NFL Nation: Jamie Harper

Reassessing the Titans' needs

April, 2, 2013
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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.

Cast in a lesser role, maybe Shonn Greene will be more a more impressive running back.

Hill
Cast in a bigger role, perhaps Sammie Lee Hill will be a more impactful defensive lineman.

The Tennessee Titans boosted their free agent haul to four, adding Greene and Hill to guard Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker.

Greene was a plodding back for the Jets, and while he topped 1,000 yards two years in a row for an anemic offense, he was not a very good lead back. He was very good, as John Glennon of The Tennessean notes, in short-yardage situations -- when the Jets faced second or third down and less than 3 yards to go, Greene got first downs on 23 of 26 attempts in 2012.

In Tennessee, that’s what the Titans will ask him to do: Convert short-yardage situations, and help the Titans control the clock in a 4-minute drill.

While I believe they could have found someone to fill that specialty role for less than $10 million over three years, perhaps it's a good thing they didn't wait for the draft considering their failure at the position in recent years. Outside of Chris Johnson in in 2008, they've bombed with fourth-rounder Jamie Harper, 2009 fifth-rounder Javon Ringer and 2007 second-rounder Chris Henry.

If just one of those guys was able to function in a capable complementary role, the Titans wouldn’t have had running back on their list of needs. They are probably better off getting a guy who’s shown he can convert in short-yardage. It's the yearly average of $3.33 million for a No. 2 running that concerns me. Let's see what he's guaranteed.

Hill should be an early-down run stopper who can penetrate some. At 6-foot-4, 329-pounds, he’s a bigger body than anyone the Titans have. He should be what the Titans hoped Shaun Smith was going to be when they brought him in a few years back.

The investment in a guy who’s been working behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in Detroit seems reasonable: Three years, $11.4 million, including $4 million guaranteed according to Adam Schefter.

He’ll take over the starting job vacated by Sen'Derrick Marks, an unrestricted free agent whose name we have not heard connected to any suitors yet.

The Titans are expected to introduce all four of their additions at a news conference at 6 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. CT, and I’ll share some details from there.

Friday is D-Day for CJ

February, 7, 2013
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Chris JohnsonAP Photo/Joe HowellThe Titans' Chris Johnson finished with 1,243 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season.
If the Titans want out from under Chris Johnson and his $10 million base salary for 2013, they have to release him by the end of Friday.

Of that salary, $9 million locks in as a guarantee if he’s on the roster past the fifth day of the waiver period, which began Monday.

A report by The Tennessean’s Jim Wyatt before the season ended said the team had no plans to cut Johnson. Since then, coach Mike Munchak has been making moves that indicate if he’s going to go down in his third year at the helm, he’s going to go down his way. That left me wondering if things might have changed.

Then Wyatt wrote this morning that Johnson was feeling good after a recent half-hour chat with Munchak.

“I am more excited about this year than any other year after talking to coach,” Johnson said today. “I feel better about some of the things we’re going to do, and I want to be a part of it. I feel like coach Munchak wants to put the team back to some winning ways and get things going in the right direction. I feel good about it.”

The most likely scenario is that the Titans look to add a big back and return to the shared-workload system they ran with Johnson and LenDale White in 2008.

But a case could have been made for moving on from Johnson, and I think there was a time Munchak would probably have liked to do so.

They can afford that salary. Ultimately, it should be framed as more of a philosophical debate than a financial one.

The Munchak-Johnson conversation indicates the decision has been made.

But it's worth considering what needed to be considered:

Home run threat: Johnson can break off huge runs, and that’s where his big value comes from. He has six career touchdowns of 80 yards or more. No other player in league history has more than three. That’s incredible, and those runs do a lot for a team. Still, if the rest of his runs are attempts to find that home run and don’t put the Titans in an advantageous down and distance, is that a sufficient trade-off? I tend to say no.

Now if Johnson is changing it up with a more physical guy who can convert third-and-2 more regularly and do more to ensure the Titans aren’t in second-and-12, that changes. Johnson is largely a boom-or-bust guy. Five years of featuring a boom-or-bust back has produced just one playoff team -- not that it’s the lone factor.

Consider that the team’s primary back in its prime years since the move to Tennessee was Eddie George, and the frequent lament was that he couldn’t break away for a big play. Now the lament with Johnson is that he isn’t productive enough down to down. See how a team can wind up in a no-win situation?

