NFL Nation: Akeem Ayers

JohnsonRon Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsChris Johnson didn't reveal he played most of the season with a torn meniscus until this week.
NEW YORK -- Chris Johnson had surgery to clean up a torn meniscus that he said he played with for 13 games in 2013.

Whatever questions I have had about Johnson, none have ever been about his toughness. He's been a durable back for the Tennessee Titans. That is a rare and admirable quality.

I am sure the tear hampered him to some degree. But I bet he'd say if he's healthy enough to play, he's healthy enough to find more than 3.9 yards a carry, which was the primary issue for Johnson in the recently completed season.

From ESPN's injury expert, Stephania Bell:

“There are numerous different types of tears. A small one may not have bothered him much. Remember Maurice Jones-Drew did the same thing a few years ago and had it cleaned up after season.”

Johnson is the second member of the Titans to reveal an injury played a part in the 2013 season well after it had ended. Linebacker Akeem Ayers tweeted on Jan. 17 about having played the whole year with a troublesome knee.



Johnson revealed his knee issue on Monday. He had surgery and tweeted that it was a success.

The injuries in question belong to Johnson and Ayers. If they aren't missing practices or games, the team isn't obligated to mention them in injury reports. I respect their right to choose what to say and what not to say.

But keeping injuries secret doesn't serve players well in the perception department. Perhaps now we're saying, “Wow, he toughed it out and that's impressive.” But if a guy fails to perform to expectations like both Johnson and Ayers did this year, they get criticized for it, and I think that's fair. They had ample opportunity to give us a hint.

Guys keep injuries as quiet as they can for several reasons.

  1. They don't want to alert opponents to a problem that could be exploited.
  2. They don't want to appear to be complaining or making excuses.
  3. Their coaches and teams mandate they keep a lid on it.

Regarding No. 1: Plenty of guys tell you it's hard at full speed to concentrate on an opponent's body part. Are you worried about getting the speedy Johnson to the ground, or are you worried about getting him to the ground while focusing on a knee? Good luck if you go for the second approach.

Regarding No. 2: I'd never hit a guy for saying, “There is an issue affecting things here that I'll tell you about after the season. It's not an excuse, I'm just telling you there is more to it than you may think.” Andy Levitre basically did that this season and his hip issue came to light at the end. He didn't get criticized at all for making excuses or being soft.

Regarding No. 3: It's your injury, and you get to decide how to treat it and what to say about it, not your coach. It's very easy for a coach to minimize something serious, and it can ruin a reputation. See Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville saying Fred Taylor had a groin strain when he actually had a muscle torn off the bone. The running back became “Fragile Fred” because he was a good soldier and allowed his team to control information about his injury.

It's a tough spot. There is no easy way to sort through it, and there are avenues for criticism no matter what a guy's approach is.

We'll get a better sense of how much the injuries held Johnson and Ayers back when they're fully healthy and back on the field.

But if their injuries were a big factor in their lack of production, their images and reputations would have been far better served by indicating something was going on.

The next big thing: Titans

January, 22, 2014
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What’s next for the Tennessee Titans?

Once Ken Whisenhunt fills out his staff, the Titans need to assess their roster and decide who fits at his scheduled price and who doesn’t.

The biggest question is Jake Locker at quarterback. Indications are Locker will have every chance to be the Titans’ guy in 2014, but the team could still look to add another QB.

But more broadly, the team needs to sort out its defensive front.

A shift to a hybrid front that will feature plenty of 3-4 is coming.

I’m sure they see defensive tackle Jurrell Casey as a fit for the scheme, and he’ll likely be an end in the 3-4. Akeem Ayers came into the league projected by many as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Beyond those guys, who do the ends and outside linebackers sort out? Does Sammie Hill project as the nose tackle? How badly does a team that often didn’t have a quality middle linebacker need to add in order to field two quality inside linebackers?

Those are among the big questions the Titans have to answer as they plot what to do in free agency and the draft.

Survey says: Worst pain ever

November, 20, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For this installment of “Survey Says” I asked Titans, “What’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt?”

Defensive tackle Antonio Johnson: “My ACL injury, I would say. In 2007, my rookie year. It was excruciating. It felt like hell. Painful, very painful, I would say the first couple days coming out of surgery, when they have to bend it, fresh out of surgery, The bending of the knee trying to get the flexion back, that’s the most painful thing I ever felt. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Coming out of surgery it was just that throbbing feeling, like it’s got a heart in it.”

Guard Chance Warmack: “I dislocated the ring finger on my left hand in the Auburn game. I had to play with it for two games, the Georgia game and the Notre Dame game. It never had a chance to heal properly. I buddy-taped it. I remember the Georgia game, it kept popping out, we had to keep popping it back in. It felt like my finger was going to fall off. I was blocking with four fingers.”

Wide receiver Nate Washington: “I was playing basketball and I got hit in the eye and my eye was open so the guy actually moved my eyeball a little bit. I had a patch on my eye for about two weeks. I was 20, 21 years old. It was excruciating pain. I did not know it would hurt like that, I couldn’t open my eye for about two weeks. Black eye, eyeball was red. Worst football injury was a hip pointer, because you can do absolutely nothing. No loud talking, no sudden movements, no sneezing, no coughing. I’ve broken bones before but hip pointer is the most immobilizing nagging thing. But the eye was worse.”

