NFL Nation: Zach Mettenberger

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

November, 18, 2014
11/18/14
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A weekly look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers must fix:

Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger looked like anything but a rookie in throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns without taking a sack in a 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.

Imagine what a seasoned quarterback like the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees might do to the Steelers on Nov. 30 at Heinz Field following Pittsburgh’s bye week.

The Steelers did not consistently pressure Mettenberger, who was making his third start, even though they blitzed him often. He stepped up in the pocket with confidence and moved well in it even when the Steelers generated pressure from their outside linebackers.

The Steelers were credited with just five quarterback hurries against the Titans, and it’s not like they didn’t try to pressure Mettenberger. They sent five or more pass-rushers on 62.5 percent of Mettenberger’s dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, their highest rate since a Dec. 19, 2011, loss at San Francisco.

The Steelers have to find a way to generate the kind of pass rush that consistently harassed the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck and Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco in earlier wins.

The bye week provides extra time to heal for injured starters such as strong safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker Ryan Shazier and nose tackle Steve McLendon.

Getting Polamalu and Shazier back against the Saints would add speed and give Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau more flexibility as he tries to find a way to pressure Brees, who has been sacked just 13 times in 10 games.

The Steelers have to make Brees uncomfortable in the pocket by hitting him early and often.

If the perennial Pro Bowler gets as much time to throw as Mettenberger did Monday night, the Steelers may well have to win a shootout against a Saints team that is currently 4-6 but sure to play with a sense of urgency when it visits Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH -- Comparisons have been made between Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Tennessee Titans rookie signal-caller Zach Mettenberger because of their size and arm strength.

Titans wide receiver Nate Washington offered another parallel last week.

Mettenberger
Washington, who played for the Steelers early in Roethlisberger’s career, said Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt is just as hands on with Mettenberger as he was with Big Ben.

Whisenhunt was the Steelers’ offensive from 2004-06, Roethlisberger’s first three years in the NFL.

“He still holds Zach accountable just as he did Ben,” Washington said of the Titans’ first-year coach. “He teaches him relentlessly and harps on him about making sure he is technically sound with his drops, he makes sure he keeps the ball up and makes sure he is throwing the ball properly with his form. I constantly see him preaching to him about that as I did when Ben was growing up in this league.”

The Steelers should provide a measuring stick of how much Mettenberger has grown since taking over for the injured Jake Locker late last month.

The Steelers have been tough on rookie quarterbacks since Dick LeBeau returned as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2004, going 17-2 against them during that span.

And to put into perspective how inexperienced Mettenberger is, consider that his 495 career passing yards are 27 less than what Roethlisberger produced in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts last month.

The day Roethlisberger made a run at the NFL’s single-game passing record was the day Mettenberger made his first career start.

The fourth-round draft pick out of LSU has shown promise despite his inexperience and here is what the Steelers are saying about the 6-foot-5, 224-pound Mettenberger:

Free safety Mike Mitchell: “He has a really strong arm and seems to be very professional (as) a young guy by the way he controls the line of scrimmage type stuff. He doesn’t seem like he’s young and doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not going to be as mobile as (Michael) Vick obviously so that will help us out. I feel like it’s always a little bit easier when you have to defend a pocket passer.”

Coach Mike Tomlin: “He has a ridiculously strong arm. He is your classic pocket passer. He is a talented young man. I really got a chance to get to know him at LSU while he was in school because I annually go to their pro days.”

Defensive end Brett Keisel: “He’s got a strong arm and they’re kind of simplifying things for him. The potential’s there and Whisenhunt has had success with young quarterbacks. We have one in here that he did well with and they have a good feel for us and our schemes so it’s going to be a challenge.”

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau: “He’s got a real strong arm. He’s big so he’s got real nice vision of the field. I haven’t seen a ball that he can’t get there. Watching him in college he was definitely a winner there (at LSU). (He) had a lot of big, deep throws. He throws a wonderful deep ball.”
PITTSBURGH -- Comparisons have been floated this week between Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will duel Monday night in Nashville.

