AFC South: Rob Turner

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The big change the Tennessee Titans need is Jake Locker back at quarterback. It sounds like any chance of that happening for Sunday’s game against the 49ers is quite small.

But the next-biggest thing the Titans could do to spark an anemic offense and help to wake up a stalled run game is happening. Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean reports that fourth-round draft pick Brian Schwenke will replace Rob Turner as the team’s starting center.

I applaud the move, which I thought would arrive next week during the Titans' bye. Sooner is better than later. Schwenke is more physical than Turner and has far more upside.

Tennessee’s whole offseason was keyed around a rebuild of the interior offensive line. But left guard Andy Levitre, Turner and right guard Chance Warmack did not come together at a fast pace.

Whatever the team loses in terms of time together is offset by getting a better player in the lineup. Running backs Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene, if he’s back from his knee injury, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick all should benefit.

Schwenke might have some rookie moments, as Warmack has had. But they'll be easier to swallow than Turner's poor play has been.

Testing out our Titans' hindsight

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- My 20-20 hindsight is the only good vision I have.

So it’s time for a big round of second-guessing. Six games into the 2013 season, the Titans are a lot better team than they were a year ago, but they don’t have a ton to show for it at 3-3.

Five things worth some consideration after the fact, if not a full second-guess:

[+] EnlargeDarius Reynaud
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicTitans return man Darius Reynaud isn't impressing anyone on special teams.
Special teams: Mike Munchak fired long-time special teams coach Alan Lowry, moving up assistant Nate Kaczor. The result through six games has been largely bad. The team got a great, long touchdown return from special teams in Seattle. But the group makes the same mistakes on a regular basis, highlighted by return man Darius Reynaud’s willingness to let punts bounce and his determination to bring kickoffs out from deep in the end zone. (I won't even mention he took the first kickoff of the season back into the end zone for a safety. Actually, I just did.) Munchak thought the team was starting to tune out Lowry. But he was pretty good at having his group ready for anything. It’s a far bigger adventure now.

Which begs the question: Was firing Lowry a mistake?

Marc Mariani: While we’re on the subject of Reynaud... At cut down day, the Titans put Mariani on injured-reserve with a shoulder injury that would have only cost him a few more weeks. Their roster wasn’t so drenched with talent that they couldn’t have found space for him until he was healthy. Defensive end Keyunta Dawson stuck, but was cut weeks later when Jake Locker got hurt and they needed space to add Rusty Smith. It turns out Mariani is a way better decision-maker than Reynaud.

Which begs the question: Do they privately regret that they didn’t create a way to have access to Mariani this year?

Sorting out center: Rob Turner won the center completion in the preseason, that was pretty clear. But did the Titans project what he could do correctly? They don’t want to single him out and he’s hardly the only guy having trouble. But they are invested in the other four in a big way and they all have higher ceilings. Turner brings a nastiness, but the attitude doesn’t matter if people are regularly getting past him.

Which begs the questions: Should they have stuck with Fernando Velasco, who’s now with the Steelers? Should they be turning to rookie Brian Schwenke now?

The tackles: All the focus has been on the interior offensive line. But the issues aren’t only with the middle three. Right guard David Stewart has a calf/leg issue having broken that leg less than a year ago. On a good week he practices twice, on a bad week just once. And Michael Roos isn’t run-blocking as well as he has in the past, particularly near the goal line.

Which begs the question: Did they err in taking it for granted that they were fine on the edges?

Paying Chris Johnson: The extension he got in 2011 included a provision that if he was on the roster five days after the Super Bowl in 2013, $9 million of his $10 million salary for this year would be guaranteed. I endorsed the $55 million extension when he got it. The Titans had long lacked an explosive playmaker, and at that point he definitely was one. But since he got it, he’s certainly not proved worth it. Only a knee injury to Shonn Greene has prevented a role reduction so far this season. They could have found a primary back who could do better than CJ’s 3.1-yard average for far less money.

Which begs the question: Is this going to be his final season with the Titans? He’s due $23 million more over the next three years. Unless his production spikes, it will be hard to justify it if they measure cost per yard.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 6

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 20-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:

One change coming: I don’t expect the Titans to make a big shakeup, though they should be considering Brian Schwenke at center when the bye week arrives. But one change that should arrive this week is the re-emergence of No. 2 running back Shonn Greene. He hurt his knee in the opener and had it scoped. He should practice on Wednesday. The Titans will be equipped to run better against San Francisco with a one-two punch of Chris Johnson and Greene, and if Greene gets on any kind of roll they won’t hesitate to go with the hot hand. They are desperate for a hot hand.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Ryan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonTitans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been struggling lately.
Doling out consequences: While I am ready for Schwenke, there aren’t viable alternatives at most of the Titans’ trouble spots. Ryan Fitzpatrick is struggling, but he has always been streaky. There is a far better chance he plays better next week than there is that Rusty Smith would play well. And the Titans won’t even consider turning to their No. 3 QB. But that Kenny Britt played, by my count, two snaps, shows that Mike Munchak will take playing time away from a bad performer when he has an alternative.

