NFL Nation: Kamerion Wimbley

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Every team in every training camp talks optimistically. Every team with a new coaching staff talks about how things are different for the better.

The Tennessee Titans are lowly regarded by plenty of fans and media nationally. But they have a lot going on that they feel those people have not paid attention to.

With Ken Whisenhunt and his staff at the helm, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a schedule that doesn’t include some of the powers they faced a year ago and a division with two other rebuilding franchises, they might have a chance to surprise.

."You say each and every year, 'Feels different, feels different, feels different,'" safety Michael Griffin said. "Just, you can see every day, people out there talking, we always have guys picking people up. Each and every day there is competition. There are little side bets here and there -- who’s going to win this period and things of that nature. The whole time we’re all trying to get each other better.

"Again, it just feels so much different in this locker room, and everybody has the same goals in mind, and that’s a positive around here."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Ken Whisenhunt brings a solid résumé and a strong coaching staff to the Titans.
1. Whisenhunt isn’t Vince Lombardi or Don Shula, but the Titans' new coach is a significant upgrade from Mike Munchak, who was unsteady in his first three years as an NFL head coach. Whisenhunt had success in the role during his six seasons in Arizona, and he is a well-regarded offensive mind who will do more with what the Titans have than his predecessors.

Whisenhunt had the connections and the interviewing skills to hire a staff that appears to be filled with strong teachers, including a few quality holdovers. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is turning the Titans into a less predictable 3-4 and comfortably works his way into different sections of practice when position work is unfolding. I've watched these coaches teach and I've seen them connect with players.

Whisenhunt may field a complex offense that's hard to defend, but he's good at keeping things simple. I don't see any changes in how the Titans function that aren't for the better at this point.

2. The Titans don’t have players the fans are going to pick to captain their fantasy squads, but Tennessee should have a good array of quality weapons on offense. Kendall Wright topped 1,000 yards in his second season, and now the team’s best receiver will be sent on a wider variety of routes, not just inside slot stuff. He's been excellent so far in camp. Justin Hunter is doing better getting his legs under him and is catching the ball more comfortably. He got behind Atlanta's defense a few times in the recent joint practice and should be a constant deep threat. Nate Washington is showing he remains a versatile, productive guy.

Beyond the receivers, tight end Delanie Walker and running backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey will be good pass-catching options. When the Falcons gave the Titans a lot of room underneath, Jake Locker hit McCluster with a pass over the middle, and he had a ton of space to take. The Titans have invested a great deal in their offensive line over the past two seasons. They have one more tackle than they need after signing Michael Oher and drafting Taylor Lewan. There should be better protection for the quarterback and better holes for the running backs.

3. The 4-3 defense in recent years lacked a star pass-rusher on the edge who an offense had to fear every snap. The Titans still don’t seem to have that guy. They have to find him, but even if he doesn’t emerge from this group, the overall production out of the pass rush should be better. Who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage? In the 4-3, opponents pretty much knew. In this 3-4, it won’t be nearly as clear on a regular basis. Jurrell Casey, who notched 10.5 sacks as a tackle last season, will work as an end now. He's worked on speed rushes off the edge as well as his bread-and-butter quick power stuff in camp.

Sure, some good quarterbacks can diagnose who is rushing and who isn’t, no matter the front. But outside of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck (twice), the Titans don’t face any A-list quarterbacks coming off big 2013 seasons this time around. They don’t see Seattle and San Francisco this season either.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Locker is a really likable guy who works hard, says the right things and desperately wants to prove he is the long-term answer for the Titans at quarterback. But in two seasons as the starter, he's missed 14 games while dealing with shoulder, hip, knee and foot injuries. He's practiced pretty well, but there are plays splashed in that can be killers on a Sunday afternoon.

Getting 16 games out of him is hardly a certainty for the Titans. Even if they do and he fits well with what Whisenhunt is asking him to do, he has not been accurate or poised enough when he has played. He sometimes tries to do too much and isn’t poised under pressure. Though he moves well and is very fast, putting him on the move puts him at more risk of another injury. Behind him are more question marks. Charlie Whitehurst has had no real success in just 13 games in eight seasons and often fails to step into his throws. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has a great arm but slipped to the sixth round for several reasons and is rotating with Tyler Wilson as the third-team QB. (Update: Wilson was released Wednesday.)

2. The offensive weaponry looks good, but for those five pass-catchers to give the Titans the nice smorgasbord of options, they need to stay healthy. Also, guys like Hunter (second year), Sankey (a rookie) and McCluster (first year with the Titans and Whisenhunt) need to show that their potential and practice play translate into NFL Sundays in a Tennessee uniform. Wright was the best player on offense last season and should grow more. Can the others become known quantities?

Who is the star of the defense? DT-turned-DE Casey is a strong, quick rusher who was healthy and productive in 2013. He is going to land a big-money contract -- either soon from Tennessee or on the market next spring. There are some nice pieces around him, but the Titans need veterans to have their best seasons and youngsters to emerge, all simultaneously. In Georgia, no defender stood out and regularly gave the Falcons more than they could handle.

3. Forty-seven percent of the current 90-man roster has been in the league for two years or less. Youth is generally good, but it needs to be quality youth and it needs to be surrounded by quality veterans. The Titans lack experience in a lot of spots. There aren't kids in camp who weren't high picks but have forced their way up the depth chart to this point.

Maybe it’s a great mix of players and a good share of the inexperienced people can blossom together. But with new coaches and new schemes, it could be asking a lot for all that to happen in the first season.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJake Locker
    Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJake Locker needs a healthy season if he hopes to become the long-term answer at QB for the Titans.

  • Locker said he feels more comfortable speaking up and being vocal, and he has shown himself to be more confident in how he carries himself. After one throw that looked to be too long for an undrafted rookie, Locker pointed to tell Julian Horton where he should have gone. He still has bad moments in practice, but the preseason has not started, and he is progressing.
  • The Titans have moved running back Jackie Battle to fullback, where he can offer some needed versatility. He appears to have a sizable lead on incumbent Collin Mooney, who has had, at most, a handful of first-team snaps.
  • Among long-shot late additions, veteran receiver Derek Hagan has been consistently good and Brian Robiskie is also gaining notice. He's competing for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots with Marc Mariani and Michael Preston. Maybe they'll keep six.
  • Sankey is learning quickly how to be a pro, and he has shown a bit of everything the Titans said they expected when they made him the first running back selected in the draft. His first day in pads he looked like an experienced NFL-caliber pass protector. He has good vision and makes good decisions on when to go and when to cut. He also catches the ball well, can run inside and outside.
  • Weakside outside linebacker Shaun Phillips has not worked at all with the first team when Kamerion Wimbley has been practicing.
  • Tommie Campbell was politely mentioned with Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as a contender for the starting right cornerback spot that opened when Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay. But it’s a two-man competition, and Campbell has struggled horribly.