Mettenberger
They are premature -- if not patently absurd -- since Mettenberger has as many NFL starts (two) as Roethlisberger has Super Bowl victories.

But Nate Washington, who has played with both quarterbacks early in their respective careers, said he can see some parallels, starting with arm strength.

"(Mettenberger) can make those tight throws like Ben can," said Washington, who has been with the Titans since 2009 after playing parts of four seasons with the Steelers. "You see those types of plays develop in order to give them a chance. He is one of the guys when plays break down, he seems to find a way to make a play with his arm. Those are a lot of things that kind of remind me of Ben, seeing those types of things and that type of play from him."

Mettenberger will have to buck history in order to beat Big Ben in the nationally televised game on ESPN.

Rookie quarterbacks have won just two of 17 games against the Steelers since 2004, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the year Dick LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh for a second stint as the defensive coordinator.

Of course, if anyone can prepare Mettenberger for a LeBeau-coached defense, it is Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

He and LeBeau matched wits for three years in training camp and practices when Whisenhunt was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator.

They were also golfing buddies off the field -- both are excellent players -- and Whisenhunt said LeBeau’s influence helped him when he became a head coach in 2007.

Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in Roethlisberger’s first three NFL seasons, has tried to downplay comparisons between Roethlisberger and Mettenberger. But Whisenhunt admitted that, like Roethlisberger, Mettenberger did not take long to open his eyes.

"I know one of the things that impressed me very early with Ben, and I remember talking with Coach (Dick) LeBeau about it on the field, was some of the throws he made in practice," said Whisenhunt, who is in his first season with the Titans. "I would say that it is fair to say that some of the throws that Zach has made in practice were the kind of things that got your attention."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ken Whisenhunt and Charlie Whitehurst aren’t ready to declare the Tennessee Titans' No. 2 quarterback out for Saturday’s game at Atlanta.

But Whitehurst has not practiced since injuring the pinkie on his throwing hand on Friday night against the Saints in New Orleans.

He was vague about what’s wrong with it in a way his coach will surely appreciate.

“It’s just sore right now, it is pretty sore,” he said. “It’s not broken. There is some stuff going on, but hopefully it’ll be quick.”

As for his status for Atlanta, he said: “I can’t really say either way, but I think you guys can figure that out.”

Without Whitehurst the Titans will go straight from Jake Locker to rookie Zach Mettenberger.

It's a pinkie on a backup quarterback and he said it won't be a regular-season issue. In the meantime, more Mettenberger, which is a good thing.

Observation Deck: Tennessee Titans

August, 16, 2014
8/16/14
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The Tennessee Titans turned the ball over five times at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and didn't do close to enough to offset the giveaways against the New Orleans Saints.

Tennessee lost 31-24 Friday night in New Orleans, despite the hosts' handing away 184 yards on 22 accepted penalties, including eight of the Titans' 28 first downs.

Penalties were the biggest story of a lengthy game, and the Titans made their own large contribution in that department, with 10 for 111 yards. The Titans didn't have a takeaway on defense or special teams to make up for their turnover troubles.

