NFL Nation: Tennessee Titans
Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by four other NFL Nation reporters.
Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) joins to give an idea of how feasible it would be for the Raiders and Chargers to share a stadium in Southern California. Pat Yasinskas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter) discusses why he thinks Jameis Winston is all but a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) breaks down which direction the Jets will go with the No. 6 overall draft pick. Will they go with a quarterback? Defense? Receiver? Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) weighs with his thoughts on where the Titans will turn at No. 2 if Winston is off the board.
Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on ESPN.com at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT each Tuesday, and be sure to give the show's a podcast a listen following each taping.
The Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans both have turned to change as two teams look to get their seasons back on track Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Losers of six of their last seven games, the Titans (2-6) hand the ball to rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who makes the first road start of his career. The Ravens (5-4), who sit last in the AFC North and have lost consecutive games for the first time this season, shook up their secondary after allowing six touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger, cutting cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown and adding Danny Gorrer and Tramain Jacobs.
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.
Hensley: The Ravens shut down the run (No. 6 in the NFL) and give up big plays in the passing game. Can the Titans win if they need Mettenberger to carry the offense?
Kuharsky: We don’t know yet. He’s got an NFL arm, and he’s willing to stand in and sling it. If they can protect him and make some catches for him, we’re going to learn a lot over the next eight weeks. But the way the Ravens allow big plays, I would expect Ken Whisenhunt can draw up some things that have a chance can allow Mettenberger to let it rip and make some big plays. Under pressure, I would think he’ll make some mistakes, too. So what’s larger and had the best chance to sway the game, the big plays or the big mistakes?
As far as the Ravens' offense goes, the Titans are quite familiar with Gary Kubiak from his time as head coach in Houston. How has Kubiak altered things for the Ravens?
Hensley: Kubiak has changed the Ravens' passing philosophy, taking them from a vertical team to one that focuses more on the intermediate routes. That has increased Joe Flacco's efficiency (90.7 passer rating, second-best of his career) and decreased the number of sacks (13 in nine games). His zone blocking scheme has made the Ravens the 10th-ranked rushing attack in the league. That's their highest ranking since 2011. The knock on Kubiak in Houston was that he was too predictable. But this is the most balanced offense under coach John Harbaugh. Even though the Ravens have struggled recently on offense, no one can argue with the results. The Ravens went from being the 29th-best offense last season to the ninth-best unit this year.
Speaking of the Ravens' improved ground game, running back Justin Forsett surprisingly is fifth in the NFL in rushing, and the Titans rank 28th in run defense. Are they as bad as the numbers look?
Kuharsky: They aren’t bad every week or all the time, but they certain have stretches where they let backs have too easy a time. They don’t tackle well consistently and there are still times when they aren’t gap sound. Part of that is that they are still adjusting to defensive coordinator Ray Horton's new 3-4. Part of it is that they simply aren’t that good. Rookie inside linebacker Avery Williamson has been a big addition. He brings a bit more size inside and has a thumper mentality that is a must from the spot in this scheme. DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster really ate the Titans up and Ben Tate did too, as the Browns really did well by staying dedicated to the run even when facing a big deficit that they managed to overcome at LP Field.
Baltimore always has the reputation of being a tough defense. But the pass defense ranks 24th and has given up 34 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Quarterbacks have posted a 94 passer rating against the Ravens. How big of an issue is the pass defense?
Hensley: This has been the biggest trouble spot for the Ravens this season. You can chalk up three of the Ravens' four losses to their inability to stop the big pass play. In the season opener, now ex-Ravens cornerback Brown was beaten by A.J. Green for the winning 77-yard touchdown. Two weeks ago, rookie safety Terrence Brooks got turned around on a 53-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu in what became the biggest play in the Bengals' winning drive. And last Sunday night, the Ravens gave up six touchdown passes to Roethlisberger, including a 47-yard score to Markus Wheaton that crushed the Ravens heading into halftime. The secondary will improve once Jimmy Smith (sprained foot) can return in a few weeks. But the Ravens need improved safety play -- whether it's Matt Elam, Darian Stewart, Will Hill or Brooks -- to stop the deep pass.
The Ravens secondary's best friend this season has been the team's pass rush. The Ravens have recorded 15 sacks in the last four games. Elvis Dumervil, who leads the Ravens in sacks, will line up against former Ravens right tackle Michael Oher. Do you foresee a successful homecoming for Oher on Sunday?
Kuharsky: I don’t. Oher has lived up to what you suggested about him when the Titans signed him. He’s simply not that effective and the Titans got the guy you saw last year, not the one who played better earlier in his career. The offensive line is a huge disappointment overall, with the exception of first-rounder Taylor Lewan who will be starting his fourth game since taking over from Michael Roos, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Pro Football Focus rates Oher as the fourth-worst tackle out of 74 in the NFL. The Titans can get out of his deal after this season having spent $6 million on him and owing him nothing more. His work is telling them that’s what they should do.
How much do the slugfests of the AFC North against other good teams help the Ravens when it comes to facing lesser teams like the Titans?
Hensley: One of coach John Harbaugh's strengths is attention to detail, and he focuses on that when playing the lesser teams. There have only been a few times when a team with a losing record upsets the Ravens, and it's extremely rare at home. It's proven to be that way this season. The Ravens have played three teams with losing records (the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons), and they've beaten them by a combined score of 115-34. Let's see if that trend continues Sunday against the Titans.
The Tennessee Titans had trouble stopping the run last week when Dallas running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 167 yards in the Cowboys' 26-10 win over the Titans at LP Field.
The Cincinnati Bengals, paced by the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, improved to 2-0 last week in part because of the ground game. The running back duo sparked the win over the Falcons when it picked up all but six of the Bengals' 170 rushing yards and contributed in the receiving game.
