AFC South: Shaun Smith

Minus McKinney, Colts need DT help

August, 26, 2012
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We wrote recently about how the Colts' transition to being a big team was going to take some time.

McKinney
It’s now going to take some more time.

The biggest newcomer, 345-pound nose tackle Brandon McKinney, is out for the year after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament against the Redskins in Washington on Saturday.

The Colts signed McKinney as a free agent from Baltimore, where he played in the system new head coach Chuck Pagano brought to Indianapolis.

That leaves Antonio Johnson, who’s starting, as the team’s lone big nose tackle. He said early in camp he was up to 330.

Josh Chapman, a fifth-round pick from Alabama, is listed as 316, and he came into the league recovering from his own ACL injury.

He’ll be on the physically-unable-to-perform list to start the season, meaning the Colts won’t have access to him for at least six weeks into the regular season.

“He’s coming along great,” Pagano told Colts beat reporters. “I think he’s ahead of schedule. Again, I think his injury was significant enough that it takes eight to 10 months to get that thing fully rehabbed and healed. Again, I think he’s ahead of schedule and will remain on PUP, which is once you start the season on PUP, there is a six-week period in which you just do strength and conditioning rehab and you’re not allowed to practice. After that six-week period, you’ve got a three-week window to start and get him back in practice mode, which we feel really confident by that time, he’ll be ready to go.”

The loss of McKinney could get the Colts looking for additional interior help. It's not a three-down job. End Cory Redding can move inside in the nickel package. But the only other healthy nose tackle on the depth chart is undrafted rookie Chigbo Anunoby.

Veteran Shaun Smith was recently cut by the Titans and could fit Indianapolis’ scheme.
It sure felt like rookie Randy Bullock was going to be the Texans kicker.

The team spent a fifth-round pick on him and he’d done fine in the preseason.

But he was the reason Gary Kubiak was in a bad mood when he met with the Houston media Sunday.

“We lost Randy, Randy is going on IR [injured reserve],” Kubiak said. “I just found out 15 minutes ago. He has torn a muscle somewhere in the groin area. I don’t know all the specifics. Obviously, it’s going to be a long process back, so it’s been a disappointing last half-hour for me and for us to find this out. It had been bothering him for a couple of weeks and he continued to kick through it.

“He’s very tough and he kicked very well last night. He came in here today, black and blue. We ran some tests on him and so it’s a sad situation. He’s going to kick in this league. He’s going to kick a long time. He’s going to go on IR this year and thankfully we’ve got Shayne (Graham), who has done a hell of a job, too. He was pushing him neck-and-neck to kick for us. It’s a tough deal.”

Graham hasn’t missed a preseason attempt, including a 53-yarder Saturday night in New Orleans.

“He’s kicked off well for us,” Kubiak said. “He’s a guy who throughout the course of his career has been a very, very accurate kicker inside of 40. He’s done a heck of a job. Like I said, it was right down the middle between those two guys. I think we would’ve been proud with either one of them. I think this situation obviously calls for Shayne to move forward and be our guy. We expect him to do well.”

If he doesn’t and no one else has scooped them up, there should be at least two solid veteran alternatives to consider.

The Ravens have cut Billy Cundiff and the Saints will let go of either Garrett Hartley or John Kasay.

In other injury news for the Texans, Kubiak said nose tackle Shaun Cody (back) and end J.J. Watt (elbow) will practice this week but not play in the preseason finale Thursday night against Minnesota.
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Houston Texans

Defensive tackle is thin, thin, thin after a season-ending injury to Sunny Harris, says Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle. Defensive ends Jared Crick and Tim Jamison will likely see action inside this week.

The Texans are being patient with DeVier Posey who came into the league with different circumstances than most players, says Ganguli.

Andre Johnson is being sued for child support, says Dale Robertson and John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Ex-Oiler Curley Culp is a senior nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, says McClain.

Indianapolis Colts

Through two preseason games, special teams have been an asset, not a liability, and that’s highly unusual for the Colts, says Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star.

At No. 1 in the waiver order, the Colts will have first dibs on over 1,000 players who are about to come free, says Mike Chappell.

The preseason Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III T-shirt is selling, says Phillip B. Wilson. (Sadly, this is happening despite my plea for people to not buy it.)