Repeat mistakes: Brett Kern dropped a second punt snap in a month, which is hard to fathom. Darius Reynaud had a 40-yard kickoff return, but let yet another punt bounce and was lucky to get away with it when it turned into a touchback. Rob Turner sailed a couple more shotgun snaps. Guys making mistakes are the No. 1 people who have to be accountable for those mistakes. But when they make the same mistakes repeatedly, I have to wonder about the message of Munchak and his staff, and about how good they are at correcting things. Do they have guys who don’t get what they are being told, guys who aren’t capable of fixing those things or guys who are just mistake-makers? Whatever the answer, it’s a problem.

Look across the field: The Titans aspire to be a physical team that controls both lines of scrimmage and can impose its will as it runs and stops the run. Well, they just lost to two teams, the Chiefs and Seahawks, who follow that blueprint far better than Tennessee does. And the 49ers are of the same ilk and will be in Nashville on Sunday. The Titans pledged what they were going to be, and we’ve seen it a little bit, particularly in the wins in Pittsburgh and over the Chargers. But we haven’t seen it enough. Never mind fans who heard the identity promises. I wonder what owner Bud Adams thinks about the Titans failure to be who they pledged they’d be when he spent more than $100 million on free agents to help them be it?

Survey says: Favorite road trips

October, 10, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans are about to embark on the NFL’s toughest road trip.

It’s a long way to Seattle, and the raucous crowd in an exceptionally loud CenturyLink Field will be waiting.

I wondered what ranks as the favorite road trip for the Tennessee Titans, so I strolled the locker room asking guys.

So wanted to know specific criteria -- was I asking more about the stadium experience or the city itself? I told them it was for them to decide, I just wanted to know what ranked as their favorite road trip.

Here’s what they told me:

Fitzpatrick
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick: “My favorite road trip is Arizona, just cause I’ve got a lot of family there, that’s where I’m from. The stadium is really cool. It’s an awesome stadium. Last year when I played for the Bills, we played San Fran and then we played Arizona the next week. So we stayed in Arizona for that week. Which was awesome, I got five, six days to do my work, but then also get some family time, which you never get during the season.”

Defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill: “I’d have to say New Orleans. That’s the best I’ve ever been to when you’re playing somebody in a dome, it’s loud, their fans, it’s their fans but they still get you cranked and ready to play. That and Dallas, those are my two favorite places to play.”

Running back Jackie Battle: “I guess it would have to be Kansas City, just because I played there and that’s an unbelievable environment. It’s like a college atmosphere in Kansas City.”

Safety George Wilson: “When I was in Buffalo, we played at the Redskins. They have I think about 90,000 people and a real passionate fan base. I like the Redskins.”

Receiver Damian Williams: “I like playing in Seattle for a couple reasons. It’s one of the tougher places to play. Also, my whole college coaching staff is there. I enjoy going up there and playing against those guys.”

Linebacker Zach Brown: “I don’t have one, man. I have no favorite road trip. I like playing at home. I like playing in Houston just to shut the crowd up. And Pittsburgh, they were so quiet up there when we were winning, I just thrive off really shutting the crowd up. That’s motivation.”

Receiver Nate Washington: “It’d probably be Houston, because that’s where I’ve got the most family. My grandmother is there. Anywhere between 15 and 25 people will come to the game. I know a lot of people around there, it’s a great town to go get you some dinner. I really don’t like the stadium, it feels dark in there. But I do like the atmosphere, I like playing in a hostile environment like that.”

McCourty
Cornerback Jason McCourty: “I don’t have any in particular, but any team with a guy I played with in college, it’s pretty cool. You get a chance to see a guy maybe you haven’t see in a while, maybe get a chance to go out and eat or something like that. So New England where my brother is, Tiquan Underwood on Tampa Bay was my college roommate, Jeremy Zuttah in Tampa Bay. You know Greg Schiano has a ton of Rutgers guys.”

Center Rob Turner: “If anything, it’s going back to Texas, because that’s home for me. Dallas or Houston. When I go back to Texas, generally I have 20 or 30 people that come down. I get to see my family.”

Linebacker coach Chet Parlavecchio: “Indianapolis. There is a great cigar place there. I don’t know the name of it, I just know where it is. Right by that statue, I know it’s next to the Starbucks. (Laughs.) Last time I got La Flor Dominicanas, excellent, great cigar. I enjoy my cigar, ask anyone here. Every night going home in my car and then on my deck.”

Tight end Delanie Walker: “Probably New Orleans. It’s got some great food, Bourbon Street, it don’t get no better than that. And a Saints game is always a good atmosphere, and it’s indoors, you don’t have to worry about the weather.”

Wimbley
Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley: “I like going to Oakland. For some reason I just have good luck when I play in the Bay Area. When I was with Cleveland, I was able to get a couple two-sack games out there. I love it, because they hate the teams that come in, of course the Black hole when you see it and they boo you and they’re dressed up all crazy, it just adds excitement to the game.”

Guard Andy Levitre: “Bay Area, San Francisco or Oakland, so I can see my family. A lot of my family and friends might not get a chance to come out here during the season, so it’s one of those games where all of them can come see.”