All that suggests the Bengals have a slight advantage entering Sunday's Week 3 showdown in Cincinnati. Will Bernard and Hill continue feeding off each other and have another strong rushing performance against a poor rushing defense? Or will the Titans buckle up this week and make the necessary changes to prevent the Bengals from pulling a Murray on them?
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to discuss that and more:
Kuharsky: We'll start with you, Coley. Andy Dalton has gotten spectacular protection. The Titans have eight sacks and have rushed well, with a lot of blitzes from the secondary last week. What has keyed the Bengals in this department, and are they perhaps susceptible to anything they haven’t seen yet?
Harvey: It starts with solid offensive line play. The players on the Bengals' front have done a great job holding their blocks in the first two games. Then you have to credit the Bengals' play calling. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has called plays that get Dalton to throw quickly, delivering the ball to receivers in the type of short and intermediate routes that he mostly excelled with last year. You also have to credit the receivers for running precise routes and getting quicker separation than they did at times last year. That was their key focus during the preseason. Plus, you have to acknowledge the running backs. Bernard leads the team in targets this season, and on at least three occasions he has bailed Dalton out of possible sacks by remaining close to the line of scrimmage after blocks. On each of those broken plays, Dalton yelled out Bernard's name -- "Gio!" -- before dumping off a quick screen that gained big yards.
Along those lines, Dalton deserves an enormous amount of credit for being savvy to do that and for throwing the ball away when he hasn't had adequate passing lanes this year. He is susceptible to getting sacked this week, but playing all 3-4 defenses in the preseason helped prepare the Bengals for this week's challenge.
Paul, Jake Locker and Dalton hail from the famed 2011 quarterback draft class. Locker was picked eighth overall by Tennessee, Dalton 35th by Cincinnati. And the rest has been history. It certainly appears the Dalton experiment has fared better. So what is it about Locker that continues to convince Titans brass that he’s the man for the job?
Kuharsky: Well, GM Ruston Webster wasn’t the primary decision-maker then, but he was on board with the Locker selection and obviously remains so. As he sold Ken Whisenhunt on the job, Webster also sold him on Locker having a chance to be an answer at quarterback under the tutelage of the new coach. Locker works his butt off, says all the right things and has the respect of his coaches and peers. He is capable of a game like he played in Kansas City, where he was poised even under pressure, threw a couple TD passes, distributed the ball well and led a strong effort. He’s capable, too, of a dud of a first half like he posted against the Cowboys, when he couldn’t do a thing right.
The Titans have invested a ton in the offensive line over the past two seasons, and Locker has perhaps the best stable of targets the franchise has assembled since it relocated.
They back him, but he’s not under contract beyond this year. Locker has to stay healthy and win over Whisenhunt with a good body of work or the Titans can turn toward sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger and someone else next year.
Count me among those who figured the Bengals would drop off at least a bit defensively with Mike Zimmer moving on to Minnesota. How have they dealt with his loss? And mandatory Pacman Jones question: What’s his role, how is he playing, and is he staying out of trouble?
Harvey: Let's get to the Jones question first. When he arrived in 2010 after his time in Tennessee and Dallas, part of the way he tried to reinvent himself was to drop his nickname in favor of his given name, Adam. Teammates still refer to him as Pacman at times, but people around the team have respected his desire to mostly go by Adam. In turn, he has respected them by mostly staying on the right side of the law. He had one verbal run-in last fall with a police officer that resulted in a citation. Also last fall, a judge found Jones not guilty of assaulting a woman at a Cincinnati nightclub in June 2013. The judge didn't think either party acted appropriately but noted that surveillance video showed where Jones had first been assaulted by the stranger with a beer bottle. Since then, Jones has gotten married and doubled his efforts to put his past behind him and not receive the type of notoriety that defined his days in Nashville.
As far as his role, that relates to the reason there hasn't been much drop-off following Zimmer's departure. The Bengals may have lost the beloved coordinator, but they lost only one regular starter from last year's defense in the offseason -- defensive end Michael Johnson. They remain chock-full of veteran talent with players, such as the 30-year-old Jones, who are playing the best in their careers. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Leon Hall are playing at high levels in a defense that has the same scheme and foundation as before. It also helps that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was already on the staff and was in charge of calling many of the blitzes that made Zimmer's scheme hum.
Although last week’s loss to Dallas was certainly deflating to a Titans defense that stopped the run well in Week 1, what was it that made Tennessee’s pass defense so effective last week against Tony Romo? How will Tennessee try to make Dalton's life as tough as Romo’s was last week?
Kuharsky: Don’t let the numbers fool you. They were "good" in pass defense against Dallas only because they were so busy getting run on that the Cowboys didn’t need to throw the ball. Dez Bryant had his way with them on the crucial drive that re-established who the better team was after the Titans closed to 16-10 in the third quarter. With top cornerback Jason McCourty out in the second half with a groin injury, Romo made the throws he needed to against Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh and the rest of the secondary.
The Titans have rushed well, so Alex Smith and Romo didn’t have a lot of time to pick them apart. But Smith lacked weapons, and Romo lacked necessity. The Titans have limited big plays, which is a huge theme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. If they can keep that up, the Bengals might have to earn their yards in smaller chunks.
What are the biggest differences between Jay Gruden’s offense and the one Jackson is using in his first year as coordinator with Gruden at the helm in Washington? If the Bengals are without A.J. Green, how dangerous can they still be?
Harvey: All you need to know is this: Dalton averaged 39.9 dropbacks in 2013. Through two games, he has averaged just 31.5 dropbacks. In short, the Bengals are passing less and running more. That was Jackson's charge this offseason when he said he wanted to instill a more physical, aggressive brand of offense from what the team had before. When the Bengals rushed 45 times last week with all but 10 of their carries coming inside the tackles, you could see exactly what Jackson was referring to. He wants to bruise defenses up front to open up the pass downfield.
