NFL Nation: Jerry Gray

In his Grade A mock draftInsider, ESPN NFL Draft Insider Mel Kiper Jr. has the Minnesota Vikings ticking through their list of needs with the same efficiency they've displayed this offseason. The Vikings spent most of the free-agency period filling holes on defense, signing former New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph, adding Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to help solve their problem at slot cornerback and filling out their defensive line depth with New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Tom Johnson and Chicago Bears defensive end Corey Wootton.

Now, with the help of four picks in the first three rounds, the Vikings have an opportunity to improve their secondary depth and find a backup for Adrian Peterson. According to Kiper, though, they'd find a fit for what might be their biggest need with the eighth overall pick.


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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings began the three-day negotiating window before the start of free agency by reaching out to a cornerback who could deliver an immediate jolt to the worst scoring defense in the league.

Verner
According to a league source, the Vikings called to express interest in Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who played for new Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray while Gray was the Titans' defensive coordinator the last three seasons. Verner intercepted five passes last season and made his first Pro Bowl, and might be the top cornerback on the market this spring. He doesn't turn 26 until December, and would seem to be a natural fit opposite Xavier Rhodes in new coach Mike Zimmer's defense.

The fact that Verner is so highly regarded could mean the Vikings are in for a tough fight -- or will have to write a big check -- to land the cornerback, but Verner's connection with Gray could give the Vikings some leverage. The Titans decided not to put the franchise tag on Verner last week, and the cornerback could command a salary in the neighborhood of $10 million a season, but the Vikings, who had more than $41 million in cap room before signing Cassel, should have enough money to make a run at Verner.

They wasted little time expressing interest in him on Saturday. It's worth noting that general manager Rick Spielman called agent Eugene Parker to express interest in wide receiver Greg Jennings shortly after the opening of the negotiating period last year, and it's safe to assume the Vikings used a similar approach to begin the day, contacting the top targets on their free agent lists.

That Verner would be near the top of such a list doesn't seem hard to imagine.
BRISTOL, Conn. -- Hello from ESPN headquarters -- well, from a hotel just down the road from ESPN headquarters. All of us NFL Nation reporter types are gathered here this week for an offseason summit, where we'll brainstorm some ideas for coverage heading into the 2014 league year. It should be a fun, and productive, gathering of colleagues from across the country.

But before I head over to the mothership, I wanted to get your day started with a smattering of Vikings news, courtesy of free-agent cornerback-to-be Chris Cook. He sent out a string of tweets on Monday evening, talking about a conversation he'd had with new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Cook is coming off a disappointing season, and his tweets seemed to suggest he's not at the forefront of the Vikings' plans heading into free agency.

"Talked to Zimmer today," Cook tweeted. "He told me like it is. If it's in the cards I look forward to having him at the helm." Cook then tweeted, "8 more days," following it up with, "Well, 7.25 days," which would imply a countdown to next Tuesday's opening of the free-agent market.

Cook missed four games because of injury last season, struggled in man coverage and was ejected from the Vikings' Dec. 1 over the Chicago Bears after he made contact with an official following Alshon Jeffery's touchdown over his head. He's started the second-most games by a cornerback without an interception in NFL history, and his trouble playing the ball showed up at the worst possible times last season. Because of that, he probably won't walk into free agency with a robust market.

The guess here, however, has been that the 27-year-old corner could come back to the Vikings on an affordable deal and get some time to work with Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray (the Tennessee Titans' former defensive coordinator). He's still 6-foot-2 and is big enough to press receivers. If the Vikings can refine his man-coverage skills, he could be a nice option to have as a third or fourth corner who can step in as a starter if injuries hit. Big cornerbacks are a precious commodity in the NFL, and if Zimmer felt he could get more out of Cook -- who might be one of those players with something to prove that appeals to the coach -- it could be worth the gamble to bring Cook back.

At this point, we've got less than 7.25 days before we'll start to get some answers to that possibility.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe behind the scenes, Mike Munchak and the Titans organization gave Jerry Gray the business for foolish things he did while he was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator the last three seasons.

Publicly, they were supportive and loyal to a guy who defaulted to an overly passive defense and who needed to be propped up in his third year by Gregg Williams.

Gray
Gray made at least two public comments that were thoughtless and resulted in fines he didn’t feel were his fault -- one about how his defense should deliver hits that required a cart to take the victims off the field and another on the sideline near the end of a game about officials qualifying as three blind mice.