Linebacker Akeem Ayers: “My appendix, this year, right before the season started. That s--- was terrible. It was kind of like a sharp, endless pain type of deal. This was there for about 12 hours, just non-stop until it was taken out. It was like a knife and some punches at the same time.

[+] EnlargeCraig Stevens
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsCraig Stevens said his broken rib was "the most excruciating pain I've ever felt."
Guard Andy Levitre: Getting pleurisy. It’s an inflamed lung, so every time you breath, it feels like you are getting stabbed in your chest, but it’s your lung rubbing up against your rib cage. I feel like that’s the most painful thing I ever had, it was in college. I had it for a few days and it bough me to tears, it was that bad. It was insane. I couldn’t take full breaths. That was bad. I ended up going to the ER. I tried to tough it out for a few days and then I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Tight end Craig Stevens: “When I broke my rib, by far the most pain ever. Two years ago we were playing Cleveland and Eugene Amano came and landed with his knee right here (points to left side of his torso.) I couldn’t get up or anything and then it kind of clicked back in and I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s not so bad.’ Then I ran down there and I actually made a tackle and fell on the ground. I couldn’t get up. For about a week, it was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt. I couldn’t move. I would lay down and I couldn’t get up, I needed help to get up, that’s how bad it was. It eventually healed. It would heal and I would play with it and re-break it before it had a chance to really heal up. Every time I re-broke it, it was like I’d go back to square one with that pain. After about four weeks of re-breaking it, I took a game off, then I started feeling better."

Tight end Delanie Walker: “Probably when I broke my jaw two years ago against Seattle. Dec. 24. After the morphine wore off, that’s when it was worse. The flight was two hours, and that’s about when it wore off. That’s when I felt it. It just felt like someone was kicking me in the mouth nonstop, over and over. Took me three weeks to recover. I played in the NFC Championship Game.”

Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh: “Probably when I broke my leg in high school. I broke my fibula, I had to have surgery. It was a 10 on a scale of 1-10.”

Defensive tackle Mike Martin: “When my shoulder came out. Kind of came in, came out, slipped a little bit in college, my senior year against Illinois. I was going to tackle Juice Williams, get a sack and my linebacker came and hit the back of my shoulder, slipped it out, it was horrible. It reverberated all through my body, it felt like it was going through all my limbs, that’s how bad it was initially.”

Titans don't know how to recover

November, 15, 2013
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Devon WylieAP Photo/Mark ZaleskiThe game pivoted the Colts' way when they fell on a third-quarter fumble by the Titans' Devon Wylie.
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Every team in the NFL has regular conversations about withstanding adversity. Good teams fight through down moments and have a clear understanding that those bad stretches are not the same as zeros on the game clock.

Thursday night at LP Field, the Indianapolis Colts gave up four first downs and 41 penalty yards during a second-quarter defensive series. They were a crumbling, undisciplined mess.

Yet they ultimately gathered themselves, recovered and beat the Tennessee Titans by a 30-27 score.

The Titans, meanwhile, saw their new return man run a kickoff into the back of one of his teammates and fumble. And after Devon Wylie bumped into Craig Stevens and gave away the turnover early in the third quarter, the hosts fell apart and never regained their balance.

That’s pretty much the story of the Titans, who have lost five of their past six games. They don’t really know how to recover from mistakes, and they are party to the other team doing it pretty regularly.

“We see what we’re doing,” strong safety Bernard Pollard said. “These teams are not better than us. They might handle certain things better than us, but they are not better than us.”

With apologies to Pollard, the fact that opponents handle certain things better than the Titans is precisely what makes those opponents better.

This is a downtrodden bunch that once had a 3-1 record to validate the in-house expectations built with an offseason of free-agent activity, coaching-staff alterations and promises from coach Mike Munchak that they wouldn’t disappoint.

Now, at 4-6, they are three games and a tiebreaker out of the lead in the AFC South with six games to play. They remain alive for the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs only because there are so many other bad teams bunched together. But some of them can start pulling away Sunday.

“We’ve still got six games to pull something together and do something,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “A lot of it’s probably out of our hands now. I don’t know what’s going to happen this weekend or whatnot.”

The Titans were practically apathetic at the start of last weekend's loss to the previously winless Jaguars. Thursday night they started off far better, unveiling a hurry-up, no-huddle offense that played to the strengths of Ryan Fitzpatrick, their quarterback the rest of the way after Jake Locker’s season-ending foot injury.

They built leads of 14-0 and 17-3 in the first half, but then they watched the Colts march 74 yards in 11 plays to open the second half with a touchdown. Wylie’s gaffe followed, and it took only two plays for Indianapolis to get to the end zone again and take its first lead, 20-17. The Titans didn’t roll over, but they never got the lead back.

Maybe the Titans could have won if they had held the Colts to a field goal on big fourth-quarter drive. Instead, linebacker Akeem Ayers hit Andrew Luck late after a handoff -- not even on a pass play -- for an unnecessary-roughness penalty that positioned Indianapolis for a touchdown that built the late lead to 30-20.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiTwo plays after the Titans fumbled away a kickoff, Andrew Luck's TD run put the Colts ahead for good.
All of which set up the same postgame questions: What’s wrong? Why is this happening? Why can’t you fix it?