Free safety Michael Griffin: “Houston. Go back home, play in front of friends, family. Stadium-wise, I’ve never played in San Francisco’s stadium, but going to watch a friend, Tarell Brown, play in a playoff game last year, it was a very tough environment to play in.”
Michael GriffinAP Photo/Wade PayneBernard Pollard (31) has been critical of the league's protection for quarterbacks but offered a calm assessment of the call that changed the game against Kansas City.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fans were outraged. The Twitterverse bemoaned the call. The LP Field crowd booed the officials the rest of the game.

On a third-and-5 from the Tennessee 44-yard line, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith scrambled to the right sideline. It looked like he was heading out of bounds. Middle linebacker Moise Fokou made sure Smith went out, launching and putting a shoulder into Smith that drew the flag.

Instead of fourth-and-3 the Chiefs got the two yards on the scramble and 15 more for unnecessary roughness. Five plays later, the Chiefs had retaken the lead for good en route to a 26-17 victory that kept them undefeated and dropped the Titans to 3-2.

Outspoken Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard has been critical of the league’s protection for offenses and quarterbacks. Pollard -- a guy who recently said the NFL should pull defenses off the field, let offenses play against air and see what the television ratings would be like -- would surely offer a strong objection to a crucial unnecessary roughness call against a teammate, right?

“It’s a gray area,” Pollard said. “It’s something I think needs to be corrected in the rules, because it’s hard for us as defensive players. Having said that, look at the situation we were in. You’ve got to let that go. The guy was two yards shy. But we make mistakes. That hurt us, when you keep drives going with penalties.”

Fokou was less sure it was wrong, but wasn’t defensive about it either.

“The officials felt what I did was probably a penalty,” he said. “I’ll have to go back and look, I feel like our sideline thought it wasn’t. It’s one of those things, when you’re battling and playing hard, going full speed, things happen.”

“I thought I was in a good position, you just never know. … You try to defend every blade of grass. When I looked at it, I thought he was still in. I left my feet and I don’t know how to stop mid-air.”

In his post-game press conference Titans coach Mike Munchak said he thought Smith was in bounds and Fokou was trying to make sure he didn’t get a first down. There are inconsistencies in the way it’s called, Munchak said, but the Titans know the boundary call is going to be closely inspected and the team has to be smart there.

I talked to Pollard, Fokou, defensive tackles Mike Martin and Jurrell Casey, cornerback Alterraun Verner, safety George Wilson, left tackle Michael Roos and Rob Turner about the call.

All but one of those eight basically said the call is to be expected and a defender has to avoid it.

“We’ve just got to be better at playing smarter football,” Martin said. “When it comes down to plays like that, you can’t leave it in the referee’s hands.”

“They are going to call that pretty much every time,” Roos said. “They have to, they protect the quarterback. That’s unfortunate. It is the way it is. At some point in our season I’m sure we’ll get a call like that in our favor. That’s the way it goes.”

Munchak has spoken to his team on multiple occasions about the body language involved in getting called for penalties -- both by the player that gets whistled and by the victim. There are times when a player is on the verge of committing a hold or is committing one, where he can let go, not really impact the play and earn more benefit of the doubt.

Verner felt referee Bill Voinovich was left too much room for interpretation.

“We discuss that if it’s close the referee could or could not call it,” Verner said. “Of course I am going to say that Smith was still in, but it was one of those that was close. So the referee had a decision to make. It could have gone either way.”

Only Turner spelled out a real case against the call, and he did so in a calm, understanding way, not in an angry, my-team-got-screwed manner.

“Alex Smith was trying to accumulate a first down,” Turner said. “When he hit him, he didn’t lead with the head, he led with the shoulder. He didn’t target the head. Alex had not stepped out of bounds when he made contact. Now he hit him as his foot came down, but again, he was trying to get a first down.

“I’m not going to sit here and criticize the ref. From my viewpoint, what I saw on the replay, I thought it as a questionable call. ... I don’t feel like he did anything wrong on that, he made a good play playing within the rules.”

If Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson hit Ryan Fitzpatrick in a similar fashion, I suspect the Titans would have felt it worthy of a penalty.

I’ve never been a world-class athlete chasing a quarterback to the boundary in an NFL game at full speed with a major first down at stake. Still, I’d propose a strong push or shove is going to ensure the quarterback goes out of bounds and significantly reduce the risk of a penalty. Stay on your feet, keep your head up and hit him with an extended arm, not even a shoulder.

If you do that and the call goes against you, they’ll be a lot more than public outcry to back you.

Give the crew gray area, it’s going to go to the quarterback’s side. Grumpy fans need to come to terms with that. It’s pro football circa 2013.
video
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In late July, Mike Munchak wasn't talking about all the time the Tennessee Titans would need for their revamped offensive line to jell. He was not talking about the things the Titans needed to do to build Chris Johnson's yards per carry.

“If we're going to win,” Munchak said then, “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. And if we do that, which we're very capable of doing with the guys that we have, then we're going to win a lot of football games. If we don't do that, then it doesn't matter."

[+] EnlargeJackie Battle
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJackie Battle was stopped twice on the Kansas City 1-yard line.
They did not do it Sunday at LP Field against the Kansas City Chiefs. The backbone of the team went jellyfish, and the Titans got 50 of their 105 rushing yards from scrambling quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Titans are a determined run team. But a determined run team with three new line starters and a couple new backs behind the starter should be better than this by Week 5.

And through Week 5 the Titans have a pricy running back who's average is down to a paltry 3.1 yards a carry.

