NFL Nation: Darius Reynaud

W2W4: Oakland Raiders vs. New York Jets

December, 6, 2013
Contrary to what Kellen (The Greek) Winslow believes, the games still matter for the New York Jets.

Despite a three-game losing streak, the Jets (5-7) still are mathematically alive. The bigger issue, though, is the future of Rex Ryan, who has four games to convince his bosses he's the right man for the head coaching job.

Ryan can't afford a loss to the Oakland Raiders (4-8). If the slumping Jets can't defend their home field against the league's worst road team, it'll put a significant dent in Ryan's bid for a 2014 return. Under Dennis Allen, the Raiders are 2-12 on the road. They've lost 12 straight in the Eastern time zone by a combined score of 379-198. They're playing a backup quarterback, rookie Matt McGloin. They have injury concerns at running back. Their roster screams "rebuilding," as they dressed 16 undrafted players in their previous game.

And yet this game could be problematic for the Jets, who never have lost four straight under Ryan. After all, it's hard to win when you can't score.

Kickoff is 1 p.m. at MetLife Stadium. What to watch for:

1. Mettle detector: The Jets invested so much emotionally last week, in what they called a must-win game, that you have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Ryan's teams have always played hard for him, but this will be a gut check. Ryan spent the week trying to boost morale, commending the team's practice performance and lavishing praise upon his draft picks. There was a players-only meeting, with David Harris and D'Brickashaw Ferguson addressing the team. It might have been too little, too late, but we'll see. It would be a mistake to underestimate the Raiders. For all their issues, the Raiders usually come prepared. They have a plus-45 point differential in the first quarter, second in the league.

2. The Gang's all here: For the first time since Week 4, the Jets will have their regular offense intact. The return of WR Jeremy Kerley provides another option in the passing attack, especially in the short and intermediate zones. WR Santonio Holmes is healthier than last week (so they say), so he might actually play more than two snaps. We know the Jets aren't the Greatest Show on Turf, but they're rolling out the best they've got. They have no excuses. "Let's see how we close this thing out when we're healthy," Ryan said.

If they can't break the slump against the Raiders, it could last another two weeks because points will be at a premium next week at the Carolina Panthers. The Jets have gone eight quarters without a touchdown -- 114 plays, an elapsed time of 129 minutes, 36 seconds. They treat the end zone as if it's radioactive. There will be plenty of one-on-one opportunities on the outside, as the Raiders like to blitz and play man-to-man coverage. They've rushed five or more on 44 percent of the opponents' dropbacks, the third-highest rate in the league. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg streamlined the offensive game plan, focusing on the plays they do best -- slim pickings. The Raiders have struggled against slant passes, so look for that.

3. Clock ticking for Geno: The decision to stick with QB Geno Smith, despite his historic struggles, indicates the organization is determined to get a complete evaluation of the rookie. General manager John Idzik doesn't think anything positive can be gained by sitting him. So on we go. Mornhinweg took a different approach this week, imploring Smith to play loose and let his natural instincts take over. Don't be surprised if Mornhinweg calls more designed runs for Smith, who can create a spark with his mobility. He will get blitzed -- a lot. The Raiders will test Smith's recognition skills and the Jets' pass protection.

4. The In-and-Out Corner: Rookie CB Dee Milliner needs a big play in the worst way. He will remain in the starting lineup despite being pulled last week in the third quarter, his third in-game benching. If the coaches continue to yank him, he'll show up on the injury report with a case of whiplash. Milliner, drafted ninth overall, is a key part of the Jets' future. He needs to finish the season on the upswing, providing some evidence to the organization that it didn't swing and miss. You can bet the Raiders will go after him, but their receiving corps is thin. Their top playmaker in the last game was Andre Holmes, who surpassed his career totals in one afternoon. McGloin is fairly effective when throwing deep. Hear that, Ed Reed?

5. Replacing Josh Cribbs: Cibbs, placed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle, wore a lot of hats and it will take more than one player to replace him. Newly-signed Darius Reynaud will return kickoffs and punts, with Bilal Powell and Kerley expected to handle the Wildcat role on offense. Reynaud has dealt with ball-security issues in the past, especially on punt returns.

Damian Williams as a decision-maker

October, 31, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Decision-making was the issue with Darius Reynaud as the Tennessee Titans' return man.

His decisions were bad, so the Titans decided to get rid of him.