The hype is inevitable but it’s not going to distract Luck or RG3, says Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Who’s winning the PR battle in the fight between Shad Khan and Maurice Jones-Drew?

Gene Frenette of the T-U wonders which side will extend the olive branch. I firmly believe it's not going to come from the team.

Khan continues to enhance the player experience for the Jaguars, says Vito Stellino.

The Jaguars will look to score on their opening drive for the third time in three games tonight in Baltimore, says Stellino.

Three plays illustrate why Blaine Gabbert has gotten better, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans hope that winning the starting quarterback job helps Jake Locker settle down, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Previewing the Titans versus the Cardinals with John Glennon of The Tennessean.

The Titans released defensive tackle Shaun Smith, says Wyatt.

Taylor Thompson is learning contact is a two-way street, says Glennon.

Camp Confidential: Tennessee Titans

August, 14, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Like everyone in the NFL, the 2011 Titans were hurried together.

Unlike most other teams, they were hurried together by a new coaching staff.

Mike Munchak’s coordinators -- Jerry Gray on defense and Chris Palmer on offense-- had to show patience and restraint. They brought exciting new ideas to Nashville, but they weren’t able to implement much of them in the wake of the lockout. The personnel could only be revamped so much, but more importantly they didn’t have much time.

No offseason, no organized team activities and no minicamps meant sticking mostly to basics.

Now, they say, after a full offseason together, they’ll show us far more.

Whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker is at quarterback, we’ll see Palmer implement run-and-shoot concepts while using two tight ends or a fullback. He’ll look to regularly threaten teams deep with what can be a great compliment of pass-catchers: Kenny Britt (presuming he’s healthy and available), Nate Washington, rookie Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Chris Johnson, Jared Cook and Taylor Thompson.

If the evolution into more of a passing offense pans out, Johnson should get more space when he takes a handoff, and that should help him rebound from a disappointing 2011 season. He’s looked better after participating fully in the Titans' offseason activities for the first time.

Defensively, Gray is looking to allow some players to excel in narrow roles in specific situations. Akeem Ayers, for example, should get to show off his rush skills by lining up as an end in a special rush package. Ideally, free safety Michael Griffin will play more in center field, where he's best.

Do Palmer and Gray have enough people to do what they want? And does what they want to do work? Progress seemed steady in the first couple weeks of camp, but there are still questions to answer.

THREE HOT ISSUES

The quarterback battle: It hasn't drawn the spotlight one might have expected, because it’s friendly and doesn’t pit good versus evil on any level.

The Titans drafted Locker eighth overall in 2010 to be their starter -- for a long time, they hope. It’s not a matter of if he gets into the lineup, but when. If he can take advantage of game situations to show improved accuracy and make plays from the pocket as well as on the move, Locker certainly has a chance to displace Hasselbeck now. He was better by at least a bit in the preseason opener and will start the second game Friday night at Tampa Bay.

But the team feels it’s going to compete for a playoff spot now, and the younger, less experienced quarterback comes with a learning curve. If coaches feel Hasselbeck has a mastery of the offense and is playing effectively, it might be difficult to make the switch heading into an opening month that looks very challenging.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Wade PayneLinebacker Kamerion Wimbley looks to be an asset on the field and in the locker room.
The pass rush: Everything the Titans' defense wants to do can blossom out of a more productive pass rush. Gray came to the team determined to beef up the D and get back to run-stopping basics. The Titans certainly want to maintain that theme, but they need a better pass rush to go with it.

They hired Keith Millard to coach not a position but a skill: rushing the passer. I like the concept, but Millard was in Tampa last year and they were a bad pass-rush team. It also has to make you wonder a bit about the pass-rush education defensive linemen were getting from position coach Tracy Rocker.

Kamerion Wimbley looks like a potential difference-maker, but the other projected/expected starter at end, Derrick Morgan, is hardly locked in as a threat yet. He’s been working behind 2011 practice-squader Pannel Egboh recently.

The interior includes very intriguing rush guys in Karl Klug and rookie Mike Martin, and has some depth. Ayers is slated to scoot up and work as an end in some nickel situations, perhaps shifting Morgan inside. However, what hear about Ayers' versatility and what I see from him don’t match up yet.