“We are who we are,” defensive end Derrick Morgan said. “There are no excuses; there’s no explanation. We can sit here and talk for an hour, but we are what we put on that field. ... You can only talk so much. We’ve been talking the last several weeks, and we haven’t been getting the results that we want. We didn’t go do it.

“We keep having the same conversation. We just went downhill from a good start. We’ve got all the talent in the world, but it’s not showing up on game day. ... Obviously we don’t [know how to win]. We’ve been losing close games, games that we think we should have won. We’re not finishing.”

The Titans don’t do much dictating; instead, they’re always trying to respond.

And then they wind up in position to look at something like the Colts’ 32 carries for 137 yards and hear Munchak say, “They ran the ball much better than they should have been able to.”

The Colts are an incredibly annoying and frustrating team for the Titans. When the AFC South was formed in 2002, Peyton Manning and Indy were kings of the division forever. When he got hurt and then was released, the division door opened, but it was Houston that walked through. Now Luck is in place and seems poised to begin a reign similar to Manning’s.

The Colts and their quarterback seem to have DNA that means they can withstand tough stuff and find ways to win.

The Titans, to put it simply, don't.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 9

November, 4, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 28-21 win over the St. Louis Rams:

His role now: Kenny Britt is a run blocker and a decoy. He can be effective in the first role; defenses surely welcome him on to the field in the second. He was targeted only once by Jake Locker on Sunday, and while Cortland Finnegan's interception was the result of a bad throw more than anything Britt did, you can’t help but think the percentages of something good happening when Britt is the target are low. Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Damian Williams are all more threatening. Nate Washington was a go-to guy for Locker before his injury and has caught only three passes in two games since Locker’s return. The Titans should be focused on getting Washington going again well ahead of being concerned about Britt.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Kenny Britt
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesCortland Finnegan will likely have to restructure his contract in order to return to the Rams in 2014.
Ayers as a factor: They’ve tried a bunch of different things with Akeem Ayers since drafting him in the second round out of UCLA in 2011. He’s still not an impact guy. In St. Louis, he didn’t come off the field, playing his usual strongside linebacker spot in base and as the Mike in the nickel. In such situations, his forte should be as a run stopper, but the Rams ran for 160 yards and 5.0 yards per attempt. On Sunday, they abandoned the idea of him as a situational end. It’s impressive that the defense has been what it has been through eight games with no consistent presence from Ayers.

Um, about that missed call: I’ve been critical of the Titans bemoaning the officials a bit too frequently, as if the NFL has some rationale for picking on them. But I liked Washington’s approach when talking about Jake Locker’s second interception in St. Louis. Washington didn’t get to where Locker was throwing because he was held up by former teammate Cortland Finnegan. The play drew no flag and was an easy interception for safety Rodney McLeod. “Cortland did a great job of holding me, flat out,” Washington said. “Rookie back judge [Dale Shaw], it’s his first year. So I’m not going to go toO far with it, I don’t want to get fined. But at the same time, let’s just say Cortland did a good job of being Cortland.” Nice work by Washington knowing Shaw’s résumé.

Um, about that one snap: Jurrell Casey is one of the Titans' best defenders and the defensive tackle has a team-high six sacks. He’s a problem-causer. No need to outsmart yourself and drop him into coverage on an athletic, speedy tight end like Jared Cook. It made for an easy 17-yard completion to Cook and didn’t make a lot of sense. I believe future teams on the schedule would love to see Casey moving backward instead of forward.
Akeem AyersAP Photo/Tom GannamAkeem Ayers Ayers had three tackles and a pass defensed in the Titans' win against the Rams.
ST. LOUIS -- For six games, middle linebacker Moise Fokou ran the Tennessee Titans' defense, wearing the coach-to-player speaker in his green-dotted helmet.

After Fokou hurt a knee in Seattle on Oct. 13, his replacement, Colin McCarthy, did the job against San Francisco.

But the Titans came out of the bye with a new player charged with the job.

Strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers called the plays and didn’t leave the field, playing as the middle linebacker in nickel during Tennessee’s 28-21 win against the Rams.

"Coach (Jerry) Gray and coach (Gregg) Williams wanted to try something different," Ayers said. "Last year we had a lot of success in our nickel package when we had me and Zach Brown as the two nickel linebackers late in the season. They just thought it would be good for us after doing a lot of self-scouting in the bye week to come out and do something different."

He played every snap at strongside linebacker in base and at "Mike" in nickel, the most he’s played all season.

I don’t know that his increased presence and role had any great bearing on the team, but it did mark a notable change.

Ayers finished with three tackles and a pass defensed. McCarthy, even playing less, led the team with nine tackles on a day when the Titans played poor run defense, allowing rookie running back Zac Stacy 127 yards on 27 carries, and the Rams 5.0 yards per rush attempt.

Turning to Ayers as the defensive play-caller and with a full-time role might have been just a one-game thing. The Rams are run-first team, and Ayers is better as a run-defender than in coverage.

