NFL Nation: Dave Ball

Why Titans need pass-rush help

April, 24, 2013
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In free agency, the Titans downplayed their need at defensive end, adding only 6-foot-8, 315-pound Ropati Pitoitua.

But depth was an issue in 2012, when Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan were overextended.

Some combination of Keyunta Dawson, Leger Douzable and Dave Ball behind the starters would have helped. But Douzable and Ball were on injured reserve in the preseason and Dawson played in just three games before he was hurt.

Currently the depth is Pitoitua, Dawson and Scott Solomon. A drat pick could upgrade the group.

With Gregg Williams added to the defensive coaching staff, there is more talk of blitzing and more discussion of splashing in some 3-4 looks. Outside linebacker Akeem Ayers was increasingly involved in the rush later in the season and figures to be more prominent going forward. He could blitz from his usual spot and he could line up sometimes as an end.

Last season, the Titans sent four or fewer rushers nearly 75 percent of the time, recording 18 sacks. The quarter of the time when they sent five or more, they recorded 21 sacks.

That was 26.0 drop-backs per sack for standard pressure (28th in the NFL) and 7.6 drop-backs per sack with five or more rushers, best in the NFL.

Even if they blitz more, they need to do better with a standard rush and probably need to ease the workloads of Morgan (who played 81 percent of the defensive snaps last season) and Wimbley (80 percent).

Tennessee Titans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Click here for the complete list of Tennessee Titans' roster moves.
Most significant move: Al Afalava didn’t stick with the Colts when they were thinned out in the secondary, but he’s the Titans' fourth safety at the start. Another former member of the Indianapolis secondary, Aaron Francisco, had done some great special teams work and I thought he would win that job. Afalava may be sturdier, which could have helped his case. With end Dave Ball (concussion) and Leger Douzable (shoulder) put on IR, there was room for an additional tackle. But the Titans cut Zach Clayton in favor of DaJohn Harris on the inside rather than keeping both.

Onward and upward: Running back and returner Darius Reynaud was a big story in camp, and may have been destined to stick even before return man Marc Mariani suffered a terrible broken leg. The running back can do nice work in the screen game and should be a pretty good returner. On defense, Pannel Egboh, has floated around the practice squad circuit. Now he gets the big payoff and should get some work as the third end who takes some snaps on clear run downs while giving Derrick Morgan or Kamerion Wimbley a rest.

What’s next: The Titans third corner, Tommie Campbell, is in his second season. And beyond him cornerback depth is very inexperienced, with rookie Coty Sensabaugh and Ryan Mouton (who missed his second season hurt). A veteran corner could be a quality addition. The team is heavy at running back with Chris Johnson, Javon Ringer, Jamie Harper and Reynaud plus fullback Quinn Johnson. I’m skeptical of the need for a fullback who’s not an ace special teamer, and Quinn Johnson is not one.

Camp Confidential: Tennessee Titans

August, 14, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Like everyone in the NFL, the 2011 Titans were hurried together.

Unlike most other teams, they were hurried together by a new coaching staff.

Mike Munchak’s coordinators -- Jerry Gray on defense and Chris Palmer on offense-- had to show patience and restraint. They brought exciting new ideas to Nashville, but they weren’t able to implement much of them in the wake of the lockout. The personnel could only be revamped so much, but more importantly they didn’t have much time.

No offseason, no organized team activities and no minicamps meant sticking mostly to basics.

Now, they say, after a full offseason together, they’ll show us far more.

Whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker is at quarterback, we’ll see Palmer implement run-and-shoot concepts while using two tight ends or a fullback. He’ll look to regularly threaten teams deep with what can be a great compliment of pass-catchers: Kenny Britt (presuming he’s healthy and available), Nate Washington, rookie Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Chris Johnson, Jared Cook and Taylor Thompson.

If the evolution into more of a passing offense pans out, Johnson should get more space when he takes a handoff, and that should help him rebound from a disappointing 2011 season. He’s looked better after participating fully in the Titans' offseason activities for the first time.

Defensively, Gray is looking to allow some players to excel in narrow roles in specific situations. Akeem Ayers, for example, should get to show off his rush skills by lining up as an end in a special rush package. Ideally, free safety Michael Griffin will play more in center field, where he's best.

Do Palmer and Gray have enough people to do what they want? And does what they want to do work? Progress seemed steady in the first couple weeks of camp, but there are still questions to answer.

THREE HOT ISSUES

The quarterback battle: It hasn't drawn the spotlight one might have expected, because it’s friendly and doesn’t pit good versus evil on any level.

The Titans drafted Locker eighth overall in 2010 to be their starter -- for a long time, they hope. It’s not a matter of if he gets into the lineup, but when. If he can take advantage of game situations to show improved accuracy and make plays from the pocket as well as on the move, Locker certainly has a chance to displace Hasselbeck now. He was better by at least a bit in the preseason opener and will start the second game Friday night at Tampa Bay.