Britt: A suspension under the personal-conduct policy is looming for Britt after a DUI arrest at a military base. He has not shown he's learned from mistakes and turned into a better decision-maker. And he’s still on the physically-unable-to-perform list, recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered early last season and subsequent cleanup procedures. When healthy and available, Britt is an absolutely tantalizing receiver who can make everyone else’s matchups more advantageous.

His recent rehab work makes him look close to ready. His recent meeting with the commissioner makes us expect an announcement soon about some time on the shelf. Once that’s over, he has to settle down and show up every week while not giving the team cause for concern when he’s away from the facility.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

One big reason the Titans didn’t think cornerback Cortland Finnegan was worth the money he got as a free agent from St. Louis is that his brand of professionalism didn't match up with the team's. Finnegan was beyond feisty at times, and a surly mood and an ego that prompted him to leave the team for a day during camp in 2011 in a contract dispute weren’t things the Titans could overlook.

Know what to do and do it. That’s Munchak’s basic requirement of his players. In guard Steve Hutchinson and Wimbley, the Titans added two more standard-bearers of a message other players should continue to respect and respond to.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Estimating who will be good and who won’t in advance of a season is fraught with peril, but it’s hard not to do. Look at the Titans' first four games and it’s hard not to foresee trouble. The Patriots visit on opening day; any game against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is a major challenge. Then a trip to San Diego, where the Titans have long struggled. Detroit brings burgeoning quarterback Matthew Stafford to Tennessee before the Titans travel to Houston to face the division favorite.

With their current questions, it’s hard to envision the Titans ripping off a good start against that early schedule. But the league’s unpredictability is its best feature, so the quality of that four-pack is not written in permanent marker.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Titans have invested a lot of time and energy into Rusty Smith, and I don’t doubt they like their third quarterback. It’ll be hard to justify a roster spot for him, though. Third quarterbacks are a luxury, and both Locker and Hasselbeck should be on the team in 2013.
  • Johnson seemed to be back to form in practices, but it’s hard to gauge running backs in practices. He was awful in limited action in the preseason opener at Seattle, failing to press the hole and appearing completely disinterested in the passing game, where he had two drops. That was enough to officially put him back in the “major concern” department for me.
  • Dave Ball contemplated retirement after dealing with another concussion last year. He had another early in camp and is likely fading on the depth chart while missing time. Egboh should be the third end, and guys like rookie Scott Solomon and veterans Leger Douzable and Keyunta Dawson give the Titans some alternatives.
  • [+] EnlargeMike Martin
    Jim Brown/US PresswireRookie Mike Martin helps with pass rushing depth -- and could yet displace veteran Shaun Smith.
    Beau Brinkley is in line to be the long-snapper. The rookie right end out of Missouri takes over for veteran Ken Amato, who was not re-signed after filling the role since 2003. So far, so good for Brinkley, who’s been invisible through camp and a preseason game, which is what you want from a guy in that role.
  • Martin, a third-round pick from Michigan, has gotten some work with the first team and figures to be another piece in a talented group of interior linemen. Though he gives up nearly 20 pounds to Shaun Smith, he could help knock the veteran off the roster. Smith has worked hard at becoming more of a penetrator and turned quiet rather than being the boisterous guy of last season, but his changes may have come too late. The Titans brought him in last year as they tried to get bigger, but had to know he was a space-eater who wasn’t programmed to get into the backfield the way they want tackles to.
  • If Britt is healthy and somehow avoids suspension for his off-field transgressions, he certainly should be an opening-day starter. But if Britt isn't available, I won’t be surprised if Williams is ahead of first-round pick Wright against the Patriots on Sept. 9 at LP Field. Williams has become increasingly assertive and knows what to do, while Wright could need some time to bring an expanded repertoire onto the field.
  • Cook is the more explosive receiver, so he gets talked about. But the Titans’ other top tight end, Craig Stevens, is underrated. He’s a good blocker who may not have receiver speed, but can get open and make some catches when called on.
  • Weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon is a quality veteran guy in the locker room. But he comes and goes as a playmaker. Second-round pick Zach Brown brings tremendous speed. I don’t think he’ll dislodge Witherspoon from the job at the start. He may earn a role in covering tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Brandon Pettigrew and Owen Daniels -- players the Titans will be game-planning against in their first month. Tennessee has had some major issues recently covering top tight ends.
  • The Titans have a find in cornerback Jason McCourty, who is going to be good as their lead guy and will help reshape the tone of the defensive backs meeting room. I actually feel better about him and Alterraun Verner as the team’s starting cornerbacks than I do about Griffin and Jordan Babineaux as the safeties. My suspicion is that good offenses are going to find plays down the middle of the field.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