The Titans are supposed to be a team that can get a tough yard. But facing first-and-1 from the Kansas City 1-yard line in the second quarter, this was the sequence:

  • First down: Jackie Battle up the middle, no gain, tackle by defensive end Anthony Toribio and inside linebacker Akeem Jordan
  • Second down: Fitzpatrick pass batted at line, caught by Fitpatrick, no gain
  • Third down: Fitzpatrick scrambles, sacked for no yards
  • Fourth down: Battle up the middle, no gain, tackle by defensive tackle Dontari Poe and Toribio

On the second down play Fitzpatrick got tripped up as he backed out, and had Delanie Walker open but could not deliver it.

“Once we see it on tape, there are probably a lot of reasons why that isn't in the end zone,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “It's terrible on our part, to start with. As an offensive line being revamped like that, we have to get that in. You can't make excuses. …I'm sure there were multiple guys that had issues in it. We've just got to get it in.”

Part of the Titans talk about their run game at this stage has been about the difficult fronts they have faced. But five games should be a pretty reasonable simply on defense in general, and five games should be more than enough time to figure out runs that can work.

“Third-and-1, fourth-and-1 from the 1, you've got to punch that in, that's unacceptable,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “Right now my concern is fixing the problem. We've got to figure that out ASAP. We've played some good defenses, but that's no excuse. We have a lot of talent up front. We need to do a better job."

I've credited this staff for not being stubborn with game plans and determined to prove it was right in planning. But I think Loggains was guilty of some of that here.

The Titans ran it mostly inside, and Poe is an immovable force in there. They hardly tested the edge, though Battle had they team's big run to the outside late, a 37-yarder.

“We didn't have anything in the game plan going outside,” Roos said.

Said Loggains: “The strength of that defense is definitely the edge rushers and the linebackers are sideline to sideline players, (Derrick Johnson) can run, all those guys can run. The thing is we didn't do a good job inside getting those guys covered up. It's something we've got to continue to work on.”

Taking the ball inside to where center Rob Turner, the line's weakest link, was struggling with Poe even with help seems like an idea to work on as well.

Meanwhile the Chiefs had personnel issues with right tackle Eric Foster out.

Kansas City was, nevertheless, what the Titans talk of being: A reliably effective run team riding a top back. Jamaal Charles took 22 carries 108 yards and scored a touchdown from, you guessed it, a yard out.

Locker Room Buzz: Tennessee Titans

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Observed in the locker room after the Tennessee Titans' 26-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at LP Field:

Expectations: Last week’s locker room was somber after a win because of Jake Locker's injury. This week’s was sober because the Titans have graduated to a place where they expect to win a game against a team like the Chiefs, even if Tennessee is bad for long stretches. It's good to have those expectations, and maybe it’ll have a positive impact somewhere down the road, but this loss was the difference between 3-2 and 4-1. Gigantic.

Britt
Britt
Still struggling: Kenny Britt continues to struggle. They gave him more chances in this game and he caught one of six balls thrown his direction. One of the misses came on a third-and-2 with the Titans trying to hold on to a 17-13 lead. That’s’ the one offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said upset him the most. As for Britt going forward, Loggains said: “We have to reassess everything at this point.”

Minty fresh: I had a good, solo conversation with center Rob Turner after the game, primarily about the call against Moise Fokou that was instrumental on the Chiefs' drive that put them ahead for good. (More to come on that.) Turner was brushing his teeth at his locker and I thought he might ask for a second, but he talked right through it, excused himself to spit in a nearby garbage can and kept right on going. He and his guard help had a tough time with defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who has seven tackles and a sack and is a handful for anyone these days.
Jake LockerAP Photo/Wade PayneTitans QB Jake Locker had shown steady improvement before suffering a hip injury against the Jets.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Jake Locker was on his back and his hand was on his right hip. A shot from Jets defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson put the Tennessee Titans' young quarterback in that spot. Something awkward happened as Locker went to the ground, something bad enough that he would be quickly carted off the field.

But as receiver Kendall Wright and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains arrived to check in, a grimacing Locker asked them: “Did Nate catch the pass?”

No, Nate Washington did not catch the pass.

It was the least of the Titans’ worries on a day when they moved to 3-1 with a 38-13 stomping of the Jets. Locker threw three touchdown passes in two quarters and continues an impressive improvement curve.

The Titans still have not turned the ball over this season.

But Sunday night they didn’t know Locker’s status. X-rays at the stadium were negative. After those, he was taken by ambulance to St. Thomas Hospital for an MRI and further testing. The Titans had no idea what was wrong and when, or if, they will have him back.

“No turnovers for the offense is a direct correlation to his play,” Loggains said. “I was really excited where he was going. Hopefully this thing isn’t long for us. In the game, it deflated us, it took the energy out of us, it took the energy out of me. I need to do a better job, but when you lose your guy, lose the leader of your offense, it’s tough.”

The game was in hand when Locker went out, with the Titans ahead 24-6.

The Titans were flat for a good stretch after the injury, but still managed to build the blowout.

