AFC South: Jake Locker

Titans vs. Bengals preview

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET

The Tennessee Titans had trouble stopping the run last week when Dallas running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 167 yards in the Cowboys' 26-10 win over the Titans at LP Field.

The Cincinnati Bengals, paced by the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, improved to 2-0 last week in part because of the ground game. The running back duo sparked the win over the Falcons when it picked up all but six of the Bengals' 170 rushing yards and contributed in the receiving game.

All that suggests the Bengals have a slight advantage entering Sunday's Week 3 showdown in Cincinnati. Will Bernard and Hill continue feeding off each other and have another strong rushing performance against a poor rushing defense? Or will the Titans buckle up this week and make the necessary changes to prevent the Bengals from pulling a Murray on them?

ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to discuss that and more:

Kuharsky: We'll start with you, Coley. Andy Dalton has gotten spectacular protection. The Titans have eight sacks and have rushed well, with a lot of blitzes from the secondary last week. What has keyed the Bengals in this department, and are they perhaps susceptible to anything they haven’t seen yet?

Harvey: It starts with solid offensive line play. The players on the Bengals' front have done a great job holding their blocks in the first two games. Then you have to credit the Bengals' play calling. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has called plays that get Dalton to throw quickly, delivering the ball to receivers in the type of short and intermediate routes that he mostly excelled with last year. You also have to credit the receivers for running precise routes and getting quicker separation than they did at times last year. That was their key focus during the preseason. Plus, you have to acknowledge the running backs. Bernard leads the team in targets this season, and on at least three occasions he has bailed Dalton out of possible sacks by remaining close to the line of scrimmage after blocks. On each of those broken plays, Dalton yelled out Bernard's name -- "Gio!" -- before dumping off a quick screen that gained big yards.

Along those lines, Dalton deserves an enormous amount of credit for being savvy to do that and for throwing the ball away when he hasn't had adequate passing lanes this year. He is susceptible to getting sacked this week, but playing all 3-4 defenses in the preseason helped prepare the Bengals for this week's challenge.

Paul, Jake Locker and Dalton hail from the famed 2011 quarterback draft class. Locker was picked eighth overall by Tennessee, Dalton 35th by Cincinnati. And the rest has been history. It certainly appears the Dalton experiment has fared better. So what is it about Locker that continues to convince Titans brass that he’s the man for the job?

Kuharsky: Well, GM Ruston Webster wasn’t the primary decision-maker then, but he was on board with the Locker selection and obviously remains so. As he sold Ken Whisenhunt on the job, Webster also sold him on Locker having a chance to be an answer at quarterback under the tutelage of the new coach. Locker works his butt off, says all the right things and has the respect of his coaches and peers. He is capable of a game like he played in Kansas City, where he was poised even under pressure, threw a couple TD passes, distributed the ball well and led a strong effort. He’s capable, too, of a dud of a first half like he posted against the Cowboys, when he couldn’t do a thing right.

The Titans have invested a ton in the offensive line over the past two seasons, and Locker has perhaps the best stable of targets the franchise has assembled since it relocated.

They back him, but he’s not under contract beyond this year. Locker has to stay healthy and win over Whisenhunt with a good body of work or the Titans can turn toward sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger and someone else next year.

Count me among those who figured the Bengals would drop off at least a bit defensively with Mike Zimmer moving on to Minnesota. How have they dealt with his loss? And mandatory Pacman Jones question: What’s his role, how is he playing, and is he staying out of trouble?

Harvey: Let's get to the Jones question first. When he arrived in 2010 after his time in Tennessee and Dallas, part of the way he tried to reinvent himself was to drop his nickname in favor of his given name, Adam. Teammates still refer to him as Pacman at times, but people around the team have respected his desire to mostly go by Adam. In turn, he has respected them by mostly staying on the right side of the law. He had one verbal run-in last fall with a police officer that resulted in a citation. Also last fall, a judge found Jones not guilty of assaulting a woman at a Cincinnati nightclub in June 2013. The judge didn't think either party acted appropriately but noted that surveillance video showed where Jones had first been assaulted by the stranger with a beer bottle. Since then, Jones has gotten married and doubled his efforts to put his past behind him and not receive the type of notoriety that defined his days in Nashville.

As far as his role, that relates to the reason there hasn't been much drop-off following Zimmer's departure. The Bengals may have lost the beloved coordinator, but they lost only one regular starter from last year's defense in the offseason -- defensive end Michael Johnson. They remain chock-full of veteran talent with players, such as the 30-year-old Jones, who are playing the best in their careers. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Leon Hall are playing at high levels in a defense that has the same scheme and foundation as before. It also helps that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was already on the staff and was in charge of calling many of the blitzes that made Zimmer's scheme hum.

Although last week’s loss to Dallas was certainly deflating to a Titans defense that stopped the run well in Week 1, what was it that made Tennessee’s pass defense so effective last week against Tony Romo? How will Tennessee try to make Dalton's life as tough as Romo’s was last week?

Kuharsky: Don’t let the numbers fool you. They were "good" in pass defense against Dallas only because they were so busy getting run on that the Cowboys didn’t need to throw the ball. Dez Bryant had his way with them on the crucial drive that re-established who the better team was after the Titans closed to 16-10 in the third quarter. With top cornerback Jason McCourty out in the second half with a groin injury, Romo made the throws he needed to against Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh and the rest of the secondary.

