AFC South: Steve Hutchinson

Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

After nine months of difficult rehabilitation on a torn up knee, linebacker Brian Cushing is ready to re-emerge, says Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle.

To which I say: It’s hard not to pause and wonder how things might have been different if he was on the field for the Texans for all of the 2012 season.

Three significant players -- running back Arian Foster, linebacker Daryl Sharpton and tight end Garrett Graham -- didn’t practice on opening day of camp, says John McClain.

DeAndre Hopkins could hardly sleep the night before the Texans got on the field for training camp, says Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston.

How will the Texans' defense the read option when they see it a couple times this year? Stephanie Stradley of the Chronicle blog examines.

Indianapolis Colts

Their free-agent spending frenzy was a different tact for the Colts, who know there is some risk to stocking up a roster by spending big, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

Tidbits about training camp from Chappell, including this: Veterans are paid $1,700 and rookies $925 per week during the preseason.

The five biggest things to look for as practices start Sunday, from Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Maurice Jones-Drew carried eight times and caught a pass while working a limited number of snaps as the Jaguars opened camp, says Jays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union.

Receiver Cecil Shorts got a lot of action as the Jaguars got started, reports Vito Stellino of the Times-Union.

Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks were the starting defensive tackles and Geno Hayes was with the starters as an outside linebacker, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

J.P. Shadrick and John Oehser of the team’s website reviews the first day of practice. (Video, including a nice play-of-the-day pick by Josh Evans.)

Tennessee Titans

What does chemistry actually mean when considering the offensive line? John Glennon of The Tennessean considers the question as the Titans start to work a revamped group into action.

To which I say: Michael Roos provided a great detail of the complications of footwork. He found himself stepping on Steve Hutchinson’s feet a lot when they first started playing together.

“Believe me, we will not disappoint you this year,” Mike Munchak told the training camp crowd Friday night before practice kicked off. (Video from Wyatt.)

Before Chris Johnson’s race against a cheetah for a November TV special, the barrier between man and cheetah has to be raised, says Wyatt.

Looking in on the first open practice of camp with Amie Wells of the team’s website. (Video.)
In early March, I outlined a five-category plan for offseason moves for each team in the AFC South.

I considered finances, continuity, turnover, additions and the draft.

Today we’ve looked back to see how my plan and the team’s offseason lined up and how they didn’t.

Last up are the Titans. Here’s the original post.

What I got right:

Finances: “There are contracts here that need to be dealt with, but the team has about $18 million in cap room at the start and there's no need to make any moves right away. Guard Steve Hutchinson ($5.25 million base in 2013) and center Eugene Amano ($3.935 million) can't be on the roster at those salaries, and won’t be. Safety Jordan Babineaux ($1.6 million) could be in a similar situation. But the Titans have said they won’t make cap moves until replacement players arrive, and that’s sound thinking.”

Hutchinson, Amano and Babineaux all are gone. It took a while with Amano, but the Titans needed a knee issue to be resolved before they could let him go.

Continuity: “Keeping kicker Rob Bironas would be nice, but you can only spend so much on a kicker, considering how we’ve seen some kids come out of nowhere and do big things. [Since this was posted, The Tennessean reported the Titans struck a two-year deal with Bironas.] Tight end Jared Cook was enough of a problem that the Titans didn’t tag him, so they must move on from the headache. Center Fernando Velasco should be fine if he’s between better guards; the Titans should tender the restricted free agent so that he’s sure to remain. It’d be nice to keep Darius Reynaud, but if Marc Mariani returns healthy, Tennessee doesn’t need both returners.”

They let Cook walk for a giant contract with the Rams, tendered Velesaco, and kept Reynaud.

Turnover: Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is probably not worth what he might draw on the market, so be ready to move on there. Will Witherspoon wasn’t a good enough backup for injury-prone Colin McCarthy at middle linebacker, and an upgrade is needed.

Marks wound up in Jacksonville, Witherspoon is unsigned and Moise Fokou was signed as they looked to upgrade linebacking depth.

What I got part right, part wrong:

Additions: “It’s time to be aggressive. Chase Buffalo’s durable guard, Andy Levitre, and lure him by telling him how much better he can get with the polish two Hall of Fame coaches can apply. The other big fish needs to be Michael Bennett, the Tampa Bay defensive end. He’s a big, ascending player who can play every down and would give the pass rush the boost it needs. Dustin Keller was hurt last year, but he played in every game in his first five seasons. He can be the reliable tight end working underneath for Jake Locker that Frank Wycheck was for Steve McNair. To replace Marks, roll the dice on Kansas City defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who should be affordable and might fare well in a second act with lower expectations.”