But the team feels it’s going to compete for a playoff spot now, and the younger, less experienced quarterback comes with a learning curve. If coaches feel Hasselbeck has a mastery of the offense and is playing effectively, it might be difficult to make the switch heading into an opening month that looks very challenging.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Wade PayneLinebacker Kamerion Wimbley looks to be an asset on the field and in the locker room.
The pass rush: Everything the Titans' defense wants to do can blossom out of a more productive pass rush. Gray came to the team determined to beef up the D and get back to run-stopping basics. The Titans certainly want to maintain that theme, but they need a better pass rush to go with it.

They hired Keith Millard to coach not a position but a skill: rushing the passer. I like the concept, but Millard was in Tampa last year and they were a bad pass-rush team. It also has to make you wonder a bit about the pass-rush education defensive linemen were getting from position coach Tracy Rocker.

Kamerion Wimbley looks like a potential difference-maker, but the other projected/expected starter at end, Derrick Morgan, is hardly locked in as a threat yet. He’s been working behind 2011 practice-squader Pannel Egboh recently.

The interior includes very intriguing rush guys in Karl Klug and rookie Mike Martin, and has some depth. Ayers is slated to scoot up and work as an end in some nickel situations, perhaps shifting Morgan inside. However, what hear about Ayers' versatility and what I see from him don’t match up yet.

Britt: A suspension under the personal-conduct policy is looming for Britt after a DUI arrest at a military base. He has not shown he's learned from mistakes and turned into a better decision-maker. And he’s still on the physically-unable-to-perform list, recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered early last season and subsequent cleanup procedures. When healthy and available, Britt is an absolutely tantalizing receiver who can make everyone else’s matchups more advantageous.

His recent rehab work makes him look close to ready. His recent meeting with the commissioner makes us expect an announcement soon about some time on the shelf. Once that’s over, he has to settle down and show up every week while not giving the team cause for concern when he’s away from the facility.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

One big reason the Titans didn’t think cornerback Cortland Finnegan was worth the money he got as a free agent from St. Louis is that his brand of professionalism didn't match up with the team's. Finnegan was beyond feisty at times, and a surly mood and an ego that prompted him to leave the team for a day during camp in 2011 in a contract dispute weren’t things the Titans could overlook.

Know what to do and do it. That’s Munchak’s basic requirement of his players. In guard Steve Hutchinson and Wimbley, the Titans added two more standard-bearers of a message other players should continue to respect and respond to.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Estimating who will be good and who won’t in advance of a season is fraught with peril, but it’s hard not to do. Look at the Titans' first four games and it’s hard not to foresee trouble. The Patriots visit on opening day; any game against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is a major challenge. Then a trip to San Diego, where the Titans have long struggled. Detroit brings burgeoning quarterback Matthew Stafford to Tennessee before the Titans travel to Houston to face the division favorite.