The guy replacing Reynaud, receiver Damian Williams, could be as good a decision-maker as the Titans have. He’s smart and he’s football smart.

While he’s never returned a kickoff in a meaningful pro or college game, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable watching him collect a ball in the end zone than I did watching Reynaud.

He’s got plenty of punt return experience from USC, and he’s worked on both every day in practice as the backup.

“I’d like to say I’m a pretty decent decision-maker,” Williams said. “I think a lot of times I’ll take a chance, but when it comes to making a decision, I’ll try to make the best decision based on everything, not just how I feel or whatever the case may be.”

Protecting the team is the top priority, he said.

He hopes return work doesn’t hurt his opportunity as a receiver, where he 13 catches, fifth most on the team.

“You never know, you go out there and make some plays, they might say, ‘We need to get this guy the ball a little more,’” Williams said.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As the Tennessee Titans put together a new offense in the offseason, they felt they had a quality group of threatening weapons. Get the ball in the hands of Kendall Wright, Delanie Walker, Justin Hunter, Nate Washington and Chris Johnson -- in space – and those guys would be able to do some serious damage.

Nowhere in the conversation was talk of quirky changeups to far less dangerous players.

Yet early in the Titans’ loss to the 49ers, the Titans called plays for Darius Reynaud, a struggling return man who somehow got on the field as a receiver, and third-string running back Jackie Battle.

Third-and-4 near midfield on the Titans’ first possession, Jake Locker threw to Reynaud, who dropped the pass. Also in the first quarter, facing a third-and-15, Locker threw to Battle for a 6-yard gain.

On those two plays, the Titans showed far too much faith in marginal players who rank low on their roster. Reynaud failed to convert a third-and-1 in a recent game in a snap at running back. His drop last Sunday went along with another poor return day that finally got him cut on Monday.

No matter the coverage, throwing on third down to a guy you’re about to cut instead of to Johnson or Wright or Walker doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not that coach Mike Munchak didn’t have a convoluted rationale.

“As far as Darius, he was in there early because he’s a mismatch problem because they’re going to double Kendall and cover Delanie,” Munchak said in an attempt to explain. “That gives us another guy who can get open in a short area for a quick 3- or 4-yard pass. That’s what that was for there -- to take advantage of something we thought was there, which was, and he dropped the ball.

“I think we’re trying to use the guys the best we can. Jackie caught a screen. He was in there and we called the play. It’s not like Jackie can’t run a screen. Jackie ran a screen against Pittsburgh and got a first down. So he’s very capable of getting a first down. It’s not always going to be, ‘Is he better than him?’ You always want your best guys … [Chris Johnson] took a screen to the house in the third quarter. So, of course, you want him in there as much as possible, especially when you get a chance to call a screen.”

The Titans are giving charity chances to bad skill players, not only at the expense of their best guys, but skipping right by a capable guy like tight end Craig Stevens, who doesn’t have a catch this season. I’m OK with the way they’ve steered clear of tight end Taylor Thompson because I don’t have a lot of faith in him. But he’s a guy they traded up to draft a couple years ago because they were so in love with his potential.

Locker Room Buzz: Tennessee Titans

October, 20, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Observed in the locker room after the Tennessee Titans31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Two conversations: Bernard Pollard had two conversations as he quickly left the field after the final snap. He ran to find 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin, a teammate on Super Bowl-winning Baltimore a year ago. Then he found an official to whom he expressed his dismay. “We played against their 11 and then some,” he said. I understand the frustrations with another rough call against them -- Akeem Ayers' unnecessary-roughness call wiped away a Pollard pick -- and Pollard hardly put all the blame on the officials. But the Titans can't think the league is out to get them, because it isn’t.

Huge crowd: Darius Reynaud drew the biggest crowd of media in the locker room after a terrible game, with four plays misjudged as the return man and a drop in one of his rare chances as a receiver. The Titans have minimized receiver Kenny Britt’s snaps because of his struggles and pulled center Rob Turner out of the lineup in favor of Brian Schwenke. Mike Munchak said they’ll now consider making a change with Reynaud.

Debut: Schwenke said he thought he fared well in the Titans' limited attempts at running the ball and came to understand a lot about pass protection on the fly in his first NFL game. “I learned it as it happened,” he said. He pledged he will be a lot better player when the Titans resume their season in St. Louis on Nov. 3.

Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Titans

October, 20, 2013

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.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 6

October, 14, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 20-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:

One change coming: I don’t expect the Titans to make a big shakeup, though they should be considering Brian Schwenke at center when the bye week arrives. But one change that should arrive this week is the re-emergence of No. 2 running back Shonn Greene. He hurt his knee in the opener and had it scoped. He should practice on Wednesday. The Titans will be equipped to run better against San Francisco with a one-two punch of Chris Johnson and Greene, and if Greene gets on any kind of roll they won’t hesitate to go with the hot hand. They are desperate for a hot hand.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Ryan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonTitans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been struggling lately.
Doling out consequences: While I am ready for Schwenke, there aren’t viable alternatives at most of the Titans’ trouble spots. Ryan Fitzpatrick is struggling, but he has always been streaky. There is a far better chance he plays better next week than there is that Rusty Smith would play well. And the Titans won’t even consider turning to their No. 3 QB. But that Kenny Britt played, by my count, two snaps, shows that Mike Munchak will take playing time away from a bad performer when he has an alternative.

Repeat mistakes: Brett Kern dropped a second punt snap in a month, which is hard to fathom. Darius Reynaud had a 40-yard kickoff return, but let yet another punt bounce and was lucky to get away with it when it turned into a touchback. Rob Turner sailed a couple more shotgun snaps. Guys making mistakes are the No. 1 people who have to be accountable for those mistakes. But when they make the same mistakes repeatedly, I have to wonder about the message of Munchak and his staff, and about how good they are at correcting things. Do they have guys who don’t get what they are being told, guys who aren’t capable of fixing those things or guys who are just mistake-makers? Whatever the answer, it’s a problem.

Look across the field: The Titans aspire to be a physical team that controls both lines of scrimmage and can impose its will as it runs and stops the run. Well, they just lost to two teams, the Chiefs and Seahawks, who follow that blueprint far better than Tennessee does. And the 49ers are of the same ilk and will be in Nashville on Sunday. The Titans pledged what they were going to be, and we’ve seen it a little bit, particularly in the wins in Pittsburgh and over the Chargers. But we haven’t seen it enough. Never mind fans who heard the identity promises. I wonder what owner Bud Adams thinks about the Titans failure to be who they pledged they’d be when he spent more than $100 million on free agents to help them be it?
Ryan FitzpatrickAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonQuarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick couldn't get the Titans into the end zone against the Seahawks.
SEATTLE -- The Tennessee Titans were feeling great about themselves halfway through their Sept. 29 win over the Jets.

When quarterback Jake Locker got hurt in the third quarter, knocked out with hip and knee injuries, they knew things were going to change.

They gave the standard offerings about their confidence in backup Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Sunday at CenturyLink Field, he gave his second consecutive showing that suggested they’ve overvalued their backup quarterback. Fitzpatrick led the Titans to two field goals and threw two interceptions in a 20-13 loss to the Seahawks.

“We couldn’t get into a rhythm on offense and a lot of that is me,” he said. “I didn’t play well today. Really for the last two weeks I’ve played poorly and we haven’t won games. ... I feel like momentum has kind of ground to a halt with the last two games and the way that we played on offense.

“The defense is still playing great and making plays out there. I’m not doing enough right now to consistently move the ball for the offense.”

Mike Munchak said the 3-3 Titans rate as average, and many players agreed with the obvious assessment that can be difficult to come to terms with.

The Titans got away with the first of Fitzpatrick’s interceptions. He overthrew Nate Washington in the middle of the field in the first quarter and safety Earl Thomas bobbled the ball before collecting it. The Seahawks didn’t turn it into points.

Tennessee wasn’t as fortunate the second time.

Seattle had just moved ahead 13-10 and Fitzpatrick gave the Seahawks the ball back on the first play from scrimmage. On first-and-10 from the Titans’ 20, he threw a play-action pass up the right side intended for Washington. The Titans receiver briefly had a step on cornerback Richard Sherman.

Had the ball been to the sideline perhaps Washington could have made a play or it would have fallen harmlessly incomplete. But the ball was a bit inside and Sherman had no problem going up to make the catch in front of Washington.

Energized and feeling they could put the game away, the home team drove for a touchdown. Russell Wilson's 24-yard rollout pass to Sidney Rice, who gracefully got his toes in as he fell out of bounds cradling the ball. That set up Marshawn Lynch’s second touchdown run of the game.