With Greg Williams added to the defensive staff and the Titans still unsure of how to deploy their second-round pick from 2011, they set out this season to use Ayers as a base linebacker and a nickel defensive end, but he’s not stood out much in either role.

It still needs sorting out, and once Fokou is healthy I expect he’ll be back in the middle as the every-down linebacker and play-caller.

In the meantime, it might have given Ayers a bit of a confidence boost that the team factored him into this plan in a bigger way.

"It was a different position for Akeem to be in," safety George Wilson said. "He did an outstanding job getting us the calls, getting us lined up. Anytime you have a guy who hasn’t played it, you’re going to have a few plays where you get some calls mixed up or we don’t get a call. But that didn’t happen much at all. We were able to get lined up and keep the ball in front of us. That was the goal."

It wasn’t a good defensive day, overall. The Titans did have some good moments, however. St. Louis got the ball twice on turnovers, and Tennessee put on the brakes after the sudden changes, allowing the Rams to convert them into zero points.

And after Jake Locker's second interception looked like it would position the Rams for a clock-milking, game-winning drive, the Titans' defense got the ball back.

Jurrell Casey stripped Kellen Clemens at the Rams’ 17-yard line, Derrick Morgan recovered it at the 19, and Chris Johnson took the next play into the end zone for a 28-21 lead that held up as the final score.

"In sudden-change situations, we won on both sides of the ball," Casey said.

The Titans' defense has been reliable and consistent. But they’ve now allowed touchdowns the past six times opponents have crossed their 20 yard line, they’ve allowed more than 150 rushing yards three games in a row, and they’ve given up a 45 percent third-down conversion rate the past two weeks when it was 27 percent before that.

"For some reason, the last two games that we played, we’ve been slipping," Casey said. "So we’ve got to get back to what we were doing the first couple weeks and turn the game back around."

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 7

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
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A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday:

[+] EnlargeKenny Britt
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsTitans wide receiver Kenny Britt and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown exchange words during the second half of their Week 7 game on Sunday.
The biggest cause for hope: It's not as much in the Titans’ locker room as it is on their schedule. They just lost to teams with the fifth-, second- and eighth-ranked defenses. There is no debating how tough a stretch it was, and they faced the first two with their backup quarterback. Their next three games come against teams currently ranked 21st, 27th and 17th. The Titans have to show us it’s been about their opponents, and not their insufficiencies, by moving the ball far more effectively when they return to action.

Woe is them: Maybe officials blew the unnecessary roughness call against Akeem Ayers that undid a Bernard Pollard interception and set up an early 49ers touchdown. But the Titans can’t point to it as the root of their undoing; I don’t believe they were going to win that game even without that call. Later, when he was involved in a scrap, Pollard said the play was blown dead, after which someone was tackling him. “If we were to do that, we wonder what it would have been like,” he said. The men in black and white aren't targeting the Titans. What would their incentive be to do so?

What to do with Kenny Britt: The struggling receiver played 19 snaps, 32 percent of the team’s offensive plays. He let cornerback Tarell Brown get in his head late in the game, shoving him after drawing a pass interference call then committing an unnecessary roughness call when he tangled with Brown on the next play. Losing his cool that way does nothing to help him climb out of the deep hole he’s in. Tight end Delanie Walker called Britt out on it.

Re-evaluation time: I don’t get the sense that there is anyone on defense whose heart isn't in it, and the only guy on the team currently who’s got an issue about being in the way is Britt. But Pollard sent a message as the Titans head into their week off. “This is a week where guys need to re-evaluate themselves,” Pollard said. “This is for anybody: If you don’t want to help us, get out of our way. Talk to Ruston [Webster]. Go talk to the head coach. Get out of our way.” What’s in the way is the production on offense, and the inability to establish and maintain a run game. If they can’t solve that, their troubles will continue.

Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Titans

October, 20, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Reaction from the Tennessee Titans' 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at LP Field.

What it means: The Titans dropped their third consecutive game and showed just how far away they are from being the 49ers, a team they’d like to emulate in construction and style. The offense produced minimal big plays of note and the defense had no answers for San Francisco, which built a 24-0 lead and kept the Titans scoreless into the third quarter.

Stock watch: Return man Darius Reynaud -- down. Reynaud continues to struggle. He tried to circle back and change direction after fielding one punt, allowed a kickoff to bounce over his head, fair caught a low punt that might have provided an opportunity at a return and muffed a punt to allow the 49ers an end zone recovery for a touchdown. It was a continuation of recent poor decision-making, which somehow earned him some early snaps at wide receiver in this game. He was targeted on one and dropped the pass. On the bright side, he made a tackle on the opening kickoff of the second half.

Worth it? Jake Locker was back earlier than expected from hip and knee injuries. He played fine, with a bad pick that looked like the one Ryan Fitzpatrick threw last week, and a nice touchdown pass to Delanie Walker to go with a screen that Chris Johnson turned into a long score. Locker seems to have come out of it OK, so the Titans didn’t get punished for taking the risk with him before their bye.

Turning point: Bernard Pollard had an interception washed away in the second quarter when Akeem Ayers was called for a low hit on Colin Kaepernick. That gave the 49ers a first down, and three plays later, Kaepernick weaved 20 yards into the end zone for a touchdown that put San Francisco up 10-0.