Levitre was their primary target. But the Titans went different directions at the other spots -- Ropati Pitoitua at end, Delanie Walker at tight end and Sammie Hill at defensive tackle.

Draft: If Alabama guard Chance Warmack is on the board at No. 10, he would complete the interior line rebuild. I want a corner who can provide another option outside, a safety to groom behind George Wilson and one of the big running backs in the middle rounds who can complement Chris Johnson.

Warmack was the pick at No. 10. The corner arrived in the form of third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson. The additional safety and running back came in free agency, not the draft, with Bernard Pollard and Shonn Greene.
Chance WarmackAl Bello/Getty ImagesIt's been 30 years since the Titans franchise drafted a guard in the first round.
NASHVILLE -- The last two guards drafted by the Tennessee Titans franchise, Hall of Famers Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews, just oversaw the selection of another.

Alabama’s Chance Warmack is so football-focused, he got his license only last year. He's so strong, the Titans said he moved SEC defensive linemen like no one else. He's so in love with the idea of playing for these two coaches, he didn't hold a private workout for anyone else.

I’ve known Munchak and Matthews since 1996. I can’t recall ever seeing the two low-key, business-like football men beam quite so brightly. The glow they gave off at the news conference at the Titans' headquarters after making the 10th pick made me believe it when they said there was no question Warmack was their man early on -- something virtually every coach stated Thursday night.

A few days after Alabama’s pro day, Munchak and Matthews got Warmack on the field with Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker in Tuscaloosa. The coaches put the prospects through a difficult 90-minute workout that helped transform Matthews into a believer.

“Really, for me, I go in very skeptical on linemen that I’ve heard about,” Matthews said. “Because typically they’re a product of the team they play on. Alabama having such a great tradition and on such a hit streak, you kind of think they’ve got a bunch of other guys on the team pumping him up.

“I went in very skeptical, wanting to shoot him down at every turn. And really I think what sold me on him was every time I was with him, I got excited about the opportunity to watch him play and coach him. He has the demeanor and the mindset and he plays the style that we are looking for.”

Warmack spoke in advance of the draft about Tennessee being a dream destination. He’s from Atlanta and went to Alabama. In addition to playing in the Southeast, he craved the coaching the Titans could offer, considering he’d never played for a coach who’d actually played offensive line before.

“They put me through the wringer,” he said, recounting the private workout. “I felt like I put everything into what I did, and throughout my visit we had a great time going over plays and I felt like we hit it off pretty well.”

The franchise hasn’t drafted a first-round guard since Matthews in 1983, ninth overall, and Munchak in 1982, eighth overall. Years later, they presented each other into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As a longtime offensive line coach, Munchak frequently develops midround picks into capable players. He was promoted to head coach in 2011 and hired Matthews, his closest friend, to take over his old job.

Fifth-rounder Benji Olson and third-rounder Zach Piller were the starting guards on the Titans' Super Bowl team in 1999. Free agents such as Kevin Mawae, Fred Miller, Jake Scott have been splashed in, but homegrown and developed guys were far more frequent pieces.

None came in the first round since Brad Hopkins in 1993, and only 1996 bust Jason Layman and current left tackle Michael Roos were drafted as high as the second round.

Investing through the draft has proven insufficient recently. Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano were counted on to develop into reliable pieces and didn’t do enough.

The Titans thought they could make it through last season. They added Steve Hutchinson, the well-credentialed veteran guard. He didn’t bring much and then got hurt, like virtually every other lineman on the team.

General manager Ruston Webster and Munchak huddled after the season and decided it was time. When free agency opened, they landed top available guard, Buffalo’s Andy Levitre, with a six-year, $46.8 million contract.

Now they drafted Warmack. He will shift from his college position on the left to the right and be a fixture on the more powerful side of the line.

“To me, he is the complete package,” Munchak said. “He loves the game; he has a passion for it. Spending time with Bruce and I, he loved hearing the stories of linemen of the past, talking about the history of the game. For a young guy, that’s rare that he’s interested in those types of things. Obviously, we all hit it off pretty well.

“I think he wanted to be a Titan the whole time and he didn't hide his feelings on that.”

Warmack said he weighs 325 pounds and anticipates playing at 325 or 330.

Tim Ruskell scouts the Southeast for the Titans and said the sort of power he saw from Warmack is rare in the NFL. He saw Hutchinson up close in Seattle, where he was dominant at the start of his career. The way Warmack plays will mean the Titans can do anything they want behind him.