Being without Green, as it appears they will be, will be a big loss. But considering the fact that Green was lost just six plays into Sunday's game and the Bengals still held up offensively, they should be fine passing to Mohamed Sanu, tight end Jermaine Gresham and the running backs. If it plays like it did last week, the Bengals offense can still be dangerous sans Green.
How fast is Delanie Walker, Paul? Outside of the AFC South we just see a physical, stodgy bowling ball of a tight end. But can he really be as dangerous in space as he seems to think?
Kuharsky: He was a terror last week. On his 61-yard touchdown catch, he bounced off a corner and galloped a long way, outrunning four Cowboys. Walker is a tough, smart player who was a good find. And Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end, is finding ways to use him just as Mike Munchak and his staff did in 2013. Walker can be a big matchup problem, depending on how a defense chooses to defend receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey. Tennessee has another tight end who can do some damage as a receiver. Taylor Thompson was a defensive end in college, but he finally has caught on to what it takes to be effective on offense in the NFL at the position he started at.
The NFL draft has come (finally) and gone and now it’s time to take stock of how it affected the teams around the AFC South.
The division was clearly the worst in the NFL in 2013, with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans combining for just 13 victories. The Texans had the No. 1 overall pick and the Jaguars were two spots behind. That means those teams needed a lot of help.
The Texans nabbed perhaps the best pass-rusher of the past 15 years in Jadeveon Clowney to pair with J.J. Watt but didn’t address an obvious need at quarterback until the fourth round.
The Jaguars surprised everyone by taking quarterback Blake Bortles with their first pick, then adding a pair of receivers in the second round, including first-round talent Marqise Lee.
The Titans went substance over style with their draft but did nab one of the top three offensive tackles in Taylor Lewan and may have found a replacement for Chris Johnson in Bishop Sankey.
The Colts had the fewest draft picks in the league (five) but didn’t address perhaps the team’s biggest need.
Division reporters Michael DiRocco (Jaguars), Tania Ganguli (Texans), Paul Kuharsky (Titans) and Mike Wells (Colts) help you figure out what it all means.
Have the Titans added enough to their hybrid 3-4 defense to make a leap?
Michael DiRocco: One of the key things about coordinator Ray Horton's defense is that it demands versatility, especially among the linebackers. They have to be able to play multiple spots, and that requires speed and athleticism. The addition of Wesley Woodyard from Denver certainly helps, because he can play inside and outside. Drafting Avery Williamson, however, doesn't seem to fit. He's an inside player who doesn't run well. I do like tackle DaQuan Jones, though. He can play multiple spots on the line. The one thing the defense is missing is a big-time pass-rusher and that's the key to making the defense work.
Paul Kuharsky: I don't know. The four primary outside linebackers can turn out to be a good group. I think Kamerion Wimbley will be a lot closer to the player the Titans paid big money to in 2012 now that he's back to the position in a favorable scheme. And Shaun Phillips was a smart signing considering production and price. The system is also a better fit for Akeem Ayers. I'm not as certain about Derrick Morgan, who's listed as a defensive end/linebacker but worked in position drills with the linebackers at the pre-draft voluntary minicamp. Ropati Pitoitua is much more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, and he's certain to play end in the three-man front. The Titans have a lot of candidates to play with him and opposite him, but none scream that they will consistently get into the backfield. Jurrell Casey was excellent last season with 10.5 sacks. I feel certain coordinator Ray Horton won't do anything to mess up the good thing the Titans have going with Casey. The pass rush will be better. But better enough? I would have liked to have seen a young edge guy added in the draft.
Mike Wells: It may eventually work in Tennessee, but don't be surprised if it takes a little time for the defensive players to adapt to the 3-4 defense. Ask Colts linebacker Robert Mathis if you need further proof. Mathis shifted from defensive end in the 4-3 defense to outside linebacker when coach Chuck Pagano brought his 3-4 defense to Indianapolis in 2012. Mathis went from 8.0 sacks in his first year under Pagano to 19.5 sacks last season. The Titans have some players who are familiar with the 3-4 scheme. Shaun Phillips (9.5 sacks in 2012 with San Diego), Wesley Woodyard and Kamerion Wimbley have all played in the 3-4 at some point in their careers. But will the rest of their defensive teammates pick it up right away? I'm not convinced it'll happen.
Will the Colts regret not trading up to grab a top safety to replace Antoine Bethea?
DiRocco: The Colts had only five picks, so that didn't give them a lot of ammunition to trade up. It would have been too costly to jump into the first round because it would have meant dealing future picks. The real problem is they failed to address the position in free agency, when there were several options available. That magnifies their failure to find a safety in the draft. Why is it a problem? Two reasons: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. To take the next step in the playoffs, the Colts are going to have to go through Denver and/or New England, which means dealing with Manning and Brady. The Pats pounded the Colts on the ground in a playoff victory last season, but the key to beating those teams is stopping the pass.
Kuharsky: There are going to be positions on virtually any team where the top guy on the depth chart doesn't look like a sure thing and the competition isn't topflight. The Colts believe Delano Howell can be an effective successor to Bethea and that they have sufficient guys to supplement him. Through an excellent career with the Colts, Bethea was a guy who consistently got to the right place at the right time and was a very sure tackler. It will be tough for Howell to match that. The bigger concern in my eyes is if LaRon Landry gets hurt and the Colts need another safety to step up. But given their lack of picks this year, trading up for a guy would have been awfully difficult and they certainly shouldn't dip into their 2015 picks.