The Titans have rushed well, so Alex Smith and Romo didn’t have a lot of time to pick them apart. But Smith lacked weapons, and Romo lacked necessity. The Titans have limited big plays, which is a huge theme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. If they can keep that up, the Bengals might have to earn their yards in smaller chunks.

What are the biggest differences between Jay Gruden’s offense and the one Jackson is using in his first year as coordinator with Gruden at the helm in Washington? If the Bengals are without A.J. Green, how dangerous can they still be?

Harvey: All you need to know is this: Dalton averaged 39.9 dropbacks in 2013. Through two games, he has averaged just 31.5 dropbacks. In short, the Bengals are passing less and running more. That was Jackson's charge this offseason when he said he wanted to instill a more physical, aggressive brand of offense from what the team had before. When the Bengals rushed 45 times last week with all but 10 of their carries coming inside the tackles, you could see exactly what Jackson was referring to. He wants to bruise defenses up front to open up the pass downfield.

Being without Green, as it appears they will be, will be a big loss. But considering the fact that Green was lost just six plays into Sunday's game and the Bengals still held up offensively, they should be fine passing to Mohamed Sanu, tight end Jermaine Gresham and the running backs. If it plays like it did last week, the Bengals offense can still be dangerous sans Green.

How fast is Delanie Walker, Paul? Outside of the AFC South we just see a physical, stodgy bowling ball of a tight end. But can he really be as dangerous in space as he seems to think?

Kuharsky: He was a terror last week. On his 61-yard touchdown catch, he bounced off a corner and galloped a long way, outrunning four Cowboys. Walker is a tough, smart player who was a good find. And Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end, is finding ways to use him just as Mike Munchak and his staff did in 2013. Walker can be a big matchup problem, depending on how a defense chooses to defend receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey. Tennessee has another tight end who can do some damage as a receiver. Taylor Thompson was a defensive end in college, but he finally has caught on to what it takes to be effective on offense in the NFL at the position he started at.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- From early on in his first offseason working with Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff, Jake Locker said he felt empowered.

There were, and still are, questions about the Titans' quarterback.

Locker
But rather than breathing life into those doubts, Whisenhunt wasted little time showing confidence in the quarterback. It seems to me that has been a key in Locker's progress. And while we tend to make too much of preseason developments, Locker's been good.

He's got more freedom and more responsibility than ever, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

"I feel really comfortable and I really feel like I understand what we're doing offensively and I have ownership of it," Locker said. "So I thank (this coaching staff) for challenging me early. At this point, I really feel like I understand what's going on in this offense better than I have in the past."

Where, precisely, can we see an example of that?

Left tackle Michael Roos provided Glennon with an excellent one. Locker's actually allowed a blitzer a lane knowing he would find a beneficial throw out of it.

"There are times at practice when he's made himself the hot guy on purpose because he knows a receiver on that side is going to break off his route and it will be a good play," Roos said. "So there's that kind of stuff. It might not look right to us, but if he wants to do it and he knows what he's doing, then obviously it's going to work out."

That example is a solid development for Locker, and the Titans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Zach Mettenberger has played a very solid three games in the preseason so far.

He’s hit on 68.6 percent of his passes at 9.88 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and two interceptions, four sacks and 97.2 passer rating.

The Titans are pleased.

But their quarterback depth chart has not changed.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Mark Humphrey/AP PhotoBarring an injury situation, the Titans pecking order at quarterback will be: Jake Locker folllowed by Charlie Whitehurst followed by Zach Mettenberger, above.
Backup Charlie Whitehurst didn’t play Saturday in Atlanta because of an injured pinkie on his throwing hand. But his limited preseason work has also been good -- 68.9 percent, 9.02 yards per attempt, a touchdown, no interceptions and two sacks for a passer rating of 105.6.

“Zach is (getting) more comfortable," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I still think at times he struggles with some things. Which is not uncommon for a young player. It’s been invaluable, the amount of reps that we’ve gotten him and how he’s performed. I think it’s been fantastic.

“He’s done a good job, he’s really made some plays for us. I think some things that really stand out about Zach is he’s got a good pocket presence, he’s made some accurate throws. It was nice to see him throw balls only to our team last night. He’s taking advantage of his opportunities to improve. That’s good to see.”

But with all of that, Whitehurst remains the guy the Titans will turn to if Locker goes down.

I asked if it’s in the realm of possibility that Mettenberger would be the backup on Sept. 7 in Kansas City.

“Unless it was an injury situation, no,” Whisenhunt said. “Charlie’s had a very good preseason, too, and a very good camp. And I’ve said Charlie was the two coming in. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think we’re very lucky that we’ve got a group of quarterbacks that we feel comfortable with.”

A good percentage of fans won’t like that.

I know it’s hard not to get caught up in a shiny new thing. And watching Mettenberger throw is fun. He's got a tremendous arm and has anticipated pretty well. But Whitehurst has been better than I expected and it makes sense, if you’ve got to insert a cold backup without much practice work, for it to be a guy who’s got more experience in, and understanding of, the team’s offensive system.

If the Titans need a long-term sub then Mettenberger should be considered, and I expect he will be, particularly if that need comes later rather than sooner.

For a game-day insert, Whitehurst is the right choice at this point.

Things can evolve to be different, but not based on Mettenberger’s work against mostly third-teamers in August.

Whisenhunt’s been intentionally -- and I would argue, unreasonably -- vague about playing time plans in advance of preseason games. He left open the possibility Mettenberger will start the preseason finale against Minnesota at LP Field Thursday night.

