some communication issues, the fullback and tight ends had busted plays, too. There were different mistakes on different plays and far too few cleanly executed run snaps.

Still, the way the Titans addressed personnel suggested things they thought should be fixed. Fullback Ahmard Hall is gone -- the Titans will go with Quinn Johnson or Collin Mooney. Right guard Jake Scott hit free agency and they didn’t discuss bringing him back. Leroy Harris is flipping to that side to accommodate Hutchinson, who's always been on the left.

And the Titans courted veteran centers Scott Wells, Chris Myers, Jeff Saturday and Dan Koppen but didn’t land one of them and continue to back Amano. His competition is Kevin Matthews, an undrafted free agent from 2010, and William Vlachos, an undrafted rookie.

Hutchinson’s arrival gives the Titans several things.

[+] EnlargeSteve Hutchinson
Icon SMINot only does Hutchinson push people around in the trenches, the Titans say the veteran has helped this offseason with his effort and communication skills.
In 12 seasons with Seattle and Minnesota, he’s seen it all. He’s a standard-setter at practices already. He’s helped solve communication troubles. And the team hopes that he can help Amano the way Kevin Mawae did, back when Mawae was the veteran center and Amano played guard.

Working under two Hall of Fame offensive linemen, Munchak and line coach Bruce Matthews, Hutchinson will now work to spread their messages.

Munchak said he loves the way Hutchinson runs from drill to drill and practice period to practice period. The guard does not pace himself in the early practice offensive line period, but always goes full speed.

“Guys see that and realize that’s the standard,” Munchak said. “That happens automatically. They’re going to be better players just because they see how a guy that’s had success does it.”

Said Amano: “It gives you motivation to keep up with the old guy.”

Munchak talks disappointedly about the communication problems that were a piece of the run struggles last season. He coached the offensive line for 14 seasons before he became head coach last season.

“That’s the first time in awhile we’ve had some of those issues," he said. "That’s something when you have another veteran in there you’re going to have guys that really get along well. The things they’re doing, the adjustments they are making, the calls they are making -- it’s so much ahead of where you think they’d be this time of year.”

That’s not only about line calls and adjustments that linemen need to analyze correctly and communicate clearly, Hutchison said, but about a degree of non-verbal communication and understanding the group has to have.

And the defenses the Titans face are increasingly unpredictable up front. In the AFC South, the Texans changed to a 3-4 last season and the Colts are making the switch this year. It used to be clear where guys like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis would be. Now there will be mystery to it as Indianapolis tries to create confusion.

In considering the Titans’ run blocking, I wrote recently that they don’t necessarily have to be a top-flight rushing offense in order to be a good team. A great pass-blocking unit that’s middle of the pack as a run offense can be good enough overall to win.

Hutchinson and the Titans aren’t going to co-sign that thinking.

They’ll strive for balance and want to execute every play the way it’s drawn up. But he did say there is only so much an offense can do.

“You’d like to be great at both, but there are only so many offensive yards you can get a game,” he said. “If you’re throwing the ball for 300-plus yards a game, you’re not going to run the ball that much. If you have the ball for 45 minutes in a game and running for 200 yards on the ground, you’re not going to throw the ball that much.

“You strive for a good balance of both, you want to be good at both. But you just want to get the yards, you want to win the game.”
Outside of a guy who’s hurt or who gets in trouble, it’s hard to find anything that’s not thoroughly sugar-coated at this time of year.

As the NFL has turned itself into a year-round deal, I don’t think it calculated that OTA and minicamp season would be such a happy time. But the league and its teams certainly enjoy it.

How, then, can this cynic, find something to pick at?

Here’s how:

Our look at the most unreasonable causes for optimism around the division.

Houston: The young receivers

It’s great the Texans have replenished the unit, and it was time to move on from Jacoby Jones, who was released after the draft and is now in Baltimore.

But receiver might be the position that it’s easiest to look good at in June and be lost at in August. Lestar Jean was undrafted out of Florida Atlantic last year, then missed the season with a shoulder injury. He’s currently is drawing raves. Draft picks DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin will get a lot of opportunity now with Andre Johnson watching from the side rehabbing.

No matter how good any of those guys look now, I’m going to need to see them on the field with Matt Schaub (also out now) throwing to them before I become a believer on any level surpassing the usual for guys who have yet to play in real games.

Indianapolis: The offensive line

I was going to say the cornerbacks -- but I don’t know that there has been any great optimism about the group, which really says something at this time of year.

General manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano want to be bigger and more physical up front. Reshaping the line so far has meant the addition of right tackle Winston Justice, guard Mike McGlynn, center Samson Satele and, most recently, tackle George Foster.

As the Indianapolis Star recently wrote, there were reasons these guys were all available and affordable. Right now it seems holdovers Anthony Castonzo (left tackle) and Joe Reitz (left guard) will be joined on the starting line by Justice, McGlynn and Satele.

It’s a bit of a patchwork group, but for a team with financial restrictions and needs all over the place, it might not be bad. Grigson is leaning heavily on two guys he knew from his time with the Eagles in Justice and McGlynn. We’ll need to see if these guys are good enough and how they jell.

Jacksonville: The pass protection

I like right tackle Eben Britton a lot. And I understand why the team is optimistic about what his return from a back injury can mean for a group that run-blocked great, but didn’t fare nearly as well as pass protectors.

Still, is getting one guy back and changing scheme a guaranteed route for keeping Blaine Gabbert upright? I can be convinced, but I am not yet.

And they didn’t even add outside depth. Tackle Guy Whimper was very inconsistent last season and got a new deal. Cameron Bradfield, John Estes, Daniel Baldridge and Mike Brewster are an unproven lot as reserves.

Guard Uche Nwaneri said the running backs will be more involved in protecting the edges. When the top running back, Maurice Jones-Drew, is your best player, is that a good thing or a bad one?

Tennessee: The interior offensive line

It’s clear the Titans were not satisfied with the way center Eugene Amano played last season. They brought a parade of centers through Nashville during free agency, but failed to land any of them.

Now they appear content to go forward with Amano as the favorite to win the job over Kevin Matthews and, perhaps, Fernando Velasco. Amano is recovering from knee and ankle surgeries. He will be playing next to free agent addition Steve Hutchinson, who the team expects to have a very positive influence on him.

But Amano has never faced this kind of scrutiny and heat before, and I wonder if he will rise to meet it or melt. Leroy Harris, also out right now while he recovers from shoulder surgery, will move from left guard to right guard. Harris wasn’t great in 2011 either, and will have to hold off Velasco.

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