“Andre Johnson’s mild groin strain that will keep him out of practice at least a week caused 4,277 fans and 89 teammates to hold their collective breath and created a panic among the Houston sports media,” says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

There is pressure on the rest of the Texans' receivers but they seem nonplussed by the circumstances, says Dale Robertson of the Chronicle.

Linebacker coach Reggie Herring sees Bradie James as a valuable piece, says Robertson.

Rookie guard Brandon Brooks is down six pounds, says McClain.

A review of Day 2 and Johnson’s injury from Stephanie Stradley of the Chronicle blog.

Other injury thoughts regarding Daryl Sharpton and Kareem Jackson from Battle Red Blog.

Indianapolis Colts

Tony Dungy says the Colts are in good hands with Andrew Luck, per Kyle Heddenriep of the Indianapolis Star.

Luck was sharp in the Colts’ first practice, says Mike Chappell of the Star.

Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report on Luck: “While his ball has good pace, it never looks like he's overthrowing. That's a great bonus and allows him to throw a catchable ball. It's also a testament to good mechanics.”

Rounding up observations from Day 1, with Brad Wells of Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Mularkey says the Jaguars haven’t been making available plays downfield in practices, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union. One would think Justin Blackmon could help in this department once he joins the team.

Since linebacker Clint Session’s future is uncertain because of post-concussion symptoms, the Jaguars are going forward with Russell Allen in the starting spot, says Stellino.

Tennessee Titans

Cornerback Alterraun Verner still has a linebacker’s mentality, and that will help him as he replaces Cortland Finnegan, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Defensive tackle Shaun Smith has lost weight in order to help his chances to maintain his spot, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Jake Locker was more accurate than Matt Hasselbeck on Sunday night, says Glennon.

Kendall Wright is the fifth Titans first-rounder in six years to miss time at the start of camp, says David Boclair of the Nashville City Paper.
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?
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

Deciding what exactly to do with Matt Schaub going forward and getting it done will be a delicate dance for Rick Smith, says Rivers McCown of Battle Red Blog.

Here’s Texans All Access as a podcast, in an edition featuring rookie receiver DeVier Posey.

Outside linebacker Bryan Braman’s had an eventful offseason beyond football, says Nick Scurfield of houstontexans.com.

Indianapolis Colts

According to Scott Kacsmar of Bleacher Report, the Colts are the first team in NFL history to use their first- and second-round picks to draft a quarterback (Andrew Luck) and receiver (tight end Coby Fleener) from the same college.

Are the Colts in better shape at running back than they were a year ago? Brett Mock of Colts Authority considers the question.

Jacksonville Jaguars

While he says he doesn’t want to discuss his contract in the media, Maurice Jones-Drew did so for the second time in two weeks, according to Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

The Jaguars are ahead of last year’s pace with season-ticket sales, says John Oehser of Jaguars.com.

Assessing the Jaguars' use of play-action and defense of it, with Black & Teal.

Tennessee Titans

Craig Stevens’ increasingly rare skills as a blocking tight end make him a very valuable member of the Titans, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean. Colleges are producing more pass-catching tight ends and fewer blockers.

Defensive tackle Shaun Smith remains a work in progress, says John Glennon of the Tennessean.

Single-game tickets go on sale Aug. 3, says Glennon.

Considering how the Titans defended in the red zone, with Tom Gower of Total Titans.

AFC South links: Has MJD lost his burst?

May, 30, 2012
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Houston Texans

After a high school fight left him in legal trouble and cost him a shot at top-tier NCAA football, rookie free-agent linebacker Shawn Loiseau is doing "everything 100 miles an hour, sideline to sideline" in his attempt at making the Texans' roster, he tells John McClain.

A new NFL rule that makes wearing thigh and knee pads mandatory starting in the 2013 season is not a popular one among Houston players.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts signed offensive tackle George Foster, a first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos in 2003, and waived fullback Ryan Mahaffey, the Star reported.

