Camp Confidential: Titans poised to contend

August, 3, 2009
8/03/09
1:12
PM ET
 
  Don McPeak/US Presswire
  Keith Bulluck knows the window of opportunity for the Titans is getting smaller.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans believe they have all the necessary parts to contend for a championship: a top offensive line that facilitates two complementary running backs and a good decision-maker at quarterback; a swarming defense with at least one Pro Bowl talent in every unit; a clutch kicker with a big leg; a steady coaching staff under calm, cool Jeff Fisher.

Camp Confidential: AFC South
Titans: Mon., Aug. 3
Jaguars: Sat., Aug. 8
Colts: Sat., Aug. 15
Texans: Fri., Aug. 21

But while they have a young core to build around beyond 2009, it feels like a window may be closing. Among the players in a contract year are tone-setters such as longtime linebacker Keith Bulluck, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, center Kevin Mawae, cornerback Nick Harper and defensive end Jevon Kearse.

None has played longer or more consistently than Bulluck, the outspoken 4-3 outside linebacker who has long excelled in the Titans' system with his speed, athleticism and ability to hit.

He's seen good friends and good teammates disappear from the locker room as the team judged them unaffordable or done, and lamented the losses of Eddie George, Samari Rolle, the late Steve McNair, Robaire Smith, Derrick Mason and, most recently, Albert Haynesworth.

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That makes him expect he'll be next, adding to his sense of urgency: This is his last, best chance to get to a Super Bowl with the Titans.

"That window of opportunity is only open but for so long," he said. "I've been on this team going on 10 years. The window's been open two times previously and we didn't jump through it, so I feel -- for me, for the organization -- this team has to be the one to take that bound and jump through the window of opportunity. It's fair to say that."

 
  AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
  The addition of wide receiver Nate Washington gives the Titans another downfield threat.

Last year's 13-3 team returns 20 starters, and Nate Washington is an upgrade over Justin McCareins. The team is confident it has a committee that can make up for the departure of Haynesworth, and has replaced defensive linemen well through the years.

"Now it's definitely straight business and trying to win the Super Bowl," Bulluck said.

The Titans may not match last season's 10-0 start or 13-3 record. Barring injuries, they should be a playoff team and if it does prove to be Bulluck's swan song with the franchise, it's reasonable for him to expect his last game with them will be one deep in the playoffs.

Key questions

1. Will the passing offense improve?

There are three reasons to believe so: Washington, the free-agent addition who will start opposite Justin Gage, and draft picks Kenny Britt and Jared Cook.

Washington gives the team a receiving speedster on the outside who should keep safeties honest, which can threaten defenses deep and help create additional room for the team's most dynamic weapon, Chris Johnson. Britt is a physical receiver who comes into the league having impressed offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger with his ability to get off the jam at the line of scrimmage. And when Cook was available 89th overall, the Titans felt he was such a value that they dealt their 2010 second-rounder to New England in order to take Cook. Such a trade is rare for them.

Kerry Collins will have solid protection. Now he should have better optio
ns downfield, who can do more once he delivers them the ball.

2. Will they rush and stuff the run as effectively without Haynesworth?

 Haye
 Jones

They will miss a player who could dominate and frequently drew double teams, and his fear-no-one, say-anything attitude gave the unit some of its swagger. But a year ago they lost their left end tandem of Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy as free agents after they'd combined for 14 sacks, and there was no talk in 2009 about how the team missed the duo. They plugged in people and moved forward.

Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has molded a lot of players into effective run-stuffers and pocket-collapsers. Free-agent addition Jovan Haye and second-round draft pick Sen'Derrick Marks are guys he wanted for the interior, just like Jason Jones, last year's second-round pick. The Titans will love it if opponents draw up protections expecting they won't be as threatening as they were with Haynesworth.

3. What will change under new defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil?

Well, Fisher is a defensive coach who's overseen successful transitions at the post before. Cecil learned under the guy he replaces, current Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. So no matter how much people may want to believe Cecil will bring a blitzing mentality, the Titans won't be compromising coverage if they get sufficient pass pressure from their front four. (See No. 2 above.)

In his early days in the post, Cecil said if the Titans give up 6 yards on third-and-seven, he'll say yippee or hurrah as the defense leaves the field having held. Expect a Schwartz-like emphasis on third-down percentage and points allowed.

Market watch

 
  AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
  The Titans hope a lighter LenDale White can remain a steady complement to Chris Johnson.

LenDale White said he was as heavy as 265 in 2009 and reported to camp at 228. It's a contract year and that was certainly part of the motivation, but he's matured, too, and has been a good teammate for the bulk of his first three seasons. Given the same sort of key-situation carries he got last year, when he scored 15 touchdowns, he can be an even more effective complement to Johnson.

Newcomer to watch

Bo Scaife wasn't as much of a target down the stretch last season, and while he's got a knack for a tough catch in a crucial spot, Cook brings much more upside. If he can run the sort of routes and make the type of catches he did in OTAs and the early days of camp, he could become a prominent piece of the offense in short order. If he can earn his way onto the field, he will be able to outrun linebackers and outmuscle defensive backs. First he'll have to prove to be a reliable route-runner and show he's got dependable hands.

Observation deck

Leroy Harris worked as the starting center at the start of camp while Mawae completed his recovery from an elbow injury. It's unlikely the stronger but less experienced Harris can win the job, but he gives Tennessee great security at center and guard. Now the Titans need to find a swing tackle to back up Michael Roos and David Stewart. ... Rookie running back Javon Ringer could quickly seize the No. 3 running back job if he can show the skills the team needs from that player on special teams. ... Rookie corner Ryan Mouton has started out as Vincent Fuller's backup at nickel. Can he also get comfortable outside and provide depth behind Cortland Finnegan and Harper? Mouton, DeMarcus Faggins, Cary Williams and Jason McCourty will jostle for spots in the pecking order with Eric King and Chris Carr gone. ... The end looks to be near, mercifully, for two ineffective third-year players on offense -- running back Chris Henry and receiver Paul Williams. What might the Titans have been if they hit on their second- and third-rounders in 2007? ... After two middling years, receiver and return man Chris Davis looks like he's gained confidence and could be in line to break out, especially if Mark Jones doesn't mount a strong case for the return jobs and the last receiver slot. ... Look for high-motor defensive end Vanden Bosch, slowed by a groin injury last year, to make a strong return and rank among the league's sack leaders. ... The Titans remain hopeful that Vince Young can be a solid backup to Collins, but a roster bonus of more than $4 million in 2010 calls his future with the team into question.

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