Defensive lineman Karl Klug forced a Geno Smith fumble -- as the rookie quarterback inexplicably tried to pass the ball from one hand to another behind his back -- and recovered it in the end zone for additional cushion. Washington caught a deep ball from No. 2 quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick over cornerback Antonio Cromartie, bounced off back judge Billy Smith and went 77 yards for his second touchdown.

The Titans are confident they can be effective if they need to rely on Fitzpatrick.

It will not be the same, however, if he’s the quarterback. We’ve seen his ceiling, and he stopped reaching it often enough that the Bills gave up on him not long after giving him a giant contract. Locker’s ascent is ongoing.

“Jake’s grown a lot,” said Washington, who caught two touchdown passes. “He’s able to do a lot of things now that he wasn’t able to do in the past. He understands the offense, he understands the game, it’s kind of slowed down for him.”

The postgame locker room featured a mixture of emotions. The Titans were happy with a win that boosted their record to 3-1 and established them as one of the league’s surprises through the first quarter of the season. But they were clearly concerned, too, about the way Locker left the field and the potential to be without him.

“You lose your general, you lose your captain, it’s going to hit you a little bit,” receiver Damian Williams said. “At the same time, we’re a team. Not one person does it for us. That one person is a very important piece of this puzzle, but we’ve got to keep going. We can’t let the season stop if one person gets hurt.”

Said tight end Delanie Walker, “Jake was playing awesome. ... He got the feel, he got that buzz, he was moving. It’s just sad for something like that to happen to him while he was having a great game.”

When Locker was hurt, center Rob Turner hustled over to Fitzpatrick to fire off some snaps to help him get ready.

Turner didn’t mean to sound harsh, but hit on the cold realities of the business. If the Titans are without Locker, they won’t have time to really mourn it.

“That’s what we have to do, that’s part of being a team, it’s not a one-man show,” he said. “Absolutely Jake’s improved each and every week. But it’s one of those things we have to do, just like we have a 24-hour rule with wins and losses. It’s not like we’re going to forget about Jake, cause we’re not. But we really have to step up and focus, refocus, and whoever is in there executes.”

While Locker and the Titans have yet to turn the ball over, the Titans took the ball away from the Jets four times and scored touchdowns off of each. Tennessee hit Smith 11 times with five sacks. Locker had much better protection, taking two sacks and a third hit, the one from Wilkerson that ended his afternoon.

“I knew as soon as he was down [that it was serious],” Loggains said. “This kid is as tough a kid as there is. When he stayed on the ground, I knew he was in a lot of pain. It’s an act of God to get him to come off the field”

Loggains left Locker a voice mail as soon as the game was over and talked to Locker’s father, Scott, who was at the game and accompanied him to the hospital.

“He said Jake was doing good, waiting to see, at the hospital getting an MRI,” Loggains said.

Now things might fall on Fitzpatrick. The Titans parted ways with Matt Hasselbeck in March, partly over price, partly over performance, and quickly brought in Fitzpatrick. They considered it an upgraded insurance plan.

When he got in the huddle against the Jets, he brought dry humor to the huddle that helped defuse a tough situation and was important for a team trying to get back to work, Williams said.

Fitzpatrick said given the circumstances his job amounted to, “just go in there and don’t screw it up.” It’s a mindset that obviously changes if Fitzpatrick is the guy next week.

“We signed him for a reason, he’s a good player, he’s thrown for a lot of yards,” Loggains said. “He’s been a big part of this offense. We’re going to have to tweak some things and tailor some things to his strengths, obviously. ... Once we get the word that Jake’s not available this week, we’ll start that part of the process.”

Survey says: The Titans' bad habits

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Coaches want to instill habits.

In many ways, that’s what coaching is. Most coaches don’t want players thinking too much during a play, they want them reacting to things according to a plan, using techniques that have become habit.

But most things involving habits also include bad habits.

I asked Tennessee Titans middle linebacker Moise Fokou what bad habit he’s had to overcome in his football life, and how overcoming it and retraining himself has paid off.

“Even in college I was guilty of moving too fast,” the fifth-year pro said. “A lot of times you want to react fast and diagnose the play quickly, and get to it before the play gets there, almost. I’ve always been one of those guys who’s pretty quick. And when I diagnose, I kind of get to the play before.

“Sometimes that habit will get me in trouble, because what I thought I saw wasn’t exactly what was happening. I’ve learned to use my quickness as an asset, but also kind of to play it slower. Diagnose a play, then react as quickly as possible -- instead of reacting as soon as you see it. You still get there, but make sure it is what you are seeing.”

[+] EnlargeMoise Fokou
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsTitans linebacker Moise Fokou said learning to slow himself down has paid huge dividends.
Fokou is in the middle for the Titans, but came to Nashville with NFL experience at the Will and Sam linebacker spots. According to Fokou, at those positions, seeing what's happening and getting there immediately is more pressing.

“At the Mike, you kind of have to be the top-off, make sure everything is safe,” he said. “So I’m doing more reading and reacting than reacting and reading right now.”

I toured the Titans locker room to talk bad habits with many others, trying to get an answer from someone at every position. I like doing surveys like this because I always get unexpected answers. I figured most answers would relate to technique, but many didn’t.

Here's what I learned:

Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle: “I would say finishing. A lot of times you get into a situation where you get beat, pinned at the line of scrimmage or whatnot and you think there is no way out of it. You’ll kind of just sit there and let the quarterback move around. On your first move, you have to learn how to convert into that second move. Now my biggest thing is converting into that second move and not letting a guy win after the first move.”