With their current questions, it’s hard to envision the Titans ripping off a good start against that early schedule. But the league’s unpredictability is its best feature, so the quality of that four-pack is not written in permanent marker.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Titans have invested a lot of time and energy into Rusty Smith, and I don’t doubt they like their third quarterback. It’ll be hard to justify a roster spot for him, though. Third quarterbacks are a luxury, and both Locker and Hasselbeck should be on the team in 2013.
  • Johnson seemed to be back to form in practices, but it’s hard to gauge running backs in practices. He was awful in limited action in the preseason opener at Seattle, failing to press the hole and appearing completely disinterested in the passing game, where he had two drops. That was enough to officially put him back in the “major concern” department for me.
  • Dave Ball contemplated retirement after dealing with another concussion last year. He had another early in camp and is likely fading on the depth chart while missing time. Egboh should be the third end, and guys like rookie Scott Solomon and veterans Leger Douzable and Keyunta Dawson give the Titans some alternatives.
  • [+] EnlargeMike Martin
    Jim Brown/US PresswireRookie Mike Martin helps with pass rushing depth -- and could yet displace veteran Shaun Smith.
    Beau Brinkley is in line to be the long-snapper. The rookie right end out of Missouri takes over for veteran Ken Amato, who was not re-signed after filling the role since 2003. So far, so good for Brinkley, who’s been invisible through camp and a preseason game, which is what you want from a guy in that role.
  • Martin, a third-round pick from Michigan, has gotten some work with the first team and figures to be another piece in a talented group of interior linemen. Though he gives up nearly 20 pounds to Shaun Smith, he could help knock the veteran off the roster. Smith has worked hard at becoming more of a penetrator and turned quiet rather than being the boisterous guy of last season, but his changes may have come too late. The Titans brought him in last year as they tried to get bigger, but had to know he was a space-eater who wasn’t programmed to get into the backfield the way they want tackles to.
  • If Britt is healthy and somehow avoids suspension for his off-field transgressions, he certainly should be an opening-day starter. But if Britt isn't available, I won’t be surprised if Williams is ahead of first-round pick Wright against the Patriots on Sept. 9 at LP Field. Williams has become increasingly assertive and knows what to do, while Wright could need some time to bring an expanded repertoire onto the field.
  • Cook is the more explosive receiver, so he gets talked about. But the Titans’ other top tight end, Craig Stevens, is underrated. He’s a good blocker who may not have receiver speed, but can get open and make some catches when called on.
  • Weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon is a quality veteran guy in the locker room. But he comes and goes as a playmaker. Second-round pick Zach Brown brings tremendous speed. I don’t think he’ll dislodge Witherspoon from the job at the start. He may earn a role in covering tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Brandon Pettigrew and Owen Daniels -- players the Titans will be game-planning against in their first month. Tennessee has had some major issues recently covering top tight ends.
  • The Titans have a find in cornerback Jason McCourty, who is going to be good as their lead guy and will help reshape the tone of the defensive backs meeting room. I actually feel better about him and Alterraun Verner as the team’s starting cornerbacks than I do about Griffin and Jordan Babineaux as the safeties. My suspicion is that good offenses are going to find plays down the middle of the field.
SEATTLE -- A few NFC West thoughts from CenturyLink Field as the Seattle Seahawks prepare to open their 2012 exhibition season against the Tennessee Titans:
  • Skies are clear and the temperature is about 80 degrees. It's a perfect night for summer football.
  • The Seahawks are wearing their new uniforms: dark blue pants with bright green piping, dark blue tops with bright green numbers and bright green markings, dark blue helmets. It's a lot of blue. Does the green glow in the dark? I know the big guys prefer the dark pants to the light gray ones. They're ... slimming.
  • Both teams have a No. 8 in uniform: Matt Hasselbeck for the Titans, Jermaine Kearse for the Seahawks. Strange.
  • Teams generally don't like to travel great distances for preseason games, but this trip is a homecoming for so many Titans, especially in the front office.
  • The Seahawks distributed a list showing the following players not expected to play in this game: Terrell Owens, Sidney Rice, Walter Thurmond, Allen Bradford, Jameson Konz, Matt McCoy, Barrett Ruud, John Moffitt, James Carpenter, Kellen Winslow, Ricardo Lockette, Doug Baldwin and Alan Branch. Some of those players are in uniform and warming up on the field, notably Rice and Winslow.
  • The Titans listed three players as unlikely to play: Terrence Wheatley, Brandon Barden and Dave Ball.
  • I'll be heading to San Francisco for a few days with the 49ers beginning Sunday. Looks like they won't have leading sacker Aldon Smith for the short term. The team re-signed outside linebacker Kenny Rowe, who went to camp with the 49ers a year ago. Safety Mark LeGree, a Seahawks draft choice who also spent time with Arizona, was released to make room on the roster. Smith has a bruised hip.
  • The Cardinals brought back veteran fullback Reagan Maui'a to help get them through camp. Jared Crank suffered a neck injury.
  • The St. Louis Rams kick off their preseason against Indianapolis at 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday. It's an odd time, but it could give me a chance to watch the Rams before heading to Candlestick Park for the 49ers' fan-oriented session later in the day.

Enjoy your Saturday night. I'll be back with notes after the game, and probably sooner as well.

Three things: Titans at Seahawks

August, 11, 2012
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Three things to pay special attention to in Titans at Seahawks tonight:

The quarterbacks, of course: In my thinking, Matt Hasselbeck won’t alter his standing much unless he’s bad in his starting stint against his former team. It’s Jake Locker who has more to gain in this circumstance -- he needs to show huddle command, accuracy and move the team well if he finds the offense in the red zone or a two-minute drill situation. Watch if he’s able to deliver short stuff to maximize the chances of the pass-catcher to turn and go, and if he throws as well to the left as to the right.

Tommie Campbell: He’s kind of in place and unquestioned as the third cornerback so far, and it’s good that the team feels confident in him. But we need to see the Titans in nickel, with Alterraun Verner shifted inside and Campbell taking his place playing with confidence, making good decisions and sticking with receivers or following his zone rules. Tied to that, do we see any of the guys behind him -- Terrence Wheatley, Coty Sensabaugh, Chris Hawkins, Ryan Mouton -- play well enough to be considered to be putting pressure on him.

Who rushes well? Coaches have downplayed the meaning of Pannel Egboh working ahead of Derrick Morgan with the starters. Morgan needs to play well in preseason chances and show he should be an unquestioned starter. Egboh’s in good shape, but translating practice success into games is a significant jump. Dave Ball won’t play, so rookie Scott Solomon and veterans Leger Douzable and Keyunta Dawson have chances to separate themselves for the fourth spot at defensive end.

Titans: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Will the pass rush for the Tennessee Titans improve enough?

The Titans had just 28 sacks last season, and the lack of pass pressure was at the core of many of their problems.