What’s next: The Titans have a week off to sort out what’s wrong before they head to St. Louis to face the Rams, coached by a guy the franchise knows well, Jeff Fisher.
Rivers/LockerUSA TODAY SportsJake Locker, right, will try to keep up with Philip Rivers and the Chargers, who have scored 61 points through two games.
The San Diego Chargers are the Tennessee Titans' white whale.

The teams don’t play that frequently -- just nine times since 1993, including a wild-card playoff matchup in January 2008. The franchises have undergone all sorts of changes during that span, but one thing has remained consistent when they meet: The Chargers always win.

Bill Williamson, why do you think that is, and what are the odds it continues?

Bill Williamson: I don’t see the Chargers' history with the Titans being a factor. I know in Nashville the word "Chargers" makes fans cringe because of the history. Both teams are rebuilding and trending upward. These are two similar teams, and they will both be in the AFC conversation in the coming years.

The Titans made a lot of changes. This isn’t the team the Chargers beat 38-10 last September. What’s the biggest difference?

Paul Kuharsky: The central part of the offseason revamp was the offensive line. The Titans have three new starters on the interior with left guard Andy Levitre, center Rob Turner and right guard Chance Warmack. Turner has been shaky, however, and Warmack is a rookie who is going to take some lumps when he’s across from someone like J.J. Watt. The group hasn’t jelled yet, but the run-blocking has been pretty good.

We've seen the good Philip Rivers and the bad Philip Rivers over the years. With the new regime in place, what is your feeling on who he will be now?

Williamson: I might be the wrong person to ask, Paul. I’ve always been high on Rivers. Yes, his play sank the past two seasons and he committed 47 turnovers during that span. But it wasn’t all on him. The previous regime in San Diego let go of a lot of skill-position talent, and the offensive line was decimated by injuries. Rivers didn’t have much help. He was pressing as a result. So far under head coach Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterback coach Frank Reich, Rivers has looked re-energized. He has looked relaxed and confident over the first two weeks. He has shown that he is still a high-level player. Stopping him is the main challenge for the Titans.

How’s Jake Locker coming along?

Kuharsky: He made a bad throw on a crucial third-and-1 late in regulation in the loss to the Texans. The Titans have hardly turned him loose so far. But since the start of camp, he’s shown steady progress. I’m not a complete believer by any means, but I think he has a chance and I didn’t always feel that way. We still haven’t seen some aspects of the offense that should be featured for him. Maybe this week he’ll run around more and we’ll see more boots and rollouts.

I’m curious about one of the guys who will be chasing Locker. The Titans have seen a great deal of Dwight Freeney over the years. How has he fit in the defensive scheme there?

Williamson: An old foe, indeed. Freeney is in a tough spot. He was signed (and paid well) to be the Chargers’ primary edge pass-rusher after 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram blew out his knee in May. But at 33, Freeney is best suited as a rotational player. He has half a sack this season. He has been active and will give his best effort, but he needs help. It would be a stretch to think he can still be a premier player. But he knows the Titans, and I’m sure he will be motivated to perform well Sunday.

What can Rivers and the Chargers' offensive line expect from the Titans’ pass rush?

Kuharsky: The best guys so far haven’t been the ends. Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley should key the rush. Ayers moves from stongside linebacker to end on rush downs but has been limited by a bad ankle. Tackle Jurrell Casey and weakside linebacker Zach Brown have been the best rushers so far. The fronts are less predictable and the blitzes more frequent. That’s the influence of defensive assistant Gregg Williams. This defense is far better than I expected.

Titans have to defend TEs far better

September, 12, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One weak area of the Tennessee Titans' defense the past couple seasons wasn’t tested in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With Heath Miller out injured, the Steelers were unthreatening at tight end.

In Week 2, Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham of the Houston Texans will pose a much tougher challenge. In the Texans' opener against the San Diego Chargers, Daniels had five catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns, and Graham had four catches for 27 yards and a score.

[+] EnlargeZach Brown
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsThe Titans will often rely on Zach Brown to cover tight ends.
Has Tennessee improved at covering tight ends, or are Daniels and Graham poised to have a big day, picking up on the trend of the Mike Munchak-coached Titans?

Per John Parolin of ESPN Stats and Info, 24 percent of the catches made against the Titans since Munchak became head coach in 2011 have been made by tight ends. That is only the 17th-highest percentage in the league.

The troublesome number: Those catches have accounted for 24 percent of the receiving yardage against Tennessee, the fourth-highest percentage in the league.

Strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers has been a key cog in the effort defending tight ends the past two seasons, but it has not been his forte. Now he’s a line-of-scrimmage player most of the time, and an end in nickel situations.

“It’s being disciplined and keeping your eyes on you man, really,” Ayers said about covering Houston's tight ends. “My first two years here, I was doing a lot of covering. So I experienced firsthand when I got the tight end, I took my eyes off him for one second and he’s running across the field.”

Now Ayers will look to provide pass pressure that will help everyone in coverage.

More often, weakside linebacker Zach Brown will be the linebacker involved in covering the tight end.

Brown made it sound simple -- probably too simple -- when I spoke to him about it late in the preseason.