I can’t see it.

While Jake Locker is in a good spot, he talked after the game in Atlanta about how the offense still needed to communicate better. The offense isn’t at a point where it would not benefit from the starting quarterback and offense getting a bit more work together.

We don’t know if Whitehurst’s finger will allow his return or be best served by another game off.

Either way, Mettenberger will play a lot on Thursday.

And then he and Whitehurst won’t play for a good while if things break the way the Titans are hoping they will.

Titans Camp Report: Day 19

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
7:46
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:

  • Receiver Justin Hunter continued to make things difficult on cornerbacks on jump balls. He went up and got one over Coty Sensabaugh from Jake Locker. He jumped over rookie Marqueston Huff for another. He skied to the crossbar in the back of the end zone to pluck another with Sensabaugh nearby.
  • Charlie Whitehurst had to call “ball” on one throw up the right side for Michael Preston, who turned but wasn’t ready and watched it sail through his hands, though he had some room on Micah Pellerin.
  • Locker threw a duck that found the ground quickly when it looked like he was aiming for Nate Washington with Blidi Wreh-Wilson in coverage. Locker seemed to be trying to stop himself from throwing it, but the motion was well underway and it came out of his hand. Wound up harmless.
  • Other red-zone TD catches besides Hunter’s: Marc Mariani from Whitehurst and Chase Coffman stretching at the back line from Zach Mettenberger.
  • Linebacker Zaviar Gooden didn’t get his head around on a Whitehurst throw for Taylor Thompson, but Gooden got his arm up to hit the ball for a breakup.
  • While the Titans have been very reserved with their kickers, Brett Kern punted for the second day in a row.
  • Whitehurst was "sacked" when the he dashed left and ended up swallowing the ball. It looked like the play was supposed to be a handoff to Bishop Sankey but was unclear who made the mistake. Sankey made some nifty moves on a couple of carries.
  • Whitehurst threw an interception to Huff in a ball intended for Isaiah Williams.
  • DaQuan Jones is working as the second nose tackle, and Al Woods is also in the loop there behind starter Sammie Hill. Antonio Johnson has been out for a while in recovering from a knee scope. Jones and Woods can play inside or out, while Johnson doesn’t bring the same versatility. He’s likely in trouble.
  • Travis Coons hit field goals of 38 and 44 yards at the conclusion of two-minute drill work by the offense. Whisenhunt said Maikon Bonani's groin was bothering him a little bit. Coons hit both field goals on a better trajectory with room to spare. He told me he was hitting the ball a bit lower than usual as he worked with snapper Beau Brinkley and holder Kern to speed up the snap, hold, kick process. Now that they’ve made progress on that he’s getting his natural swing back and getting more height on his kicks.
  • Whisenhunt said he will allow players to go home after they return from their trip to New Orleans for Friday night’s game. That ends camp in one way. But Whisenhunt said while the Titans will structure next week like a normal practice week, that they will still work ones against ones and rotate people in competitions. For him, camp really ends when the first round of cuts come and as the team focuses on planning for an opponent.
  • That likely means the practice rules change next week and you won’t be seeing any more of these practice reports. Hope you enjoyed them and they gave you some insight.

Titans Camp Report: Day 18

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
7:16
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:

  • The offense played a lot better than it did on Monday, with Jake Locker throwing three red-zone TD passes a day after he was shut out. There was still some sloppiness. Jackie Battle dropped two passes, and Taylor Thompson dropped one. Shonn Greene had a fumble, though he didn’t run the customary punishment lap which may have been because it was ruled to happen after the whistle (though there isn’t really a whistle).
  • In seven-on-seven work Charlie Whitehurst connected with Michael Preston on a deep ball over cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson. I’ve noted before that Whitehurst has put a lot of air under a lot of his deep stuff. This one was more of a line drive.
  • Kendall Wright continues to look amazing. It looks as if his confidence is as high as possible, and anything thrown near him is practically a sure thing. I hit him several times on Instagram.
  • Justin Hunter also had several good catches, beating Jason McCourty on a go route and going up easily over Tommie Campbell in the back right corner of the end zone in red zone 1-on-1s.
  • Bishop Sankey ran more authoritatively than he did a day earlier, when he fumbled a couple times. He had two live goal-line chances from the 2-yard line. The first was debatable -- I wasn’t sure he got in, he said he’s biased but admitted it needed a tape review. He was stuffed pretty quickly on a second snap.
  • Both sides were feisty. Bernard Pollard and Nate Washington had an extened back-and-forth hollering at each other, as did Daimion Stafford and Leon Washintgon. Washington told Stafford, “You can’t hit me” to which Stafford replied “You’re too little.” That exchange was repeated several times. Linebacker David Gilbert, back after a stretch out with a shoulder injury, flung tight end Chase Coffman to the ground to start a fight that spilled over. The Gilbert-Coffman dustup wasn’t anything beyond ordinary but leaked into a couple different shoving matches.
  • Right after that scrap, Anderson picked off Zach Mettenberger in the back right corner of the end zone. Anderson's been making some plays, but also gets beat. He seems like an all-or-nothing type at this point.
  • Derek Hagan caught a mid-range pass near the numbers on the right side in between a lot of defenders. I feel like he’s consistently good at finding that space on that play or ones similar to it.