Just because 3,000 season tickets still remain unsold, the Colts aren't anticipating any of their home games being blacked out this season.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Running back Maurice Jones-Drew isn't as explosive as he used to be, team sources told CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco -- who concurred after watching game tape, noting that Drew, who is sitting out organized team activities in hopes of getting a new contract, often "turned potential 20-yard gains into 7-yard gains."

The Jaguars agreed with defensive end Andre Branch, their second-round pick from Clemson, on a four-year, $5.1 million contract, Tania Ganguli reported.

Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union: "You have to feel sorry for the Jaguars. The franchise seeks out an opportunity to increase its non-existent national profile by being the focus of the popular HBO series 'Hard Knocks,' only to be passed over for the Miami Dolphins."

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessean has video of defensive tackle Shaun Smith teaching a hot yoga class.

Cornerback Alterraun Verner is looking forward to testing what he's worked on this offseason when OTAs begin Wednesday.
Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray put a bigger emphasis on bigger players.

Indications were they thought Jeff Fisher’s team had become too pass rush-centric, giving up some fundamentals of run-stopping in the process.

Trouble was, the Titans’ rush defense in 2011 was mediocre, giving up 4.5 yards per rush -- 22nd in the NFL. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the unit’s struggles were magnified when opponents ran up the middle.

On runs up the middle, Tennessee yielded 4.5 yards per carry (ranking 28th), gave up six runs of 20 yards or more (tied for 28th), gave up 52 first downs (32nd) and allowed 338 yards after contact (23rd).

Two rookies factored into the Titans run defense: tackle Jurrell Casey and middle linebacker Colin McCarthy. They'll get better and play more. The big run-stuffing tackle the Titans brought in, Shaun Smith, wasn’t very effective and lost playing time as the season went on.

The focus is on the pass rush, but in a draft likely to be defense-heavy, the Titans need to be sure to continue to address run defense, too.

RTC: Bratkowski joining Mularkey

January, 13, 2012
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Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

A year ago, the Texans’ secondary was one of the worst in the NFL. Now it is one of the best. Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to free-agent signees Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning, says Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle. “Not only have the two veterans set the tone for the young secondary in terms of hard work and professionalism – their leadership has been invaluable – they are playmakers.”

Gary Kubiak has a deep connection with Houston since he grew up there, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Wade Phillips pulled out of consideration for the Tampa Bay head coaching job, says John McClain.

McClain expects at least one upset this weekend.

Which Ravens will the Texans see, asks Braden Gall of Athlon.

Indianapolis Colts

Ryan Grigson comes to the Colts from the Eagles, and in Philadelphia the approach to roster building was far different than what the Colts did under Bill Polian, says Mike Chappell.

It looks like the Colts have committed to cleaning house, and they can’t do that without changing the coaching staff, says Adam Hughes of Naptown’s Finest. I tend to agree, but who's the replacement for Jim Caldwell if a change is made?

Jacksonville Jaguars

Bob Bratkowski will be Mike Mularkey’s offensive coordinator according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Mel Tucker is officially staying on as the Jaguars' defensive coordinator under Mularkey, says Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union.

Defensive line coach Joe Cullen is staying as well, Ganguli reports. He's an excellent and effecive position coach.

Owner Shahid Khan is considering a Twitter account, says Ganguli. Do it!

Tennessee Titans

Defensive tackle Shaun Smith knows he didn’t play as well as he should have in his first season with the Titans, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

David Climer of The Tennessean says the Titans should hold on to Chris Johnson. He will see them do just that.
Matt HasselbeckJim Brown/US PresswireTitans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck expressed his frustration at not being in sync with his receivers.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Halfway through the first season of what they’ve sold as a new era, the Titans are a wishy-washy team. They are capable of good, but often likely to mix in enough bad to offset it.

Sunday they played a solid first half, then basically disappeared. The half-and-half performance matched their halfway record of 4-4 and showed them to be a marginal team.

The 24-17 loss to the Bengals was built out of a 17-7 halftime lead. Cincinnati wore the Titans down and beat them up, showed them what it was like to have a productive premier young weapon, got better instead of worse as the game moved toward crunch time and established themselves as much more of a realistic AFC playoff contender.

The Titans talked a lot about their lack of plays while defending their alleged playmakers.