You’re rarely going to get the best of both worlds, and you don’t need a guy who can give you both to win.

So given a choice between a home run threat who’s going to strikeout more often or the style they had with George where, in his prime, he was pretty good at getting a couple yards, what do they prefer?

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireIf the Titans keep Chris Johnson, they might ask him to share carries with backup Javon Ringer or another back who isn't on the roster yet.
Replacement possibilities: Javon Ringer is coming off a knee injury, hasn’t proved himself and is a pending free agent. Jamie Harper has shown little. If the Titans moved away from CJ, the guy who would take his carries isn’t on the roster.

It’s easy to say it’s easy to find a back, that the Titans should just go get the next Arian Foster (undrafted), Alfred Morris (sixth-rounder) or Vick Ballard (fifth-rounder).

But you’d have to have an awful lot of faith in your ability to find that guy. The Titans are a team full of holes. Cutting Johnson would have created another big one, and they don’t exactly have the record of hole-filling that suggests it wouldn’t be an issue.

The scheme: Johnson did run for 2,000 yards in Mike Heimerdinger’s scheme that featured zone-running principles. Under Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator, the Titans will be more intent on returning to a similar philosophy.

It’s not the best fit for Johnson, at least not as the singular, primary ball carrier. Johnson looks to be creative in searching for room. Zone schemes call for a guy to make a cut and go, not consider and reconsider the path.

“CJ would be decent in that scheme but far from ideal,” said ESPN's Matt Williamson. “You need to be decisive and, when you see it, really hit it. And generally, that fits a bigger back. CJ can certainly hit it at times when he sees it and can take it the distance, but he is far from an Alfred Morris type that consistently churns out yardage, albeit in smaller chunks, run after run.”

If the Titans put Johnson in a timeshare, how will he react to it? My guess is not well. Will that disrupt the locker room and create a headache for coaches and management? Will it lead him to mope? It sure could.

The contract: When he was holding out in 2011, I said they needed to sign him. Most fans did, too. For a long time, the conversation was about a lack of playmakers. Well, they finally had one, and while he wasn’t at what ranks as a premium position anymore, he was the best they'd had in terms of big plays in a long time.

He got four more years worth $53.5 million with $30 million guaranteed tacked onto the two years he had remaining on his rookie deal.

There is a misperception that the Titans don’t spend. They sure spent with Johnson, and now they take heat for it. In hindsight, it wasn’t a good deal. But it hasn’t destroyed them. Keep him as is and they are fine financially, with enough room to get the other parts they need.

While he has said money didn’t change him, Johnson has been a lot more tentative since he signed that deal than he was while he was trying to position himself for that new contract.

The expectations: As Johnson campaigned for a new contract in 2011, he sold himself as not just a back but a playmaker who transcended the position. That was good for selling himself. Predicting 2,000-yard seasons consistently gets him headlines.

But what he does when he says those things is set the bar unreasonably high. He didn’t say, “I’m a playmaker, not just a running back, so long as my line is playing great or so long as I have consistency with a running backs coach.” When it circles back after the fact to those sorts of issues, they come across as excuses.

He doesn’t seem real invested. Last week as a guest on Nashville's The Midday 180 from radio row at the Super Bowl, he said there would be no bad blood if the Titans let him go. Some heard that and almost felt like he was wishing to be released. What would have come across better was, “I want to be back. I’m worth it, and I can be a big part of a big turnaround.”

For the $10 million that’s coming, it’s hardly unreasonable to want to hear that.

So do we have a verdict?

“I assume he is untradeable, but I think I would let him go,” Williamson said. “That is just so much to pay a guy that isn’t perfect for what you do at the position. Use that money on a safety or interior OL and draft a bigger RB.”

Said former Colts president and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian: “CJ cannot carry the load by himself simply because of size. … Rather than focus on system, I would focus on Javon Ringer’s health. If he can take some load off CJ as he has in the past, they become far more efficient. If his injury prevents that, then they must find an adequate replacement for Ringer.”

I’m torn about what they should have done. But I tend to think it wouldn't have been wise to create another hole. Cut him and watch him land in Detroit or somewhere else, and when he makes big plays, you’re going to take grief -- and maybe feel some, too.