Did they do enough to address it? They jumped to sign Kamerion Wimbley after he was let loose by the Raiders in a cost-cutting move. He should provide a boost, but I don’t know that he will single-handedly solve the problem. The Titans will start Wimbley and Derrick Morgan, who’s due to stay healthy and consistently produce. Dave Ball was re-signed to pitch in. Seventh-round pick Scott Solomon out of Rice will get chances to rush.

Tennessee is talking again about more pass rush from linebackers, particularly last year’s second-round pick, Akeem Ayers, the starter on the strong side. But the Titans have talked about linebacker in the pass rush on and off for year and never actually make it a reality.

Hopefully the coverage is good enough that the Titans are not afraid to send an extra rusher from the linebacking corps or secondary. Keith Millard was hired as a pass rush coach who will work with players from all three levels on technique for getting to the passer.

The Titans need Wimbley to be productive and Millard to be influential to make passers less comfortable against them.
The Titans have a five-year deal with Kamerion Wimbley, the team announced.

Wyatt said the agent for another end the Titans courted, Mark Anderson, has said Anderson will be signing elsewhere. The Jaguars are interested.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
Brett Davis/US PresswireFormer Raider Kamerion Wimbley will play defensive end for the Titans.
Wimbley has worked as an outside linebacker, but he will be an end for the Titans.

Tennessee gets a player who has nice pass-rushing skills who helps fill a major need. One insider told me Wimbley has "unique cornering ability."

But he’s not likely to be an every-down guy. A friend who covers the Raiders said Wimbley did his best work as a nickel end, but tends to flash and disappear.

The Raiders listed him as 6-foot-4, 255 pounds last season -- the exact same size Titans end Dave Ball was at in 2011. Ball beefed up last season to fit better with the philosophy Jerry Gray brought in as defensive coordinator. But he still ranked as the lightest defensive end on the roster. He’s a free agent now.

While the Titans would like to get bigger overall, it’s just not an option at some spots. Bigger guys with top pass-rush skills are a huge commodity, and it’s not like a bunch are available. That’s part of why Mario Williams, 6-6 and 283, got such a giant contract in Buffalo.

Wimbley joins Derrick Morgan and Malcolm Sheppard as the Titans' lone ends under contract.

Does Wimbley solve the team’s pass-rushing woes the way Williams would have or Dwight Freeney could (if he’s traded or cut)?

I don’t know that he’s going to qualify as a singular force. He had seven sacks last season, but four came in one game against San Diego.

As for the durability question for a smaller end, he has a good record for how he’s been used.

In six seasons primarily as a linebacker with Cleveland and Oakland, he has missed just one game. He had 11 sacks as a rookie linebacker with Cleveland in 2006, and has 42.5 in his career.

The Titans have done well in the past with smallish, speedy defensive ends. But that was a different scheme, and the position coach who set those ends up for success, Jim Washburn, left as the staff broke up in 2011. Washburn is now in Philadelphia.

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and pass-rush coach Keith Millard will be charged with getting sack and pass-pressure production from Wimbley.

Titans regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Don McPeak/US PresswireThe Titans became a passing team this season behind the solid play of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Biggest surprise: The 9-7 record. The team was expected to suffer from the lockout and resulting lack of offseason work, but it came together and outperformed expectations given a new coach, new staff and new quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck had the best passing season in franchise history by anyone not named Warren Moon despite losing WR Kenny Britt early to a torn-up knee and not getting consistent production from running back Chris Johnson. Coach Mike Munchak set a tone and showed himself to be a straight-forward, well-measured coach who won the respect of his players. With a big contribution from their rookie class, the Titans started off well under a new regime.

Biggest disappointment: Johnson secured a big new contract after he billed himself as a playmaker, not just a running back. But he and the run game were so ineffective that the Titans became a passing team even with Britt on IR. Over half of Johnson's yards came in four wins over bad teams. And although the team consistently defended him, it was completely fair to question his effort. He often went down too easily, he didn’t make a guy miss when he wound up one-on-one and he didn’t work hard enough at his responsibilities without the ball in his hands. The team is hopeful it can get him back on track with an offseason in which he’s expected to be in Nashville far more often.

Biggest need: Defensive pieces. Rookie middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, who was not part of the plan at the start of the season, was probably the best defensive player on the team at season’s end. That indicts a lot of other guys. The Titans have to rush the passer better to be more consistent on defense and they need more than Derrick Morgan, Jason Jones (who should go back to tackle), Dave Ball and William Hayes. Three safeties are heading toward free agency, so the Titans have a lot to sort through there, too.

Team MVP: Hasselbeck is the easiest choice. He played better than many of us expected and brought just the sort of leadership the Titans needed. But I’ll go with receiver Nate Washington, who became the No. 1 receiver with Britt’s injury and delivered a 1,000-yard season even with a bad ankle for the last part of the season. Washington thrived with the new coaching and new quarterbacks. His maturation serves as a symbol of what the Titans need from a lot of other guys at a lot of other spots.