Titans Camp Report: Day 10

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4
7:17
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • The Titans got no one injured Monday in a joint practice with the Falcons at their facility, always the best development to come out of a preseason practice. Defensive linemen Antonio Johnson and Mike Martin and tight end Dorin Dickerson came in with injuries and didn’t practice.
  • The first fight turned out to be the only big fight. It came as the Titans and Falcons worked on punt returns and Coty Sensabaugh swiped a helmet off Robert McClain and a lot of players from both teams came onto the scene to get involved. It may have settled itself down, but Tommie Campbell came flying in to shove two Falcons, Bernard Pollard got involved and Ri’Shard Anderson came in with helmet in hand and swung it into Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen “We got it over and out of the way and moved on,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We thought it might come, it came early and we settled down.” Whisenhunt doesn’t fine players for practice fights, but Anderson should be fined for a foolhardy and dangerous move.
  • Later, Falcons center Joe Hawley got tossed by officials for his role in a smaller scrap with Michael Griffin.
  • Whisenhunt was audibly upset when Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora hit Jake Locker’s arm on a pass. “He grabbed his arm, he hit his hand,” Whisenhunt said. “Osi apologized. He knows he can’t do that.”
  • Marqueston Huff looked like he’s got the potential to be a quality gunner on punt returns. I saw him quickly burst between Kimario McFadden and Jordan Mabin to get en route in a hurry.
  • On a very early snap in one-on-ones matching Titans defensive backs against Falcons receivers, Jason McCourty was right with Roddy White on a quick throw from Matt Ryan, got an arm in and watched the ball pop loose. Another pass for White with McCourty on him was overthrown. McCourty was very solid in that period. The rest of the defensive backs were not as good. Griffin drew two flags for contact. (Khalid Wooten made a nice play and had a near pick of a Jeff Matthews pass for Tramaine Thompson. I think Wooten is steadily improving though he's not playing against the high-caliber guys.)
  • In one-on-ones, the Titans' offense connected on a big play early as Justin Hunter ran away from corner Robert McClain, collecting a throw from Charlie Whitehurst. Hunter caught another deep one from Zach Mettenberger.
  • Locker didn’t throw deep much, as the Falcons seemed to be offering open stuff underneath far more often. Some plays worked great against it. Locker hit Kendall Wright out of the slot and Wright ran away from Josh Wilson for what would have been a touchdown. On another play, Dexter McCluster worked into open space in the short middle and had a ton of space from there. Whitehurst found room for some shots. One of them connected up the right side with Derek Hagan over corner Javier Arenas and safety Sean Baker.
  • In many practices Locker still seems to have one moment that could be deadly. He held the ball and shuffled left as the pocket began to collapse and threw for Delanie Walker. But Desmond Trufant got to it and dropped what should have been a pick. “For any quarterback, there is always at least one you wish you could have back,” he said when I asked him about that specific play.
  • Both of the Titans' kickers attempted field goals against the Falcons field goal defense from 33, 36, 39, 42 and 46 yards. Travis Coons made them all, Maikon Bonani missed his attempt from 46 wide right.
  • Andy Levitre took three snaps in each team period before rookie Taylor Lewan replaced him. Levitre had his appendix removed on July 24. He still didn’t participate in the high contact one-on-one pass-rush drills.
  • In one team period, the offense worked exclusively in “penny,” its three-cornerback, one-safety package.
  • Falcons receiver Harry Douglas made a catch over Sensabaugh after the Falcons had the Titans jumping around before the snap. Derrick Morgan started with his hand down at left end, stood up and backed out, then returned to his initial position while multiple defenders shouted out multiple signals and waved each other around in what appeared to be confusion.
  • Akeem Ayers made a couple plays, including batting down a pass from Sean Renfree. In one-on-ones he made a great spin move against tackle Lamar Holmes that got him to the quarterback. But in a seven-on-seven period, T.J. Yates threw to running back Devonta Freeman and Ayers had no chance against him in space.
  • Avery Williamson impressively ran step for step with running back Josh Vaughan on a deep route and the pass glanced on the rookie linebacker’s helmet.
  • Moise Fokou worked as high in the linebacker rotation as I can remember, pairing with Zaviar Gooden as the inside tandem with the second team at least some.
  • On a snap where DaQuan Jones and Al Woods were the two defensive linemen, neither put a hand on the ground. The Titans played that one with everyone starting off standing up.
  • On one snap of nickel where nose tackle Sammie Hill came off the field, the standing up, off-the-line outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley actually lined up inside of right end Jurrell Casey.
  • There were a bunch of penalty flags on both sides. The most popular offense was illegal contact by defensive backs. The second biggest was offside. More to come on that
  • It’s always amazing to see how many guys know each other when two rosters of 90 and their coaching staffs combine. Titans linebacker Zach Brown saw Yates and exclaimed, “T.J, what’s up buddy?” Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter chatted with Hagan. Falcons owner Arthur Blank got off his cart to hug Titans tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, who used to be Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. A lot of it was pre-practice, a lot was during the kicking period when non-special teamers had time to chat. I watched Chris Spencer and Griffin talk with Devin Hester as Pollard shouted to the Titans, “Y'all be careful with making friends right now.”
  • Find pictures at pkuharsky on Instagram.
  • The Titans are off Tuesday, then have an open practice at 9:20 a.m. CT Wednesday.

Camp preview: Tennessee Titans

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
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» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Paul Kuharsky examines the three biggest issues facing the Tennessee Titans heading into training camp.

Jake Locker: It’s now or never for the Titans’ quarterback, at least in Tennessee. The fourth-year quarterback started last season well, then he got hurt, didn’t shine when he came back and ultimately suffered another season-ending injury. Now he’s got his third offensive coordinator in Jason Michael and a new playcaller and head coach in Ken Whisenhunt.

The Titans would love to see him blossom into the player they thought he could be when they tabbed him eighth overall in 2011. But they began to line up a contingency plan for beyond 2014 when they drafted LSU's Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round.

The team declined to execute Locker’s option for 2015, and he’ll be a free agent after this season. He needs to prove himself worthy of a new contract or the Titans will be prepared to go a different direction next season -- or maybe even sooner.