The lockout cost every team with a new coaching staff and every team with a new quarterback. This team has both and might still be suffering ill effects. But it’s long past the point where it can use that as an excuse.

“The record is what it is, so that’s what we are,” general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. “It’s frustrating because we’ve played really well at times. But we’ve played equally as poorly at times. I’m not quite sure what we are. When you see the glimpses in the first half of what we’re capable of, it makes the second half very frustrating.

“Maybe in a regular year, you would know, but I’m not sure what we are. We need to know in the next two or three weeks, we’ll know if we’re contending or pretending. I think we have a chance to get better.”

If you're still dealing with an identity crisis halfway through the season, you've got issues.

Among them...

Weapons: I understand why the Titans drafted a quarterback eighth overall, and I endorsed them taking one if they thought they were getting a long-term solution. But right now Jake Locker is about the future, not the present.

And, boy, could the present quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, use a deeper pool of receivers -- not that one was sitting there for them at No. 8 as the Bengals had already taken A.J. Green and Julio Jones was already wearing a Falcons hat. Without Kenny Britt, gone since suffering a torn ACL in Week 3, the Titans are unthreatening.

The Titans came into the season touting a trio of playmakers in Britt, running back Chris Johnson and tight end Jared Cook.

Johnson's miserable season's been well-documented. He had a good first half with 55 yards on nine carries, then took five carries 9 yards in the second. And although the team pushed the ball to Cook more against the Bengals, his lost fumble with 3:49 left in the game and the Titans down 21-17 meant the offense would be in complete desperation mode once it got the ball back.

“Of course we have enough weapons,” Cook said afterward. But what else could be said by a guy defending himself and his teammates who knows Calvin Johnson won’t be walking into the locker room?

Said offensive coordinator Chris Palmer: “We have the team that we have and it’s our jobs as coaches to try to get them to play as well as they can play. I think some guys are playing very, very well. I think there are some guys that are playing up to their ability and we just have to do it for 60 minutes. They show spurts.”

Very, very well? Really?

Out of sync: I think there are still too many plays on offense where Hasselbeck and his targets look out of sync. I tend to lean toward giving the veteran quarterback the benefit of the doubt in such situations, and coach Mike Munchak said last week that in such situations Hasselbeck is right more often than not.

But Palmer said sometimes against the Bengals, balls came out rushed. That can throw things off when the quarterback and intended receiver have to read things the same way.

Hasselbeck is clearly unhappy that such issues continue to linger and that he’s been unable to get them solved.

“It’s just us, it’s a partnership,” he said. “It’s frustrating. If we could just fix that part, we probably win this game. … We’ve got to be more crisp.”

The solution comes with doing things better in practice, then carrying them over, he said. The failures in this game mean the issue will be magnified as the team prepares for a trip to Carolina, and that emphasis could help get it fixed.

Or guys like Cook and receivers Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins might just not equipped to be the sort of crisp options the Titans need. I lean more and more in that direction.

Defensive shortcomings: Rookies roasted the Titans' defense. Andy Dalton threw three touchdowns for the Bengals while only taking one sack and Green caught all seven balls thrown his direction for a game-high 83 yards.

On a third-and-18 early in the fourth quarter when Dalton hit Green for 20 yards up the right side, the receiver was bracketed by corner Jason McCourty and safety Michael Griffin. While the ball was in the air, it looked as likely to be a pick as a catch.

But the two Titans smashed into each other as Green went up and made the catch, extending the touchdown drive that put Cincinnati up for good. Griffin and McCourty were down hurt for some time, though they returned to action later.

“It doesn’t matter about rookies,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said. “He threw the ball up, we had two guys around him, he made the play. What else are you going to say? They made plays and we didn’t.”

He repeated that several times, as did many Titans players.

It’s a bit of a simplistic, one-note theme from a ticked-off coach and upset players. Gray is likely to offer deeper theories about why the Bengals made plays and the Titans didn't in the meeting room after he’s watched film.

But defensive tackle Shaun Smith knows this much already: “When you’re up by 10, there is no reason why you should lose a game. … The coach put us in position to make plays and we didn’t make plays.”

The Titans better flip the playmaking formula quickly.