The fines that resulted were, of course, the fault of those that reported it, not the guy who said it.

It was incongruous with Munchak’s pledge that every member of the Titans should “be a pro,” know his job, do his job and be accountable.

Gray should have been told by his bosses that insulting officials isn’t a great idea and to be smarter. Perhaps he was. But to protect him from himself the Titans also changed a policy, limiting who could be on the sideline for the final two minutes of the game. Call it the Jerry Gray rule.

Monday in Mobile, Ala., John Glennon of The Tennessean ran into Gray.



Mike Munchak is a loyal guy. Had he hired a better coordinator, or cut ties with the only one he hired, the former Titans head coach might still have his job.

If Munchak and the Titans don’t read that line from Gray and think, “WE wish we cut HIM out of OUR lives” a year or two before his contract ran out, they’ve got tremendous restraint.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans' secondary was good last year, so defensive backs coach Brett Maxie should have been retained.

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesLet's give Ken Whisenhunt the benefit of the doubt before judging the moves he made regarding the Titans' coaching staff.
The Titans special teams were bad last year, so special teams coach Nate Kaczor and his assistant, Steve Hoffman, should not have been retained.

That's the popular thinking for at least a portion of Titans fans who are vocal on Twitter.

It's overly simplistic and incorrect.

I thought Maxie and assistant secondary coach Steve Brown did a good job last season.

Ken Whisenhunt kept Brown but let Maxie go.

Maybe he loved Maxie's work but has someone else in mind. Maybe he didn't like Maxie's work. Maybe a coaching colleague he trusts told him something about Maxie and something different about Brown. Maybe Ruston Webster gave him different reviews of the two. Maybe he's got a list of secondary coaches he covets and thinks a new guy working with a holdover will maximize the secondary's chances to do its best.

There are a number of factors that could have come into play. Whisenhunt's not going to spell them out for us.

The same is the case with regard to keeping Kaczor and Hoffman.

It's at least a partial endorsement of their work.

Tennessee's special teams were a problem last year, though things settled down when a quality returner, Leon Washington, fell into their lap late in the season.

But while those guys were heard, they weren't ultimately responsible for Darius Reynaud starting out as returner or Devon Wylie holding the job for a bit. Look higher up the Titans organizational chart for blame there -- to Mike Munchak and Webster.

As for silly, side-spinning, tee-less onside kicks ...

Perhaps Kaczor brought the idea to the table. But the head coach is the guy responsible for the team using it. Munchak, and any head coach, holds veto power and ultimate responsibility.

Whisenhunt is a smart coach who's respected around the league and arrives with six years as a head coach on his resume.

He's taken in some info and decided to keep the special teams assistants who were in place.

Rather than immediately call it a crazy move, how about we wait and see how they do given another chance?




The list of assistants and their fates, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean:

Retained: Steve Watterson, assistant head coach/strength and conditioning; Steve Brown, assistant secondary coach; Sylvester Croom, running backs; Steve Hoffman, assistant special teams; Shawn Jefferson, wide receivers; Nate Kaczor, special teams.

Let go: Dowell Loggains, offensive coordinator; George Henshaw, tight ends; Bruce Matthews, offensive line; Brett Maxie, secondary; Chet Parlavecchio, linebackers; Dave Ragone, quarterbacks; Tracy Rocker, defensive line.

Contract not renewed: Jerry Gray, defensive coordinator; Gregg Williams, senior assistant/defense; Keith Millard, pass rush.

TBA*: Jonathan Gannon, defensive assistant/quality control; Arthur Smith, offensive line/tight end assistant.

* Wyatt says they are retained for now, but the new offensive coordinator will have a say in what direction the team goes.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- So Mike Munchak’s choice boiled down to this: lose his job as head coach of the Tennessee Titans or fire a large contingent of assistant coaches in exchange for an extension and raise.

He chose Option A, and it’s understandable.

Munchak
Saturday, general manager Ruston Webster answered all the questions during a 20-minute news conference, but said he didn’t have a comment about whether an extension was discussed as things were sorted out with Munchak.

The extension would have helped Munchak hire replacements for the fired staff -- which was going to include defensive coordinator Jerry Gray (who wouldn’t have been fired, he just would not have been renewed), offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio.

“I think [Munchak] is a guy that people like to work for and I’m sure we would have been able to attract some coaches,” Webster said of a lame-duck scenario.