“You’ve just got to be disciplined with your eyes and know what routes the tight end runs,” he said. “The tight end really don’t run a lot of routes unless you’re Vernon Davis. Other than that, tight ends run two or three routes.”

So eye discipline against guys that run only two or three routes was that bad?

We’ll need to see significant improvement in that department for the Titans to limit Daniels and Graham.

A few weeks ago, senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams spoke of tight end coverage issues the Titans' defense had before he joined the staff.

“Maybe some of the teams they’ve played have been high-profile threats on those teams and maybe diminished receivers on those teams,” Williams said. “We’re going to have teams each week that are going to pose talent threats, and we’re going to have to matchup talent threats.”

Over the past two seasons, the Titans gave up big plays to Daniel Fells of the Denver Broncos, Ben Watson of the Cleveland Browns, Joel Dreessen of Houston, Colin Cochart of the Cincinnati Bengals, Dante Rosario of San Diego, Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings, and Jeff Cumberland of the New York Jets.

Those guys hardly qualify as high-profile threats, and hardly ranked high on the list of people the Titans had to worry about -- at least until the games began to unfold.

Daniels is a high-profile threat, but he’s not the Texans' highest-profile threat. To win in Houston, the Titans will have to get some degree of a handle on both Andre Johnson and Daniels.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans made the right choice in going with Alterraun Verner over Tommie Campbell as their starting cornerback opposite Jason McCourty.

Campbell is bigger, stronger and faster, which prompted the Titans to over-tout him in training camp in 2012 and again this year.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was a physically gifted cornerback, too, when he played for the Rams, Oilers and Buccaneers. Gray earned four Pro Bowl appearances from 1985-93.

A year ago, the Titans were looking for Campbell to either win an outside job as a starter or prove capable of taking over an outside job in the nickel package, allowing Verner to shift inside. After a camp full of hype about Campbell, the Titans then pulled an opening-day surprise with Ryan Mouton playing nickel.

[+] EnlargeTommie Campbell
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTommie Campbell was not able to beat out Alterraun Verner as the starting cornerback.
Gray has talked about how important it is for a corner to be smart, and that is one of Verner's top qualities. At another point the coordinator spoke of how, given a raw player with great speed, he would be able to shape him into an effective player. Campbell fits in that category.

Today’s development is mostly about Campbell. He failed to seize a massive opportunity heading into his third year. The Titans wanted him to win the job and he couldn't navigate the road they paved for him.

But it’s an indictment of Gray and the defensive coaches, too. They’ve either overestimated Campbell, failed to develop him or both.

Here’s Mike Munchak’s positive spin when I asked about Gray’s failure to mold the Campbell clay into what he indicated he could:

“Well it’s not over yet, Tommie’s still here, Tommie’s still part of our team. I guess the timing for everyone is always different, how quickly they come on, how they can contribute, how quickly they can take over a position. It’s still a work in progress and like I said, give Vern some credit too for playing well and doing a good job. We still have both of them on our football team and this conversation can change quickly depending on what happens. He’s still in it, he’s still able to keep getting better, as far as who’s first, it’s going to be Vern.

Getting limited second team reps in practice and working on the scout team does not provide the same opportunity to get better that Campbell had through the summer, camp and the preseason.

Campbell was not in the Titans’ locker room during a lengthy period during which it was open to the media Monday. A team official said he didn’t know where Campbell was.

Free safety Michael Griffin said Campbell is still learning some of the nuances of playing cornerback in games.

“In practice, Tommie does a good job, he plays physical,” Griffin said. “When it comes to the games, I guess the hardest part is trying to understand what’s legal, what’s not legal. Because he gets away with a lot of things at practice. But I wouldn’t count Tommie out, you never know when his name may be called.”

Verner was gracious, saying he and Campbell are friends who were rooting for each other and wanted it to come down to who made more plays and not be about either of them failing.

I like Verner and think he’s a heady football player. His training camp body of work was better.

But the 2012 Titans gave up the most points in the NFL and the most points in franchise history. The team ranked 26th in pass defense.

And so the solution in the secondary was to sub out a subpar strong safety, Jordan Babineaux, with Bernard Pollard. Pollard is a better player, but he’s not an ace in coverage, though, he doesn’t care for people to say so.

Of the Titans first five defensive backs, four of them -- McCourty, Verner, Griffin and nickel back Coty Sensabaugh -- are the same as they were last year.

Perhaps that group matures and plays better and has a better pass rush in front of it.

But the Titans strategy with regard to the pass rush wasn’t to add a premier pass-rusher. It was to bring in run defenders to reduce the workload of the rushers already in place.

Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers will be the primary edge pass-rushers with Kamerion Wimbley getting work too. Those three, too, were part of the defense that let teams score an average of 29.4 points a game.

With Gregg Williams’ influence, they will surely blitz more.

My big lingering question is, "Did the Titans change enough on defense?"

The Pittsburgh game will begin to tell the story.

But the offense might want to aim to score 30.