Otherwise, they’ll be downgraded right out of the category of fringe playoff contenders, already a grouping far below the one they thought they’d qualify for back when they were 3-1.
We are overdue to check in on penalties in the AFC South, so here’s an account from ESPN Stats and Info on the primary offenders:

Notes:
  • Lacey has three pass interferences, an offensive holding, a face mask and a running into the kicker. If a cornerback is beat, it’s usually better for him to draw a flag then let a guy go. But I’d like him not to be in that position very often.
  • All five of Meester’s penalties are holding, but four have been declined. Declined penalties get guys off the hook in a lot of ways but shouldn’t. They are still committing the foul, it’s just the context that is helping them.
  • Smith had two offside, a face mask, an illegal use of hands and an unnecessary roughness penalties. A nice smorgasbord of infractions.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Blame the red zone offense for a tough loss at New Orleans, says John McClain.

It was a horror story just like so many Texans games before, says Jerome Solomon.

Schaub showed he’s not in Drew Brees’ class yet, says Jeffrey Martin.

James Casey had a breakout performance, says Martin.

Mario Williams injured his knee but did play some after, says Solomon.

The Texans are still learning how to win, but this is a game we’d always chalked up as a loss, says Richard Justice.

Brian Cushing wasn’t happy with what the defense did, say McClain and Martin.

Brees and Sean Payton showed that few teams can keep up with the Saints, says Steve Wyche.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts' defense wore down on the game’s final drive in a loss to Pittsburgh, says Phil Richards.

Indianapolis comes up short in a quarterback-driven league, says Bob Kravitz.

Valiant doesn't cut it in the NFL, where wins and losses are the bottom line and the Colts are 0-3. But Colts defenders displayed resilience not seen in the previous two losses, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Curtis Painter had good moments and bad, says Mike Chappell. I know people are excited about the good touchdown drive. Please temper all positive thoughts with equal time for the terrible fumble.

All the Colts need is a quarterback, says Nate Dunlevy.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars frustrating, drenched loss included some clock mismanagement at the end, says Tania Ganguli.

Jack Del Rio said the clock issue at the end is his fault, says Vito Stellino. That’s not something the third-longest tenured coach in the league should have to say.

Maurice Jones-Drew is back on a Pro-Bowl pace, says Stellino.

The Jaguars must right the ship quickly, says Gene Frenette.

It was the same old story for Team Tease, says Frenette.

Matt Turk’s been struggling so far, says Ganguli.

Stellino and Ganguli’s postgame video.

Frenette’s report card.

Blaine Gabbert didn’t appear overwhelmed, says John Oehser of the team web site.

Trying to sit on a small lead backfired, says Alfie Crow.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans found alternative playmakers en route to a win against Denver, says Jim Wyatt.

Tennessee flexed its entire roster, says David Climer, and guys like Craig Stevens, Daniel Graham and Brett Kern were the big playmakers.

With Kenny Britt’s season in jeopardy, the rest of the receivers know more will fall on them, says John Glennon.

The rushing offense gets an F in Wyatt’s report card.

A goal-line stand energized the defense, says Glennon.

Mike Munchak glossed over a Derrick Morgan vs. Shaun Smith altercation.

The Titans cannot run from the reality of what they’ve become on offense, says David Boclair.
Houston Texans

The offensive front, blessed with continuity, cohesion and a collective work ethic, plus line coach John Benton's clever mind, has quietly evolved into one of the NFL's most experienced and steadfast units, writes Dale Robertson. One big key to the line’s success is that guards Wade Smith and Mike Brisiel have both played center, and their understanding of the spot enhances the overall cohesion of the group.
Kuharsky’s read: Lacking a “star,” they don’t get a ton of attention and because they play that Denver-style scheme heavy on cut blocks people tend to underrate the group. All of which is fine if Matt Schaub has time to throw and Arian Foster has room to run. Indications are they will. The guys in front of them are a likeable group.
Indianapolis Colts

Jim Caldwell is in a very tough spot, even beyond the loss of his franchise quarterback, writes Bob Kravitz. Caldwell is working for a franchise that has become mildly dysfunctional, the old we-speak-with-one-voice mantra turning into a cacophony of varying voices and disparate agendas.
Kuharsky’s read: Kravitz nails the mildly dysfunctional element to Caldwell’s situation and his lack of concern over it. But I disagree that the coach can’t be judged on this season. He’s held a team together under tough circumstances last year. Can he do it again with even tougher ones?
Jacksonville Jaguars