Assistants were more likely to join Munchak’s staff given two- or three-year contracts.

I initially presumed any extension would have amounted to an additional, papier-mache year.

But per Chris Mortensen, Munchak was offered “a multiyear extension at almost double his $3 million salary, conditional upon Munchak making more than a dozen staff firings and demotions.”

While Munchak’s loyalty was admirable, coaches who joined him last year on short-term deals -- receivers coach Shawn Jefferson and running back Sylvester Croom -- may now lose their jobs as a result of their boss' commitment to other assistants.

Yes, they’ll be in line to still collect their salaries if they don’t work elsewhere next year. But it’s not only about the money.

One example: Jefferson’s son, Van, is a rising senior receiver at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tenn. A receiver like his dad was, he’s a top college recruit. If his dad’s job is elsewhere next year, the family will face time apart or an awkward move. That's life-altering stuff.

The biggest thing is, if president and CEO Tommy Smith and Webster were telling Munchak which coaches he had to fire, they would have certainly expected to approve those he went on to hire.

That would have effectively neutered Munchak going forward no matter his salary or length of his deal.

A four-year coaching contract in the NFL is set up for a determination to be made after three years. After three years, the body of work should indicate the coach is deserving of a second contract or needs to be replaced.

Munchak did not deserve an extension based on his 22-26 record, a 6-12 AFC South record and a 3-20 record against teams that finished with a winning record.

The Titans may have dressed things up for him. I’m unimpressed that Smith and Webster saw a scenario in which a multiyear extension and a raise were good ideas.

Ultimately Munchak didn’t have much of a choice. He couldn’t have stayed and maintained the level of control an NFL coach should expect, so he told them to fire him and saved them from a bad situation.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mike Munchak returned Friday evening to the Music City, but the Tennessee Titans issued statements from president/CEO Tommy Smith and general manager Ruston Webster saying things are not yet resolved regarding the coach's job status.

Munchak
"I said all along that we would review every aspect of the football operations at the conclusion of the season -- in early January," Smith said. "Today I sat down with Ruston and Mike and we discussed every coach and player on the roster. We had good discussions, but no final decisions were made."

Said Webster: "The three of us met all day today in Houston. We had a good conversation in regards to the team and moving forward. Nothing final has been decided at this point, but we hope to have a decision soon."

Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean reported that Munchak will return, saying after the statements were released that Munchak has conditions but is expected to meet them.

I interpret that as meaning Munchak will sacrifice part of his staff to retain his job.

Jerry Gray has an expiring contract, but when his phone rings he's likely to be told he won't get a new deal. Munchak should be trying to promote Gregg Williams to the defensive coordinator post, but Williams is also about to become a coaching free agent.

Others who might be in trouble: offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, Munchak's best friend and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer; linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio; special-teams coach Nate Kaczor; defensive line coach Tracy Rocker; and pass rush coach Keith Millard.

I wrote previously about some of them being at risk.

I fully believe Dowell Loggains is safe if Munchak is back. The last thing the Titans need is a third offensive coordinator in three years for young quarterback Jake Locker.

If staff changes are the primary conditions for Munchak's return, the easy part may be firing assistants. Hiring quality replacements while heading toward a lame-duck season will be difficult. And there is no indication at all that Smith will consider an extension for Munchak.

A look at the Titans' blitz numbers

December, 20, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In their first four games, when they went 3-1, the Tennessee Titans' defense was changing up fronts, causing confusion and blitzing.

As the season flamed out from there, the Titans backed away from that.

When I think about it now, it feels like we saw the stamp of senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams early on but defensive coordinator Jerry Gray’s more passive philosophy gradually swallowed it up.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, the Titans blitzed over 40 percent of the time in three of their first four games. In the 10 games since, they've blitzed on 40 percent or more of an opponent's dropbacks just twice.

Certainly, they aren’t a blitz-crazy team that is going to throw numbers forward all the time. In some games, the numbers are understandably low.

The Titans rushed five or more players just 13 times in Peyton Manning's 59 dropbacks in Denver on Dec. 8 in a 51-28 loss. They don’t believe they can get to Manning with numbers, so they played coverage. They didn’t go too hard after Rams backup QB Kellen Clemens in a win at St. Louis, but they blitzed Oakland rookie Matt McGloin over half the time.