Tennessee Titans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
6:30
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Most significant move: Marc Mariani came back from a vicious broken leg suffered in the preseason in 2012. A shoulder injury suffered in the preseason opener cost him the rest of camp and the preseason, and the Titans put him in injured-reserve Saturday, ending his season. He might have been ready as soon as Week 3, but the Titans clearly didn't like the uncertainty. They could have waived him injured, exposing him to a claim. In that scenario, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who was instrumental in the Titans drafting the receiver/returner out of Montana in 2010, might have wanted him. But the Rams or anyone else would have had to have added him without getting to examine the injury, and Mariani's not under contract beyond this year so a new team could have been at risk for picking up a year's salary and getting nothing out of him. If he wasn’t claimed, he would have reverted to Tennessee’s IR. By putting Mariani directly on IR, he is assured of his $575,000 base salary this season but won’t play anywhere. The move means Darius Reynaud is the returner. He showed himself to be only the team’s fifth-best running back during camp, but sticks to handle punts and kickoffs.

Wildcard: If Rusty Smith clears waivers, the Titans will want the fourth-year quarterback back on their practice squad. He’s not been on the active roster for nine games in any of his first three seasons, so he retains his practice squad eligibility. If Smith is claimed, the Titans will need to find a young quarterback for the spot, who they can work to develop as insurance and who will be able to offer an option as the No. 2 if Jake Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick suffers an injury that results in any missed time. One team that won't claim Smith -- his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars.

What's next: I could see the Titans shopping for a veteran safety as they sift through cuts. Seventh-round pick Daimion Stafford is on the roster now, but the Titans are heavy with strong safeties and light at free safety. They’d probably like better balance and Stafford could ultimately land on the practice squad. With 10 defensive linemen plus strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers in line to play a good share of end, the last pure end -- Keyunta Dawson -- is hardly a lock at this point. Only one injured Titan, rookie linebacker Zaviar Gooden, is likely to miss the season opener at Pittsburgh.

Tennessee Titans cuts: S Al Afalava, T Daniel Baldridge, TE Brandon Barden (injured), DT Stefan Charles, DT Zach Clayton, TE Jack Doyle, LB Gary Guyton, DT DaJohn Harris, S Corey Lynch, FB Collin Mooney, DE Nigel Nicholas, RB Jalen Parmele, WR Rashad Ross, LB Tim Shaw, QB Rusty Smith, LB-DE Scott Solomon, G Kasey Studdard, WR Dontel Watkins, LB Jonathan Willard, CB Khalid Wooten, C-G Fernando Velasco

Placed on Injured-reserve: WR/returner Marc Mariani.

My 53-man Tennessee Titans roster

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
3:14
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rather than tell you this is what’s going to happen, I’ll tell you this is what would happen if I had influence in the Tennessee Titans meeting room when final cuts will be decided.

Some cuts are already trickling out from Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, so check his Twitter feed.

Quarterbacks: Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick

There just is no room for Rusty Smith and there isn’t a need for a third quarterback unless things go incredibly wrong. The difference between a random third guy and Smith isn’t giant.

Running backs: Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle, Quinn Johnson (FB)

Battle has to contribute on special teams, but he was better than Jalen Parmele through the preseason. Wyatt says Parmele is already gone. Johnson’s been hurt and could lose out to Collin Mooney.

Wide receivers: Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Justin Hunter, Michael Preston, Marc Mariani (return specialist)

Preston is one of the best 53 players on the team. Even though he won’t be active on Sundays if everyone’s healthy, you keep extra quality depth at one spot if it’s better than weaker depth at another spot. Once he’s healthy, Mariani isn’t as explosive as a punt returner as Darius Reynaud, but will more regularly get 10 yards.

Tight ends: Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson

No need for a fourth on the 53. Sign Jack Doyle to the practice squad

Offensive linemen: Tackles Michael Roos, David Stewart, Mike Otto, Byron Stingily. Interior: Andy Levitre, Chance Warmack, Rob Turner, Brian Schwenke, Fernando Velasco

Velasco is guaranteed $2.02 million under his tender contract out of restricted free agency. I’m not sure he should stick over Scott Solomon at linebacker or Stefan Charles at defensive tackle. But the big push for revamping the line and the desire for depth after last year’s slew of injuries makes me feel like they will stay loaded.

Defensive ends: Derrick Morgan, Ropati Pitoitua, Kamerion Wimbley, Lavar Edwards, Keyunta Dawson.

Dawson is a good guy to have. I can see him staying and the Titans going five ends as opposed to six tackles. But linebacker Akeem Ayers is a nickel end so he factors in here as well.

Defensive tackles: Jurrell Casey, Sammie Hill, Mike Martin, Antonio Johnson, Karl Klug (swing)

I’ve got Stefan Charles over DaJohn Harris but neither making it. If one of them sticks, it’s the last defensive line spot probably over Dawson. I see Charles on the practice squad.

Linebackers: Akeem Ayers, Moise Fokou, Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden, Colin McCarthy, Patrick Bailey

Scott Solomon is one of my last two cuts. I want to keep seven 'backers. The seventh guy would be a trade-off for Velasco, I think. Solomon is versatile, seems to be catching on to the position change and can still play end if needed. He’s not practice squad eligible. I just can’t fit him here. I might keep him over Bailey but I don’t think they rank him that way.