“He can explode with his hips and he can get in and get movement versus bigger people,” Ruskell said. “He played against so many good defensive linemen that were strong and stout. We didn’t see a lot of guys moving those guys. But when you watch Chance, he was able to get movement, he was able to seal run lanes -- that kind of power. It’s the power to anchor, it’s the power to explode and get movement versus bigger people.

“... It just sets him apart from the normal offensive linemen that you tend to look at. That is what got our attention, and then it is aggression -- the aggression and the want-to and to sustain and finish the block. Coaches always talk finish. This guy has finish. It is a big thing that seems simple, but it is a big deal. When you see it and the combination of what he has, I think it is a rare trait.”
Steve Hutchinson was a great player for a long time in Seattle and Minnesota.

For the Tennessee Titans, he was a miscalculation. After one failed year in Tennessee, Hutchinson will retire from the NFL on Tuesday, per multiple reports.

Had the Titans coach and offensive line coach, offensive line Hall of Famers Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews, not determined that Hutchinson was an answer at left guard last year, the Titans might have found a better solution and would not be in such dire straits right now with regard to guard.

In 12 games Hutchinson didn’t bring the production, presence or leadership they’d hoped for from him.

And now the Titans are looking for two new starters and will be primary bidders for Buffalo’s Andy Levitre when free agency opens Tuesday afternoon. They could also spend the 10th pick in the draft on Alabama’s Chance Warmack or UNC’s Jonathan Cooper.

Hutchinson was due to count $6.75 million against the salary cap, including a $5.25 million in 2013 pay. He will leave behind a $3 million dead money cap hit, so the Titans will save $3.75 million cap dollars.

Factoring in that savings and a $2.023 million tender for restricted free agent center Fernando Velasco, the Titans stand roughly $18.323 million under the salary cap.

Hutchinson was due a $500,000 roster bonus later this week. Odds are good the Titans informed him they didn’t intend to pay it and would have to cut him, prompting the timing of his decision.
Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews always said he’d recuse himself on roster decisions involving his son, Tennessee interior offensive lineman Kevin Matthews.

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

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

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

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

Leroy Harris and Deuce Lutui become unrestricted free agents Tuesday.

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

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

So Tennessee doesn't need only a couple starting guards. It needs a candidate or two to compete with Petrus and Studdard for backup roles as well.
My plan for the Tennessee Titans as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

Finances: There are contracts here that need to be dealt with, but the team has about $18 million in cap room at the start and there's no need to make any moves right away. Guard Steve Hutchinson ($5.25 million base in 2013) and center Eugene Amano ($3.935 million) can't be on the roster at those salaries, and won’t be. Safety Jordan Babineaux ($1.6 million) could be in a similar situation. But the Titans have said they won’t make cap moves until replacement players arrive, and that’s sound thinking.

Continuity: Keeping kicker Rob Bironas would be nice, but you can only spend so much on a kicker, considering how we’ve seen some kids come out of nowhere and do big things. [Since this was posted, The Tennessean reported the Titans struck a two-year deal with Bironas.] Tight end Jared Cook was enough of a problem that the Titans didn’t tag him, so they must move on from the headache. Center Fernando Velasco should be fine if he’s between better guards; the Titans should tender the restricted free agent so that he’s sure to remain. It’d be nice to keep Darius Reynaud, but if Marc Mariani returns healthy, Tennessee doesn’t need both returners.

Turnover: Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is probably not worth what he might draw on the market, so be ready to move on there. Will Witherspoon wasn’t a good enough backup for injury-prone Colin McCarthy at middle linebacker, and an upgrade is needed.

Additions: It’s time to be aggressive. Chase Buffalo’s durable guard, Andy Levitre, and lure him by telling him how much better he can get with the polish two Hall of Fame coaches can apply. The other big fish needs to be Michael Bennett, the Tampa Bay defensive end. He’s a big, ascending player who can play every down and would give the pass rush the boost it needs. Dustin Keller was hurt last year, but he played in every game in his first five seasons. He can be the reliable tight end working underneath for Jake Locker that Frank Wycheck was for Steve McNair. To replace Marks, roll the dice on Kansas City defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who should be affordable and might fare well in a second act with lower expectations.

Draft: If Alabama guard Chance Warmack is on the board at No. 10, he would complete the interior line rebuild. I want a corner who can provide another option outside, a safety to groom behind George Wilson and one of the big running backs in the middle rounds who can complement Chris Johnson.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Since the turn of the century, the NFL hasn’t seen a guard drafted higher than 17th.

The buzz at this year’s NFL scouting combine is that two prospects -- Chance Warmack from Alabama and Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina -- are both worthy of being selected higher than that.