“I think it’s totally inaccurate [to say we’ve blitzed less],” Gray said. “We kind of got some guys nicked up .… You have to move other guys around. Every week you look at what can we take advantage of, who do we have that can win, who can win a one-on-one because everybody gets them.

Said safety George Wilson: “You don’t necessarily run the same schemes every week. Teams have different pass protections and matchups. You run what’s going to give you the best chance to get pressure on the opposing offense.”

The Titans sacked Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck five times on Dec. 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts' offensive line has been a major issue this season. In their four other most recent games, their sack totals have been poor: 1, 0, 0 and 2.

The pressure -- outside of defensive tackle Jurrell Casey -- has been insufficient. And the Titans haven’t sent as much extra pressure as I expected they would after Williams arrived.

I’m a fan of four-man pressure. Who isn’t? This team needs better edge rushers in order to get it.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What’s become of the Tennessee Titans' defense?

Early in the season, Tennessee was a defensive team, and it looked like the Titans would be able to depend on the unit to keep the team in games.

Now it can’t stop opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and another early staple, strong run defense, has dropped from 10th after four games to tied for 20th after 10.

According to Derrick Morgan, the rate of mistakes has skyrocketed.

[+] EnlargeMaurice jones-Drew
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiDefensive coordinator Jerry Gray says players putting too much emphasis on rushing the passer has left the Titans vulnerable to big rushing plays like this TD run by the Jags' Maurice Jones-Drew.
Talk of little mistakes is routine when things go bad for a team. But Morgan said defensive coordinator Jerry Gray precisely spelled out the dropoff.

“It’s a lot of mental errors, misalignments,” said Morgan, who’s dealing with a groin injury. “Jerry was telling us in the first four games we only had 12 mental errors and alignment mistakes. In the last six games we had 52. That’ll get you beat a lot.

“That kind of tells the story, you wonder why. You look back at those type of stats it’s like, ‘Wow, I see where we messed up.’ We watched it as a team earlier this week. We’ve just got to play smarter and I think we will.”

Stopping the run is supposed to be the foundation everything else builds off, but the Titans have been slipping in that department. During the 1-5 stretch, they held the Jaguars to 54 rushing yards. Everyone else has run for at least 120.

Gray thinks some guys have started to think too much about rushing the passer, which can get in the way of stopping the run.

“The thing we’ve got to make sure we keep doing is not put so much emphasis on the rush, but stop the run,” Gray said. “That’s what we’ve got to make sure we get back to. Then get those big guys out, and then get after the quarterback. I think that formula was working for the first six weeks. It’s still working for good teams, San Francisco, Seattle, guys like that.

“Get back to that, not trying to pass-rush on run downs. Get back to saying, ‘Get them in second-and-long, third-and-long,' get to the pass-rush, and you get the sacks and those things after that.”

It’s natural for a rusher to think rush. Under Jeff Fisher, the Titans often employed a completely different mentality about stopping the run. The defense aimed to stop it on the way to the quarterback.

Now Gray wants guys thinking team stats, not individual stats.

“Team stats, stop the run, get off the field on third down, make them kick field goals in the red zone,” he said. “When we make those a higher priority other than individual stats, you’ll win a lot of games around here.”
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Gregg Williams will coach a defense at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday but it won't be the one that he probably envisioned as recently as January of 2012.

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyGregg Williams, one of Jeff Fisher's first hires with the Rams, is instead leaving his stamp on the Titans' defense after his return from a season-long suspension.
Williams was one of Rams coach Jeff Fisher's first hires when he took over the job last year, brought on to be the team's defensive coordinator. That never panned out how either side envisioned when the NFL suspended Williams for the year because of his role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. Williams faded into NFL oblivion and resurfaced in Tennessee this year as a defensive consultant.

As the Rams and Titans prepare to face off this week, much has been made of Fisher's knowledge of Tennessee and head coach Mike Munchak's system but it's certainly a two-way street, at least on defense. Although Jerry Gray is the defensive coordinator, Williams' imprint on the defense -- lots of blitzing, plenty of press coverage -- is obvious.

"Absolutely, you can see Gregg's fingerprints on that," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "I think Jerry Gray does a great job. I think they're very well-coached. It will be a good challenge for us. The good news is there is some carryover from what we saw last week with Seattle coming off the Monday night game in terms of the eight-man front and some of the stuff we'll have to block. So, that does help you."