“Our defense had just given up a drive and we needed to make some plays,” Munchak said. “We can’t throw an interception on the first play of the series and put the defense back out there like we did. Because eventually an offense is going to wear you down, which happened. They started to make some plays the next time they got the ball. We’re just not playing good enough to win on that side of the ball.

The Titans need better quarterbacking, and they aren’t saying otherwise.

In two games as the starter, Fitzpatrick has completed 54 percent of his passes with one touchdown, four interceptions, a 53.2 passer rating and six sacks. He’s also fumbled three times, losing none of them.

Still, when offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains talked about what needs to change, he pointed first to the other piece of the offense.

“I think once you get the run game going it helps everything,” he said. “I think that’s where improvement needs to happen the fastest. We’re going to examine it and look and see what’s going on there.”

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsChris Johnson couldn't find much room to run against the Seattle defense, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry.
In losses to the Chiefs and at the Seahawks, Chris Johnson has turned 22 carries into 50 yards. That’s a 2.3-yard average, and it’s hardly what the Titans were selling they would be doing with three new interior offensive lineman who were brought in to help the Titans revert to an old identity as a physical running team able to get a tough yard at any time, against anyone.

Johnson had the wind knocked out of him on his best series, and with Shonn Greene (knee) out and Jackie Battle (neck) hurt, the Titans turned to their fourth running back, return man Darius Reynaud on a crucial third-and-1 in the third quarter

He got stuffed.

“Yeah, we didn’t get it,” Munchak said. “So we should have run something else.”

The run game is far from fixed.

“At the end of the day it just comes down to one factor and that’s running the football,” Johnson said. “We can’t continue to go out there and not at least average 4 yards when we hand the ball off. That enables Dowell to call another run. When we get a 1-yard gain or a negative (play), we’ve got to throw the ball.

“The formula for this team is, I think, we’ve got to help our defense out. We can’t be going three-and-out, we can’t turn the ball over and we can’t continue to not run the ball. We have too many good players up front, out wide and in the backfield not to be able to out-will people. We did all preseason, we did the first couple games of the season. We just went out there and ran the ball. Even though they knew we were going to run the ball, we still ran it. These last three weeks, it’s just not working.”

Nothing suggests this is going to be a team dominant up front where it will always be able to count on the run.

When it can’t, and when Locker’s not there, trouble awaits.

I suspect next week’s opponent, San Francisco, is excited.

Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Titans

October, 13, 2013

SEATTLE -- A few thoughts on the Tennessee Titans20-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.

What it means: The Titans can go on the road to a tough environment and hang with a good team. But they couldn’t pull out a win despite plenty of opportunity. Their best opportunity might have been on a Marshawn Lynch fourth-quarter fumble. Zach Brown was in position to scoop and score, and the ball slid off his hands back to quarterback Russell Wilson. The Titans have lost two in a row to fall to 3-3.

Stock watch: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions and could have easily given away a third. He and the Titans never got into any sustained offensive rhythm. Fitzpatrick fumbled and recovered a snap and had a ball slip out of his hand later. The Titans were fortunate in that they recovered both.

Personnel question: On a crucial third-and-1 from near midfield with the score tied at 10, the Titans gave the ball to Darius Reynaud, who gained nothing. Chris Johnson had just been hurt, Jackie Battle was out of the game with a neck injury and Shonn Greene, still recovering from knee surgery, was inactive. Running Reynaud isn’t a viable option, no matter how much confidence the Titans have in their run game. On fourth down, they took a delay and then punted.

Invisible: Kenny Britt didn’t get on the field until late in the fourth quarter. He caught a 7-yard pass for a first down and returned to the bench. Applause to the Titans for doing what was needed. Still, without him, they dropped a couple passes that hurt.

What’s next: The Titans face another NFC West foe as the San Francisco 49ers visit LP Field.

Survey says: The Titans' bad habits

September, 26, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Coaches want to instill habits.

In many ways, that’s what coaching is. Most coaches don’t want players thinking too much during a play, they want them reacting to things according to a plan, using techniques that have become habit.

But most things involving habits also include bad habits.

I asked Tennessee Titans middle linebacker Moise Fokou what bad habit he’s had to overcome in his football life, and how overcoming it and retraining himself has paid off.

“Even in college I was guilty of moving too fast,” the fifth-year pro said. “A lot of times you want to react fast and diagnose the play quickly, and get to it before the play gets there, almost. I’ve always been one of those guys who’s pretty quick. And when I diagnose, I kind of get to the play before.