Things are set up for him to succeed with an upgraded coaching staff, a running game that should be better with a committee instead of Chris Johnson’s deteriorating vision, a reshaped defense and what should be a far easier schedule. But plenty of league insiders and outside critics have little faith Locker can be an effective long-term starter on a winning team.

The new 3-4 defense: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton will bring people from different spots and has some rushers who can play as deeper outside linebackers or line up in a three-point stance as if they are defensive ends. We don’t know if they added enough, but out of Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, converted end Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers, there could be ample edge rush.

The team’s best defensive player, DT Jurrell Casey, will now be playing a lot on a three-man line. But the Titans promise his duties will not change much and say he actually will get more one-on-ones -- because offenses won’t be able to help on him before getting to a linebacker who will be at the line of scrimmage a lot sooner.

Horton quickly won the respect of the team based on his fine résumé and calm but purposeful no-nonsense demeanor. He said small guys who can hit and big guys who can run will have a major say in whether the Titans are successful.

Houston and Indianapolis made the playoffs in their first seasons following recent transitions to a 3-4. The Titans know the scheme change doesn’t buy them patience.

Whisenhunt’s weapons: The Titans signed pint-size Dexter McCluster to be a weapon in Whisenhunt’s offense. McCluster played receiver and running back in Kansas City, but the Titans will look to him as part of the backfield committee, where he figures to catch a lot of passes coming out of the backfield.

Bishop Sankey was the first running back taken in the draft and should be a more direct, decisive back than Johnson, though he certainly doesn’t bring CJ’s speed. Shonn Greene will have short-yardage chances. Are those three enough to take heat off the passing game?

The Titans are counting on a big jump from blazing outside receiver Justin Hunter. Kendall Wright was the best player on offense. And while Nate Washington is aging, he has been dependable and productive. Along with tight end Delanie Walker there are options for Whisenhunt to be inventive with, but we don’t know what will work.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner is allowing room for sentiment on Sunday.

As he takes the field for the Tennessee Titans against the Houston Texans, it will creep into his head that it could be the last time.

Verner has a great feel for the game and a knack for being around the ball and breaking things up.

“Definitely that thought has occurred to me, but it’s not overriding where I am letting that emotionally distress me or get me away from the game,” Verner said. "It’s definitely crossed my mind that this could be [it]. Could be.”

[+] EnlargeTennessee Titans' Alterraun Verner
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderThe price tag looks to be high for defensive backs Alterraun Verner, No. 20, and Bernard Pollard, both free agents at season's end.
He’s timed things up well. After such a solid season, his price may be at an all-time high. I’m sure the Titans would like to keep him. But they’ve spent two recent offseasons trying to give his job away to Tommie Campbell and clearly see Verner's speed as a deficiency in an otherwise solid game.

Future: They should certainly try to keep him. But at this stage, there is no reason for him not to wait for free agency and check out the market. And I’ll bet a team that thinks it’s a corner away will offer him something bigger than the Titans will.

A look at other guys for whom Sunday could be The Last Time.

Running back Chris Johnson

We’ve written frequently about the cost-versus-production equation for Johnson, most recently here. St. Louis fifth-round pick Zac Stacy has a few more yards and a slightly bigger yards per carry average this season. Stacy made $581,500 in 2013. CJ made $10 million.

Future: It’s not working, as Johnson hasn’t been the playmaker he sold himself as when he got the big contract after three years. He won’t take less money – or sufficient responsibility, for that matter. They should move on.

Right tackle David Stewart

He broke his leg late in the 2012 season and has never returned to form, with all sorts of nagging injuries slowing him down this year. He’s questionable for this game with a shoulder injury. He’s been a tough, physical presence for the team for a long time. But he’s due $6.4 million in 2014.

Future: The Titans cannot pay him that much next year.

Strong safety Bernard Pollard

He’s delivered on what the Titans asked when they signed him for one year, providing attitude and toughness to go with solid play. They’ve used him smartly and if he’s not back they will have a hole that will be difficult to fill in both production and leadership.

Future: They should try to keep him, but it’s unclear what the market will offer. Surely there will be a multi-year deal to be had. Will the Titans offer one?

Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley

He’s not been a fit for the Titans, who grabbed him in 2011 after their failed pursuit of Peyton Manning. When they focused solely on him meant Mario Williams went to Buffalo. Even if there's a new staff and it wants to run a 3-4 that’s more suited to Wimbley, he’s not worth $6 million in 2014.

Future: It’s long been presumed he will be cut.

Wide receiver Damian Williams

He got benched for the Arizona game because of a violation of team rules, but such a slip was totally uncharacteristic. He’s a bright guy who can play every receiver spot. He’s ideal as a fourth with potential to be a solid third.

Future: They should re-sign him.

Wide receiver Kenny Britt

The last year of his initial contract has been a disaster during which he lost confidence and was unable to catch the ball consistently. He’ll likely be inactive again Sunday. In a new setting, perhaps he can recover. But he’ll get a minimum contract or something close to it, when a big season would have set him up as a free-agent prize.

Future: It’s elsewhere.

Quarterback Rusty Smith

He’s been the team’s developmental quarterback for four years, and he could never work his way to a place where the team wanted him to be the No. 2. He ended up in that spot only because of injury.

Future: If he’s not a No. 2 by now, it’s time to move on. Tyler Wilson was a late signing, and should take over the Smith spot as the developmental quarterback.

Defensive end Ropati Pitoitua

Started very strong but hasn’t been as good down the stretch. He gives the Titans good size in their run-down front and would benefit from better linebacker play.

Future: Worth keeping at the right price and contract length.

Defensive tackle Antonio Johnson

He’s a workmanlike run-down defender who’s a good piece as a role player.

Future: Shouldn’t be hard to keep.

Also with expiring contracts: Returner Leon Washington, returner Marc Mariani, running back Jackie Battle, wide receiver Kevin Walter, offensive tackle Mike Otto, interior offensive linemen Rob Turner and Chris Spencer.

Fans must wonder, 'How much longer?'

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
11:55
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Two cups of half-filled beer sat on the ground outside the parking lot after the Cleveland Browns' loss to Jacksonville.

[+] EnlargeCleveland Browns fans
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsIt's difficult to gauge what Browns fans are feeling after 15 seasons filled with false hope and disappointment.
After that loss, after that game, it was a bit surprising nobody had kicked them over. Because there was much for fans to be mad about, so much that encapsulated the way things have gone for this team since 1999.