Titans Camp Report: Day 17

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
7:21
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • It was a horrific day for the offense, which came out flat and had mistakes in every area you can think of. There were multiple drops, fumbles, interceptions and bad snaps. Ken Whisenhunt downplayed it as one bad day, and of course it was, but the degree of badness was alarming. Said receiver Derek Hagan, who dropped a pass near the end of practice “It was bad, we didn’t get anything going at all. It was a crazy day. Nobody was catching the ball, bad blocking, missed assignments. Just an overall bad day.”
  • Shonn Greene had a fumble that Zach Brown recovered. Bishop Sankey fumbled twice, the first recovered by Brandon Copeland and the second bounced back to Sankey.
  • Kendall Wright streaked across the middle to collect a Locker pass, beating Jason McCourty. Michael Preston made a nice catch over Coty Sensabaugh up the left side from Charlie Whitehurst. Taylor Thompson had a couple more nice plays.
  • Jake Locker made a bad throw for Nate Washington in the right side of the end zone in red zone work. Tommie Campbell may have pushed off, but he easily collected the bad throw.
  • Whitehurst threw a terrible pick as he looked for Marc Mariani to his right. The line drive throw was easily caught by Blidi Wreh-Wilson who was practically halfway between quarterback and his target. Perhaps the worst play of all on a terrible day.
  • Daimion Stafford had a nice breakup of a throw for Mariani, whose helmet popped off in the process. Ri'Shard Anderson broke up a Zach Mettenberger dart for Hagan. Wreh-Wilson had a too-easy breakup of a Locker pass for Dexter McCluster. The defense made some plays, for sure. But more of the offensive failures were self-inflicted.
  • Justin Hunter wore a jersey that said “J A G” across the back instead of “Hunter.” He said Whisenhunt and receivers coach Shawn Jefferson talked to him after he forgot to convert a route Saturday night. Hunter didn’t know they’d follow through with the jersey, but they did. He said he’ll continue to work to be more than “just a guy.”
  • Hunter made a nice play in the middle of the field, winning a contested ball from Locker by taking it away from safety Michael Griffin.
  • Among the targets with drops: Delanie Walker, Preston, Washington (who had a chance to recollect the ball on the sideline but bobbled it until his feet were out), Thompson, Hagan.
  • Guard Andy Levitre said he played one game at center for the Bills against Miami and was bad at it. Whisenhunt reminded a questioner that he’d said in the past he intended to work Levitre a little at center to prepare a contingency. Now with Chris Spencer (ankle) out, it was the right time. Levitre said he lost focus and snapped as if the quarterback was under center a couple times when he wound up rolling balls past Zach Mettenberger. Ultimately, they put starting center Brian Schwenke in with the third team to settle things down.
  • Kickoffs: Maikon Bonani put one 9 yards deep and another 4 yards deep into the end zone. With less hang time, Travis Coons put one kickoff 4 yards deep. Coons also punted some.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In reviewing the Tennessee Titans' 20-16 win over the Packers in the preseason opener for both teams, I didn’t even touch on the work of Jake Locker.

Locker
Ken Whisenhunt left the starting quarterback in longer than planned, but the heavy rain did not cease and there was little usable information produced by his performance.

Locker didn’t handle the ball well in the weather. He needs to do better with that, but anyone would have had a hard time with it.

He only threw two passes. As David Climer of The Tennessean illustrates, one of them was a third-and-3 fade for Justin Hunter that wasn’t close.

The good thing was that Locker was in football action and got hit for the first time since Nov. 10, 2013. He wasn't sacked, but he did run twice.

As for assessing where he stands, we really got no significant update.

Blame Mother Nature that we have another week before learning more.

The Titans are at New Orleans Friday night. There will be no conditions to deal with in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Out of Thursday's practice, I detailed what I thought was a disastrous play for the Tennessee Titans:
(Jake) Locker made a terrible red zone throw for Washington. Cornerback Jason McCourty was trailing Washington cutting left to right across the front of the end zone, and the pass was well behind McCourty, who couldn't get his hands back for it. It bounced off his shoulder and Bernard Pollard plucked it out of the air for a pick. Perhaps the worst decision and throw combination of camp for Locker.

There have been a lot of practices where I thought Locker did well, with the exception of one big mistake or two. Too often, those mistakes are the sort that could be game-killers.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiTitans QB Jake Locker says practice is the best time to review mistakes and correct them.
Obviously it's unlikely any quarterback plays near-perfect with any regularity. And one of the things the Titans loved about Locker when they brought him in was his resiliency. Mike Munchak routinely talked of Locker's ability to forget something bad and rebound going forward without letting it affect him.

I certainly still see that in Locker.

This week, I asked him about how he views a play like the one I outlined above when practice is over and he had a chance to review it and break it down.

"It's an opportunity to go back and look at the film and see what you can learn from it and improve," Locker said. "I think you're able to take more away sometimes when you don't execute the play correctly and then you have the opportunity to learn from it. So that's what practice is all about."

Not repeating the same mistakes is certainly a huge goal, and both Ken Whisenhunt and Locker think he's done well avoiding that.

"The goal is to play perfect football; it's really challenging to do," Locker said. "But it's not to repeat the same mistakes that you made before. It means you're learning from them and you're developing as a player."