Wells: It was going to be tough for the Colts to trade into the first round because they only had five picks total in this year's draft and very little interest in giving up a first-round pick in next year's draft. They are steadfast in saying running back Trent Richardson is their first-round pick. Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward was the best cover safety in this year's draft. He was the 30th overall pick by San Francisco. I didn't think not addressing safety would be an issue at first with Mathis leading the way on what should be an improved front seven. There wouldn't have been as much pressure on the Colts' secondary. But as everybody knows, Mathis has been suspended for the first four games next season, leaving the Colts without the 2013 league leader in sacks. I think the Colts may regret not trading into the first during Mathis' suspension, but they'll be fine with Delano Howell, the likely starter, when it's all said and done.
@MikeWellsNFL Lots of S were drafted early, so that leads me to think lots of good veteran S will be waived. No regrets, claim 1 on waivers.- Ben Meyer (@TheBigBenDiesel) May 15, 2014
Were the Texans right to wait until the fourth round to draft a quarterback?
DiRocco: Nope. They blew it, especially when they could have made a move back into the last part of the first round to get Teddy Bridgewater -- which is what Minnesota did. The Texans also could have taken Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo but instead went with a guard at the top of the second round. Coach Bill O'Brien did turn Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg into very good Big Ten QBs, and I'd rather have either of those guys than Tom Savage, who somehow became the hottest QB prospect in the weeks before the draft. The Texans are still talented enough to be a playoff team with the right quarterback in place. O'Brien apparently believes he can find one among Savage, Ryan Fitzpatrick, T.J. Yates and Case Keenum. Andre Johnson clearly doesn't agree.
Kuharsky: The Texans have a major question mark at the most important position on the team. But it's not like they could have waved a magic wand to get a guy, or that one of the more highly regarded quarterbacks in the draft would have been a sure thing. I imagine they would have opened the second round with Teddy Bridgewater if Minnesota hadn't traded into the last pick of the first round to take him. After that, it's wise the Texans didn't force a pick. But Tom Savage hasn't played a great deal of football in the past few years and I think a lot of people won't be surprised if the Titans do better with sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger than the Texans do with fourth-rounder Savage -- not that the odds of a pick in either range panning out into a reliable long-term starter are any good.
Wells: Yes. No Andrew Luck and no Robert Griffin III in this year's draft. There was no need for the Texans to use the No. 1 pick on a player they hoped could be as good as Luck one day. Teaming Jadeveon Clowney opposite J.J. Watt on what is already a solid defense gives the Texans better hope than with one of the quarterbacks selected in the first round. Give the Texans a serviceable quarterback with that defense and who knows what can happen. The highlight of taking Johnny Manziel -- in the first year at least -- would have made the Texans a national draw. But in the end, all that counts is wins and losses. Clowney will help the Texans win more games next season than what Manziel or any other quarterback taken prior to the fourth round would have.
@taniaganguli I would say yes. It's obvious Bortles could've been taken but we filled more needs by waiting. Still got our 'Prototypical' QB- Ryan Brackenridge (@GHS_Forever) May 16, 2014
Will Blake Bortles be the Jaguars' starting quarterback at any point this season?
DiRocco: I say yes, but I'm not as sure about when. This may sound like a cop-out, but it really depends on how he progresses. If he picks up the offense, fixes the lower-body issues that are preventing him from throwing the ball as hard and accurately as he can, and makes the transition from the spread offense, then he'll get on the field. I can see that happening by December, and if that's the case, then he'll get a start or two. At the very worst, he'll get a drive or a quarter within some games to get his feet wet.
Kuharsky: I really believe general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley will look back on what the previous regime did at quarterback and be super cautious. The Jaguars had no intention of starting Blaine Gabbert as a rookie. Then they cut David Garrard just before the season, watched Luke McCown struggle and had no choice. I don't know how much better Gabbert would have been if he was eased into NFL life, but it certainly would have been better for him. If Bortles needs time, they will resist temptation to start him even if Chad Henne struggles. In a way, this is an offensive line question, because if Henne gets hurt, they may not have a choice. They'll have three new starters in the interior to go with a healthy Luke Joeckel at left tackle. That group should fare better and increase the chances Henne is good to go for the whole season.
Wells: He has to be. It likely won't be in Week 1, but I expect it to happen at some point because the Jaguars aren't going to win the AFC South with Luck at quarterback for the Colts. More than 2,000 fans did not show up at the Jaguars' minicamp to watch cornerback Aaron Colvin. That was all about Bortles. The Jaguars need something to bring the fans out. The only highlight of the area is the nearby Atlantic Ocean. No offense to Chad Henne, but Bortles gives the Jaguars the best opportunity to bring some kind of excitement to the city. Look at it this way: He can't do any worse than Blaine Gabbert.
Britt spent his first five seasons with the Titans; the first two under now Rams coach Jeff Fisher's guidance.
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky has been there for all of it so who better to ask about Britt's potential impact on the Rams?
Kuharsky and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner discuss the Rams' latest move.
Kuharsky: I think Britt needs a disciplinarian and Fisher is more likely to qualify as an enabler. I obviously don't know the style of coordinator and position coach in St. Louis. The late Mike Heimerdinger, Fisher's coordinator in Tennessee, was the big Britt backer and the guy who knew how to get to him and use him, I believe. I don't know whether Fisher can pick up on those things and reconnect with him.
Wagoner: Will be interesting to see whether the Rams can find the recipe to try to rekindle that early success. I'm sure offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will comb through that old film and try to find ways to use him. On the bright side, Britt seems to have the ability to get off press coverage and win contested balls. That should be helpful.
Speaking of that, it seems Britt has always tantalized with potential but never been able to put it all together. How much has injury held him back and how much of it is his own doing? Do you think he can make the changes necessary to succeed?