I’d plan to find a guy to pair him with.

But I’m glad it wasn't my decision, or money.

Fraying Titans overmatched by Bears

November, 4, 2012
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Mike MunchakAP Photo/Wade PayneMike Munchak and the Titans have a lot of work to do after Sunday's blowout loss to the Bears.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans coaches warned players all week about how Charles Tillman strips the ball, offering specifics of his techniques.

Then four Titans went out and got stripped by the Bears cornerback, including Kenny Britt on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

What does that say about the quality of players on Tennessee’s roster and their ability to absorb and execute a coaching message?

Not anything good.

Tennessee unraveled quickly and thoroughly en route to its 51-20 loss to the Bears Sunday at LP Field. It would have been hard to play a worse first quarter had the Titans game-planned for it. And some of their gaffes made it hard to see anything but an undisciplined, unprepared and ineffective cast of characters that isn’t the nucleus for a resurgence but a core lacking the sort of central DNA necessary to create a contender.

It also created more questions in my mind than I’ve ever had before about the job security of coach Mike Munchak and his staff.

“If a team underperforms, I’m the first guy you should look at for that, not anybody else, not assistant coaches, it starts with me,” Munchak said. “If we don’t finish the season the way it should, then what needs to happen will happen. ...

“We’ve got seven games to play. If we win all seven, all of a sudden this would be kind of a wasted argument.”

Yes, on the heels of this debacle, let’s dream of seven-game winning streaks.

But first, how about cleaning up things like illegal formation penalties on consecutive first-quarter plays, where a receiver covered up the tight end?

“We had those plays in our hands days ago and had a meeting about it [Saturday] night and had a meeting about it [Sunday] morning,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “I don’t know what to say. That’s not good.”

Rookie receiver Kendall Wright said he thought he was responsible for at least one of the calls.

“It hurt the team a lot,” he said. “But what I did at practice all week, I thought I was on the ball. I screwed it up. It’s my fault all the way.”

He thought he was on the ball all week, but he was supposed to be off the ball and no one spotted it or corrected it until the officiating crew got a look on Sunday? Sorry, but that is some major evidence in a case against the people running things for this team right now.

“We just have to pay attention more and know the right things to do, know where to line up,” Chris Johnson said. “These coaches all week gave us the right formula and we had a good week of practice. It makes it even worse when you have a good week of practice and do everything right during the week, get to the game and mess up.”

The Titans were out of this game in a flash, trailing 28-2 at the end of an atrocious first quarter.

“We screwed up from the get-go,” guard Steve Hutchinson said.

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesChicago's Charles Tillman made an impact right from the start of Sunday's game.
The log for the first 15 minutes:
“That first quarter is horrible,” Wright said. “We can’t spot anybody 28 points and expect to come back and win.”

Jordan Babineaux was the one Titans player I talked to who didn’t offer an immediate defense of the coaches and the plan.

“You got any questions, you’ve got to ask the defensive coordinator,” he said, referring to Jerry Gray.

I asked about the blocked punt, where he was lined up as the personal protector, but where he didn’t offer protection, running to the right and cutting out of the backfield entirely. He said I’d need to ask the special teams coach, Alan Lowry.

The Titans’ margin for error is obviously small against a good team. They didn’t have room for this brand of clunker.

“Sometimes what is said is that wasn’t us and we’ll just sweep it under the rug and get back to being us,” Hasselbeck said. “But those are good teams that built a cushion for themselves that are up front in their division and playoffs are probably on the way anyway. ... We can’t have a stinker. We can’t just lay an egg like that. So that’s what’s disappointing. It’s hard to say that just wasn’t us.”

“It’s a bad loss,” McCourty said. “When you go out and it’s as embarrassing as that is, it just sucks to be a part of it.”

Where do they go from here?

A year ago, they were 9-7, narrowly missing the playoffs. This year it looks like that record could earn a spot in the postseason field. There are a couple teams every year that weren’t looking good at the halfway point and finish big.

Munchak will sell the Titans that they can be that team.

What degree of belief will he get back? What degree of belief does he deserve back?

Down 31-5 at the half, he challenged his team to go out and do something special, something unexpected.

That didn’t happen.

After it was over, he preached about how everyone is in this together, how they’ve got to stick together, that they can’t split.