Warmack
Cooper
“On film, there's no doubt,” said Mike Munchak, the Titans coach who’s a Hall of Fame guard drafted eighth overall by the Oilers in 1982.

The Jaguars and Colts need offensive line help. But Jacksonville seems unlikley to go guard all the way up at No. 2, and Warmack and Cooper will likely be gone by the time the Colts are on the clock at No. 24. Tennessee drafts 10th and has pledged to upgrade the interior of its offensive line. Whether those moves come through free agency, the draft, or both remains to be seen.

But Warmack is from Atlanta and played at Alabama, and indications are if he were picking a team instead of a team picking him, it could be the Titans.

Mike Mayock of NFL Network rates Warmack as something bigger than the draft’s best guard. He ranks him the draft’s best player.

“It’s widely known that guards aren’t drafted that high,” Warmack said. “If that did happen, that would be an honor as a player that plays guard. I’m not thinking about that right now.”

Said Cooper of Warmack: “He is a big guy. I’m glad I got to see him in person and see that he is a human [chuckles]. After all that I heard about him, I mean, they just make him seem unstoppable.”

Munchak has talked in the past about how guards have been devalued in the draft.

He’s been with the organization as a player or coach since 1982, and since then the team has drafted 11 players classified as guards coming out of college.

Bruce Matthews, Munchak’s closest friend and the Titans' offensive line coach and another Hall of Famer, was a first rounder in 1983.

The breakdown of the rest: One second-rounder, one third-rounder, two fourth-rounders, two fifth-rounders, one sixth-rounder, one seventh-rounder, one 10th rounder and one 11th-rounder.

Munchak offered his reasoning for why line value in the draft has shifted dramatically to tackle.

“I think what's changed is the defensive ends changing in stature,” he said. “You've got guys that are 255 pounds that can rush the quarterback the way they can now. They're great athletes. Back when I played in the '80s, maybe even earlier, the ends were bigger guys and you had more tackles available that can probably match up. I think it became a matchup problem for the left tackles. They're hard to find.

“It's hard to find [big ends] that are 255 pounds and can rush. So the supply and demand is lessened, and I think the demand for tackles became more valuable, especially a left tackle. For that reason, you have guards, there are more of them and you push that back a little bit.

“But if you have someone that is special, someone that is really good, that kind of gets thrown out the window. So you have to decide where you want to pick a guy like that.”

While the Titans/Oilers haven’t invested many quality draft picks at the position, they haven’t spent a lot in free agency, either. The two of note were relatively recent: Jake Scott in 2008 and Steve Hutchinson in 2012.

While Warmack was listed by the Crimson Tide as 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds, Cooper measured in at the combine as “only” 6-2 and 312.

They are the top two guys at the position, but hardly the only guys projected to be solid pros. Pro Football Weekly gives the guard group an A-plus.

“I know there are a bunch of great guards in this draft,” Cooper said. “If we all get drafted high and I’m not the first guard taken, I’m not mad at all. I mean, I’m a competitor. I love to compete. So if I am drafted first out of the guards I’ll be ecstatic. If I’m drafted high and I’m not the first, I’ll be OK just the same.”

Eight in the Box: Biggest cap casualty

February, 22, 2013
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, a new NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Who will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?

Houston Texans: The one team in the division that could need some cap relief is the Texans, who currently have $5.768 million in space. But if they re-sign safety Glover Quin, outside linebacker Connor Barwin and fullback James Casey as they’d like to, that space will disappear quickly and they’ll need to find an avenue to gain room. I understand that the general public undervalues a lot of what Kevin Walter does. But a $4.5 million cap number and a scheduled base salary of $3.5 million is simply too much for what he does. A dynamic receiver is still on the Texans' list of needs, which seems to make Walter expendable.

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts don’t need to cut anyone. General manager Ryan Grigson has $43.427 million in cap room. So don’t expect anyone to be released. (Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney was not a cap casualty -- he was a pending free agent who was informed he wouldn’t be offered a new deal.) But are there players who are scheduled to make too much? Sure. Center Samson Satele is due $2.7 million in base salary, and his play in his first year as the team’s center wasn’t $2.22 million better than A.Q. Shipley's in 2012. I doubt it will be in 2013. Parting ways with Satele would save only $1.734 million.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars are in solid cap shape -- they have $23.807 million in space. But they have plenty of players with big deals that the old regime gave them. New general manager Dave Caldwell may be unwilling to pay out some of those contracts. Receiver Laurent Robinson is still dealing with concussion-related issues and although he’s due $2.6 million in base salary, he has the club’s fourth-highest cap number in 2013 at $6.3 million. Cutting him, though, would actually cost the team $100,000 more against the cap in 2013 than keeping him, because his remaining prorated bonus would result in an accelerated $6.4 million hit.