“Sometimes that habit will get me in trouble, because what I thought I saw wasn’t exactly what was happening. I’ve learned to use my quickness as an asset, but also kind of to play it slower. Diagnose a play, then react as quickly as possible -- instead of reacting as soon as you see it. You still get there, but make sure it is what you are seeing.”

[+] EnlargeMoise Fokou
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsTitans linebacker Moise Fokou said learning to slow himself down has paid huge dividends.
Fokou is in the middle for the Titans, but came to Nashville with NFL experience at the Will and Sam linebacker spots. According to Fokou, at those positions, seeing what's happening and getting there immediately is more pressing.

“At the Mike, you kind of have to be the top-off, make sure everything is safe,” he said. “So I’m doing more reading and reacting than reacting and reading right now.”

I toured the Titans locker room to talk bad habits with many others, trying to get an answer from someone at every position. I like doing surveys like this because I always get unexpected answers. I figured most answers would relate to technique, but many didn’t.

Here's what I learned:

Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle: “I would say finishing. A lot of times you get into a situation where you get beat, pinned at the line of scrimmage or whatnot and you think there is no way out of it. You’ll kind of just sit there and let the quarterback move around. On your first move, you have to learn how to convert into that second move. Now my biggest thing is converting into that second move and not letting a guy win after the first move.”

Craig Stevens, tight end: “Not getting off on the snap count. It's an advantage that offensive players have. I try to focus on that. Sometime I didn’t pay attention to it like I should. You’ve got to focus on it. It helps a lot. You can get off before [defensive players] can.”

Jason McCourty, cornerback: “I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to put anything out there and people go, ‘That’s his habit, let’s attack him doing that.’ [Then 30 seconds about how reps at press coverage have helped the secondary play it better, followed by me asking if he was going to give me a habit.] I’m not going to give you a habit, I’m going to talk around the question.”

Shonn Greene, running back: “Maybe in pass pro(tection). Grabbing a guy outside his shoulder pads instead of keeping my hands in. If you do it, it’s a lot easier to get called for a hold, and it’s not the right technique to use. You’ve got to keep them inside. … That’s a habit I’ve had that I’ve been trying to correct. I’m better at it now, but it’s just one of those things that sometimes it slips.”

Derrick Morgan, defensive end: “Not sticking to my rush plan. Sometimes I would kind of abandon it and start trying new stuff. Now I don’t get discouraged, I just stay with the plan. You can’t get discouraged if something doesn’t work the first time. Stay with it, with what I’ve been practicing.”

Nate Washington, wide receiver: “Making a move before I get the ball, taking my eye off the ball, not looking it all the way in. Especially now with coach (Shawn) Jefferson here, that’s his main thing -- eyes, eyes, eyes. Making sure you’re looking the ball all the way in. A lot of times, if you look at a receiver if he drops the ball, nine times out of 10 it’s going to be because he turned his head too fast, looking to make a move without the ball.”

Rob Turner, center: “I think as an offensive lineman, you’re always working on your hands. You get caught in positions, defensive linemen move, they are running a game, they are working to get off a block, arm-over. And it’s something you constantly fight, to improve your hand placement. You may have them in a good spot to begin with, and a guy makes a move and you have to replace it or pull it out. That’s something I’ve constantly worked at, is getting better with my hands. You get away with stuff in college -- not to speak bad of every college player, but not every college player is an elite player. So I think you get away with more stuff because a guy isn’t as strong or doesn’t take great footwork. There is more room for mistakes at that level. Once you make a move to the next level, every one of those attention-to-detail things becomes more important.”

Darius Reynaud, return man: “For me, it would be on punt returns. Judging the ball and judging those guys, for me as a punt returner, I tend to stop to see where everyone is at before I go. That’s my bad habit. Against Pittsburgh, when I caught it, I just hit it and ran and got a 27-yard average on it. I need to catch the ball and go forward with it.”

Coty Sensabaugh, nickelback: “Eyes looking at the wrong thing. Say you’re in man-to-man coverage, you’re guarding the receiver really well. Then instead of looking at him when he breaks, you’re looking at the quarterback. He can separate from you. I’ve gotten a whole lot better at it. I had a bad habit of it in college. My college coach used to correct me on that and really get on me about that, so I got out of the habit pretty well.”
PITTSBURGH -- Every theme the Tennessee Titans hit, and hit, and hit again through the offseason and the preseason was on display in their season-opening win at Heinz field Sunday.