Munchak may be able to glue players together and the roster may be composed of guys who will stay unified. The sad truth is such solidarity may ultimately not mean a thing when it comes to altering the Titans’ fortunes.

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HOUSTON -- Kendall Wright and Damian Williams will see increased time as targets for Jake Locker today as the Titans visit the Texans.

Kenny Britt is out with an ankle injury, putting a dent into Tennessee’s pass game, which will likely have to play well in order for the Titans to pull an upset.

The Texans remain healthy, and the only inactive of note is receiver Lestar Jean. His absence means DeVier Posey could get some chances, especially if they are ahead big.

The complete list of inactives:

Titans
Texans

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.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Virtually every team has a preseason underdog emerge.

With the Titans, it’s Darius Reynaud. As a return man and running back working after starters were out, he’s done impressive work in the Titans first two preseason games.

This has generated four big questions:

  • Could the Titans keep four running backs?
  • Could the Titans create room for Reynaud by using No. 3 back Jamie Harper as a fullback once in a while, and not keep a fullback?
  • Could he beat out Javon Ringer, the incumbent No. 2 running back?
  • Could he unseat Marc Mariani as the team’s return man?
[+] EnlargeDarius Reynaud
Douglas Jones/US PRESSWIREHas Darius Reynaud has played well enough to force himself onto the Titans' roster?
I doubt Reynaud unseats Ringer, though I’d have no issue with it. Titans coaches and brass seem to love Ringer.

I doubt they abandon fullback, though it’s such a narrow, situational role I’d have no complaint about leaning on a two-tight end package more often.

I doubt he takes Mariani’s job, though I’d wouldn’t argue against that either, as I think Mariani is a bit overrated. (Mike Munchak said this week Reynaud’s made it a legit competition.)

The four running back scenario may be most likely, but to keep a fourth back that player will have to be able to contribute on special teams as a non-returner.

We’ll get a taste of whether Reynaud can do that Thursday night, when the Titans host the Cardinals at LP Field.

Special teams coach Alan Lowry said he will use Reynaud on the kickoff coverage and punt coverage teams against Arizona as the Titans get their first sampling of what Reynaud can do in that capacity.

“My sense is he can do whatever he wants,” Lowry said. “He’s a good football player. He’s got speed and strength. I hope we have enough plays, I don’t know.”

Reynaud’s previously been with the Vikings and Giants.

“Reynaud is interesting and I am not quite sure why he has never stuck anywhere,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “He is kind of like a Percy Harvin Lite. He’s real good with the ball in his hands, a running back/receiver tweener type who also can be an effective returner.”

He’s still got a good, positive attitude and knows he can play. Reynaud is not worried about all these scenarios, he’s just glad he's created them.

“My job is to make their job as hard as possible,” he said of the Titans decision-makers.

He worked in the sort of jobs he’ll have tonight on special teams when he was with the Giants. As for the return man debate, Lowery said he thought a race between Mariani and Reynaud would be close and Reynaud agreed, though he said of course he’d win.

Who would Williamson start as his return man if these were his two choices?

“I would say that is a pretty good competition,” Williamson said. “Reynaud runs lower and with more power. He might be shiftier laterally too. But Mariani has really good vision, is quick to get upfield and probably is the faster of the two. Edge to Mariani, who is also more reliable.”

Three things: Titans at Buccaneers

August, 17, 2012
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Three things to watch, which all happen to be guys on offense, in tonight’s Titans game at Tampa Bay:

Jake Locker: This is his biggest chance yet. If the second-year quarterback can lead Tennessee’s offense effectively, he could seize the lead in the team’s quarterback battle. Among key areas under the microscope are his accuracy, red zone play and two-minute drill performance. If he’s in command and comfortable he will come out of the game ranking no worse than even with Matt Hasselbeck. If he’s no worse than even, he should get the nod considering he's the young guy with more upside. Ideally, a team settles position battles in time for the starters to be in place for the third preseason game. That would mean making and revealing a decision early next week.

Chris Johnson: Yes, it’s only preseason. Still, the way he can shrug off production failures is getting old. His poor effort was part of the run-game issues last year and he showed us nothing in the preseason opener a week ago in Seattle. He talked of focus issues and seemed close to dismissing whatever is or isn’t unfolding now. He can keep going in that direction if he wants the same questions to hover over him. Or he can show maximum effort and focus, take a couple carries and grab a couple passes, and show people why he shouldn’t be on the list of concerns as the season opener draws near.