Craig Stevens, tight end: “Not getting off on the snap count. It's an advantage that offensive players have. I try to focus on that. Sometime I didn’t pay attention to it like I should. You’ve got to focus on it. It helps a lot. You can get off before [defensive players] can.”

Jason McCourty, cornerback: “I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to put anything out there and people go, ‘That’s his habit, let’s attack him doing that.’ [Then 30 seconds about how reps at press coverage have helped the secondary play it better, followed by me asking if he was going to give me a habit.] I’m not going to give you a habit, I’m going to talk around the question.”

Shonn Greene, running back: “Maybe in pass pro(tection). Grabbing a guy outside his shoulder pads instead of keeping my hands in. If you do it, it’s a lot easier to get called for a hold, and it’s not the right technique to use. You’ve got to keep them inside. … That’s a habit I’ve had that I’ve been trying to correct. I’m better at it now, but it’s just one of those things that sometimes it slips.”

Derrick Morgan, defensive end: “Not sticking to my rush plan. Sometimes I would kind of abandon it and start trying new stuff. Now I don’t get discouraged, I just stay with the plan. You can’t get discouraged if something doesn’t work the first time. Stay with it, with what I’ve been practicing.”

Nate Washington, wide receiver: “Making a move before I get the ball, taking my eye off the ball, not looking it all the way in. Especially now with coach (Shawn) Jefferson here, that’s his main thing -- eyes, eyes, eyes. Making sure you’re looking the ball all the way in. A lot of times, if you look at a receiver if he drops the ball, nine times out of 10 it’s going to be because he turned his head too fast, looking to make a move without the ball.”

Rob Turner, center: “I think as an offensive lineman, you’re always working on your hands. You get caught in positions, defensive linemen move, they are running a game, they are working to get off a block, arm-over. And it’s something you constantly fight, to improve your hand placement. You may have them in a good spot to begin with, and a guy makes a move and you have to replace it or pull it out. That’s something I’ve constantly worked at, is getting better with my hands. You get away with stuff in college -- not to speak bad of every college player, but not every college player is an elite player. So I think you get away with more stuff because a guy isn’t as strong or doesn’t take great footwork. There is more room for mistakes at that level. Once you make a move to the next level, every one of those attention-to-detail things becomes more important.”

Darius Reynaud, return man: “For me, it would be on punt returns. Judging the ball and judging those guys, for me as a punt returner, I tend to stop to see where everyone is at before I go. That’s my bad habit. Against Pittsburgh, when I caught it, I just hit it and ran and got a 27-yard average on it. I need to catch the ball and go forward with it.”

Coty Sensabaugh, nickelback: “Eyes looking at the wrong thing. Say you’re in man-to-man coverage, you’re guarding the receiver really well. Then instead of looking at him when he breaks, you’re looking at the quarterback. He can separate from you. I’ve gotten a whole lot better at it. I had a bad habit of it in college. My college coach used to correct me on that and really get on me about that, so I got out of the habit pretty well.”
Two things strike me in looking broadly at what the Tennessee Titans are doing right now, and I don’t mean to short-change the defense but that will be a side effect here.

Mike Munchak said at his Monday press conference that his team is going to resist doing anything on offense in order to prove something. I will certainly point out the Titans' limitations at times. I do like a team with a string identity that can, at least at times, do what it does best and challenge a defense to stop it.

They see themselves as a running team, for sure. But what I may see as limitations at times, they see more as selections in a given game, and at 2-1 it’s hard to find too much fault in what they’ve done.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsTitans coach Mike Munchak likes the leadership on this season's team.
I don’t think a lot of offenses do things to prove to the press or fans that they can do them. I do think some teams do things because it was the plan, they think the plan should work and they are too afraid or too narrow minded to adjust away from the primary plan.

“Coach (Dowell) Loggains has been saying that about the offense, ‘Hey, we’re going to be what we have to be on a Sunday to win, depending who we’re playing against, what the matchups are and what’s happening in the game,’” Munchak said. “We’re not going to just force plays because, 'Hey, we need to show that Jake (Locker) can do this or the receivers can do this’ or ‘Hey, we have to show we have a certain running game or we’re tough guys.’ It’s really finding a way every week.

“The stuff is in. It’s not like, ‘OK, we put a lot of passes in this week.’ The same amount of passes were in. Guys were getting open, guys were making plays, we were protecting well.”

The Titans are going to be a predominantly run-based offense, but if Locker is the guy we saw against San Diego they could have the ability to adjust to what a game dictates and that’s a nice approach to be able to take. It beats stubborn. It beats one-dimensional.

The second thing that begs some reflection is Loggains discussion of the difference between this team and last year’s -- there is better leadership, and better leadership is doing a lot to help the team overcome bad stuff.

“The biggest step this team has taken, once we eliminate these penalties is, dealing with adversity,” Loggains said. “Because we have better leadership, we’re stronger. Nate Washington is a leader. Jake, every time he has success, it’s just more and more, he’s going to come into his own as a leader. He is a leader anyway, but you have to eventually have success to become a leader.