Dwight Lowery often calls or texts Drew Coleman to ask questions about the defense, writes Tania Ganguli. The trouble is, Coleman is so new himself sometimes he has to refer Lowery to someone who's been here a little longer. "It's been six weeks?" Coleman said. "It feels more like three weeks."
Kuharsky’s read: Can the two former Jets make a play or two that comes out of knowledge gleaned from practicing against Mark Sanchez and the offense? The Jaguars will need such things to have a chance.
Tennessee Titans

Shaun Smith, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Titans defensive tackle, has become an unabashed, unapologetic trash-talker on the practice field and in games -- one of the best in the NFL, in his own humble opinion, writes John Glennon. Whether Smith’s verbal volleys make a significant Sunday difference is debatable. He feels they do, that they tend to wear down the confidence of opponents and motivate his teammates.
Kuharsky’s read: The jury’s out on Smith’s play. But the personality is something the Titans needed. He keeps things light -- he stepped in and delivered coach-speak comments when reporters waited for Mike Munchak this week, then leaned in to listen to a coordinator’s media session. But he also sends messages that need to be heard.
You see them in headphones, walking into the stadium, heading from the locker room to the field, as they stretch and run and get ready for kickoff.

Before the iPods are turned off and put away, what’s the last song the Titans listen to in order to get in the right frame of mind?

Build a playlist based on this if you dare:

Cornerback Cortland Finnegan: Eminem, “Lose Yourself”

“He talks about one shot or one opportunity. Sometimes in a game it’s that one shot that may change around the game, may win the game or lose the game for you.”

Linebacker Akeem Ayers: Jay-Z and Kayne West, “Gotta Have It”

“I just like the beat. It kind of loosens me up, gets me ready to play, puts me in a good mood.”

Defensive tackle Shaun Smith: Meek Millz, “I’m a Boss”

“It just gets me going, gets me all riled up in a zone and I just go out there and do what I do.”

Fullback Ahmard Hall: Fred Hammond, “They That Wait”

“It gets me motivated. Reminds me what to do, how to conduct myself.”

Defensive end Dave Ball: Metallica, “The Day That Never Comes”

“Just a good pump up song.”

Safety Michael Griffin: Yo Gotti, “Look in the Mirror”

“Hype song. Gets your blood flowing.”

Receiver Nate Washington: Fred Hammond, “Always Remember Jesus”

“It just keeps me humble. It always helps me remember who I am and the ability that I have to go out and play football.”

Tight end Jared Cook: Killer Mike, “God in the Building”

“It’s hip-hop song but it’s God-based.”

Receiver Kenny Britt: Drake, “Headlines”

“He talks about how a lot of people tell him he fell off and things like that and that’s something he needed to hear. That lines up with me and helps motivate me.”

Quarterback Jake Locker: Montgomery Gentry, “Something to be Proud of”

“It just reminds me of the people in my life that have allowed me to have the opportunity to go out and compete. It reminds me I am playing not only for myself, but for a lot of people in my life.”

Running back Javon Ringer: Deltrick Haddon, “Mighty God”

“It just helps me feel better than listening to a bunch of rap. I can’t really get into all the lyrics and what people are talking about in the rap songs. I like to listen to gospel music and get my mind right. It kind of helps me get focused more than a bunch of swearing.”

Guys who go against the grain:

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: I might have to change this. What I do is I put headphones on and I don’t plug them into anything, so people don’t talk to me. I kind of just like the quiet. I get hyped up for a game, but I am not covering kicks. I need to be relaxed and calm and thinking clearly. I just sort of like the noise cancellation.”

Linebacker Barrett Ruud: “Just whatever I feel like listening to. I’m a shuffle guy. I don’t really use it to get excited. If I am listening to music, it’s usually just to pass the time. Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers, The Black Keys, The White Stripes.”

Kicker Rob Bironas: “I usually drive in listening to Channel 59 XM, The Highway. It’s country music, today’s top hits. Then whatever they are playing at the stadium is my pump-up music.”

Linebacker Will Witherspoon: “I’m a sleeper. I have about a 30 minute nap before a game. I don’t listen to anything.”

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