Tennessee Titans: GM Ruston Webster said at the combine Thursday that Tennessee won’t be cutting anyone as the new league year starts, but that once the team adds upgrades in free agency and in the draft, such moves may occur. Webster and coach Mike Munchak are talking about the need to rebuild the interior offensive line. So the top candidates to be cut down the road have to be guard Steve Hutchinson (due a $4.75 million base, he would cost $3 million in dead money cap hit) and guard/center Eugene Amano (due a $3.935 million base, but they’d save only about $1 million by cutting him).

How gap between Titans, Ravens grew

January, 28, 2013
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The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens used to be bitter rivals, closely matched.

Then Tennessee collapsed in a playoff game after the 2000 season at what now is LP Field, losing 24-10 despite dominating the game in a lot of ways.

Since that fork in the road, the teams have gone in very different directions.

Writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean: “The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will play for a second championship on Sunday in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers. The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in nine years and are coming off a 6-10 season.”

But that’s not the line of demarcation I’ll use.

The 2008 Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The sixth-seeded Ravens won in Miami to earn another playoff trip to Nashville. And Tennessee lost that divisional round game in a similar fashion to the game in 2000, even though the score was a lot closer, 13-10.

Since then:
  • The Titans are 29-35 (.453) with no playoff appearances.
  • The Ravens are 43-21 (.672) with a 6-3 playoff record.

That playoff meeting in Nashville was Joe Flacco’s second playoff game, and while he’s had his ups and downs, he’s now a Super Bowl quarterback.

Since then, the Titans have started Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and, in an emergency situations, Rusty Smith.

Instability at quarterback is only part of the reasons the teams have been so different.

John Harbaugh has developed into a steady coach while Jeff Fisher’s tenure fizzled out and Mike Munchak hasn’t established any solid footing after two seasons.

Led by one of the NFL’s top general managers, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have continued good roster building.

The Titans actually have more starters and contributors out of their last four drafts, but it’s partly because of previous failures -- think Young, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Paul Williams -- that so much opportunity is available.

Baltimore’s gotten far more production out of outside veterans it’s brought in: Center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade), fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, resurgent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.

Compare that to Tennessee’s veteran additions: Receiver Nate Washington, linebacker Will Witherspoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, safety Jordan Babineaux, guard Steve Hutchinson, end Kamerion Wimbley, returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and didn’t see much change with Dowell Loggains promoted to replace Chris Palmer.

The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and got a major boost from Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron.

It’s a copycat league, and the Ravens were already a model franchise in many ways.

The Titans are one of a long list of teams that need to look at how the Ravens work and borrow some ideas.

Quarterback is the key, but the gap between these two teams was a playoff field goal just four years ago. It’s a deep moat now.

Priority one: Tennessee Titans

January, 23, 2013
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Today we look at the biggest issues facing each team in the AFC South and give you an opportunity to assess priority one:

Pending free agents of note: Tight end Jared Cook, kicker Rob Bironas, return man Darius Reynaud, fullback Quinn Johnson, guard Leroy Harris, defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks.

Weaknesses: Defense. The Titans couldn’t stop good teams from moving the ball and scoring points. They need a better pass rush to hurry quarterbacks up and better safeties/ safety play to bolster the secondary. Jake Locker was inaccurate and inefficient in his first year as the quarterback, plus he got hurt.

SportsNation

What should be priority one for the Titans?

  •  
    7%
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    31%
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    20%
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    39%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,203)

Unsettled starting jobs: All three interior offensive line positions require attention. Steve Hutchinson could retire, but isn’t the answer at left guard if he doesn’t unless the other two spots get big upgrades. Fernando Velasco was the center after a camp injury to Eugene Amano, and Harris was the right guard until an injury ended his year. Strong safety is up in the air too, where Jordan Babineaux and Al Afalava don't cut it.

Depth issues: Critics will be quick to say the offensive line depth is a question, but the Titans needed starts from six backups, and no one can be 11 deep on the line. Upgrade starters and the backups may be fine. They aren’t deep enough at end or safety. They need a better option for if/when middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is hurt. I’m OK with the top three corners, but one injury and they’re in trouble.

Health concerns: Locker had postseason surgery on his left, non-throwing shoulder. On the offensive line, Hutchinson had right knee surgery after he was injured with four games left and right tackle David Stewart is coming off a broken leg. Returner Marc Mariani suffered a compound broken left leg, tibia and fibula, in the preseason. Kenny Britt was back from knee issues, but was determined to get to the bottom of swelling and soreness this offseason.