Sorting out the secondary: Safeties Michael Griffin, Chris Hope and Jordan Babineaux and cornerback Cortland Finnegan all have expiring contracts. Finnegan probably draws an offer in free agency beyond what the Titans would give him. The team cannot make a long-term commitment with big money to the inconsistent Griffin. Hope is likely done. Babineaux played well and would be nice to retain. That’s a lot to decide on just in the secondary, but I’d expect a big infusion of new guys to work with young corners Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner.

Finding positives for Blaine Gabbert

December, 26, 2011
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When Jacksonville Jaguars interim coach Mel Tucker called Blaine Gabbert “courageous” last week, Tucker lost credibility with regard to his public reviews of his rookie quarterback.

Monday, Tucker’s comments about Gabbert were more measured and more in line with the things I have been hearing from those who maintain it’s too soon to make any sort of final judgment about him.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Jim Brown/US PresswireDespite a dismal rookie season, Jags QB Blaine Gabbert has shown some superior playmaking skills.
“When he comes off the field and you ask him and his coaches ask him what he saw, he’s very, very accurate and I think that’s huge with a young player or any player,” Tucker said in comments to Jacksonville media on Monday. “When a player can come off the field and tell you exactly what he saw, what the defense was and why he did what he did, that’s a good sign.”

Moments are all we have in terms of seeing that for ourselves. On an early third-and-12 in Nashville Saturday, Gabbert took off running.

There was no real chance for him to reach the sticks, but I would have liked to have seen him do more -- try more -- than slide super early, settling for 4 yards.

Elsewhere, two plays in the game struck me as significant if we’re looking for reasons to maintain a degree of faith in Gabbert’s ability to improve as the Jaguars see a new owner take over and hire a new coach.

On a first-quarter third-and-6 from the Jaguars’ 22, he senses Dave Ball closing from his left, dipped and stepped forward with his eyes still downfield, squared his shoulders with another rusher coming hard from his right and hit Jarett Dillard for an 11-yard gain.

Gabbert had two opportunities to conclude the pocket was collapsing and the rush would get him but he kept trying to find something and connected on a conversion.

In desperation catch-up mode in the fourth quarter, with the Titans playing a bit softer as they tried to preserve a 23-10 lead, Gabbert took a shotgun snap on fourth-and-10 from the Tennessee 24. He moved right as Jurrell Casey dove for his ankles, then ran hard to keep Ball from getting him and threw to Dillard on the right sideline for a 21-yard gain.

Again, his head was up, he reacted fine to pressure and he found a play.

Those are just two snaps. They hardly wash away a poor rookie season during which he’s not played well on a team that hasn’t protected him consistently enough and which has horrible receivers.

But if you’re looking for hope that he can handle a rush, keep looking downfield and deliver a throw that can keep an offense moving, there are two plays you can point to.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 16, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Blitzing Cam Newton: The Texans have thrived when sending five or more pass-rushers. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Houston blitzes on 52.1 percent of drop-backs, second only to New Orleans. They allow a 48.2 completion percentage, only 5.5 yards per attempt, and have recorded 20 of their 24 sacks. Newton has thrown seven touchdowns and three interceptions in such circumstances. But he’s also taken 18 sacks, as many as any quarterback in the NFL. Linebacker coach Reggie Herring will work as the defensive coordinator with Wade Phillips recovering from kidney and gallbladder surgery. But Phillips drew up the plan, and the Texans should be doing what they've been doing.

[+] EnlargeNate Washington
Jim Brown/US PresswireTitans receiver Nate Washington had two TD receptions against the Colts on Oct. 30.
Rematch: The Titans beat the Colts in the first matchup 27-10 on Oct. 30 in Nashville. Nate Washington caught two touchdown passes and Patrick Bailey blocked a punt that Jason McCourty recovered for a score. Curtis Painter attempted 49 passes in that game. I think the Titans would be thrilled if Dan Orlovsky dropped back anywhere near that often, as he’s mistake-prone, and the more Indianapolis has to rely on him the better the chance at interceptions, sacks and fumbles. Defensive end Dave Ball and tackle Karl Klug could be primed to force a turnover or two. Tennessee has not swept the Colts since 2002, the first year of realignment.

Serious scoring defense: During their seven-game winning streak the Texans have allowed fewer than 20 points a game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team with such a streak was the 2005 Bears, who held eight consecutive opponents under 20 points during an eight-game win streak. Carolina has topped 20 points in 10 of its 13 games, and has averaged nearly 31 points a game over its past four.

Rest and recovery: There is not a lot that can happen for the Jaguars to change things in their last two games. But they’ve got a weekend off now after Thursday night’s beat-down in Atlanta. They finish with division games at Tennessee and against Indianapolis. So we’ll see how Mel Tucker can get a battered team ready for familiar opponents and if the Jaguars are able to get Maurice Jones-Drew the yards he needs to secure a rushing title.