Titans Camp Report: Day 12

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
1:41
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • Defensive linemen Mike Martin (hamstring) and Antonio Johnson (knee) remain out. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt said Martin could miss Saturday’s preseason opener against Green Bay and that Johnson has more of a chance to play.
  • Taylor Lewan's No. 77 jersey was missing his last name. He said he was not in trouble or anything. Fifteen minutes before practice he discovered his jersey was missing.
  • Cornerback Tommie Campbell has struggled throughout camp, but he had a much better day. He ran deep with receiver Nate Washington on one play and was close enough to cause an incompletion. He batted away another pass by Jake Locker for Washington in the end zone during red-zone work.
  • Tight end Craig Stevens does a lot of unnoticed dirty work as a blocker. He had some nice opportunities in the passing game and took advantage. He caught a throw in the red zone from Locker at the goalpost and had a leaping catch in the end zone.
  • I watched Locker closely in one red-zone period. He hit Washington, dropped a snap for a fumble that killed a play, hit Washington in the end zone, hit Stevens for that leaping touchdown and saw Campbell bat that pass away from Washington.
  • The Titans went live (with tackling) for a goal-line snap and running back Shonn Greene plowed forward and got into the end zone from the 2-yard line. On the next snap, not live, Bishop Sankey was going straight ahead, made a sharp cut right and slid around the one guy with a chance of keeping him out of the end zone. Very nice.
  • We saw some kickoffs. Maikon Bonani put one through the end zone and had another high one come down halfway into the end zone. Travis Coons took one and hit a liner that landed at the goal line and looked like a long squib kick.
  • All 2-minute drive work ended with field goals: Bonani hit from 40, Coons hit from 49 (with a low liner), Bonani hit from 48.
  • Whisenhunt missed Ri'Shard Anderson swinging his helmet at a member of the Falcons during a scrap Monday. The coach said if he had seen it, Anderson would have been pulled.
  • The Titans practice at 2:50 local time Thursday. It is closed to the public.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Every team in every training camp talks optimistically. Every team with a new coaching staff talks about how things are different for the better.

The Tennessee Titans are lowly regarded by plenty of fans and media nationally. But they have a lot going on that they feel those people have not paid attention to.

With Ken Whisenhunt and his staff at the helm, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a schedule that doesn’t include some of the powers they faced a year ago and a division with two other rebuilding franchises, they might have a chance to surprise.

."You say each and every year, 'Feels different, feels different, feels different,'" safety Michael Griffin said. "Just, you can see every day, people out there talking, we always have guys picking people up. Each and every day there is competition. There are little side bets here and there -- who’s going to win this period and things of that nature. The whole time we’re all trying to get each other better.

"Again, it just feels so much different in this locker room, and everybody has the same goals in mind, and that’s a positive around here."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Ken Whisenhunt brings a solid résumé and a strong coaching staff to the Titans.
1. Whisenhunt isn’t Vince Lombardi or Don Shula, but the Titans' new coach is a significant upgrade from Mike Munchak, who was unsteady in his first three years as an NFL head coach. Whisenhunt had success in the role during his six seasons in Arizona, and he is a well-regarded offensive mind who will do more with what the Titans have than his predecessors.

Whisenhunt had the connections and the interviewing skills to hire a staff that appears to be filled with strong teachers, including a few quality holdovers. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is turning the Titans into a less predictable 3-4 and comfortably works his way into different sections of practice when position work is unfolding. I've watched these coaches teach and I've seen them connect with players.

Whisenhunt may field a complex offense that's hard to defend, but he's good at keeping things simple. I don't see any changes in how the Titans function that aren't for the better at this point.

2. The Titans don’t have players the fans are going to pick to captain their fantasy squads, but Tennessee should have a good array of quality weapons on offense. Kendall Wright topped 1,000 yards in his second season, and now the team’s best receiver will be sent on a wider variety of routes, not just inside slot stuff. He's been excellent so far in camp. Justin Hunter is doing better getting his legs under him and is catching the ball more comfortably. He got behind Atlanta's defense a few times in the recent joint practice and should be a constant deep threat. Nate Washington is showing he remains a versatile, productive guy.

Beyond the receivers, tight end Delanie Walker and running backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey will be good pass-catching options. When the Falcons gave the Titans a lot of room underneath, Jake Locker hit McCluster with a pass over the middle, and he had a ton of space to take. The Titans have invested a great deal in their offensive line over the past two seasons. They have one more tackle than they need after signing Michael Oher and drafting Taylor Lewan. There should be better protection for the quarterback and better holes for the running backs.

3. The 4-3 defense in recent years lacked a star pass-rusher on the edge who an offense had to fear every snap. The Titans still don’t seem to have that guy. They have to find him, but even if he doesn’t emerge from this group, the overall production out of the pass rush should be better. Who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage? In the 4-3, opponents pretty much knew. In this 3-4, it won’t be nearly as clear on a regular basis. Jurrell Casey, who notched 10.5 sacks as a tackle last season, will work as an end now. He's worked on speed rushes off the edge as well as his bread-and-butter quick power stuff in camp.

Sure, some good quarterbacks can diagnose who is rushing and who isn’t, no matter the front. But outside of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck (twice), the Titans don’t face any A-list quarterbacks coming off big 2013 seasons this time around. They don’t see Seattle and San Francisco this season either.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Locker is a really likable guy who works hard, says the right things and desperately wants to prove he is the long-term answer for the Titans at quarterback. But in two seasons as the starter, he's missed 14 games while dealing with shoulder, hip, knee and foot injuries. He's practiced pretty well, but there are plays splashed in that can be killers on a Sunday afternoon.