Here are some other thoughts on the Titans' second preseason game:
  • Receiver Justin Hunter was the offensive star, with a great leaping catch on the left side of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown from Jake Locker. That one looked a lot like the sort of practice catch Hunter has been making regularly. Hunter also grabbed a pass in the middle of the field from rookie QB Zach Mettenberger and took advantage of a falling defender by taking off into space and coasting the rest of the way for a 64-yard score. He finished with four catches for 111 yards.
  • The penalties provided a couple of side benefits for the Titans. Kicker Travis Coons got to follow up a made 45-yard field goal with a make from 50 yards after the first three points were waved off by an illegal formation call against Tennessee's Karl Klug. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's insistence on dunking the ball over the cross bar after his two scoring catches meant two kickoffs Marc Mariani got to field and return in his bid to beat Leon Washington for the returner job. Mariani took those two a combined 55 yards, though 21 were chopped off the second because of a return team penalty.
  • A week ago, Mettenberger lost a ball he held too low against the Green Bay Packers, and it happened to him again in New Orleans, when Cameron Jordan swiped a ball away from him at the Superdome. Mettenberger entered the game ahead of schedule after No. 2 Charlie Whitehurst suffered an injury to his throwing hand, and the rookie finished 20-of-25 for 269 yards with two touchdowns, an interception, the lost fumble and two sacks. His TD throw to Hunter was in the second quarter. Chase Coffman caught a 1-yard scoring pass right at the end, when Mettenberger's laser bounced off Marini and Coffman plucked it out of the air.
  • Rookie running back Bishop Sankey was nifty on a couple carries, as he took five handoffs for 31 yards and had at least one very good snap in pass protection. But he lost a fumble a week after a botched handoff counted against the quarterback trying to give it to him. It's been something we've seen at practice too. He's got to get that resolved right away. In addition to Mettenberger and Sankey, running back Shonn Greene and receiver Derek Hagan lost fumbles.
  • Per a tweet from Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, Ken Whisenhunt didn't seem concerned after the game, even with injuries to Whitehurst, Greene (knee) or right tackle Michael Oher (arm).

Titans Camp Report: Day 19

August, 13, 2014
8/13/14
7:46
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:

  • Receiver Justin Hunter continued to make things difficult on cornerbacks on jump balls. He went up and got one over Coty Sensabaugh from Jake Locker. He jumped over rookie Marqueston Huff for another. He skied to the crossbar in the back of the end zone to pluck another with Sensabaugh nearby.
  • Charlie Whitehurst had to call “ball” on one throw up the right side for Michael Preston, who turned but wasn’t ready and watched it sail through his hands, though he had some room on Micah Pellerin.
  • Locker threw a duck that found the ground quickly when it looked like he was aiming for Nate Washington with Blidi Wreh-Wilson in coverage. Locker seemed to be trying to stop himself from throwing it, but the motion was well underway and it came out of his hand. Wound up harmless.
  • Other red-zone TD catches besides Hunter’s: Marc Mariani from Whitehurst and Chase Coffman stretching at the back line from Zach Mettenberger.
  • Linebacker Zaviar Gooden didn’t get his head around on a Whitehurst throw for Taylor Thompson, but Gooden got his arm up to hit the ball for a breakup.
  • While the Titans have been very reserved with their kickers, Brett Kern punted for the second day in a row.
  • Whitehurst was "sacked" when the he dashed left and ended up swallowing the ball. It looked like the play was supposed to be a handoff to Bishop Sankey but was unclear who made the mistake. Sankey made some nifty moves on a couple of carries.
  • Whitehurst threw an interception to Huff in a ball intended for Isaiah Williams.
  • DaQuan Jones is working as the second nose tackle, and Al Woods is also in the loop there behind starter Sammie Hill. Antonio Johnson has been out for a while in recovering from a knee scope. Jones and Woods can play inside or out, while Johnson doesn’t bring the same versatility. He’s likely in trouble.
  • Travis Coons hit field goals of 38 and 44 yards at the conclusion of two-minute drill work by the offense. Whisenhunt said Maikon Bonani's groin was bothering him a little bit. Coons hit both field goals on a better trajectory with room to spare. He told me he was hitting the ball a bit lower than usual as he worked with snapper Beau Brinkley and holder Kern to speed up the snap, hold, kick process. Now that they’ve made progress on that he’s getting his natural swing back and getting more height on his kicks.
  • Whisenhunt said he will allow players to go home after they return from their trip to New Orleans for Friday night’s game. That ends camp in one way. But Whisenhunt said while the Titans will structure next week like a normal practice week, that they will still work ones against ones and rotate people in competitions. For him, camp really ends when the first round of cuts come and as the team focuses on planning for an opponent.
  • That likely means the practice rules change next week and you won’t be seeing any more of these practice reports. Hope you enjoyed them and they gave you some insight.