Darius Reynaud: He may get some reps with the first team as a running back, and he needs to continue to show he can contribute as a situational or change-up back to have a chance to make the roster. But he has to create a niche for himself beyond that. Marc Mariani looks safe as the returner, so watch closely how Reynaud’s used on special teams and how effective he is as a gunner or a kickoff cover guy. Jamie Harper, who ranks as the No. 3 back, can make is difficult for Reynaud to win the No. 3 back spot. But maybe there could be a case for keeping a fourth.

Ranking the AFC South RBs

April, 4, 2012
4/04/12
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With free agency slowing down and the draft quickly approaching, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson breaks down the running back situations in the AFC South.

1. Houston Texans: The Texans have the best set of running backs in the NFL in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Of course, Houston’s scheme and blocking are phenomenal, but these two are outstanding in their own right. Foster in particular would fit any scheme. He has size, excellent vision, patience, explosive traits and can be a physical player with the ability to break off long runs. Foster is also extremely adept in the passing game. He gains separation in his routes, catches the ball cleanly and is also an above-average pass-blocker. Only 25, Foster should have a lot of great production ahead of him. The Texans are banking on it after locking him up with a long-term contract right before free agency began. You could make the argument that Foster is the best running back in football right now, especially when factoring in Adrian Peterson’s injury. Tate averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry in his second season. It could be argued that he is the most effective backup running back in the league right now. He is more of a straight-line runner than Foster and doesn’t fit all schemes as well as Foster, but he is perfect for what Houston does with its movement-based zone blocking scheme. Tate is quick to get downhill, decisive and runs with power, yet like Foster, can run away from defenders. Houston is loaded at running back.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Jones-Drew
Kim Klement/US PresswireDespite facing defenses keyed on stopping him, Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for over 1,600 yards last season.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew had as good of a season in 2011 as any running back in the NFL -- and every defense Jacksonville faced keyed on stopping him. Averaging 4.7 yards per carry under his circumstances was truly a remarkable performance. Everyone makes note of Jones-Drew’s lack of size when discussing him, but he’s a very powerful runner with exceptional leverage. He might not have quite the same burst and long speed as he once did, but his running skills are as sharp as ever. He has a great history of finding the end zone and is excellent as an outlet receiver. Jones-Drew can also stand up a blitzing linebacker as well as any running back in the league. At just 27, he is on a Hall of Fame career pace. Jones-Drew’s backups are Rashad Jennings and Deji Karim. Jennings missed the entire season, but is a very good running back when right. He runs hard and has light feet for a bigger back. As mentioned above, the circumstances were far from optimal last season, but Karim’s 2.1-yard average was simply abysmal. Karim has the look of a poor man’s Jones-Drew … a very poor man’s.

3. Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson clearly had an incredibly disappointing 2011 season. He ran with little conviction or competitiveness for much of the season and too often looked to hit the home run instead of grinding out the tough yards. He improved late in the season, though, and there is no question Johnson can remain among the best players at his position. His speed has become legendary. Johnson is also a very good receiver who is lethal in space. I am not suggesting that we will see the back who exceeded 2,000 yards on the ground in 2009, but I am expecting a bounce-back season from Johnson in 2012. The Titans’ run blocking should be better and to me, Johnson is simply a much better player than what he showed on film for much of the season. There are also questions concerning what kind of shape he was in to start 2011. Javon Ringer is Tennessee’s top backup, but Jamie Harper also has ability. Ringer is much more reliable and proven, though. He runs hard with ample degrees of power and acceleration for a backup. Ringer is also an asset as a receiver and continues to improve in this area. Harper has a decent all-around skill set, but his 2.6-yard average last year is inexcusable.

4. Indianapolis Colts: Although Donald Brown has never really lived up to his first-round draft status, he was one of the few bright spots for the Colts last year. His 4.8 yards-per-carry average on the worst team in the league last season does stand out. It was by far Brown’s best season as a pro. As running backs go, I see Brown as a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none in many ways. He doesn’t have a single trait that stands out above all others, but as he showed in 2011, he is quite solid in all areas. Brown also is a decent receiver and a very good pass-blocker. Delone Carter was rather disappointing in all phases of playing the position as a rookie. He is a wide-bodied, shorter back who didn’t show the power you would expect and also wasn’t real light on his feet or agile. I still have hope for Carter, though. As is the case with fellow second-year RB Jamie Harper in Tennessee, a true offseason could do Carter a lot of good. With the gaping holes that Indianapolis has on its roster, running back is not among the top needs. But it is far from a great positional group when comparing it to the rest of the league. Perhaps the Colts will add another runner in the middle rounds of the draft.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.
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.