Tidbits: Since Washington became a regular in 2006, his 14.9 yards per catch is the seventh-highest average in the NFL. … Arian Foster is 43 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing, and Ben Tate is 180 yards shy of 1,000. When they both get there, they’ll become just the seventh set of teammates to hit the mark in the same season. … Texans receivers have dropped 11 passes, tied with Minnesota for fewest in the NFL this season. … Newton’s 39.2 red zone completion percentage is the third-worst in the league.

AFC South Stock Watch

November, 22, 2011
11/22/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville Jaguars coach: His damage control on Monday was better, but he had a terrible Sunday. When he says his coordinator Dirk Koetter makes the play calls, he appears to be throwing the assistant under the bus. He also appears not to have a good feel for the job. Allowing coordinators to do their thing is important. But it’s not a violation of their freedom to do their jobs for a head coach to participate in a timeout discussion of what’s to come. To claim that Koetter has complete autonomy is to distance yourself from important decisions. That’s a weak strategy. Shouldn’t the buck stop here?

2. Tennessee Titans defensive ends: The Titans were excited about getting Derrick Morgan in the mix after losing him for his rookie year to a torn ACL, but he’s made minimal impact and hurt an ankle in Atlanta. They moved Jason Jones from tackle to end to help beef up the outside, and he’s not been a big presence. Dave Ball is hurt again. William Hayes flashed a week ago but clearly is not a staff favorite and killed the Titans with a fourth-down offside penalty against the Falcons. Production from the group has simply been insufficient.

3. Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks: We will probably learn the team’s verdict on the starting quarterback for the Carolina game on Wednesday. But does it matter much? I think Curtis Painter is better than Dan Orlovsky and should be the choice, but it’s not much of a choice. The best-case scenario is that whoever is at quarterback makes a couple big plays to Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne and then plays mistake free. Even in that scenario, the Colts would need the sort of defensive effort to win that they don’t seem capable of.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJake Locker played well in relief of Matt Hasselbeck this past Sunday.
RISING

1. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans backup quarterback: He showed himself to be ready and able in relief work of Matt Hasselbeck. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer put him in favorable situations -- working out of shotgun, throwing on the move, in position to take off running. He sailed a few throws but overall earned an "A" for being prepared, confident and effective. That said, the right move is to return him to the bench behind Hasselbeck. It’s the kind of playing time and experience that’s really healthy for Locker at this stage.

2. The perception of the AFC South as super-weak: The Colts are winless. The Jaguars can’t beat the bad Browns. The Titans are average. The Texans are a good team, but they are moving forward without their quarterback. Hasselbeck is the division’s best quarterback now with Matt Schaub out, and although we need to see Matt Leinart, we know Painter and Blaine Gabbert are awful now. The AFC North and NFC South feel very good about drawing this division on their schedules this year.

3. Andre Johnson, Houston Texans receiver: He’s ready to return, and adding one of the game’s very best receivers to the lineup should provide a jolt. Leinart’s got to find him early and take advantage, too, of the attention the Jaguars are likely to devote to him, creating space and opportunity elsewhere. The Texans did great work with Johnson out of the lineup for six games with a hamstring injury. Getting him back for the first game without Schaub is a big, big deal. Someone asked me how long I thought it would take for Johnson to get back into the flow. I say three plays.

Titans won't get to face Pacman Jones

November, 6, 2011
11/06/11
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans won’t have the pleasure of facing cornerback and return man Pacman Jones, as the former Tennessee first-round ddraft pick is a scratch for the Bengals at LP Field.

He looked good during extensive warm-ups, but was limited during the week by a hamstring injury.

I was surprised that a top-ranking Titans community relations official and a Nashville Metro police officer who works closely with the team were among those who went out of their way to greet Jones during warm-ups. Jones, after all, did more community relations damage than anyone during his tenure with the Titans.

The Titans will start Derrick Morgan for Dave Ball at defensive end, though Ball is active.

Cincinnati has Donald Lee starting at tight end for the injured Jermaine Gresham and Dan Skuta at middle linebacker for Rey Maualuga.

The full lists of inactives:

Titans:
Bengals:
Matt HasselbeckJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMatt Hasselbeck had problems connecting with his receivers and ended the day with a 72.0 rating.
PITTSBURGH -- The angry words built up in a somber locker room, and reserved players contemplating an awful loss started to spit them out.

The Tennessee Titans were “disgusted” over their 38-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. They were ticked off that they “got kicked around" and were recipients of “an old-fashioned butt whooping.”

“They kicked our butts and we kicked our own butts,” defensive end Dave Ball said, referring to a scene where Jim Carrey’s character beats himself up in a bathroom in the movie “Liar Liar." "It was a perfect s--- storm."

But Ball and others who so eloquently discussed the result were quick to sandwich it with resolve regarding the potential for it to be duplicated.