Fisher and Williams were once thought to be close friends, a relationship likely strained by what happened with Williams' status in St. Louis and the Rams parting ways with Williams' son Blake after one season last year.

Asked about Williams earlier this week, Fisher told the Tennessee media that he hasn't spoken to Williams much in the past year. Asked again Wednesday by St. Louis media, he didn't offer much more.

"I really never talked to him during the season anyway," Fisher said. "I'm sure I'll see him on Sunday."

I.C.Y.M.I.

A morning roundup of Friday's Rams stories appearing here on ESPN.com. ... We began the day with a look at why Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan is getting the last laugh on the success of Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner. ... Next, we looked at the Rams' need to keep the momentum on defense after a dominant outing against Seattle. ... On the injury wire, we looked at the potential for new looks at running back with three backs listed as questionable. ... Finally, we discussed the news about Jacksonville receiver Justin Blackmon with a look back at what might have been had he slipped to the Rams at No. 6.

Elsewhere:

At stltoday.com, columnist Bryan Burwell provides this video look at the Rams-Titans game.

Joe Lyons dives into the breakthrough performance of rookie running back Zac Stacy.

Jim Thomas provides the comments from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer on the final play against Seattle.

Stacy stopped by to chat with fans at stlouisrams.com.

Tickets for Sunday's game can be had for as low as $9.

One former agent provides a list of likely cap casualties this offseason, including Finnegan.

An interesting look from cbssports.com on the trade that sent Eric Dickerson from the Rams to Indianapolis.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If defensive coordinator Jerry Gray wants to throw the St. Louis Rams off the Tennessee Titans' tracks, he can come up with something better than what he tried Thursday.

With free safety Michael Griffin missing a second day of practice with a right quad injury, the Titans might need to turn to an alterative at free safety.

Griffin
The logical, obvious choice is George Wilson.

But Gray said in his weekly media session that the Titans could move Alterraun Verner from cornerback to safety or turn to Corey Lynch, who was just signed at the start of the week.

“If it’s going to help us win, we’ll move him,” Gray said of Verner.

Taking Verner, who’s having a stellar season as cornerback, and moving him to a spot he played some during the summer, then replacing him at cornerback, would amount to coaching malpractice.

Wilson said he’s taken a lot of the practice reps with Griffin out, and has studied the film from a free-safety angle.

"It’s my job to be ready regardless of what the situation is," said Wilson who has been spending a lot of time in sub-packages covering the tight end.

Griffin said he ran, backpedaled some, did some drills for defensive backs, and broke from different angles. He thinks it’ll come down to how he does in an early sessions with coaches and trainers on Sunday in St. Louis.

If Griffin is out and Wilson is in the base defense, the Titans will change things up as they try to cover Rams tight end Jared Cook.

Wilson could still get a share of time with Cook, and weakside linebacker Zach Brown could be on the former Titan, too.

Brown said if he’s covering Cook, he needs to get his hands on him -- at the line of scrimmage and when the ball arrives.

“He’s real fast,” Brown said. “He’s good in and out of his breaks. ... If you can touch him, you can get the ball out. For me, I’ve just got to get my hands on him, because he’s not that strong or that physical. He’s not as big as a lot of other tight ends.”

Cook might play small, but let the record show he’s 6-foot-5 and 254-pounds.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is really high on the San Diego Chargers’ interior offensive line.

The trio of left guard Chad Rinehart, center Nick Hardwick and right guard Jeromey Clary have been quite good so far at giving quarterback Philip Rivers time to work.

Casey
“When you watch them on film, (the interior line) is like a fortress for him and he’s standing back there, and if no one’s getting close, he’s making all the throws,” Gray said. “...The last two games, they’re not letting anyone come in there.”

But the Titans' top interior rusher, Jurrell Casey, doesn’t necessarily see things the same way.

“I’ve been looking at them, they’re decent," Casey said. “I wouldn’t say they are anything different than the other players that we’ve played against so far. Coaches are going to do what they do, pump them up, pump them up. But I look at every guy the same, they’re just another person in front of me. There should be no reason we don’t get push up the middle.”

If the Chargers' interior line plays the way Gray says its played, the Titans will need consistent pressure from their edge rushers: Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley.

There could be a weak spot at right tackle.