Let’s run through their core beliefs and how they translated into the 16-9 victory.

Be physical on both sides of the ball: The Titans didn’t run the ball great, but they ran it well enough to hand it off 37 times. Jake Locker's runs, including two kneel-downs made for a total of 42 rush attempts for 112 yards. Sure they’d like more than 2.7 yards a carry. But against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is typically stout against the run, being able to run it that much is a win.

The defense managed to sack Ben Roethlisberger, who’s a tough guy to drag down, five times. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and weakside linebacker Zach Brown had two sacks apiece. A couple new players -- end Ropati Pitoitua and middle linebacker Moise Fokou -- made significant contributions to the effort.

The Steelers suffered several injuries. Center Maurkice Pouncey's wasn’t from anything Tennessee did, he got hit by linemate David DeCastro. But the physical game certainly had a role in injuries to LaRod Stephens-Howling (knee), cornerback Cortez Allen (ankle) and inside linebacker Larry Foote (biceps). The Titans weren’t nearly as banged up.

Withstand adversity: Things couldn’t have started any worse. Return man Darius Reynaud inexplicably decided that despite some room, he wanted to turn a bouncing kickoff into a touchback. The trouble was he picked up the ball just across the goal line and pulled it back in to take a knee.

He’s got to make a better decision in such circumstances, and his failure to do so is on him. He was able to have a sense of humor about it since the Titans overcame it.

An aside. One thing he said postgame bothered me a bit.

Asked what sort of rules he’s to follow in such circumstances, he said. “I set back seven deep, if the ball is kicked five yards deep I can run up on it. But on that type of play, we never practiced that play. I’m going to get that in practice this week just to get a good look on it. … Next time we’ll get that right.”

Mike Munchak fired Alan Lowry, a coach who had a reputation for his special teams being prepared for anything and everything, after last season.

Don’t put Locker in bad situations: Locker was sacked only once. He ran the offense efficiently, and his teammates said he was confidently in command in the huddle. He ran for a nice 5-yard gain on one option play with Chris Johnson. He was 11 for 20 for 125 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and a long of 25 yards.

He threw a couple off-target passes, but never appeared flustered by a defense that’s got the capacity to make young quarterbacks panicky.

A key to putting him in good spots was productive first downs. In the first half, the Titans averaged second-and-5.2. For the game, nine of 21 second downs were second-and-6 or less.

Stop the run to make opponents one-dimensional: The Steelers turned 15 carries into 32 yards. And their long run was eight yards by Isaac Redman, who also coughed up a fumble as the Steelers were about to score to go up 9-0.


All in all, it was a great day for creating a feeling that work and points of emphasis have paid off.

“Overall, we were exactly what we were trying to work towards in the preseason,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “I think that one drive we had 13 straight run plays or something like that. (Actually 12 of 13 plays.) That’s what we’ve been trying to get to. Impose our will on them and keep drives alive.”

Locker Room Buzz: Tennessee Titans

September, 8, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Observed in the locker room after the Titans’ 16-9 victory over the Steelers:

Terrible towel commentary: From the Titans' locker room before the doors opened to the media, a loud commentary carried well beyond the doors -- “Hey, [bleep] those Terrible Towels.”

The receiver in red: Titans receiver Nate Washington, who started his career with the Steelers, was decked out in red after the game. He wore a red sports coat over a red shirt, with red and brown shoes. For good measure, he had a red phone case with a red cord on his red and white Beats headphones.

The crazy safety: Darius Reynaud’s gaffe on the opening kickoff spotted the Steelers 2 points. He tried to take a bouncing ball back into the end zone for a touchback, and it turned into a safety. Teammates said they told him to forget about it. But, running back Chris Johnson admitted he told Reynaud something else about the kickoff after the win was in the books. “You should have brought it out.”

Tennessee Titans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
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.

Reassessing the Titans' needs

April, 2, 2013
We need to reserve judgment on just how well the Titans did with their free-agent haul. Several of their key additions -- like tight end Delanie Walker and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill -- are expected to graduate into bigger roles with their new team.

The Titans project they can handle that and excel with it. We’ll have to wait and see.

What I like most about what they’ve done is this: A team with a ton of needs as the 2013 NFL year began has far fewer now.

That creates a certain draft freedom. While there are still things they need, they need them far less desperately. If a guy they really want in the draft goes off the board a couple picks before they are up, it will be less tragic.