Titans Camp Report: Day 18

August, 12, 2014
8/12/14
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:

  • The offense played a lot better than it did on Monday, with Jake Locker throwing three red-zone TD passes a day after he was shut out. There was still some sloppiness. Jackie Battle dropped two passes, and Taylor Thompson dropped one. Shonn Greene had a fumble, though he didn’t run the customary punishment lap which may have been because it was ruled to happen after the whistle (though there isn’t really a whistle).
  • In seven-on-seven work Charlie Whitehurst connected with Michael Preston on a deep ball over cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson. I’ve noted before that Whitehurst has put a lot of air under a lot of his deep stuff. This one was more of a line drive.
  • Kendall Wright continues to look amazing. It looks as if his confidence is as high as possible, and anything thrown near him is practically a sure thing. I hit him several times on Instagram.
  • Justin Hunter also had several good catches, beating Jason McCourty on a go route and going up easily over Tommie Campbell in the back right corner of the end zone in red zone 1-on-1s.
  • Bishop Sankey ran more authoritatively than he did a day earlier, when he fumbled a couple times. He had two live goal-line chances from the 2-yard line. The first was debatable -- I wasn’t sure he got in, he said he’s biased but admitted it needed a tape review. He was stuffed pretty quickly on a second snap.
  • Both sides were feisty. Bernard Pollard and Nate Washington had an extened back-and-forth hollering at each other, as did Daimion Stafford and Leon Washintgon. Washington told Stafford, “You can’t hit me” to which Stafford replied “You’re too little.” That exchange was repeated several times. Linebacker David Gilbert, back after a stretch out with a shoulder injury, flung tight end Chase Coffman to the ground to start a fight that spilled over. The Gilbert-Coffman dustup wasn’t anything beyond ordinary but leaked into a couple different shoving matches.
  • Right after that scrap, Anderson picked off Zach Mettenberger in the back right corner of the end zone. Anderson's been making some plays, but also gets beat. He seems like an all-or-nothing type at this point.
  • Derek Hagan caught a mid-range pass near the numbers on the right side in between a lot of defenders. I feel like he’s consistently good at finding that space on that play or ones similar to it.

Titans Camp Report: Day 17

August, 11, 2014
8/11/14
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • It was a horrific day for the offense, which came out flat and had mistakes in every area you can think of. There were multiple drops, fumbles, interceptions and bad snaps. Ken Whisenhunt downplayed it as one bad day, and of course it was, but the degree of badness was alarming. Said receiver Derek Hagan, who dropped a pass near the end of practice “It was bad, we didn’t get anything going at all. It was a crazy day. Nobody was catching the ball, bad blocking, missed assignments. Just an overall bad day.”
  • Shonn Greene had a fumble that Zach Brown recovered. Bishop Sankey fumbled twice, the first recovered by Brandon Copeland and the second bounced back to Sankey.
  • Kendall Wright streaked across the middle to collect a Locker pass, beating Jason McCourty. Michael Preston made a nice catch over Coty Sensabaugh up the left side from Charlie Whitehurst. Taylor Thompson had a couple more nice plays.
  • Jake Locker made a bad throw for Nate Washington in the right side of the end zone in red zone work. Tommie Campbell may have pushed off, but he easily collected the bad throw.
  • Whitehurst threw a terrible pick as he looked for Marc Mariani to his right. The line drive throw was easily caught by Blidi Wreh-Wilson who was practically halfway between quarterback and his target. Perhaps the worst play of all on a terrible day.
  • Daimion Stafford had a nice breakup of a throw for Mariani, whose helmet popped off in the process. Ri'Shard Anderson broke up a Zach Mettenberger dart for Hagan. Wreh-Wilson had a too-easy breakup of a Locker pass for Dexter McCluster. The defense made some plays, for sure. But more of the offensive failures were self-inflicted.
  • Justin Hunter wore a jersey that said “J A G” across the back instead of “Hunter.” He said Whisenhunt and receivers coach Shawn Jefferson talked to him after he forgot to convert a route Saturday night. Hunter didn’t know they’d follow through with the jersey, but they did. He said he’ll continue to work to be more than “just a guy.”
  • Hunter made a nice play in the middle of the field, winning a contested ball from Locker by taking it away from safety Michael Griffin.
  • Among the targets with drops: Delanie Walker, Preston, Washington (who had a chance to recollect the ball on the sideline but bobbled it until his feet were out), Thompson, Hagan.
  • Guard Andy Levitre said he played one game at center for the Bills against Miami and was bad at it. Whisenhunt reminded a questioner that he’d said in the past he intended to work Levitre a little at center to prepare a contingency. Now with Chris Spencer (ankle) out, it was the right time. Levitre said he lost focus and snapped as if the quarterback was under center a couple times when he wound up rolling balls past Zach Mettenberger. Ultimately, they put starting center Brian Schwenke in with the third team to settle things down.
  • Kickoffs: Maikon Bonani put one 9 yards deep and another 4 yards deep into the end zone. With less hang time, Travis Coons put one kickoff 4 yards deep. Coons also punted some.
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
8/04/14
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.