Unseen issue: Coach Mike Munchak fired four assistants (including offensive coordinator Chris Palmer during the season) and brought in three outsiders while moving some others around. Will we see improved play on special teams and from linebackers, tight ends, receivers and running backs?
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

The Texans have a bad draw in the streaking Bengals, says Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle. Andre Johnson said Cincinnati’s defense is “probably the most talented we’ve faced this season.”

The defense has been allowing deadly, long touchdown passes, says John McClain of the Chronicle.

J.J. Watt says the Texans have boxed up all the negativity and trashed it, writes Brian T. Smith of the Chronicle.

To which I say: It’s one thing to talk about forgetting the past. But on some psychological level I think doubt has crept in. Will that undo the Texans?

Daryl Sharpton’s hip landed him on IR and Mister Alexander is back on the roster, says Robertson.

What you need to know about Bengals-Texans, from ESPN Stats & Information.

Early returns say the Texans’ 2012 draft was average, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Indianapolis Colts

There are storylines galore for Colts-Ravens. Phillip B. Wilson runs through several, including: Chuck Pagano against his old team, the sputtering Ravens and the hot Colts and Jim Caldwell as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator.

Little rookie T.Y. Hilton continually came up big for the Colts, says Phil Richards of the Star.

How did the Colts keep Watt from sacking Andrew Luck? More effective double teams, Luck keeping plays alive and better play from Mike McGlynn, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jaguars owner Shad Khan appears to be leaning young instead of the retread route as he pursues general manager candidates, writes Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

To which I say: A good point in here about the pace. Khan needs to get the new guy in place so he can decide on Mike Mularkey, and if he makes a move away from Mularkey the new guy can’t be behind the rest of the teams hiring coaches and staffs.

Khan’s done a great deal of flying since the Jaguars' loss in Nashville Sunday, says O’Halloran.

The Jaguars' 2012 season by the numbers, from O’Halloran. Opponents sacked Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne 50 times. It’s the highest total since 2001 and the third-most in the league this year.

The Jaguars “simply did not have the talent to compete on a regular basis with other NFL teams,” says Dunlevy. “They were outscored by 189 points on the year, the second-largest disparity in the league.”

Tennessee Titans

Kenny Britt has an offseason to get his knees healthy, work with his quarterback and get back to form after a tough season, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: Britt will also be playing for a contract, which should serve as extra motivation. I suspect it will be his last year with the Titans.

Jared Cook and Rob Bironas are heading to free agency and don’t know what will happen, says John Glennon of The Tennessean. Also, Jake Locker has shoulder surgery scheduled and Steve Hutchinson could consider retirement.

AFC South wrap: The division in 2012

December, 27, 2012
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans. I’ve never seen someone so disruptive up front. The guy’s got the complete package. He’s incredibly instinctive, knowing when to stop rushing and pull up, looking to bat down a pass. He also understands the lane into which a quarterback might be looking to throw. He simply manhandles some blockers -- swimming past them, bowling them backward, speeding around them or knifing between two guys. Some blockers have had absolutely no answer for him, and even if a team tried to take plays as far away from him as possible, he often tracked those plays and got involved in stopping them.

[+] EnlargeJJ Watt
Brett Davis/US PresswireJ.J. Watt needs two more sacks to tie Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 sacks in a season.
Early in the season he talked about wanting to redefine the 3-4 end position, which hasn’t traditionally been a stat position. Later Antonio Smith pointed out how often Watt is really lining up at tackle. He’s not likely to win MVP based on what the league’s best quarterbacks and Adrian Peterson (despite my thinking that the running back is not worthy of the award) are doing. But his ability to push an offense backward so often has been a tremendous factor in an excellent season for the Texans. The other three teams would be wise to reinforce their offensive lines, because it’s reasonable to expect Watt will be a handful for protections and run blocking for years to come.

Biggest disappointment: The pass rushes of the Jaguars and the Titans required offseason attention. Neither team did enough to find a way to disrupt opposing quarterbacks consistently. The Jaguars go into the final game of the season with the worst sacks-per-play average in the NFL and a total of only 18 sacks. Jacksonville’s big addition was second-round pick Andre Branch, who couldn’t hold onto a starting job and finished with one sack in 12 games and is on IR. The Jags played nine games in which they produced either one sack or no sacks. Tennessee has 32 sacks and is close to the middle of the pack. But it’s not enough for a defense with a lot of kids in the back seven and bad safety play. Tennessee got better results than Jacksonville from its newcomer, free-agent signee Kamerion Wimbley (five sacks), but he didn’t offer the game-to-game and play-to-play threat Tennessee so desperately needed.