Kuharsky: Britt always has a smile on his face. It's preferable to pouting, sure. But he's pretty happy-go-lucky whether he is lighting it up or completely tanking, as he did last year. I think that one-year contract is a reasonable risk. A team counting on production from him, instead of thinking any numbers he puts up are a bonus, is living dangerously. Certainly he's not been the same since the major knee injury. From my vantage point, at the end it was way more about his head than his knee.
Wagoner: The Rams have long been desperate for a No. 1 receiver. It seems expecting that from Britt is too much but what do you think would be reasonable expectations for him in St. Louis?
Kuharsky: Look at what Donnie Avery and Darrius Heyward-Bey did the past two seasons in Indianapolis after joining the Colts on one-year deals. I would hope Britt can get it together and be a bit better than those guys were. But if you made me bet? It's more likely he's close to those results.
Here, ESPN NFL Nation reporters Adam Teicher (Chiefs) and Paul Kuharsky (Titans) discuss the signing and what it means for the teams.
Kuharsky: The team hasn't announced the signing or spoken about him yet. I expect they view him as a running back and receiver and that he will be used much the way Ken Whisenhunt used Danny Woodhead in San Diego last year, primarily as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Put McCluster there, Kendall Wright in the slot and Justin Hunter and Nate Washington outside and that could be a pretty versatile four-pack of receiving options. They are into versatility and he can bring that, though I know they are projecting what they think he can do for them more than banking on a history of production. I would think McCluster will also field punts, which was a major problem area for most of last season.
He carried the ball a decent amount for the Chiefs in 2011. Was it a matter of Jamaal Charles just emerging and them not wanting to take carries away or did they lose faith in McCluster?
Teicher: It was a couple of things. First, the Chiefs weren't really sure what they wanted to do with McCluster back then. He was a slot receiver as a rookie in 2010 but they weren't happy with what they got from him there, so he moved to running back. Remember that was the season Charles tore his ACL early in the season, leaving the Chiefs to choose as their featured back between McCluster, a washed-up Thomas Jones or Jackie Battle, who wound up leading the Chiefs in rushing before eventually finding his way to the Titans. They all received work, McCluster included. The next season the Chiefs, again unsure about what to do with McCluster, moved him back to slot receiver. He's been there ever since.
Understanding the uncertainty surrounding Chris Johnson, do you think the Titans need to add more to their mix of offensive skill players or is McCluster the final piece?
Kuharsky: And now McCluster and Battle are on the same team again. I don't think this is Tennessee's last skill position move by any means. Anthony Dixon, the 49ers running back, is visiting today. I think he'd compete with Battle for a fourth back/special teams role. I expect them to draft a back who would be a big part of a committee that also features Shonn Greene. I anticipate a pretty good competition for roles amount backs. And if Damian Williams leaves as a free agent, they need another receiver.
Is McCluster a guy the Chiefs will feel they need to replace or does it just thin their receiver group a bit?
Teicher: They were thin at receiver last year even with McCluster so they have some work to do there. Specifically regarding McCluster's role as slot receiver, the Chiefs signed Weston Dressler from the CFL and will give him a look there. He put up big numbers playing for Saskatchewan. They have Junior Hemingway, a bigger receiver who seems to be a favorite of Andy Reid's. Regardless, I expect the Chiefs to sign a veteran receiver or two and draft a receiver as well.
The most likely situation is the Titans selecting the best available defensive player. Tennessee's defense could really use a true star at any level, which is something they lack currently.
Whom does McShay have the Titans drafting at No. 11? Let's take a look :
It's a good shift. It indicates the dissipation of stereotypes which might have led some in the past to believe a gay man couldn't possibly be part of the uber-macho sport of football, and good enough to reach its highest level.
It also indicates personal acceptance, even if the idea of coming out to strangers and becoming a major news story might be daunting for such a personal moment.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that gay men have played in the NFL. One such piece comes today from a Houston Chronicle story in which members of the 1993 Houston Oilers said they had two gay teammates.
"Listen, those guys that we’re talking about were unbelievable teammates. And if you wanted to go to war with someone, you would get those guys first. Because I have never seen tougher guys than those guys,” said Pro Bowl linebacker Lamar Lathon, who starred at the University of Houston. “And everybody in the locker room, the consensus knew or had an idea that things were not exactly right. But guess what? When they strapped the pads on and got on the field, man, we were going to war with these guys because they were unbelievable.”
The headline of this story focuses on two aspects 1) that two members of that famous team were gay and 2) that the team as a whole didn't care.
Today's post is just part of a bigger project the Chronicle is working on for this weekend. In it, two players are quoted as saying they had no issue with their gay teammates. I'd be curious to know how true that second supposition is. Lathon used the phrase "not exactly right" in regard to his gay teammates, even while complimenting their toughness.
A football locker room is big. The opinions of two might not be the opinions of everybody, or even a majority. Even today, when homosexuality is more widely accepted than at any other time in American history, occasionally a player will reveal his antipathy for playing with a hypothetically gay teammate.
I'd like to know more about the dynamics of that locker room 20 years ago. Knowing that, even from so long ago, could offer a window into how a more public situation could unfold today.
Granted, Manning hasn't faced a Titans team with Mike Munchak as its head coach, but he has faced Tennessee 19 times previously in his career (including a playoff game in the 1999 season), all with the Indianapolis Colts. So, while this is the Titans' first look at Manning in a Broncos uniform, the quarterback is a familiar face as Denver tries to keep its grip on home-field advantage in the postseason.
Here, ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.
Legwold: Paul, you've been around the team since it arrived in Tennessee and, before we get to the on-field matchup, how would you say the team has dealt with franchise founder Bud Adams' death earlier this season? Who is making the decisions now and who will make them in the coming offseason, both on and off the field?