This is not supposed to be the time of year for anger, but what else can fans feel after these 15 long, long seasons?

Smart people come to Cleveland to run the Browns. They're good people who will help the elderly cross the street. Yet for whatever reason it never works and the smart people leave trying to explain why it didn't. Which of course brings in a new group making old promises in new packaging.

Fans are left over and over asking why. And when.

There's the two winning seasons since 1999. There's the one playoff game, a loss.

There's the way the Browns go through quarterbacks without ever finding one. Injuries happen, but Sunday could be starter number four under center this season and 21 since 1999. In all that time, couldn't the Browns just stumble onto a longterm starter?

There's the way the team sells its product every spring and every training camp, with hope and promise and belief as if Harry Potter has just waved his wand over the previous season's mess and made everything just fine. Yet after gobs of energy and mind-numbing excitement over preseason have ended, it's the same old stuff on the field.

There's the constant change of front office, coach and (most recently) ownership. And every time there's change, there's the new group that undoes what the old group did and sends the team on yet another re-set.

There's the attitude of every front office, whose way is always the best way. Don't believe it? Name the last NFL team to trade two first-round draft picks on the same day the way the Browns did with Brady Quinn and Kamerion Wimbley.

And the way the former front-office types walk away year after year after year with the team's millions.

There's the new owner who promised transparency and excitement and commitment, but whose company is under federal investigation for seriously troubling crimes.

There's the win total. Soccer teams have an easier time scoring goals than the Browns do winning games. Since 1999, the Browns have averaged five wins per season. They haven't won more than five games since 2007.

There's coaching staffs trying to make do with decks that aren't even half full.

There's the constant reliance on drafts that never come through. The Browns have a bunch of picks in the 2014 draft, so that event in Cleveland will be like New Year's Eve in Times Square. And all the picks will become, by virtue of being drafted, "excellent players with great upside." Check back in three years.

Then there's the fans, who keep coming to the games and then have to wander in a daze around and around and around the exit ramps after depressing loss after depressing loss.

These fans are so starved for good football they were ready to send fireworks from the backyard because the Browns won a game over Baltimore and were one game below .500 at the bye.

How is that even possible?

They buy tickets. They spend their life savings on a beer and a hot dog. And they get dreck like they got against Jacksonville. The frustration list could go on and on, with story after story. You wonder when fans will pull a Howard Beale and say they're just not gonna take it anymore.

Yet Sunday there stood those cups, the remnant of pregame hopes placed gently on the ground.

Guess everyone figured the Browns had already made enough of a mess of things.

Survey says: Favorite road trips

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
2:09
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans are about to embark on the NFL’s toughest road trip.

It’s a long way to Seattle, and the raucous crowd in an exceptionally loud CenturyLink Field will be waiting.

I wondered what ranks as the favorite road trip for the Tennessee Titans, so I strolled the locker room asking guys.

So wanted to know specific criteria -- was I asking more about the stadium experience or the city itself? I told them it was for them to decide, I just wanted to know what ranked as their favorite road trip.

Here’s what they told me:

Fitzpatrick
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick: “My favorite road trip is Arizona, just cause I’ve got a lot of family there, that’s where I’m from. The stadium is really cool. It’s an awesome stadium. Last year when I played for the Bills, we played San Fran and then we played Arizona the next week. So we stayed in Arizona for that week. Which was awesome, I got five, six days to do my work, but then also get some family time, which you never get during the season.”

Defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill: “I’d have to say New Orleans. That’s the best I’ve ever been to when you’re playing somebody in a dome, it’s loud, their fans, it’s their fans but they still get you cranked and ready to play. That and Dallas, those are my two favorite places to play.”

Running back Jackie Battle: “I guess it would have to be Kansas City, just because I played there and that’s an unbelievable environment. It’s like a college atmosphere in Kansas City.”

Safety George Wilson: “When I was in Buffalo, we played at the Redskins. They have I think about 90,000 people and a real passionate fan base. I like the Redskins.”

Receiver Damian Williams: “I like playing in Seattle for a couple reasons. It’s one of the tougher places to play. Also, my whole college coaching staff is there. I enjoy going up there and playing against those guys.”

Linebacker Zach Brown: “I don’t have one, man. I have no favorite road trip. I like playing at home. I like playing in Houston just to shut the crowd up. And Pittsburgh, they were so quiet up there when we were winning, I just thrive off really shutting the crowd up. That’s motivation.”

Receiver Nate Washington: “It’d probably be Houston, because that’s where I’ve got the most family. My grandmother is there. Anywhere between 15 and 25 people will come to the game. I know a lot of people around there, it’s a great town to go get you some dinner. I really don’t like the stadium, it feels dark in there. But I do like the atmosphere, I like playing in a hostile environment like that.”

McCourty
Cornerback Jason McCourty: “I don’t have any in particular, but any team with a guy I played with in college, it’s pretty cool. You get a chance to see a guy maybe you haven’t see in a while, maybe get a chance to go out and eat or something like that. So New England where my brother is, Tiquan Underwood on Tampa Bay was my college roommate, Jeremy Zuttah in Tampa Bay. You know Greg Schiano has a ton of Rutgers guys.”

Center Rob Turner: “If anything, it’s going back to Texas, because that’s home for me. Dallas or Houston. When I go back to Texas, generally I have 20 or 30 people that come down. I get to see my family.”

Linebacker coach Chet Parlavecchio: “Indianapolis. There is a great cigar place there. I don’t know the name of it, I just know where it is. Right by that statue, I know it’s next to the Starbucks. (Laughs.) Last time I got La Flor Dominicanas, excellent, great cigar. I enjoy my cigar, ask anyone here. Every night going home in my car and then on my deck.”

Tight end Delanie Walker: “Probably New Orleans. It’s got some great food, Bourbon Street, it don’t get no better than that. And a Saints game is always a good atmosphere, and it’s indoors, you don’t have to worry about the weather.”

Wimbley
Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley: “I like going to Oakland. For some reason I just have good luck when I play in the Bay Area. When I was with Cleveland, I was able to get a couple two-sack games out there. I love it, because they hate the teams that come in, of course the Black hole when you see it and they boo you and they’re dressed up all crazy, it just adds excitement to the game.”

Guard Andy Levitre: “Bay Area, San Francisco or Oakland, so I can see my family. A lot of my family and friends might not get a chance to come out here during the season, so it’s one of those games where all of them can come see.”