Mike Roos, Andy Levitre, Rob Turner, all those guys are leaders, they don’t flinch when we hit adversity. ... That’s the biggest difference between last year and this year. Now if we clean up the penalties, if we continue to get better every week executing and those three guy jell inside, I think we have a chance to be a good football team.”

Overcoming adversity has been a big theme since Munchak took over the Titans in 2011, and every team is going to hit spots it has to endure.

I did like heading into the opener when Munchak said he hoped the Titans started well and got to see how the Steelers dealt with rough development instead of the Titans. It didn’t go that way. The Titans handed the Steelers a safety on the opening kick.

They survived that and won. They played pretty well in Houston but lost. They certainly got good leadership and stuck with things during down moments against the Chargers and pulled out that win with 15 seconds left.

They have a lot of cause to feel good about themselves at this point.

Like the Titans, the Jets are better than a lot of people thought. Tennessee certainly can’t afford to feel like it’s accomplished anything yet.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 3

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
12:30
PM ET
A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 20-17 win over the San Diego Chargers:

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsTennessee's offensive line needs to buy Jake Locker more time in the pocket.
Protection issues: The Titans have not protected Jake Locker as well as most of us expected considering the interior line rebuild. Left guard Andy Levitre and right guard Chance Warmack aren’t going anywhere. Center Rob Turner beat out Fernando Velasco in the preseason, while fourth-rounder Brian Schwenke fell behind while hurt. Velasco is with the Steelers now.

If Schwenke is up to speed, the Titans ought to consider making the change in the middle. It will not be easy, but Turner has not been good enough. Locker reacted to pressure pretty well against San Diego. But he’s been sacked seven times so far and under pressure too often.

Slow starts: The Titans have not been great out of the gate this season. In Pittsburgh they gave up a safety and a long drive at the start, but took the ball away with a goal-line fumble. The offense punted away its first possession. In Houston they traded first-drive touchdowns. Against San Diego, the Titans went three-and-out, then gave up a touchdown drive. Combined first possession scoring: Opponents 16, Titans 7. That’s not resounding, but Tennessee can start better.

Locker hurrying up: Two weeks in a row we’ve seen a very well-executed drive by Locker and the offense when they picked up the pace. In Houston they went 99 yards in nine plays for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Against San Diego they went 94 yards in 10 plays for a game-winning touchdown.

The Titans aren’t going to be a no-huddle, hurry-up offense all the time. But they ought to incorporate it more often based on how well Locker and the offense have been doing with it. It can still be a changeup if they do it a bit more often.

Get smarter: The penalty issue Sunday -- 11 for 116 yards and four first downs -- was something the Titans had to fight hard to survive. The Titans talk about being smart, but that is different than actually being smart.

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and Locker raved about the heady play Delanie Walker made on a drop during the game-winning drive. The tight end realized his mistake, kept playing and broke up an interception by Marcus Gilchrist.

“Smart players do smart things, dumb players do dumb things,” Loggains said.

Right now Kenny Britt fits into the second category. Others have flashed in to join him.

The Titans have to show they have more smart players and fewer dumb players.
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.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 2

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
12:06
PM ET
An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 30-24 loss to the Houston Texans:

Receiver development: As David Climer of The Tennessean pointed out in the press box Sunday night, there is a stark difference between what the Texans can get out of first-round receivers and what the Titans can.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Hopkins
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSunday's game showed that the Titans aren't quite at Houston's level yet.
Sure, Andre Johnson may qualify as an all-time great when he’s done. But DeAndre Hopkins was a monster in just his second game and won it for Houston. The Titans said in their view it was Justin Hunter, the wideout they traded up to draft in the second round, who was the best receiver in the draft, not Hopkins.

But Hunter sat out Week 1 and wasn’t on the field much in Week 2, while Hopkins caught 13 passes for 117 yards and the winning TD. Receivers the Titans have drafted in the first round -- not as high as Johnson was drafted, but higher than Hopkins was -- didn’t do a ton. Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright combined for 11 catches for 82 yards and a score, with a long of just 14 yards. Wright is good. Right now is there a team that wouldn’t take Hopkins if given a choice?

And how come the Titans never get immediate impact from a new receiver?

Finisher mentality: The Texans have won the division twice in a row. While they’d like to finish a game like Sunday’s sooner rather than waiting for a late comeback to tie it and for overtime to win it, they have a finisher’s mentality because they’ve been there and done that when it comes to taking control.

The Titans are looking to create that. Sunday sure looked like they’ve closed the gap on the Texans. Jumping to a place where you make the big plays -- not the team you are chasing -- can be quite difficult.

And it hasn’t happened yet. The rematch is the regular-season finale, Dec. 29 in Nashville.

Penalties: Coach Mike Munchak talks a lot about discipline, but his Titans didn’t display a great deal of it with nine penalties for 70 yards.

Britt and Chris Johnson have to know they can’t join Wright’s touchdown dance celebration without getting flagged. What’s worse: If they didn’t know it was a penalty, or if they know it’s a penalty and can’t restrain themselves from doing it anyway?

I’ve re-watched Rob Turner’s peel back block on J.J. Watt and I understand the Texans’ outrage. Turner tried to apologize, but when the reigning defensive player of the year feels like his legs and his season are being put recklessly at risk, that’s not good. Turner can throw a block there without going low.