“You’re not going to see this Titans team again,” Ball said. “I guarantee that. You’re not going to see the same thing happen again.”

Tennessee is 3-2 heading into its bye, and with Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis all dropping games too, the Titans didn’t lose any ground in the AFC South standings.

“That’s good,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

That’s about all that’s good from the day.

A look at three elements of the disaster:

The start: Tennessee marched 69 yards on 13 plays on a game-opening drive but stalled badly in the red zone with two penalties, an incomplete pass and a sack.

Rob Bironas' 29-yard field goal felt like a win for the Steelers, and when Antonio Brown returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to midfield, things really started to lean in Pittsburgh’s favor.

“After that we really stalled,” Hasselbeck said. “We didn’t look like we looked on the first drive.”

The Titans' next five series produced two first downs and 49 yards. It was 28-3 by the time they put together another effective drive.

The timing was off, with Hasselbeck frequently throwing behind guys -- some of it inaccuracy, some of it bad communication or lingering unfamiliarity. The team was in two-minute drive mode starting with its second drive of the second half.

“I just have more questions than answers right now,” Hasselbeck said.

Coach Mike Munchak didn't like the idea that a field goal instead of a touchdown was that big a letdown at the start.

"I hope we're not going to go into the tank because we got held to three points instead of seven," he said.

It wasn't the only reason but it helped.

Ben Roethlisberger: Cornerback Cortland Finnegan knew the Titans were thoroughly outplayed, but the corner who picked Roethlisberger's one really bad pass raised his eyebrows in surprise when he was told the Steelers' quarterback threw five touchdowns.

Coming into Pittsburgh, the Titans had faced Luke McCown, Joe Flacco, Kyle Orton and Colt McCoy. Hardly a murderer’s row of quarterbacks.

The Steelers smartly adjusted their offense for their quarterback, who has a sprained left foot. He didn’t hold the ball for a long time and scramble around like he typically does. He got rid of it pretty quickly while benefiting from some max protection that aided a beat-up line.

In such circumstances, the defense then needs to keep things in front of it, hit pass-catchers quickly and limit first downs.

The Titans didn’t.

“They used a different game plan than last week against the Texans,” end Jason Jones said. “They were going to max protect or they were going to get it out quick. We had our opportunities to get to him and didn’t. But it was dink and dunk and max protect.”

Rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey had the Titans' lone sack.

Special teams: The Steelers crushed the Titans with that big kickoff return from Brown and a fake punt where Daniel Sepulveda threw a 33-yard pass to Ryan Mundy.

Even when the Titans did good things on special teams, they turned bad.

The Titans recovered a third-quarter onsides kick after cutting the lead to 28-10, but Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel got a piece of Hasselbeck’s throw on the very next play and LaMarr Woodley picked it off. When linebacker Tim Shaw blocked a Sepulveda punt in the fourth quarter, Finnegan returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. But an illegal block in the back call against Jamie Harper wiped away the score.

“It’s a three-phase game, and special teams we’ve got to pick it up,” said linebacker Gerald McRath. “We’ve definitely got to pull our weight. We let the team down.”

Moving forward ...

The Titans pulled off a 3-1 first-quarter record after dropping their opener with a lousy performance in Jacksonville. Hasselbeck said they hope to match it in the season's second quarter. They'll have to win three in a row at home after their bye to do so: against Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

That good start began to create some hype, and the Titans said they hadn’t bought in. But if any self-satisfaction had crept in anywhere, the Steelers snuffed it out.

“I just feel that you can feel people patting you on the back and that’s not what helps you win games,” Hasselbeck said. “I think typically what helps you in games is hard work and feeling like you’ve got something to prove and feeling like you’ve got to give everything you’ve got.

“I’m just slow to accept that stuff.”

After this dud, you can see why that’s the safe route.

When Jacksonville cut him just before the season, the widespread presumption was that David Garrard would be quickly scooped up. But the former Jaguars quarterback remains out of work, reportedly unsatisfied with a scenario Miami recently presented.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert and David Garrard
Phil Sears/US PresswireDavid Garrard, who was replaced by rookie Blaine Gabbert, is still searching for a job in the NFL.
Jacob Ford was a pretty effective situational pass rusher for the Titans, but didn’t rate as a fit for them as they changed their defense and went with bigger ends. When healthy, former Jaguar Vince Manuwai can be a top-flight run blocking guard. Like Garrard, they seemed like players who would land another job in relative short order.

But more than a month into the season, they and many others who may still be NFL-caliber players are floating around, jobless.

Why?

My theory is that when Team X spends a draft pick, money, time and resources to develop a player and ultimately decides he can no longer help, the rest of the league tends to think, “We’d rather develop our guy than take a chance on theirs considering they’ve given up on him.”

“There are a lot of good players out there,” Titans defensive end Dave Ball said. “Look at guys coming though for workout not getting picked up. [Safety] Chris Horton came though here and worked out. He was playing a big role for the Redskins, a big role, a couple years ago.