Joe Cullen’s been in place for three seasons as Jacksonville’s defensive line coach. He’s a good coach and motivator, but he did not get the production the defense had to have. His counterpart in Nashville, Tracy Rocker, came from Auburn in 2011 and hasn’t proved to be an effective NFL position coach. Pass-rush coach Keith Millard was brought in to help the rush and the blitz, but it’s hard to see a major difference as a result of his presence. The Titans got shredded by the best quarterbacks they faced, from Tom Brady on opening day to Aaron Rodgers last week.

Offensive player of the year, rookie of the year, fourth-quarter player of the year: Andrew Luck has thrown too many interceptions in his rookie season. His stat line is hardly cause for a parade. He dug himself some holes. But leading his team to 10 wins, seven of them in comeback fashion, and getting into the playoffs does a lot to reduce the importance of those turnovers. He showed a great talent for climbing out of those holes. He was capable of digesting everything the first time around, handling Bruce Arians’ very vertical offense, the absence of coach Chuck Pagano, an often ineffective defense and a less-than-watertight offensive line with aplomb.

Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have strong cases for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, which may never have been so hotly contested. We may see all three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs. In the AFC South, Luck is the quarterback who was asked to do the most from the start, and he was the quarterback who did the most. Rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton is already a good player for the Colts. If you took Hilton and put him on the Titans or the Jaguars, how would he fare? Nowhere near as well as he fared playing with Luck in their first years in the NFL, I feel certain.

Worst injuries: The Jaguars really suffered because Daryl Smith and Clint Session were absent from the linebacking corps. Smith just returned last week from a groin injury and Session never made it back from multiple concussions suffered in 2011, his first season in Jacksonville. The corners all took turns missing time, and safety Dwight Lowery played only nine games. The loss of playmakers really dented a defense that plummeted in the rankings from 2011 to 2012.

Tennessee’s offensive line was not good enough, and revamping the interior needs to be a major offseason priority. The Titans lost starting center Eugene Amano in the preseason and right guard Leroy Harris halfway through the year. For the last quarter of the season, they were also down left guard Steve Hutchinson and right tackle David Stewart. It’s hard for them to give Jake Locker a real chance playing behind a line with four reserves. Still, he could have shown far more in his chances when he was healthy.

The division’s two worst teams lost a lot of time with their young quarterbacks, too. Locker missed five games with a shoulder injury, and Blaine Gabbert played through a shoulder injury before adding a forearm issue that ended his season after 10 games. Looking ahead to 2013, the status of each as a long-term answer is not what it once was.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Bruce Arians stepped in for coach Chuck Pagano and led a team coming off a two-win season to the playoffs.
Coaches of the year: Pagano and Arians of the Colts. It's been a storybook season for Indianapolis, which rallied around Pagano. He learned he had leukemia after just three games and handed the team to Arians while he underwent treatment. His fight gave the team a purpose, and it responded by playing better than the sum of its parts. Behind the scenes, Pagano was more involved than many might imagine.

But it was Arians conveying the messages, overseeing the game-planning, leading and, as offensive coordinator, calling the plays. He did a masterful job in overseeing the team, the offense and the rookie quarterback. Now, with Pagano back in place, he’ll drift into the background. He’s 60, which will work against his getting a head-coaching job. His work, however, should earn him consideration for some of the jobs that are about to open. That was quite an audition. And just about every team hiring a coach will need a quarterback developer.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

I want to emphasize one thing about this All-AFC South Team. Wade Smith is measured against the division’s left guards, not against the rest of the selections. There are miles between Smith as a player and Watt as a player, and if we measure a guard against a defensive end who’s the division MVP, things look askew.

One I’ll get crushed for: Many of you argued with me on Twitter when I wrote that I would take Luck over Matt Schaub as the third Pro Bowl quarterback, so I am sure you won’t like the choice of quarterback here. Luck struggled more than Schaub, for sure. But he was asked to do far more than Schaub and produced seven comeback wins, leading a team that’s really lacking in talent to an improbable playoff spot. There were no expectations for the Colts, and Luck and the team delivered. There were huge expectations on the Texans, and Schaub and the team delivered. My gut continues to prefer Luck’s year. That doesn’t mean I dislike what Schaub’s done.

Just misses: Titans defensive end Derrick Morgan, Texans outside linebacker Brooks Reed, Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.

Who calls the protections, and why?