Free safety Michael Griffin: “Houston. Go back home, play in front of friends, family. Stadium-wise, I’ve never played in San Francisco’s stadium, but going to watch a friend, Tarell Brown, play in a playoff game last year, it was a very tough environment to play in.”
Rivers/LockerUSA TODAY SportsJake Locker, right, will try to keep up with Philip Rivers and the Chargers, who have scored 61 points through two games.
The San Diego Chargers are the Tennessee Titans' white whale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s Jake Locker coming along?

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

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

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

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

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

My 53-man Tennessee Titans roster

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

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

Quarterbacks: Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends: Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d expect Khalid Wooten on the practice squad.

Kicker: Rob Bironas

Punter: Brett Kern

Long-snapper: Beau Brinkley

Observation deck: Titans-Falcons

August, 25, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you’re going to post two duds and a stellar game in the preseason, it’s best if the stellar game comes in Week 3, the traditional dress-rehearsal week.

That’s what the Tennessee Titans got Saturday night at LP Field in a 27-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

The defense gave up too much on the Falcons’ first three drives but held strong in the red zone and surrendered a total of six points. The run defense still has room to improve, allowing 4.5 yards per carry to Steven Jackson in the first half.

But things got better overall as the game went on, with five sacks of Matt Ryan and much better shedding of blocks, hitting and tackling.

The headline, however, was provided by young quarterback Jake Locker.

He finished up the first half plus one series with a very solid line: 11-for-13 for 133 yards and a touchdown with a 134.9 passer rating. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble. He threw the ball well and had people catching the ball better for him but for a drive-killing Taylor Thompson drop of a pass thrown a touch behind the tight end.

The mandatory preseason disclaimer: It was a meaningless game against a team that went deep into the playoffs last season but was only 24th in overall defense and 23rd against the pass. Now, two of the Falcons’ top three cornerbacks are rookies -- Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.

Locker’s bad moments came on the move or under pressure.

On a third-and-7 from the Titans' 35, he didn’t seem quite aware enough and should have been sacked but shrugged out of a blitz. He rolled right and turned to run for a pretty easy first down. But linebacker Joplo Bartu hit him -- and the ball -- as he went down and jarred it loose; safety Thomas DeCoud recovered it.

Beside the fumble, Locker was helpless on two sacks -- one that came from super-quick pressure past right tackle David Stewart, one on which he was pinned in on both sides and taken down as the middle closed in.

In the third quarter, the first-team offense’s lone drive stalled when Locker saw pressure and put his head down rather than feeling the pressure and trying to do something against it.

The positive far outweighed the fumble and the sacks, however.

“This is the first week that we’ve actually put in a game plan. We’d been running base stuff the first two weeks,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “So I think that probably helped a little bit. It helped open up the play-action a little bit and helped Jake.

“I was probably too conservative early on, and once I let him go, he played really well.”

It was a very encouraging night for the quarterback. If the Titans could freeze him right here and put him in practice on Wednesday, Sept. 4, in preparation for the season opener at Pittsburgh, I think they might.

I’ve done some reporting and I’ve learned, exclusively, that such freezing is not an available option.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
AP Photo/John RussellTitans QB Jake Locker ran three times for 22 yards in addition to his 133 yards through the air.
Some other thoughts:

Run defense still an issue: Jackson took 10 first-half carries 45 yards.

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who’s healthy and playing very well, didn’t like learning those numbers.

“We want to hold guys to 2 yards a carry. One or 2 yards a carry,” Casey said. “We don’t want to give up nothing more than that because then it makes it too hard, a game where they can just pound it down your throat. In order to get to the quarterback, you’ve got to stop them on the run on first and second downs.”

See more about the run defense in this video.

Even having allowed more rushing yards than they’d like, the Titans' pass rush was excellent, with five sacks of Ryan and six overall. Casey had 1½; Derrick Morgan, Mike Martin and Kadarron Anderson had one each. Moise Fokou, Karl Klug and Kamerion Wimbley each had half a sack. Nice distribution.

Double barrel: Chris Johnson looked solid in gaining 65 yards on 11 carries with a nice 20-yard sprint to the right sideline on the Titans' first touchdown drive.

Earlier, on the Titans' second possession, Johnson got the ball on first and second down, gaining 7 yards and then 2. Tennessee sent Shonn Greene on to replace Johnson, and Greene did just what the Titans brought him in to do: find 3 yards to convert the third-and-1.

I asked Johnson if he envisioned that being the way things are going to work.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Another not-smart hit by Bernard Pollard: In the Titans’ first preseason game, Pollard put his head down and hit a Redskin heading out of bounds. That got him a $10,000 fine. In the Titans' second preseason game, he twice got beat on third-and-long, failing to make tackles in situations when he should have. Against Atlanta, on the Falcons' very first drive, he unnecessarily jumped in late on a tackle of Julio Jones and drew another personal foul penalty.

Ankle sprains: The Titans announced that both receiver Nate Washington and running back Greene didn’t finish with the first team because of ankle sprains. Washington said his was actually a right foot injury that wouldn’t cost him time unless the Titans were super cautious; Greene said his was really existing ankle soreness and not serious.

Good red zone defense after allowing the Falcons to get there too easily: The Falcons marched into the red zone on their first three drives but wound up with three field goal attempts and only six points.

“They got down there way too easy,” Casey said. “We let them get explosive plays -- big passes, things like that. We can’t allow that. When they got down there, we did our job by not letting them get in the end zone. That was one of our goals this week -- stopping them in the red zone, and we did that.”

Making a case: Receiver Michael Preston is not going to outrank any of the five receivers ahead of him, but he could be making himself a guy the Titans have to keep as a sixth, and I am hard-pressed to believe he is not one of the team’s 53 best football players.

Preston had three catches for 68 yards from Ryan Fitzpatrick, with a 56-yard bomb setting up Justin Hunter's short TD catch before he hauled in a 6-yard touchdown catch of his own later on.

I wrote about Preston at work on Friday.

“He’s a really good player. He’s been doing that day in, day out at practice,” Loggains said. “He made a big statement for his case to be on this football team again tonight.”

Verner and Turner: Cornerback Alterraun Verner and center Rob Turner started and did nothing that should dent them as the favorites to be named the starters at their respective spots.

Verner was flagged for two penalties against Jones -- a pass interference on a short pass into the middle and an illegal contact on a longer throw. I thought the first one was a good play on a ball Ryan threw a bit behind Jones. Later, Jones beat Verner, who didn’t touch him near the line, on a 42-yard play up the right side. Jones is going to make plays against a lot of corners.