Getting 16 games out of him is hardly a certainty for the Titans. Even if they do and he fits well with what Whisenhunt is asking him to do, he has not been accurate or poised enough when he has played. He sometimes tries to do too much and isn’t poised under pressure. Though he moves well and is very fast, putting him on the move puts him at more risk of another injury. Behind him are more question marks. Charlie Whitehurst has had no real success in just 13 games in eight seasons and often fails to step into his throws. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has a great arm but slipped to the sixth round for several reasons and is rotating with Tyler Wilson as the third-team QB. (Update: Wilson was released Wednesday.)

2. The offensive weaponry looks good, but for those five pass-catchers to give the Titans the nice smorgasbord of options, they need to stay healthy. Also, guys like Hunter (second year), Sankey (a rookie) and McCluster (first year with the Titans and Whisenhunt) need to show that their potential and practice play translate into NFL Sundays in a Tennessee uniform. Wright was the best player on offense last season and should grow more. Can the others become known quantities?

Who is the star of the defense? DT-turned-DE Casey is a strong, quick rusher who was healthy and productive in 2013. He is going to land a big-money contract -- either soon from Tennessee or on the market next spring. There are some nice pieces around him, but the Titans need veterans to have their best seasons and youngsters to emerge, all simultaneously. In Georgia, no defender stood out and regularly gave the Falcons more than they could handle.

3. Forty-seven percent of the current 90-man roster has been in the league for two years or less. Youth is generally good, but it needs to be quality youth and it needs to be surrounded by quality veterans. The Titans lack experience in a lot of spots. There aren't kids in camp who weren't high picks but have forced their way up the depth chart to this point.

Maybe it’s a great mix of players and a good share of the inexperienced people can blossom together. But with new coaches and new schemes, it could be asking a lot for all that to happen in the first season.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJake Locker
    Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJake Locker needs a healthy season if he hopes to become the long-term answer at QB for the Titans.

  • Locker said he feels more comfortable speaking up and being vocal, and he has shown himself to be more confident in how he carries himself. After one throw that looked to be too long for an undrafted rookie, Locker pointed to tell Julian Horton where he should have gone. He still has bad moments in practice, but the preseason has not started, and he is progressing.
  • The Titans have moved running back Jackie Battle to fullback, where he can offer some needed versatility. He appears to have a sizable lead on incumbent Collin Mooney, who has had, at most, a handful of first-team snaps.
  • Among long-shot late additions, veteran receiver Derek Hagan has been consistently good and Brian Robiskie is also gaining notice. He's competing for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots with Marc Mariani and Michael Preston. Maybe they'll keep six.
  • Sankey is learning quickly how to be a pro, and he has shown a bit of everything the Titans said they expected when they made him the first running back selected in the draft. His first day in pads he looked like an experienced NFL-caliber pass protector. He has good vision and makes good decisions on when to go and when to cut. He also catches the ball well, can run inside and outside.
  • Weakside outside linebacker Shaun Phillips has not worked at all with the first team when Kamerion Wimbley has been practicing.
  • Tommie Campbell was politely mentioned with Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as a contender for the starting right cornerback spot that opened when Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay. But it’s a two-man competition, and Campbell has struggled horribly.

Titans Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
9:49
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:

  • The Titans were at LP Field tonight, with a small audience of fans connected to one sponsor.
  • Backup center/guard Chris Spencer was excused to be in Canton, Ohio, to be on hand at the induction of old teammate Walter Jones into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • Guard Andy Levitre (appendix) and three defensive lineman Mike Martin (tight hamstring), Antonio Johnson (leg) and Marcus Dixon (calf) were out.
  • Between the end of offensive drives in team period and additional kicks in full team work, Travis Coons hit from 41, 39, 42 and 47 yards and missed left from 49. Maikon Bonani made from 33, 39 and 47, pulling a kick from 43 badly left and also missing slightly left from 42. It’s early to panic, but it was not a great kicking evening.
  • Punts from a machine were caught by Leon Washington, Marc Mariani and Dexter McCluster, in that order. Beyond that, a sore McCluster was given the night off.
  • In one-on-one offensive line vs. defensive line work, I saw Taylor Lewan handle Akeem Ayers and play a strong snap against DaQuan Jones. But Karl Klug had a nice swim move that got him free of Lewan. I thought Klug and Lavar Edwards rushed better than in some other practices. Klug had what amounted to a sack on the first play of the team period matching the second offense against the second defense. Chance Warmack blocked Edwards around the neck once snap and they re-played it. The guard yielded little on the second try.
  • Inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard had a interception of Zach Mettenberger in seven-on-seven. The pass was meant for Michael Preston. Jake Locker overshot Delanie Walker in that period, but completed his four other throws to four different targets.
  • The remainder of practice was four drives of about 12 plays each matching first-team offense vs. first-team defense and on down the line. The offense and defense each took a timeout along the way, and Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t happy about that. It was the team’s first in-stadium work sorting out coaching communication. Whisenhunt communicated with QBs, while defensive coordinator Ray Horton relayed calls from the booth to linebackers coach Lou Spanos. Spanos passed them on to a player, with Woodyard passing them onto the first team. “We had some mistakes on the call sheet, I blew it,” Whisenhunt said. “I gave the wrong play or we had the wrong personnel. The defense had the wrong matchup a couple times.” The Titans expect any kinks to be worked out before they are back in a week to play Green Bay in the preseason opener.
  • Locker threw a bad ball for Walker at the goal post and Zach Brown dropped an easy pick. Michael Griffin was also in close range. The defense was called for offside, but it still was a poor play. “He went through his progressions and as he came off he said, ‘The play was there, I missed the throw,’" Whisenhunt said. “He needed more air under it to get it over the top.”
  • Zach Mettenberger threw a deep ball for Preston and rookie corner Marqueston Huff got called for illegal contact. But the officials ultimately concluded the pass, which Preston had to turn around to find, was uncatchable.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In his practice performance, in his interactions with teammates and in his conversations with the media, Jake Locker is showing growth, I believe.