“It’s tough. When you get cut, it can take a while. I got cut and it took me a year plus to get back with somebody. I think it’s a big confidence shaker for teams looking to pick people up.”

Teams typically have realistic views of their own players, at least in time. Fans can tend to overvalue their own.

Ball said Ford is a good pass rusher who should definitely be on a team, and that it’s scary to look at the landscape of a league where there is not a spot for him.

As more and more teams devote themselves more and more to building through the draft, they seem to be less and less interested in pulling in an outsider during the season if they don’t have a hole created by injury.

Surely former Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu expected to be working again by now.

For a lot of No. 1 picks it’s different. Aaron Maybin, a defensive end drafted in the first round by Buffalo in 2009 but cut after two seasons, was of interest to more than one team and got signed by the Jets. The Colts scooped up former Atlanta No. 1 pick Jamaal Anderson and are getting good run-down work from him. Linebacker Ernie Sims was a similar acquisition, but he’s been hurt.

“There are a lot of people who will take that first-rounder, anticipating that they may not be able to get a full 60 minutes out of him, but maybe they can get two quarters of No. 1 draft pick play out of him, kind of using him in a role,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “There are some teams that do a great job of that, take guys who have been No. 1s, plug them in and say, ‘All I need is a quarter or two quarters’ or ‘All I need is third down from this guy’ and try to utilize him that way.”

As for lesser picks who are still floating out there, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said he thinks it’s still early and a lot of those guys will wind up playing.

The lockout contributed to less opportunity, too. Reinfeldt said the draft pick a team might have given up on after spending the spring and summer with him got the benefit of the doubt as teams needed more time to evaluate.

“It was all so quick,” Reinfeldt said. “You didn’t get the opportunity to evaluate them the way you did in the past, so some made it because of who they were. This year was so compressed, I think some rookies made it just because the period of inspection and scrutiny wasn’t what it usually was. And that came at the expense of those other guys.”

Draft picks are such a premium commodity. Teams love to gather them, hate to part with them, believe their scouting system can find them quality with each one.

Linebacker Barrett Ruud moved from the Buccaneers to the Titans as a free agent this season. He sees building your own guys as the central theme when it comes to opportunity these days.

“Teams want to develop the guy they brought up,” Ruud said. “Sometimes, you’ve got a young guy and maybe it’s his first chance to start a game. You bring in someone to start in front of him and his confidence is shattered.

“I don’t think it’s a reflection so much of how somebody got cut. I think it’s more a reflection of a team wanting to develop a guy they brought in.”

Final Word: AFC South

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeLuke McCown
Howard Smith/US PresswireLuke McCown has completed 59.2 percent of his passes over his career.
Don’t overrate David Garrard. A lot of people seem to think that the Jaguars' cutting Garrard makes them a less dangerous team. I assure you, they are not thinking that way. They will be the same run-heavy offense. The Jaguars, who play host to Tennessee on Sunday, will look to an upgraded defense to be physical and bottle up Chris Johnson. And they expect a crisper performance from Luke McCown than they would have had from Garrard, who struggled throughout the preseason. If McCown doesn’t have a good day, let’s hold the talk that makes it sound as though Garrard would have played like Johnny Unitas.

Can the Texans' running backs help out blocking? Their underrated offensive line has its hands full against the Colts' pass rush, which features Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But if Arian Foster is out or limited, the team could lean more on Derrick Ward for his experience than on Ben Tate for his potential. Tate ran great in the preseason, but can he take on a defender determined to bring down Matt Schaub?

Unproven pass rushes in Jacksonville. The Jaguars still haven’t solved their pass-rush issues. Aaron Kampman is back from knee surgery and Matt Roth is a solid addition. We know their middle guys can get push, but who’s going to make Matt Hasselbeck uncomfortable? Same goes for the Titans. Derrick Morgan is out, so Malcolm Sheppard will be in the mix at end behind William Hayes, Jason Jones (who's been hurt) and Dave Ball. They’re working with a more disciplined scheme to be sure they stop the run, but can those guys bother McCown working more technique than speed?

Spotlight on Kerry Collins. The whole football world is watching to see what the Colts look like without Peyton Manning. We’ve talked a lot about Collins' protection and how he’s picked up the system. But what kind of feel has he developed for his targets? Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie and Joseph Addai make up a very reliable quartet that knows how to be in the right spots and get open. Collins didn’t have a crew like that during his time with the Titans. Does he have a feel for the talent?

Unveiling the 3-4. Wade Phillips is a master at turning around defenses, but he’s had a shorter time frame with this new group. Surely there are elements of what the Texans will do that they did not show in the preseason. Phillips’ defenses have fared great against Collins. As the Texans look to extend that streak of success, end Antonio Smith could be a big factor. He’ll probably be working against Joe Reitz and Jeff Saturday.

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