Safeties: Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard, George Wilson, Daimion Stafford

The fourth spot isn’t strong and Stafford could probably go to the practice squad. But if they choose a veteran -- Al Afalava or Corey Lynch -- as the fourth I could see them trying to upgrade it with an outsider.

Cornerbacks: Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Tommie Campbell, Coty Sensabaugh, Blidi Wreh-Wilson

I’d expect Khalid Wooten on the practice squad.

Kicker: Rob Bironas

Punter: Brett Kern

Long-snapper: Beau Brinkley
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The game book from Week 3 told us quite a bit.

While the "did not play" list isn’t ironclad -- even professional stat crews miss guys when there are 90 a side -- it tends to be pretty telling.

Of healthy guys who didn’t play, four of the six were part of the cuts that got the Titans from 90 to 75. Defensive end Nigel Nicholas was listed a not having played, but he actually played five snaps.

The Tennessee-Minnesota game book doesn’t offer such hints, though plenty of the coming cuts to get the Titans down to 53 are obvious.

The Titans sat a slew of veterans, both dinged and healthy. The team granted preseason action to plenty of guys who won’t be on their team, and a number who won’t be on any team.

Here’s the list of guys who didn't play:

WR Kendall Wright
WR Kenny Britt
RB Shonn Greene
RB Chris Johnson
CB Jason McCourty
S Bernard Pollard
FB Quinn Johnson
LB Zaviar Gooden
LB Zach Brown
LB Akeem Ayers
TE Brandon Barden
WR Marc Mariani
WR Nate Washington
DE Derrick Morgan
DE Ropati Pitoitua
DT Sammie Lee Hill
DT Jurrell Casey

Barden is the only guy on that list who is a likely cut, and he tweaked a knee during the preparation week. The injured Johnson could lose out to Collin Mooney. Mariani (shoulder) is in a fight for the return job.

Otherwise, everyone on that list is on the team. Ten of them will be starters. Wright is the third receiver. Greene is the second running back.

So we get no hints.

One more game book note: It’s preseason for the stat guys, too. They gave credit for Daimion Stafford's third interception to Al Afalava.

Observation deck: Titans-Vikings

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
11:51
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Observations and thoughts on the Tennessee Titans' 24-23 loss Thursday to the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field:
  • Running backs Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene didn’t play, which allowed for Jackie Battle to carry the load with the first-team offense. He was prominent in a game-opening drive that covered 70 yards and 18 plays, eating up 8:59 of the clock. Battle had 10 carries for 38 yards on the march, including a fourth-and-1 conversion where left guard Andy Levitre pulled and opened a hole on the right side of the line. Tennessee got only a field goal out of it all, but it did well to keep building the offensive-line-centered identity. That was it for the first-teamers on offense.
  • A couple other key players beside CJ did not play: receiver Nate Washington, cornerback Jason McCourty and defensive end Derrick Morgan. Nine others with at least minor injuries didn’t play, either, including receivers Kendall Wright and Kenny Britt, running back Greene, linebackers Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown, defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Sammie Hill, and safety Bernard Pollard.
  • Tommie Campbell's missed tackle on a third-down play inside the 5-yard line was a 4-point play, as running back Joe Banyard turned a screen pass into an 11-yard touchdown. Campbell also gave up a red zone catch to Rodney Smith and was flagged for defensive holding, which was declined. Nothing there gave Campbell any better claim to the starting job he has spent camp and the preseason trying to take away from Alterraun Verner.
  • Tight end John Carlson made a nice, 19-yard catch on the Vikings’ first touchdown drive on the kind of play that gives the Titans trouble. Linebackers sucked up on a play-action fake, and Carlson found room between middle linebacker Moise Fokou and free safety Michael Griffin.
  • The second-team offensive line was, left to right, Byron Stingily, Fernando Velasco, Brian Schwenke, Chris Spencer and Mike Otto. At least one of those guys will be cut by Saturday evening. It’s not going to be Schwenke or Otto, and it’s probably not going to be Velasco.
  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson's had a pretty quiet preseason, but the third-round rookie cornerback showed something on the 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Minnesota’s Marcus Sherels. Wilson did well in late pursuit, and his dive for Sherels’ feet just missed.
  • Jack Doyle had a bad third-down drop two weeks ago and was more sure-handed in this game in terms of being certain he had the ball before he even thought about running. He caught a sliding 2-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone from Ryan Fitzpatrick. But he also got nailed early in the second half as he ran with a pass and coughed up a fumble. He’s a promising guy, but the Titans are going to be stretched with players they’d like to keep at receiver, on the offensive line and by their desire to keep a third quarterback. Doyle seems more like a practice-squad guy to me.
  • We’ve thought for a good while that if Darius Reynaud makes the team it will be as a returner, not as a running back/returner. His 11 carries for 56 yards look better than they were. It all came in the second half, against guys at the very back of Minnesota’s depth chart. Battle and Jalen Parmele are looking better ahead of him, as they have throughout the preseason.
  • The Titans have depth issues after their top three safeties. Seventh-round safety Daimion Stafford collected two turnovers in the third quarter. He intercepted a really bad pass from McLeod Bethel-Thompson. Later, as two defenders jarred the ball free from tight end Chase Ford, Stafford scooped it up and ran with it for 39 yards.

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