Watt 1, Warmack 0: It’s unlikely that a highly drafted rookie guard in just his second game is going to fare especially well against the reigning defensive player of the year.

Chance Warmack was victimized by Watt on two first-half sacks and got a lot of help as the Titans fared better against the defensive lineman as the game went on.

Warmack is probably going to be a very good player. At this stage of his development he’s not a guy who can handle Watt -- which is hardly an embarrassment considering few veterans can, either.
HOUSTON -- The rebuilt interior offensive line, a motivated Chris Johnson, the addition of Delanie Walker and Shonn Greene, a healthy Kenny Britt, the weight loss of Kendall Wright.

Even with a quarterback in Jake Locker who hasn't established himself, I expected the Tennessee Titans to be an offensive football team. And I was hardly alone.

But two games into the season, the offense has some catching up to do.

[+] Enlarge'Our defense has been playing fast and been playing real good,
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderDelanie Walker
The Titans' defense allowed a couple of big plays on well-thrown balls by Matt Schaub during a game-tying drive late in regulation and the game-winning march in overtime.

Still, the defense was the better unit against the Texans Sunday.

The Titans' defense sacked Schaub twice and hit him six more times in an up-and-down rush effort. The defense allowed Houston to run for 79 yards on the their game-opening touchdown drive but then the unit fared OK against the run, allowing 3.8 yards a carry against a very fine rushing team. It scored a touchdown on a 23-yard pick-six by cornerback Alterraun Verner. It watched the offense give up a safety. And it endured the Titans' offense going three-and-out on seven of 14 offensive drives.

Houston’s ultimate yardage numbers were pretty good: 172 on the ground, 298 in the air. The Titans' offense could have offset that with more than an average of 3.7 yards per offensive play.

With 4:59 left in the game, Verner’s score put Tennessee ahead 24-16.

A tired defense gave up too many plays from there and the offense left it to do too much.

Jason McCourty followed Andre Johnson around for much of the game, helping limit the Texans' primary weapon to eight catches for 76 yards before he left to be examined for a concussion.

McCourty said he would have been pleased with those numbers if they came in a win.

But the Titans' top corner was on Johnson during a 21-yard pass to the Tennessee 2-yard line. The pass was initially ruled incomplete, but referee Jeff Triplette determined on review that Johnson did control the ball as he landed on the white stripe.

McCourty was also with rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins in overtime on a third-and-10 from the Tennessee 26. Hopkins went up and snatched the pass for a 25-yard gain near the right front pylon. Three plays later, Hopkins beat McCourty on the 3-yard touchdown that withstood review and won the game.

“I’ve got to find a way to make plays late in that game,” McCourty said. “There were three plays in the fourth quarter and overtime I’ve got to find a way to make. ... It doesn’t count that you’re in good position. I’ve got to find a way to get the ball out. This team expected me to make those plays and I expect to make them. I’ve got to do a better job.”

Of course the two Hopkins catches wouldn’t have been an issue if the Titans' offense could have moved to just a field goal when it got the ball with 1:53 left at their 20-yard line. The offense had driven 99 yards for a touchdown on its previous drive.

But they went three-and-out with Locker overthrowing a wide open Britt in the face of a big blitz on third down.

“Our defense has been playing fast and been playing real good,” said Walker, who caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Locker on the 99-yard drive. “We’ve got to match that as an offense. We have been slow. But I feel like week to week we’re going to get better."

Said center Rob Turner: “When you make adjustments you have to get a feel for things. And we’ve got new parts kind of moving around and so it’s one of those things we’re just going to do everything we can to get timing, clean up stuff as the weeks go on, as the days go on and try to get better as far as execution.”

Cushing, Watt decry peel-back blocks

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
7:41
PM ET
When it happened to Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, the play was illegal only because of where it was. Jets guard Matt Slauson was fined $10,000 for his peel-back block on Cushing last October. Cushing saw his season end because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Watt
Watt
Cushing
Since then, the NFL has made that kind of block illegal regardless of where it happens on the field. But as Cushing sees it, that's not enough. Sunday gave him evidence to support that.

At the end of the third quarter, Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Rob Turner made a very similar block on Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt was clearly furious on the field, and remained so after the game. When I asked if that play was dirty, he said, "Absolutely."

"I'm not trying to get my knee blown out," Watt said, before knocking on the wooden podium he stood behind. "That's why there's a rule in place, and it was clearly blatant. You peel back around and you're going towards your own goal line, you know exactly what you're doing and you're going at somebody's knee."

Turner said he tried to talk to Watt.

"As a lineman, you get kind of ingrained, 'Run a screen, throw a cut, run a screen, throw a cut,'" he said. "I tried saying something to him after the game, saying, 'Look, I wasn't trying to take your legs out.'"

Watt wasn't having it.

"I told him," Watt said. "I said, 'You're clearly trying to take out my knee.' He tried to apologize, but you're trying to take out my knee. That's exactly what you're trying to do. ... It's a mutual sign of respect that we have that there's certain things you don't do. And that's one of them."

One official told Cushing that the play reminded him of the play that caused Cushing's injury.

Said Cushing: "There has to be a line drawn and there has to be something done for guys to learn not to do it anymore besides just a fine and a penalty."

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