Kuharsky: It was a big loss, of course, for Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster and team employees who worked for Adams for a long time. Most of the players hardly knew him, as he was not around much in his final couple of years, when his health began to fail. So there is a lot of uncertainty now. Three branches of Adams' family share control of the franchise, and Bud's son-in-law, Tommy Smith, is the team president and CEO. He's apparently been paying close attention to things in anticipation of taking over. But we know very little about how he will operate going forward. That means there is some tension, because not every team employee knows if he's secure. That starts with the struggling head coach, Munchak.
Leadership in Denver appeared to remain strong as Jack Del Rio stepped in for John Fox. How much of a boost will Fox's return give the team?
Legwold: Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, earned praise from everyone in the organization, including Fox and the players, for how things were handled in the head coach's absence following open-heart surgery. His return has given the team an emotional boost, because after a month away, Fox came back feeling better than he had in some time and enthusiastic to see where this season can go. It should help the Broncos avoid a late-season stumble as they try to get home-field advantage for the playoffs again. Tactically speaking, not much will change. Coordinator Adam Gase is still calling the plays on offense -- Del Rio has said that, other than being a sounding board from time to time, he left the offense solely in Gase's hands during Fox's absence. Del Rio will continue to call the defense on game day as he has all season. Overall, though, it's likely Fox's return will keep the Broncos from hitting an emotional lull over the final month of the regular season.
On the field, the Titans have seen Manning plenty over the years. How do you think Tennessee will approach things on defense and does it see some differences in the Broncos' offense compared to what it saw from the Manning-led Colts?
Kuharsky: Well, it's a relief the Titans don't see Edgerrin James, I am sure. And while Denver's pass-catchers are a remarkable bunch, I'm not sure there is a Marvin Harrison in it yet. They know blitzing Manning can be fruitless no matter what matchups they like against offensive linemen. They'll try to be unpredictable and force him to throw to a certain spot a few times. But plenty of teams have that idea and fail with it. Under Gregg Williams' influence, the Titans have used an ever-shifting front, and we know that's a popular way to play against Manning in an attempt to minimize his ability to make pre-snap reads. The front is pretty good, especially Jurrell Casey, though there is no dominant edge rusher. The secondary has been quite good. It's the linebackers, particularly in pass coverage, who seem vulnerable to me, and I don't know what the Titans will do there to prevent abuse. Bernard Pollard's been a leader whose play has matched his talk, but the Titans have kept him out of tough coverage situations and I wonder whether Manning will find ways to try to go at him.
The Titans are rooting for freezing temperatures even though they've been awful themselves in their past two frigid games. I know some all-time great quarterbacks have excelled in the cold even if they haven't loved it. How much of an issue is it for Manning at this stage of his career?
Legwold: That is the elephant in the room with the Broncos given their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January. Manning threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in that game, even though the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees. But folks seem to remember a wobbly incompletion here and there to go with an interception to close out the Broncos' final possession. Until Manning simply cranks it up on a cold day and the Broncos get a key victory, people are going to ask him about it. He had spots in the overtime loss to New England two weeks ago -- in frigid, windy conditions -- in which he threw as well as he ever has, particularly on a sideline pass to Demaryius Thomas and a touchdown throw to tight end Jacob Tamme. It's not so much his arm that has been an issue post-surgery, it's his grip when he throws. Overall, though, the Broncos push the pace more on offense at home. Manning has terrorized defenses that have played a lot of man coverages against the Broncos' offense, including his five-touchdown game last weekend in Kansas City. The Broncos like that matchup in any weather.
Denver has some injuries on defense that have affected how it plays, especially with the run defense. Where does Chris Johnson fit in the Titans' offense these days?
Kuharsky: He's really had one big game all season. Even when he seems to get going, the Titans can't find a rhythm or a way to stick with him. This was supposed to be a run-reliant, run-dominant team. It isn't. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now the quarterback, the Titans like to put him in an empty set and let him do his thing. It's been good at times, but it doesn't do much to enhance the chances of the running game. Johnson doesn't get yards after contact. So if he doesn't find a big hole, he's not going to do a lot of damage. Watch out on a screen or little flip pass -- that's where Johnson has been more threatening.
Denver's defense has dealt with quite a few injuries and Von Miller's suspension. How's his health and how is that group playing together?
Legwold: The Broncos have yet to play the 11 starters on defense in any game this season they expected to have coming out of training camp. They never will now that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson has been moved to injured reserve. Vickerson was a big part of the plan on early downs -- and the Chiefs tested the middle of the defense plenty this past Sunday, so the Broncos are working through some adjustments there. Champ Bailey (left foot) has played in just three games this season -- just one from start to finish -- and safety Rahim Moore is on injured reserve/designated to return. (The Broncos hope Moore will be back for the postseason.) Toss in Derek Wolfe and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie not being in the lineup against the Chiefs and the Broncos are not nearly as consistent as they were last season, when they were a top-five defense. Miller has had moments of top-shelf play since his return, but hasn't been a consistent force like he was last season.
Quarterback Jake Locker is out for the Titans. Both starting tackles -- Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini -- are out for Seattle. Tight end Zach Miller could also sit.
The Seahawks have a 10-game home winning streak on the line, hoping to rebound after their first defeat of the season, 34-28 to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Titans hope to get a stagnant running game going and find some consistency with backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Paul, it looked like Fitzpatrick had a rough first outing for the Titans subbing for an injured Locker. Do you think Fitzpatrick will improve, and how difficult will it be for Tennessee to have success on offense while Locker is out?
Kuharsky: Fitzpatrick is certainly capable of playing better than he did in the loss to Kansas City, when he had three very bad quarters and one good one. I'm not sure what the Titans can do to help him if they are unable to run the ball. If they can bring some balance with Chris Johnson (and maybe Shonn Greene, who's still trying to get back after knee surgery), it could be a lot less difficult. Fitzpatrick hardly has Locker's excellent speed, but he scrambled around pretty well against the Chiefs. With Locker in the first four games, the Titans didn't turn the ball over and overcame their deficiencies running the ball. Without him, they need Fitzpatrick to imitate the mistake-free youngster. But Fitzpatrick is more of a gunslinger than Locker and is streakier, and that's probably too much to ask.