[+] EnlargeBernard Pollard
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Titans signed safety Bernard Pollard, hoping the former Raven can add fire and veteran leadership.
A review of what they needed as free agency opened, and some thoughts on what they need now.

Safety: Like it or not they are locked into Michael Griffin. So what they needed was a serious upgrade with regard to an in-the-box presence at the position who will allow Griffin to play as a center fielding free safety. Enter George Wilson and Bernard Pollard. They are veterans who are better than the options the Titans had in 2012, plus they bring leadership -- Wilson of a quieter variety, Pollard with a loud swagger. If they draft a kid to develop behind this group, that’d be fine, but it’s not a pressing need.

Guard: Andy Levitre was the best option on the market. Rob Turner and Chris Spencer are far better options than interior guys like Kevin Matthews or Deuce Lutui, who wound up playing last year. Ideally the Titans find a young stud to play right guard long term. But if the can’t get, or decide to pass on, Chance Warmack, Jonathan Cooper or Larry Warford they could still be OK.

Defensive end: Internally, it’s not been rated the need it was externally. They did add super-sized Ropati Pitoitua, but he doesn’t appear to be a guy who will spur the pass rush. I think they feel good about Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley, and will use Akeem Ayers more as a rusher. But I’d still rank an end that can boost the pass rush as a need.

Running back: They needed a short-yardage guy to serve in a complementary role with Chris Johnson, and found a guy they liked in Shonn Greene. Darius Reynaud is back, though he’s primarily a returner. A mid- or late-round back would make sense to increase their options if Johnson’s money is an issue next year and/or to compete with Jamie Harper for a role.

Defensive tackle: They showed no interest in bringing back Sen'Derrick Marks and found the size they wanted in Hill. With Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin, that’s a nice three-pack. Karl Klug is a question mark. This is a spot where they can definitely continue to add, even if they have high hopes for Klug and DaJohn Harris.

Cornerback: The one name that surfaced as a guy they courted was Keenan Lewis, the Steeler-turned-Saint. Depth at this position is shaky. Coty Sensabaugh did OK as a rookie nickel back. But ideally the Titans would get Alterraun Verner into the slot, even if he’s starting outside in the base defense. They need a better candidate that Tommie Campbell to play outside as the second or third guy. This could now rate as one of the top needs.

Tight end: Following the breakdown in talks with Jared Cook, the team decided against using the franchise tag on him. Walker is more equipped to shift around from the backfield to the line to the slot, and the Titans want to get back to using a guy like that. No remaining need with Craig Stevens, a solid blocker, and Taylor Thompson, a second-year project, in place.

Linebacker: Depth is the issue here, especially in the middle where Colin McCarthy gets hurt. Moise Fokou might help, and ideally the main addition would be a veteran upgrade over outgoing free agent Will Witherspoon. If Ayers moves forward to rush some as a defensive end, they’ll need a quality outside guy who can cover. A need, still, for sure.

Receiver -- I wasn’t thinking it was a spot they needed to address before the draft, but they looked at a lot of guys and signed Kevin Walter. He’s a reliable route runner who can work underneath and do well against zones for quarterback Jake Locker. But Walter isn’t explosive. I expect they’d like to add a draft pick who’s a smart, quality route runner with a little more ability for yards after the catch.
GM Ruston Webster said Thursday evening that the Titans still had between $5 million and $7 million in salary-cap cushion.

So far they’ve signed six free agents, re-signed one of their own free agents (Darius Reynaud) and tendered restricted free agent center Fernando Velasco.

Those expenditures for guard Andy Levitre, defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, tight end Delanie Walker, running back Shonn Greene, safety George Wilson, linebacker Moise Fokou, Reynaud and Velasco amount to $18,822,999. That factors in $1 million for Reynaud whose numbers I don’t have. Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean said his one-year deal is for around $1 million.

Tennessee got a bit of savings from cutting safety Jordan Babineaux. That saved them $1.8 million against the 2013 cap. [UPDATE: And I forgot Steve Hutchinson's retirement, which saved the team $3.75 million, a total that's more than I'd previously reported.]

On Feb. 21, the numbers I had access to said the Titans had $18.021 million in cap room, and that already included Wilson.

My math, which has proved unreliable several times today, says they should have about $6.448 million in room left right now.
My plan for the Tennessee Titans as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

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

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

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

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

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