PITTSBURGH -- Thoughts on the Titans’ 38-17 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field.

What it means: Tennessee isn’t as good as it looked over the last three weeks, as we saw flaws everywhere. They gave up big plays on defense and special teams and failed to find them on offense. They lost up front against a team missing a starting offensive lineman, two starting defensive linemen and a starting linebacker. A week earlier, the Titans primary AFC South challenger to this point, Houston, took advantage of both and were more physical than the Steelers.

What to worry about: Special teams got gashed on a kick return and on a fake punt. And the defense was picked apart by the first truly good quarterback the Titans have seen so far. Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes. With Matt Schaub (twice), Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman and Drew Brees still to come, it certainly raises questions about Tennessee against upper level signal-callers.

A bad day: Matt Hasselbeck was a lot less accurate than he has been. There appeared to be some miscommunications and he threw several balls behind targets. Other were thrown low on purpose, but wound up too low. He overthrew Nate Washington late on what was a wide open 29-yard touchdown.

Chris Johnson watch: He had a nice 21-yard run on the Titans’ first play from scrimmage and showed good patience at times, too much patience at others. He went in standing for his team’s lone touchdown from a yard out and turned 17 touches into 65 yards.

Too sloppy: Seven penalties for 55 yards hurt, especially early for the offense in the red zone and a block in the back by Jamie Harper that undid a block punt returned for a touchdown by Cortland Finnegan.

What’s next: The Titans have an off week to recover and get a head start on preparation for their crucial Oct. 23rd matchup with the Houston Texans at LP Field in Nashville.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Wearing a Cincinnati Reds hat and the sort of grin that comes after a huge payday, Chris Johnson met with the Tennessee media Friday evening.

Johnson
Johnson
Points of note out of that chat...
  • He said he agreed with Mike Reinfeldt when the GM suggested the prolonged holdout amounted to a “family argument situation.”
  • On getting up to football speed: “I’ve been working out every single day just staying in shape. Once I get out there on the field, that something for me and the coaches to get worked out, just to see how my body reacts off the things that they give me. In my mindset and the player that I am, of course I feel I am ready to take the whole load and be out there on Sunday. But you never know your body until you go through the situation.”
  • He didn’t watch much of the Titans in their four preseason games because he found it difficult to watch his teammates without him.
  • On avoiding the sort of injury that sidelines a lot of holdouts after they return: “I’m sure other guys that went through my situation and went out there and something happened to them, I am pretty sure they tried all the remedies and stretching and doing different things. But I think it’s just a situation where you have to pray about it and ask God to keep you safe out there and hopefully you don’t pull anything.”
  • The goals are a playoff appearance and a Super Bowl. Only after he mentioned them did he say he’ll always want to rush for 2,000 yards.
  • On staying motivated: “I feel like if I’m not the best player at my position or the best player out there on the field I don’t feel like I am doing my job. Just because I got this deal I don’t think that I won’t play as hard as I’ve been playing.”
  • He’s not going to willingly hand carries over to Javon Ringer and/or Jamie Harper early in the season while getting up to speed. “I’d like to get all the reps, that’s just the type of player I am,” he said to laughter. “At the end of the day it’s about more than the big contract and all the money, that’s the business side… When I’m here I want to be the best. When it’s time to win, I want the team to count on me. I want to put the team on my shoulders and steer us to victory.”
  • Johnson contacted St. Louis running back Steven Jackson and New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis before his holdout to talk to them about their experiences. They told him to be prepared for it to be difficult and to be lonely. Throughout the dispute he said they called on him to check on how he was doing. “That helped a lot,” Johnson said.

The deal Jim Wyatt is reporting the Titans have struck with Chris Johnson looks like a win for Johnson. But the four years and $53.5 million -- including $30 million guaranteed -- come stacked on top of the two remaining years on his contract, not instead of them.