San Diego's rookie starter D.J. Fluker missed Thursday’s practice with a concussion. His backup is Michael Harris, a second-year player who came into the league undrafted out of UCLA.
Matt Schaub and Jake LockerGetty Images, AP PhotoQuarterbacks Matt Schaub and Jake Locker look to lead their respective teams to a 2-0 start.
Titans owner Bud Adams is vilified in Houston because he took the Oilers out of town. The aging, eccentric Adams still lives in Houston, and he’s expected to attend Sunday's Titans-Texans game.

The Texans are coming off a wonderful 31-28 comeback win in San Diego. The Titans took care of the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Inevitably, an opening-day win gives a team some reassurance about its plan and course. The Titans' buy-in is certainly high.

Had the Texans lost to the Chargers, I imagine this week's themes would revolve around the carryover of issues that killed them late last season.

The comeback from a 28-7 deficit changed that. They’re the two time-defending division champions. Even so, Tania Ganguli, how much of a boost did that comeback give them?

Tania Ganguli: It gave them a big one. Coming back from big deficits was something they struggled with last year. That led to the Texans being labeled as a team that wasn't built to come from behind because their running game is such a big part of their offense. They showed an ability to pass their way out of a big hole. Quarterback Matt Schaub was excellent in the third quarter, spearheading the recovery. Defensively, they showed the ability to adjust. After the Chargers' third-quarter-opening touchdown, San Diego had 10 yards of total offense the rest of the half. Incredible.

How has Gregg Williams changed the Titans' defense?

Paul Kuharsky: He’s not the coordinator, and Jerry Gray continues to call the plays. But Tennessee really mixed up its fronts against the Steelers. They didn’t blitz an immense amount but they were more unpredictable and more aggressive than they had been last year.

I certainly felt like we were seeing Williams’ influence in those areas. Williams has certainly had a positive bearing on their aggressive approach to the game and on the team’s attitude. If guys like tackle Jurrell Casey and linebacker Zach Brown play like they did in the opener, they’ve developed some playmakers. If guys like end Ropati Pitoitua and linebacker Moise Fokou keep up their play from the opener, they’ve added some quality new pieces.

What’s Wade Phillips doing with his new pieces, and will we see all of them?

Ganguli: Ed Reed is getting healthier, but we won't know his status until Friday afternoon. He will have a lot of free rein to dictate what he does, just like he did in Baltimore. He's helped other players and helped his coaches by offering suggestions on things he's seen. I asked Phillips if he is more inclined to listen to Reed than other players and Phillips said Reed's suggestions are better than most players.

When the Texans drafted safety D.J. Swearinger, they knew they were in dime so often that even as the third safety he'd see the field a lot. Swearinger was on the field for 55 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps Monday in San Diego.

Joe Mays was solid starting at inside linebacker on Sunday. Given Darryl Sharpton's injury history, he's a very important piece the Texans added during training camp.

We could include Whitney Mercilus and Earl Mitchell as somewhat new pieces -- full-time starters at outside linebacker and nose tackle. Both had big nights in San Diego. Mercilus hit Philip Rivers on the pass that Brian Cushing intercepted. Mercilus also had an early sack, giving Phillips the outside pass rush he needs. Mitchell's most important play came when he chased down running back Ryan Mathews as he ran with a pass. Mitchell stopped Mathews two yards short of a first down. Rivers' next pass fell incomplete, and that was the last time the Chargers had the ball.

You mentioned Casey earlier. He's been fairly talkative lately, and apparently has played well, too. Will he cause problems for the Texans?

Kuharsky: If the Titans have a chance at a second consecutive upset, Casey will have to be disruptive. The 2011 third-round pick out of USC had a very solid rookie season, but last season he hurt an elbow in the preseason and had a couple of other injuries slow down his growth. He’s healthy now and could be on course to be a Geno Atkins type of player. I know some Texans fans bristled that he dared talk confidently. But I’m guessing those same fans were OK with someone like Antonio Smith talking before he’d done much, either.

If Casey draws double-teams from the Texans' offensive line, then others need to apply pressure. End Derrick Morgan and strongside linebacker/nickel end Akeem Ayers are the top candidates there, though Brown is the one who charged out the strongest last week.

The Titans usually think if they can rattle Schaub they’ll be in good shape, but last week Schaub was rattled in the first half and bounced back quite well against the Chargers. Do you expect him to be the first-half guy, the second-half guy, or something in between?