And while Tommie Campbell came in early enough to have a couple chances against Jones and wasn’t victimized in a similar way, he didn’t do anything that should change the Titans' leanings.

Battle vs. Parmele: I thought Jackie Battle was getting a bit too much hype heading into the game. He was running better than Jalen Parmele, but special teams will be a huge factor in one of them winning the No. 3 running back job. I was told before the game, however, that he's close to Parmele on special teams. Battle got a game-high 13 carries for 41 yards. Parmele didn’t get one. Advantage Battle.

Referee change: Ed Hochuli was the ref in the first half, but by design, the game turned over to Wayne Mackie in the second half. He’s typically a field judge. The league is looking for opportunities to get people experience. Mackie communicated well when he had to use his microphone.

But Mackie was buzzed to review Alford’s interception of Fitzpatrick on a throw intended for Hunter. There was absolutely no reason for replay assistant Roger Ruth to buzz Mackie to review that play except to give him practice at it.

And whether the league needs to get a guy game experience or not, two teams, a crowd and a TV audience should not be subject to an unneeded challenge for such purposes.

Pending cuts? The first round of cuts come Tuesday, when the Titans have to get from 90 to 75. Healthy guys who don’t play in the third preseason game are typically being kept from getting hurt, because a team can’t cut an injured player.

Healthy Titans who didn’t play in this game were receiver Justin Hilton, defensive end Nigel Nicholas, guard Oscar Johnson, tackle Barry Richardson, tight end Martell Webb and receiver Rashad Ross. It'll be a surprise if any of them are on the roster Tuesday evening.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Look at the Tennessee Titans from any angle and the focus winds up on the same spot: starting quarterback Jake Locker.

The Titans did a lot of overhauling after a miserable 6-10 season. All of it puts the third-year quarterback in a better position to succeed.

“I think throwing with confidence makes a big difference, and that’s what I feel like I am doing this year,” Locker said.

The Titans parted with Matt Hasselbeck and brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick as the No. 2. They are confidant Fitzpatrick can step in and win games if needed, but they have no leash on Locker. The entire organization is committed to him and believes he’s the right guy to quarterback the team to a turnaround.

“He’s really taken ownership,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can see he’s a confident guy, and that’s one thing that you really need as a quarterback. He’s really worked at his game mentally. We’re progression-based now, and he’s really trying to take it to the next level in terms of his footwork and accuracy. This whole offseason I’ve definitely seen improvement.”

Locker will be running an easier, more straightforward system. He’s got a "move" tight end in Delanie Walker (not currently healthy) who adds a dynamic the Titans haven’t had since Locker was drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2011. The receivers are deep and talented. The offensive line could be a dominant group, which should mean a Chris Johnson/Shonn Greene run game will provide great balance. And the defense should get Locker the ball back more often and with better field position.

I’ve seen steady progress and more consistent play in recent practices. But he needs to carry that over into games, and he needs to address two things that might qualify as habits: a tendency to start slow, and a propensity to throw more comfortably and more accurately to his left than to his right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceThe Titans hope to give pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley a lighter workload this season.
1. The pass rush. The Titans generated a reasonable total of 39 sacks last season, with 6.5 from Derrick Morgan and six apiece from Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers. The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens ran the same number of defensive plays (1,086), and they had 37 sacks.

But no single player on the Titans’ defensive front ranked as a scheme-changer that offenses had to account for before every play. And the committee work in conjunction with coverage that was far too soft, far too frequently, played a big role in allowing a league-worst 471 points.

They didn’t change a lot at end. They added size in end Ropati Pitoitua, who figures to play a lot of run downs, and depth in fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards. Ayers will be a much more regular presence as a pass-rusher, and both Morgan and Wimbley will play much less than 80 percent of the snaps, which wore them down a year ago. Does all that and a more aggressive scheme influenced by Gregg Williams turn the Titans into a more threatening pass-rushing team? I can’t say yes yet.

2. Two important coaches. Dowell Loggains took over as offensive coordinator with five games left last season, but it’s not like he could revamp everything Chris Palmer was doing. Given an offseason, he has. These Titans will be less reactive and try to dictate more, and the options routes that complicated things and counted on receivers and the quarterback to read things the same way are gone. Things are tailored to Locker now, and Loggains has more talent at his disposal than Palmer did in 2011 or 2012.

On defense, Williams returns from his year in Bountygate exile with a simple promise he expected would help him win players over: That he can make them better. He’s not the same guy he was back when he was the Titans' defensive coordinator from 1997-2000, but the season suspension certainly made him reflect and he comes back a different guy from the one who was coordinator for the Saints. I suspect he will positively impact key guys on this defense like Ayers, cornerback Tommie Campbell, safety Michael Griffin and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.

3. The offensive line. Last season was a disaster, as the Titans had to call on more depth than any team can have. But the franchise counted on coach Mike Munchak and another offensive line Hall of Famer, line coach Bruce Matthews, to develop guys. A couple they counted on who never reached the expected level are gone now, and the Titans have much better players in place of Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano.

With a line of Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco/Robert Turner/Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack and David Stewart, Tennessee feels like it has re-identified its identity.

“If we’re going to win, it’s going to be because our offensive line is a lot better than it was last year, and we’re physical, and we’re relentless, and we’re going to move people around on both sides of the ball,” Munchak said at the start of camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