Johnson
I’ve said for some time I thought he’d have a hard time passing on that level of guarantee. The average of over $13 million a year for the new years is what Johnson sought. But we need to see the shape of things to know how sturdy that number is, because averages are often made to look good for the sake of headlines.

The guarantee is beyond what I thought the Titans would be willing to pay. We do not know when or how it will be paid. But in any form and on any schedule, they deserve credit for making it happen.

Johnson will be part of the game plan for the Titans' Sept. 11 opener in Jacksonville. Odds are, however, that they will divide up the carries a bit more than usual early on. Which means Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper will still figure into the plan.

What changed to get this done? We don’t know and we might not find out. I suspect the Titans were determined to keep the two remaining years of the existing contract, and the very back of this new deal may not be money he sees.

Back on Aug. 7, I sketched out a very basic five-year, $55 million contract with $31 million guaranteed. Seems that turned out to be a reasonable stab at what ultimately happened.

Paul Posluszny on his pass defense

August, 30, 2011
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The rap on Paul Posluszny is that he’s not very good in pass coverage.

In the Jaguars’ most recent preseason game he got beat by Buffalo running back Fred Jackson for a 30-yard catch, which brought the criticism back to the forefront.

[+] EnlargePaul Posluszny
Fernando Medina/US PresswirePaul Posluszny says he feels much more comfortable in the Jaguars' defense than he did last season in Buffalo.
He talked about it with Tania Ganguli, defending his coverage skills, talking about small sample size and pointing out where he believes the perception comes from. He has room to improve, he said, but the reputation came out of one bad season in difficult circumstances.
"To me how all that started was last year in Buffalo, when we changed coaches and changed schemes, I was not comfortable with what we were doing from a schematic standpoint and I was asked to do different things that I had never done before. I didn't play nearly as well as I was capable of. My first three years I was very comfortable with what we were doing and I had success in the passing game.

"Last year, yeah, I struggled with a new scheme, new coaches and it showed at times. The Buffalo media took off with that. Especially, we were horrible, we were a bad team, we're losing, playing bad on defense and then it's, ‘He can't tackle, Paul can't cover,’ you know what I mean? Which I understand is part of the deal. New system, new environment and I am much more comfortable with what we're doing here compared to what I had to do last year."

He’s right in that linebackers are going to lose in coverage and he’s hardly the lone guy that will get beat by Fred Jackson.

I’m a fan of Posluszny's willingness to engage in the conversation and talk about some struggles in his past. He helps himself by saying the criticism is part of the deal rather than bemoaning something as overblown or taken out of context.

I love the Jaguars' starting linebackers. I want to see the starting three healthy, with the full stable of defensive linemen working in front of them.

On opening day the Titans may try to get a back one-on-one with Posluszny. If it’s Javon Ringer or Jamie Harper, I’ll be eager to see how he does. If it’s going to be Chris Johnson, no matter how much the Jaguars and Posluszny believe in his coverage ability, they’d be wise to burn a timeout and adjust their personnel and/or alignment.

Three things: Bears-Titans

August, 27, 2011
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Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Titans against the Bears at LP Field, where kickoff is set for 7 p.m. CT.

The Titans need some plays from receivers. Through two games they’ve been without Kenny Britt and he won’t play tonight either. Their other top four -- Nate Washington, Justin Gage, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins and Marc Mariani -- don’t have a play of more than 28 yards. Gage doesn’t have a catch and Washington has only one. Kevin Curtis was just added yesterday, so odds are he doesn’t play. Matt Hasselbeck may key on Jared Cook, but he’s got to develop some feel with receivers too. Playing beyond the half will afford that chance. Red zone efficiency is an area that can improve.

The running backs will be led, again, by Jamie Harper. With Chris Johnson holding out and Javon Ringer (hip) hurt, the Titans will still be looking to run. Harper made great strides from his first game to his second. Now he’s got a great chance to give the team even further assurance that if Johnson’s not around, he can be the alternative to Ringer on offense.

Defensive end depth will have a chance to make an impression. The Titans want to be bigger there, but with the injured Derrick Morgan and Jason Jones they lose their top big ends. Pannel Egboh (6-6, 287) will have a tough time making the roster because there is little room. But he was good last week and will probably have a chance to impress again. If you don’t see him much it means they hope to get him on the practice squad.

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