Locker
In a make-or-break season that tells whether he is the answer for the Tennessee Titans going forward or not, he was asked early on about shooting for a big contract. He is set for life with what he has already made, he said, matter of factly.

And his teammates are talking about him with higher regard.

“In this business you don’t come in and get respect given to you, you have to earn it,” receiver Marc Mariani said. “And he’s done that. We all saw what he went through and the season that he had last year and that injury he came back from. He’s earned the respect of everyone in here.

“I think we’re the type of team, not that we need it, but is looking for that guy to be more vocal and get on his back. And Jake’s the perfect guy, and I have all the faith in the world in that guy and I know he’s going to come through. He’s a warrior.”

Locker isn’t the kind of guy who is going to announce that the Tennessee Titans are his team or hit anyone over the head with any sort of message. But in his low-key, hard-working way and with perseverance through three serious injuries over the past two seasons, he’s gained more respect and command.

“I don’t believe it’s not any one guy’s team, ever,” Locker said. "I think the greatest teams have a lot of guys that are respected in the locker room. And I feel like we have that. We have guys that are respected a lot of different ways in a lot of different positions.

“Since the time I came in here I’ve said I just want to work hard and have the respect of my teammates, so it’s awesome for me to hear that they are feeling that way.”

Head coach Ken Whisenhunt said he’s seen “really good growth” out of Locker.

There is a good deal to sort through at this stage, and Locker's coach likes how he’s doing it so far.

“This is probably, for a quarterback, the toughest time of the year,” Whisenhunt said in a Monday interview with my radio show, The Midday 180 in Nashville. “Really there is no set plan for what we are calling things from. In a weekly game-plan situation you have X number of plays and you know the formations. When you get them on Monday night and start working on them on Tuesday, by Wednesday you have a good idea, we’re running a certain play, what formation it’s going to be run from.

“In this situation, we’re switching guys. We’re putting Kendall (Wright) and Nate (Washington) and Justin (Hunter) in different spots, so when you do that you have to name the formations differently and it’s much harder to get a mental picture of the actual play when you’re doing those mental gymnastics.

“On top of that, he’s got to be able to call the play, understand the protections, be ready to change it. So you don’t expect him to have great command of it, but he’s really working at it and doing a nice job.”

Titans Camp Report: Day 2

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
8:02
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • In one-on-ones with receivers against defensive backs, undrafted rookie wideout Julian Horton matched up against undrafted rookie corner Ri'Shard Anderson. Jake Locker's pass sailed further downfield than where Horton had broken to the sideline. As Anderson looked back after the ball went incomplete, Locker pointed to where he should have been. That’s not vocal, but it did illustrate the sort of ownership and willingness to be heard that Locker said he’s been more reluctant to show in the past.
  • There was a stiff wind that had a bearing on a lot of passes. Charlie Whitehurst looked most affected by it to me, particularly on some deep balls in one-on-ones where he chose to put a lot of air under passes. Even Zach Mettenberger, the strongest-armed quarterback on the team, threw some wobblers. Ken Whisenhunt said he was happy with the wind, because the Titans were sure to get something like it on a game day at some point. Long-time assistant equipment man Matt Thompson has always shown a big arm. He made one of the day’s best throws when Leon Washington needed a ball in the end zone to bring out as the team worked on return positioning. It was over 40 yards in the air, a rope with a nice arc and plenty of zip.
  • Whisenhunt said more cover-2 was as big a reason for the reduction in deep completions from Day 1 to Day 2 as the wind. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said no deep balls have been a theme since he joined the team and he was glad the offense hit them on the first day so he could say “this is what we’re talking about” to the defense.
  • There were some big mismatches where the matchups got out of sync. I guess the lesser player in Justin Hunter vs. Anderson and Rico Richardson vs. Coty Sensabaugh has a lot to learn from such a snap. But I liked when Tommie Campbell stepped on the field, replacing Khalid Wooten, for a snap against Justin Hunter. Campbell struggled against Marc Mariani on Saturday and had a tough time again, particularly in some snaps against Hunter.
  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson got the second day work as the second starting cornerback, after Sensabaugh had it on Saturday. Wreh-Wilson stuck with Hunter on a deep route early in seven-on-seven and Locker looked to want to go there, but ended up checking down.
  • Taylor Lewan got the bulk of the work as the starting left guard with Andy Levitre (appendix) out and Byron Stingily heading inside to deal with sickness.
  • Michael Preston worked higher in the receiver pecking order on Day 2, and Mariani was lower.
  • Whisenhunt said at the start that competitive positions wouldn’t see the same guy at the front of the line for multiple days. That bodes well for the status of Jackie Battle, who was the front-liner at fullback ahead of Collin Mooney again on Sunday.
  • Locker was running comfortably and without any hesitation. In one team period, he pulled it down after seeing nothing to his liking and ran up the middle, threw a completion along the right sideline to Nate Washington after rolling right and also rolled left and took off that direction. There was nothing to suggest his surgically repaired foot was any sort of issue.
  • Nate Washington returned to the receiver group jawing hard at cornerback Micah Pellerin, telling him not to do that and “if you’re beat, you’re beat.” Pellerin dropped a pick of Whitehurst on a throw Whitehurst didn’t seem to step into as strongly as he could have.
  • Second team defense: LE Al Woods, NT Antonio Johnson, RE Mike Martin, LOLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Zaviar Gooden, ILB Colin McCarthy, ROLB Akeem Ayers, LCB Tommie Campbell, S George Wilson, S Daimion Stafford, RCB Sensabaugh.
  • Washington, Dexter McCluster, Bishop Sankey and Mariani didn’t field balls, but each brought balls out of the end zone in a kickoff return period.
  • Kendall Wright made a nice sliding catch in traffic in front of Sensabaugh.
  • Stafford picked off a Tyler Wilson pass for tight end Jason Schepler.
  • Bernard Pollard was busting on Zach Mettenberger from the sideline as Mettenberger led the offense, shouting "Roll Tide." That's what someone said to Metenberger recently before sucker punching the former LSU player at a Nashville bar.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As an offseason filled with optimism closed and players reported to Tennessee Titans training camp Friday, they made the pledge being made throughout NFL cites across America.