Terry, the Titans pledged to be a great running team. It hasn't really panned out that way. Last time Johnson was in Seattle, he had a 2,000-yard season. What's the run defense going to be like?
Blount: It's been all but impossible to run up the middle on the Seahawks. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is as strong a run stopper as there is the NFL, and it takes two blockers to handle 325-pound Red Bryant. If that fails, it's tough to get past middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. But Wagner probably won't play Sunday because of a high ankle sprain. Nevertheless, it's difficult to establish a running game on the Seahawks. Seattle is an aggressive outside pass-rushing team, so occasionally a back can get yardage outside, but not often.
Paul, Locker told us on the conference call Wednesday what a disappointment it is that he won't get to play this weekend in front of family, friends and University of Washington alumni who love him for all he did to help turn around the Huskies football program. He is a beloved guy here and a huge hero in this community. How is he viewed in Nashville?
Kuharsky: Nothing close to that yet. People who have given him a chance know he's an eminently likable guy, a hard worker and a well-respected leader, but plenty of fans called talk radio over the offseason talking about why Fitzpatrick would be a better choice or how it should at least be a camp competition. Even after Week 2's overtime loss in Houston, when he overthrew a wide-open Kenny Britt on a crucial third-and-1 late in the game, there were calls for change. (It's a throw he's got to make.) The game-winning drive against San Diego showed people what he can do. Locker also had a fantastic two-plus quarters against the Jets, which seems to have done a lot to win more people over. In playing style and development arc, I think he is a lot like Steve McNair so far. If that holds true, impatient fans will wind up happy.
Terry, home field is viewed as such a giant advantage for the Seahawks. Can you give us a tangible feel for just how loud and crazy the atmosphere is there?
Blount: In the San Francisco game, where the outdoor stadium decibel record was set at 131.9, it was so loud that it was difficult at times to even hear people talk in the enclosed press box. I know every team believes its stadium is one of the loudest, and I've been to most of them, but trust me, there is nothing like CenturyLink Field. It's deafening.
Paul, cornerback Alterraun Verner is off to an outstanding start this season with four interceptions and 11 passes defensed. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman is viewed by some as the best corner in the NFL, but is Verner the most underrated?
Kuharsky: He could have had another two picks last week on balls he didn't manage to haul in. Verner has been really good. The team wasn't sure what it had in him. The Titans knew they got a good football player out of UCLA three years ago. But as they revamped this offseason, with Gregg Williams joining the coaching staff and the Titans determined to get more aggressive, they figured a big increase in press-man coverage would move them away from Verner's strengths. They wanted Tommie Campbell, a faster and bigger guy to win the job. (Some wrote about how Campbell has some of what makes Sherman so good.) But Campbell didn't catch on and bombed in training camp, and Verner proved to be better. If Coty Sensabaugh hasn't recovered from his concussion for Sunday, Verner will start in base and move into the slot in nickel, with Campbell replacing him outside.
The Titans rush pretty well, and Verner is getting his hands on balls all over the field. Who has had the best success slowing Russell Wilson and how?
Blount: Even though Seattle came back and won the game, the Texans had the most success because of their talented defensive front and all-everything defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Both Houston and Indianapolis took advantage of Seattle missing starters on the offensive line and teed off on Wilson on third down. Nevertheless, Wilson is the best I've ever seen making the most of a bad situation and finding the opening the defense gives him. Anticipating when Wilson will roll out and cutting off his running lanes is the key, but it is far easier said than done.
Mike Munchak said at his Monday press conference that his team is going to resist doing anything on offense in order to prove something. I will certainly point out the Titans' limitations at times. I do like a team with a string identity that can, at least at times, do what it does best and challenge a defense to stop it.
They see themselves as a running team, for sure. But what I may see as limitations at times, they see more as selections in a given game, and at 2-1 it’s hard to find too much fault in what they’ve done.
“Coach (Dowell) Loggains has been saying that about the offense, ‘Hey, we’re going to be what we have to be on a Sunday to win, depending who we’re playing against, what the matchups are and what’s happening in the game,’” Munchak said. “We’re not going to just force plays because, 'Hey, we need to show that Jake (Locker) can do this or the receivers can do this’ or ‘Hey, we have to show we have a certain running game or we’re tough guys.’ It’s really finding a way every week.
“The stuff is in. It’s not like, ‘OK, we put a lot of passes in this week.’ The same amount of passes were in. Guys were getting open, guys were making plays, we were protecting well.”
The Titans are going to be a predominantly run-based offense, but if Locker is the guy we saw against San Diego they could have the ability to adjust to what a game dictates and that’s a nice approach to be able to take. It beats stubborn. It beats one-dimensional.
The second thing that begs some reflection is Loggains discussion of the difference between this team and last year’s -- there is better leadership, and better leadership is doing a lot to help the team overcome bad stuff.
“The biggest step this team has taken, once we eliminate these penalties is, dealing with adversity,” Loggains said. “Because we have better leadership, we’re stronger. Nate Washington is a leader. Jake, every time he has success, it’s just more and more, he’s going to come into his own as a leader. He is a leader anyway, but you have to eventually have success to become a leader.
“Mike Roos, Andy Levitre, Rob Turner, all those guys are leaders, they don’t flinch when we hit adversity. ... That’s the biggest difference between last year and this year. Now if we clean up the penalties, if we continue to get better every week executing and those three guy jell inside, I think we have a chance to be a good football team.”
Overcoming adversity has been a big theme since Munchak took over the Titans in 2011, and every team is going to hit spots it has to endure.