Ganguli: The defense he'll play is a little bit better this week, and their aggressiveness will present a challenge for Schaub. His QBR was much better against four or fewer pass-rushers than it was against five or more, though he did throw all three touchdowns against extra pressure. On the other hand, I think Schaub will be more comfortable with receivers like DeAndre Hopkins, who caught five passes in his NFL debut. I expect something in between first- and second-half Schaub. Schaub has more career touchdown passes against the Titans (17) than he does against any other opponent, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Worth noting, though: I don't think he’ll be put in the same position he was in last week. The Titans don't have the offensive firepower to bury another team early, do they?

Kuharsky: I wouldn’t think so. The offensive line is way better and they should find some runs. But the passing offense is unproven. They have a group of quality receivers and a nice new tight end in Delanie Walker. The next step would be for them to show they can make consistent plays in the passing game with some big-chunk plays.

A lot of that comes down to what Jake Locker can do. The third-year quarterback has made steady improvements recently. But one of their objectives is to shape a game where too much doesn’t land on his shoulders. They want to throw it when they want to, not when they have to. I expect the Texans will make them have to.

Also, the last time Locker played at Reliant, he failed to make an adjustment at the line and got crushed by a blitzing Glover Quin. The resulting shoulder injury cost him time and slowed his progress. He’ll need to do better on the fly.

Pressure’s on him. Pressure’s on you. First home game with ESPN.com since taking over the Texans. What happened to the guy who used to monitor that team for us?

Ganguli: I heard he got run off due to his refusal to pronounce the H in Houston.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 1

September, 9, 2013
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An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 16-9 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

The defensive mentality: As the 2012 season ended, the Titans were already talking about the need to be more aggressive. Then Mike Munchak brought in Gregg Williams as a senior assistant/defense.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJurrell Casey and the Titans sacked Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger five times in Week 1.
Munchak emphasized that defensive coordinator Jerry Gray called the Pittsburgh game. And the Titans didn’t go crazy with blitzing the way Williams’s defenses have in the past.

But the defense was well-prepared to keep Ben Roethlisberger hemmed in the pocket. The Titans sacked him five times. Though the Steelers found some plays to Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jericho Cotchery, the biggest pass play was 22 yards.

Williams' influence and the swagger he brings seemed to be at work, at least to a degree. As I’ve said before, Gray is in a no-win situation. We’ll look at improvements because of Williams, and if they are bad we’ll say it’s the same old stuff.

Jake Locker's poise: One of his biggest issues has been his desire to do too much. So one of the Titans' biggest goals has been to shape a team that can shape games where he doesn’t feel like he has to overreach. And he didn’t overreach in Pittsburgh.

He was calm and efficient. He misfired a few times. But we’ve said in the right sort of context he could be a bit like former Titans quarterback Steve McNair, where the numbers don’t always look as good as the quarterbacking.

That was the case here. Locker did his part.

I think his confidence grew through a preseason where he showed steady improvement. And I am sure it will grow some more from helping engineer a tough win in a tough place against a tough defense.

Three tight ends: The Titans used a three-tight-end formation quite a bit, mostly with Damian Williams on the field as the lone receiver and a running back behind Locker.

It was pretty effective, but going forward the Titans will have to do more to show they can be balanced when Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson are on the field together.

By the count of Terry McCormick of Titan Insider, the Titans gave up a sack and threw just twice in 17 snaps with three tight ends, some of which was with Williams and a back, and some of which was with two backs. Locker threw incomplete once and connected on a 13-yard pass to wide receiver Nate Washington.

Williams said it won’t be too predictable.

“Sometime in that formation, you’ve got three tight ends and a receiver, that’s four eligible receivers that are capable of catching the ball,” he said. “You do have to throw out of it to keep them honest.”

Third-down defense: The Titans gave up some third-and-long conversions in their preseason game in Cincinnati that were of particular concern. The Steelers converted third-and-8, third-and-9 and third-and-8, respectively, on their opening possession.

That left me thinking the Titans were going to have some serious issues. But they settled down and played really well on third down the rest of the way, allowing the Steelers to convert just one of 10 the rest of the game.

“We knew those weren’t good on our part and those third downs were long, we weren’t happy,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “We came back to the sideline and said, ‘We can’t have that happen.’ We were able to respond.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans made the right choice in going with Alterraun Verner over Tommie Campbell as their starting cornerback opposite Jason McCourty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pittsburgh game will begin to tell the story.

But the offense might want to aim to score 30.

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