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
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Andrew LuckKim Klement/US PresswireRookie Andrew Luck of the Colts is among the QBs asked to call the bulk of his team's protections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got all that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would lean on coaching it up.”

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

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

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

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

They should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fraying Titans overmatched by Bears

November, 4, 2012
11/04/12
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Mike MunchakAP Photo/Wade PayneMike Munchak and the Titans have a lot of work to do after Sunday's blowout loss to the Bears.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans coaches warned players all week about how Charles Tillman strips the ball, offering specifics of his techniques.

Then four Titans went out and got stripped by the Bears cornerback, including Kenny Britt on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

What does that say about the quality of players on Tennessee’s roster and their ability to absorb and execute a coaching message?

Not anything good.

Tennessee unraveled quickly and thoroughly en route to its 51-20 loss to the Bears on Sunday at LP Field. It would have been hard to play a worse first quarter had the Titans prepared a game plan for it. And some of their gaffes made it hard to see anything but an undisciplined, unprepared and ineffective cast of characters that isn’t the nucleus for a resurgence but a core lacking the sort of central DNA necessary to create a contender.

It also created more questions in my mind than I’ve ever had before about the job security of coach Mike Munchak and his staff.

“If a team underperforms, I’m the first guy you should look at for that, not anybody else, not assistant coaches, it starts with me,” Munchak said. “If we don’t finish the season the way it should, then what needs to happen will happen. ...

“We’ve got seven games to play. If we win all seven, all of a sudden this would be kind of a wasted argument.”

Yes, on the heels of this debacle, let’s dream of seven-game winning streaks.

But first, how about cleaning up things like illegal-formation penalties on consecutive first-quarter plays, where a receiver covered up the tight end?

“We had those plays in our hands days ago and had a meeting about it [Saturday] night and had a meeting about it [Sunday] morning,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “I don’t know what to say. That’s not good.”

Rookie receiver Kendall Wright said he thought he was responsible for at least one of the calls.

“It hurt the team a lot,” he said. “But what I did at practice all week, I thought I was on the ball. I screwed it up. It’s my fault all the way.”

He thought he was on the ball all week, but he was supposed to be off the ball and no one spotted it or corrected it until the officiating crew got a look on Sunday? Sorry, but that is some major evidence in a case against the people running things for this team right now.

“We just have to pay attention more and know the right things to do, know where to line up,” Chris Johnson said. “These coaches all week gave us the right formula and we had a good week of practice. It makes it even worse when you have a good week of practice and do everything right during the week, get to the game and mess up.”

The Titans were out of this game in a flash, trailing 28-2 at the end of an atrocious first quarter.

“We screwed up from the get-go,” guard Steve Hutchinson said.

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesChicago's Charles Tillman made an impact right from the start of Sunday's game.
The log for the first 15 minutes:
“That first quarter is horrible,” Wright said. “We can’t spot anybody 28 points and expect to come back and win.”

Jordan Babineaux was the one Titans player I talked to who didn’t offer an immediate defense of the coaches and the plan.

“You got any questions, you’ve got to ask the defensive coordinator,” he said, referring to Jerry Gray.

I asked about the blocked punt, where he was lined up as the personal protector, but where he didn’t offer protection, running to the right and cutting out of the backfield entirely. He said I’d need to ask the special-teams coach, Alan Lowry.

The Titans’ margin for error is obviously small against a good team. They didn’t have room for this brand of clunker.

“Sometimes what is said is that wasn’t us and we’ll just sweep it under the rug and get back to being us,” Hasselbeck said. “But those are good teams that built a cushion for themselves that are up front in their division and playoffs are probably on the way anyway. ... We can’t have a stinker. We can’t just lay an egg like that. So that’s what’s disappointing. It’s hard to say that just wasn’t us.”

“It’s a bad loss,” McCourty said. “When you go out and it’s as embarrassing as that is, it just sucks to be a part of it.”

Where do they go from here?

A year ago, they were 9-7, narrowly missing the playoffs. This year it looks like that record could earn a spot in the postseason field. There are a couple of teams every year that weren’t looking good at the halfway point and finish big.

Munchak will sell the Titans that they can be that team.

What degree of belief will he get back? What degree of belief does he deserve back?

Down 31-5 at the half, he challenged his team to go out and do something special, something unexpected.

That didn’t happen.

After it was over, he preached about how everyone is in this together, how they’ve got to stick together, that they can’t split.

Munchak may be able to glue players together and the roster may be composed of guys who will stay unified. The sad truth is such solidarity may ultimately not mean a thing when it comes to altering the Titans’ fortunes.

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