They identified last season’s issues and have addressed them all in some fashion. That’s with coaching staff alterations, changes in thinking and scheme, major player additions in free agency and a draft that looks solid. This isn’t a team that sat back and assumed that given another year of seasoning, its 6-10 record could turn into 10-6. It took action. Now we have to find out if the moves and changes total up and produce a big difference in overall outcome.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker and Chandler Jones
AP Photo/Joe HowelThe Titans need QB Jake Locker to make big strides quickly if they are to survive a tough early schedule.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The unproven quarterback and the schedule. The Titans open at Pittsburgh and at Houston, and also play San Diego, a team Tennessee always struggles with, at Seattle and San Francisco before the Oct. 27 bye. It’s impossible to predict how the competition will be. But through the first seven games, 4-3 might qualify as pretty good but might still leave them having to chase to get into playoff contention.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Campbell has looked really good, and his physical makeup is tremendous, but is he ready to handle the mental end of the job? The team wants to play more press, physical coverage, and he’s suited to do so. They hyped him a year ago in camp then didn’t trust him enough to play him. We heard even better things about him this offseason, but recently they’ve put out the word not to count out Alterraun Verner and Campbell was tentative in the preseason opener. If they can’t get Campbell onto the field given his physical characteristics, I’ll question the effectiveness of the coaches who have raved so regularly.
  • Linebacker Colin McCarthy finally climbed back into the starting unit recently, then was sidelined the very next day with a hamstring injury. He’s a good player, but he’s always dealing with something. They are prepared to go with Moise Fokou, and I expect it’ll be very much a two-down job. The Titans are relying on all defenders getting a signal from the sideline, so the coach-to-player communication device won’t be a factor that helps keep a middle linebacker on the field.
  • Undrafted kicker Maikon Bonani has a giant leg, but he has to improve his control. Rob Bironas is recovering from back issues.
  • Weakside linebacker Zach Brown came into the league facing a charge by a prominent draft analyst that he was allergic to contact. He’s been anything but, and his growth as a rookie was a bright spot. He and rookie Zaviar Gooden are blazers at linebacker who can help the Titans deal with some of the tough coverage mismatches created against other offenses.
  • I expect offenses to target strong safety Bernard Pollard in the passing game. He’s an in-the-box safety, though he bristles at conversation about his coverage skills. The Titans plan to use George Wilson also, and he’s a more sound coverage safety. Pollard has brought needed swagger. But I wonder if Wilson won’t ultimately wind up with more snaps.
  • Two eye-catching undrafted rookies at camp have been tight end Jack Doyle and defensive tackle Stefan Charles.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When they drafted him in the second round in 2011, the Tennessee Titans saw a big, physical linebacker in Akeem Ayers.

They needed, seemingly, two years and a couple alterations to the coaching staff to figure out what to do with him. And during that time he’s worked to figure out just how to use what he’s got to be an effective NFL contributor.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers
Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports"I think this will be his year," defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said of Akeem Ayers (56).

Now, the strongside linebacker will also see time at defensive end, and his primary job will be clear.

He’s a pass-rusher.

“I think this will be his year,” defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said.

Like most rookies, he wasn’t looking to initiate conversations with Gray, he wanted to simply do his job. He sought out Gray more last year.

“Now he’s already coming in, ‘Jerry I like this, I like that,’” Gray said. “That’s when guys understand who they are. They’re not trying to please everybody; they’re trying to please themselves. And it’s your job as a coach to say, ‘This is what the guy is telling me,’ so believe it. He understands what his role is going to be. And we’ve got to be smart enough to get him rushing.”

Ayers’ production may be as big a harbinger of what kind of success the Titans will have on defense as anything. He’ll be at outside linebacker in base, but often up on the line of scrimmage. He’ll be at end some, too, in a three-point stance.

Scott Solomon, a second-year defender drafted as an end but now playing more as an outside backer, said he can just see Ayers’ increased confidence when Ayers is walking around.

“I know what I am going to do each week, we’ll pretty much stick to one game plan and I will stick to the things I’m going to be doing,” Ayers said. “I’m not going to be middle linebacker one week and defensive end one week. I’ve got a role, I’m sticking to it and I’m really trying to perfect it. It’s a lot more rushing, going forward, penetration. Less dropping into coverage. I’ll be playing close to the line of scrimmage more times than not.”

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains rates Ayers and one of the guys who’s been standing out on defense. He said the Titans offense would never scheme to stop Ayers with Chris Johnson or even Shonn Greene.

The Titans expect to be an emerging defense. But they have no one as a rusher who will demand the attention of the Jevon Kearse or even Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Still, they expect Derrick Morgan, Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley to lead a committee of players that can get to the quarterback off the edge with regularity.

Now that he’s going to be going forward so often, Ayers has a pretty standard pass-rushing goal: At least 10 sacks.

“If I’m going to be rushing how I’m expecting, I’m expecting to at least get double digits,” he said. “But the main this is as long as I can help the team, as long as we are winning games and we’re doing, we; as a team, the goal should be easy to get.”
Ropati Pitoitua and Sammie HillAP PhotoRopati Pitoitua and Sammie Hill add some much-needed weight to the Titans' defensive line.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Mike Munchak was promoted to coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2011, one of the first things his new defensive coordinator, Jerry Gray, talked about was the need for the team to get bigger.

The Titans had been a pretty good pass-rushing team. Smaller, quicker rushers may have been getting to the passer, but the team’s run defense had slipped. Adding stouter players would bolster the run defense and help everything, the Titans reasoned.

Heading into the third season of the Munchak regime, the franchise has made headway in getting bigger up front on defense.

“I really feel we have a lot of pieces in place that ... Jerry wanted, and the defensive staff wanted,” Munchak said. “You can’t always get what you want in this league.”

In 2011, the Titans’ 90-man roster included 15 defensive linemen who totaled 4,232 pounds.

Now they’ve got 16 who total 4,591.

The average weight per defensive player has risen from 282 to 287 pounds.

More significantly, Sammie Hill, who will start at defensive tackle, and Ropati Pitoitua, who should be in the rotation of defensive ends, are much bigger than players the Titans have deployed at those spots in recent years.

Hill joined the team as a free-agent addition from Detroit. Only undrafted guard Oscar Johnson (330) weighs more than Hill’s listed 329 on the Tennessee roster. Pitoitua is an imposing 6-foot-8. At 315, he’s the Titans' heaviest end -- by 38 pounds.

“I feel good about our size,” Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “It’s a big man’s game. They’ve made some big changes with free agency with Sam Hill, Ropati and Antonio Johnson coming in. It’s on both sides of the ball, the offensive and defensive lines.”

Antonio Johnson is listed at 310, but he said recently he’s at about 330. Rocker said the Titans want him to play at 325 or 330.

In Hill, the Titans found a young player they believe can blossom if given a bigger role than the one he had with the Lions, where he was behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Though he should draw regular double teams, he’s not simply a space eater. He’s got good feet for a man his size and is expected to penetrate and help move the quarterback off his spot, which will benefit the rush ends.

“I can get off the ball for the big guy that I am,” Hill said. “I try to be real disruptive. ... I don’t like to look at myself as just that big guy who occupies space. I like to get in there and cause havoc and disrupt the pocket and all that.”

Hill said he’s played as big as 343 and as light as 325, but doesn’t believe he’s sacrificed strength when he’s been smaller. He expects to play between 330 and 338 for the Titans. Any NFL player that size is carrying a little extra. But Hill is not fat. He said a preferred meal is a couple of baked chicken breasts with rice, and he doesn’t eat sweets.