They say they will be a playoff team.

"We believe that we're going to be a playoff team this year and that's what we are working to do," cornerback Jason McCourty said.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the goal is a home playoff game.

Quarterback Jake Locker pointed out the Titans lost four games they were winning in the fourth quarter in 2013.

“If you win two of them, you’re 9-7, two of them were the Indianapolis games, you win those football games, we win our division, we host a playoff game,” Locker said. “That’s how close this league is.

"We just need to find ways to finish those games, and the games we let get away from us, find ways to stay in them so you have an opportunity in the fourth quarter.”

Those are easy jumps to talk about and a difficult one to make.

Whisenhunt said he wants "a tough, smart football team that can win games at the end, in tight situations when it needs to."

Nate Washington shook his head when told the Titans are regularly near the bottom of preseason rankings, but said he appreciated the lists.

It'll be bigger when the team surpasses expectations and “at this point we can do no wrong if we're ranked that low,” he said.

As for what to expect from a Whisenhunt training camp, McCourty said he had checked in with some friends who were with the coach in Arizona but still has "no idea."

His approach to camp as it starts Saturday morning?

“You see a schedule, make sure you’re on time, go out there and compete and play football," he said.

Camp preview: Tennessee Titans

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Paul Kuharsky examines the three biggest issues facing the Tennessee Titans heading into training camp.

Jake Locker: It’s now or never for the Titans’ quarterback, at least in Tennessee. The fourth-year quarterback started last season well, then he got hurt, didn’t shine when he came back and ultimately suffered another season-ending injury. Now he’s got his third offensive coordinator in Jason Michael and a new playcaller and head coach in Ken Whisenhunt.

The Titans would love to see him blossom into the player they thought he could be when they tabbed him eighth overall in 2011. But they began to line up a contingency plan for beyond 2014 when they drafted LSU's Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round.

The team declined to execute Locker’s option for 2015, and he’ll be a free agent after this season. He needs to prove himself worthy of a new contract or the Titans will be prepared to go a different direction next season -- or maybe even sooner.

Things are set up for him to succeed with an upgraded coaching staff, a running game that should be better with a committee instead of Chris Johnson’s deteriorating vision, a reshaped defense and what should be a far easier schedule. But plenty of league insiders and outside critics have little faith Locker can be an effective long-term starter on a winning team.

The new 3-4 defense: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton will bring people from different spots and has some rushers who can play as deeper outside linebackers or line up in a three-point stance as if they are defensive ends. We don’t know if they added enough, but out of Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, converted end Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers, there could be ample edge rush.

The team’s best defensive player, DT Jurrell Casey, will now be playing a lot on a three-man line. But the Titans promise his duties will not change much and say he actually will get more one-on-ones -- because offenses won’t be able to help on him before getting to a linebacker who will be at the line of scrimmage a lot sooner.

Horton quickly won the respect of the team based on his fine résumé and calm but purposeful no-nonsense demeanor. He said small guys who can hit and big guys who can run will have a major say in whether the Titans are successful.

Houston and Indianapolis made the playoffs in their first seasons following recent transitions to a 3-4. The Titans know the scheme change doesn’t buy them patience.

Whisenhunt’s weapons: The Titans signed pint-size Dexter McCluster to be a weapon in Whisenhunt’s offense. McCluster played receiver and running back in Kansas City, but the Titans will look to him as part of the backfield committee, where he figures to catch a lot of passes coming out of the backfield.

Bishop Sankey was the first running back taken in the draft and should be a more direct, decisive back than Johnson, though he certainly doesn’t bring CJ’s speed. Shonn Greene will have short-yardage chances. Are those three enough to take heat off the passing game?

The Titans are counting on a big jump from blazing outside receiver Justin Hunter. Kendall Wright was the best player on offense. And while Nate Washington is aging, he has been dependable and productive. Along with tight end Delanie Walker there are options for Whisenhunt to be inventive with, but we don’t know what will work.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

AFC SOUTH SCOREBOARD