I did like heading into the opener when Munchak said he hoped the Titans started well and got to see how the Steelers dealt with rough development instead of the Titans. It didn’t go that way. The Titans handed the Steelers a safety on the opening kick.
They survived that and won. They played pretty well in Houston but lost. They certainly got good leadership and stuck with things during down moments against the Chargers and pulled out that win with 15 seconds left.
They have a lot of cause to feel good about themselves at this point.
Like the Titans, the Jets are better than a lot of people thought. Tennessee certainly can’t afford to feel like it’s accomplished anything yet.
ESPN Dallas reports that the Oakland Raiders have interest in the cornerback from Dallas. Jenkins, a first-round draft pick in 2008, fell out of favor in Dallas and he played little last season. Still, Jenkins, 28, may benefit from a change of scenery.
There’s little doubt he’d be Oakland’s best cornerback if signed. The cornerback market has dried up and Jenkins has garnered little interest. Perhaps teams are scared off by his lost playing time in Dallas.
The Raiders have two openings at the position, but they have not addressed the position since free agency began. Oakland has signed six players from other teams -- three linebackers and three defensive linemen. The Raiders have hosted Cincinnati’s Terence Newman. He is reportedly deciding between the Bengals and the Raiders. Oakland also could draft Alabama’s Dee Milliner with the No. 3 overall pick.
In other AFC West news:
Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Ropati Pitoitua has reportedly visited the Jets and the Titans.
Guard has suddenly become an area of concern for the Bills. Buffalo lost two guards in two days. Rinehart was potentially a cheaper insurance policy for the Bills if Levitre left. But San Diego scooped up Buffalo's backup guard on Wednesday.
The Bills need quality offensive linemen to protect their new quarterback, whoever that may be, and create running lanes for dynamic tailback C.J. Spiller. The Bills have several swing players who are part-time guards, but no long-term solution to pair with starter Kraig Urbik.
Buffalo has enough cap room to seek out a replacement guard in free agency. The NFL draft also is a possibility -- even as early as the first round. University of Alabama guard Chance Warmack is viewed as one of the top guard prospects of the past 10 years. Warmack could be on Buffalo’s radar at No. 8 overall following the events of the past two days.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez has the worst QBR (15.0) in the NFL against five or more pass-rushers. Opponents are taking notice, because Sanchez also is the league's most-blitzed quarterback at 37.7 percent.
Expect New York's opponent, the Tennessee Titans, to continue that trend when they play on "Monday Night Football." Tennessee's defense is at its best when blitzing. The Titans (4-9) have a 33.5 opponent QBR when bringing five or more rushers.
Sanchez gets most of the blame for his struggles against the blitz. But his supporting cast and coaching staff also deserve some. New York (6-7) doesn't have any dynamic skill players to strike fear in an opposing defense -- making it easy to for defensive coordinators to dial up blitzes. The Jets' ground-and-pound offense also can be predictable. New York ran the football 42 times, compared to just 19 passes from Sanchez, in last week's 17-10 victory over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11).
The Titans are another team struggling against the run, so expect New York to stick to its formula. Tennessee allows 127 rushing yards per game, which is ranked 23rd in the league.
Tennessee's best chance to beat the Jets is to stack the box and see if the Jets can win through the air. How Sanchez responds against the blitz will go a long way toward determining the outcome of Monday's game.
NASHVILLE -- Chicago Bears fans took over the streets of downtown Nashville on Saturday night.
Then the team took control of LP Field the next day, destroying the Tennessee Titans 51-20 in a road outing that seemed more like a game at Soldier Field. Throughout the beat down in a stadium filled more with fans from the visiting team than the home squad. chants of “Let’s go Bears” reverberated all day.
The Bears scored touchdowns in every phase in the first half -- on special teams with Corey Wootton’s blocked punt return; on offense with Matt Forte’s 8-yard run; and on defense, thanks to Brian Urlacher running back an interception 46-yards for a TD.
Jay Cutler and the Bears offense jumped into the mix too, with the quarterback slinging three touchdown passes to Brandon Marshall in unquestionably the team’s most dominating performance of the season.
What it means: The Bears maintained their NFC North lead with a dominating performance on the road.
More takeaways: The Bears entered Sunday’s game ranked No. 2 in the league with 23 takeaways, but racked up four more in the first half alone against the Titans. Charles Tillman accounted for three of the team’s four forced fumbles, with Urlacher forcing another in addition to returning a Matt Hasselbeck interception 46 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
Kelvin Hayden boosted the team’s takeaway total to 28 with his fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.
Another defensive TD: Urlacher’s first-quarter INT return for a TD gave the defense its seventh INT return score of the season, which ties for the third most in a season in NFL history. The 1961 Chargers (9) and 1998 Seahawks (8) are the only two teams to score more defensive TDs.
With Urlacher’s score, the Bears became the first team in NFL history to return seven INTs for TDs in the first eight games of a season. The Bears are also the first team with INT returns for TDs in five games during a six-game span since the ’61 Chargers.
Obviously, it’s no secret the Bears win when the score defensive touchdowns. Since 2004, the Bears have scored 32 defensive touchdowns, including 25 on INT returns and are 23-5 when they score a defensive touchdown. Since 2005 the Bears hold a 20-2 record when they score on defense.
AFC South champions: The Bears obviously own the AFC South, based on what they’ve done in three matchups against teams in that division this season. The Bears scored 41 points or more in all three of their wins against AFC South foes, starting with the Colts in the opener, followed by the Jaguars and the Titans.
In the three wins, the Bears outscored AFC South opponents 133-44.
What’s next: The Bears will receive the customary “victory Monday” when they return home to Halas Hall, before beginning preparation Wednesday to host the 7-1 Houston Texans in a prime-time clash next Sunday night at Soldier Field.