In speaking with him, I learned that he drinks 3 1/2 to four gallons of water a day, an amount that surely would drown many of his teammates.

When you look at Pitoitua, it’s hard not to think: If the low man wins, how does he ever win?

He said his biggest disadvantage is his height, but the length that comes with it is his biggest advantage.

Said Rocker: “With him, it’s leverage. With the length of his arms, that changes the game for a lot of people facing him. And if you can recall, when the Giants played New England in the Super Bowl, it wasn’t so much that they sacked Tom Brady. There were a lot of tall people in there. You had a lot of trees in there, and it was hard for Tom Brady to complete passes. Ropati creates those things for us and can cause disruptions. We see him as a big-time run-stopper and a ball disruption guy.”

Offensive tackle Michael Otto’s been facing Pitoitua in organized team activities.

“He’s a big, strong dude,” Otto said. “He’s not somebody you’re going to blow off the ball and throw on his back. You’re fighting him the whole time, you just push. A stalemate is pretty good so long as he isn’t getting any penetration.”

If Pitoitua and fifth-round rookie Lavar Edwards (277) pan out, they can help chop down the snap counts of starting ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley. They both played more than 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season, which is far too much.

Rocker said that ideally, the Titans would be on the field 60 to 75 snaps a game, and guys such as Morgan and Hill would play 45 of them. That would be 60 to 75 percent.

Although the league is increasingly about good quarterbacks and stopping them, slowing the run helps a defense in its ability to focus on the QB.

That’s a primary reason the Titans wanted to be bigger.

They play in a division where they will see Arian Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew twice, as well as a Colts team that is determined to run more and better.

They also will see Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore this season.

A season after giving up 4.2 yards a carry, that bigger defense needs to have bigger games when it comes to stopping the run.
The Tennessee Titans have their first three OTA sessions in the next three days, and Friday’s is the first open to the media.

Tinkering, particularly on defense, will be well underway by then.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Scott Solomon
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsTennessee defensive end Scott Solomon will get some work at strongside linebacker.
Media and fans shouldn’t go crazy when they hear what some players will be working on as part of different packages, and as coach Mike Munchak, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams begin to get more complete assessments of what guys can, and cannot, do.

I just talked with Titans coach Mike Munchak:

“The big thing is, especially on defense, don’t get to caught up with who’s doing what and where,” he advised me. “We have enough numbers in a lot of spots, I think you are going to see a lot of guys moving around. We may be doing different things because of packages. As we start competing and with Gregg here now we start to see who works well together, who can do certain things. See what possibilities we can have with certain packages based on who we’re playing on offense and what they do receiver-wise.”

I asked him for some examples of what that tinkering might look like.

  • Defensive end Scott Solomon will get some work at strongside linebacker, where he could ultimately see some time if he’s comfortable there when Akeem Ayers moves forward to do some work as a rush end.
  • Defensive tackle Karl Klug may play some end, but it won’t be a simple move from 4-3 tackle to 4-3 end, he’ll work more like a 3-4 end would in some special, varied fronts. But don’t conclude the Titans are becoming a 3-4 because of it.
  • Starting ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley very much remain the starting ends, but they may not always be on the field at the same time as coaches see who works best together on each side of the pass rush. I presume Ayers will be a factor there, as will some ends who may be more early down run-stoppers who can save some wear and tear on the team’s best rush ends.

As for injuries ...

Right tackle David Stewart, interior offensive lineman Eugene Amano and safety Robert Johnson will not be participating at the start of OTAs as they continue to recover from injuries. (I believe Amano will be cut once his arm and knees are healthy.)

Several others will be limited or will start slow and be eased in: Linebacker Zach Brown (shoulder), guard Andy Levitre (who had a knee cleaned out after the season), Morgan, safety Markelle Martin (back) and defensive tackle Mike Martin (knee).

Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, who recently rated himself as 80 percent, is good to go, Munchak said.
The Tennessee Titans could still add John Abraham or Israel Idonije to their group of defensive ends.

The issue is the same as it is for most free agents -- how much opportunity will one of them find in Tennessee, and for how much money?

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsThe Titans expect to see more sack celebrations this season from Kamerion Wimbley, left, and Akeem Ayers.
Currently the Titans' top three pass-rushers are starting ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley and outside linebacker Akeem Ayers. Ayers began to blitz more at the end of his second season and can also shift forward to play as a fifth defensive linemen or a 4-3 end.

The Titans expect improvement from that trio.

Morgan will be in his second season after major knee surgery. Wimbley will be in his second season with the team. Ayers will get an expanded pass-rush role. All three should benefit from the Titans' determination to be more aggressive on defense and from the presence of Gregg Williams, the senior defensive assistant who has a pretty good history of helping players maximize their talents.

When the Titans hadn’t addressed defensive end through four rounds of the draft, coach Mike Munchak was asked about how satisfied the team was with what it had in terms of pass-rushers.

“I think we’ve been addressing all positions,” he said. "We always want to improve. We have been looking for a defensive lineman. Unfortunately, and I have been on the other side of this a lot of years, the right guy is not there when you pick. You can’t control the draft. There is still other ways to get players that we feel like we missed in the draft. We’re not going to reach for something that doesn’t fit for us and is a wasted pick.

“I think we’re happy with what we’ve developed. Last year, I think sack totals were in the top 10. You can break that down and figure out where it came from. But the bottom line is we think Akeem Ayers is going to be a guy that is going to have six to eight sacks a year like you saw last year. (Linebacker) Zach Brown is going to be the guy that is going to get the same way because of the way our scheme will be.

“I think our ends because of some things we will be doing will go from six to nine or 10. All of a sudden it’s a different story. I think from what we have, we will do better. We did better than we did last year with the guys we had. There is no doubt that we have to improve in certain areas.”

The Titans wound up drafting LSU’s Lavar Edwards the next round, and visited with Idonije and Abraham in short order after the draft.

The sticking point with Abraham is reportedly snaps. He’d like to play a lot. The Titans would use him as a situational pass-rusher.

They’ll be better with him than without him. But as Munchak spelled out, they expect to be a better pass-rushing team no matter what.

Improvements in other areas can help Morgan, Wimbley, Ayers and Brown.

A secondary that’s added safeties Bernard Pollard and George Wilson and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson should be able to force the quarterback to hold the ball a beat longer.

And defensive tackle Sammie Hill may be able to push the quarterback off his spot more often, flushing him towards one of those guys coming off the edge.

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