Titans Camp Report: Day 2

July, 27, 2014
7/27/14
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • In one-on-ones with receivers against defensive backs, undrafted rookie wideout Julian Horton matched up against undrafted rookie corner Ri'Shard Anderson. Jake Locker's pass sailed further downfield than where Horton had broken to the sideline. As Anderson looked back after the ball went incomplete, Locker pointed to where he should have been. That’s not vocal, but it did illustrate the sort of ownership and willingness to be heard that Locker said he’s been more reluctant to show in the past.
  • There was a stiff wind that had a bearing on a lot of passes. Charlie Whitehurst looked most affected by it to me, particularly on some deep balls in one-on-ones where he chose to put a lot of air under passes. Even Zach Mettenberger, the strongest-armed quarterback on the team, threw some wobblers. Ken Whisenhunt said he was happy with the wind, because the Titans were sure to get something like it on a game day at some point. Long-time assistant equipment man Matt Thompson has always shown a big arm. He made one of the day’s best throws when Leon Washington needed a ball in the end zone to bring out as the team worked on return positioning. It was over 40 yards in the air, a rope with a nice arc and plenty of zip.
  • Whisenhunt said more cover-2 was as big a reason for the reduction in deep completions from Day 1 to Day 2 as the wind. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said no deep balls have been a theme since he joined the team and he was glad the offense hit them on the first day so he could say “this is what we’re talking about” to the defense.
  • There were some big mismatches where the matchups got out of sync. I guess the lesser player in Justin Hunter vs. Anderson and Rico Richardson vs. Coty Sensabaugh has a lot to learn from such a snap. But I liked when Tommie Campbell stepped on the field, replacing Khalid Wooten, for a snap against Justin Hunter. Campbell struggled against Marc Mariani on Saturday and had a tough time again, particularly in some snaps against Hunter.
  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson got the second day work as the second starting cornerback, after Sensabaugh had it on Saturday. Wreh-Wilson stuck with Hunter on a deep route early in seven-on-seven and Locker looked to want to go there, but ended up checking down.
  • Taylor Lewan got the bulk of the work as the starting left guard with Andy Levitre (appendix) out and Byron Stingily heading inside to deal with sickness.
  • Michael Preston worked higher in the receiver pecking order on Day 2, and Mariani was lower.
  • Whisenhunt said at the start that competitive positions wouldn’t see the same guy at the front of the line for multiple days. That bodes well for the status of Jackie Battle, who was the front-liner at fullback ahead of Collin Mooney again on Sunday.
  • Locker was running comfortably and without any hesitation. In one team period, he pulled it down after seeing nothing to his liking and ran up the middle, threw a completion along the right sideline to Nate Washington after rolling right and also rolled left and took off that direction. There was nothing to suggest his surgically repaired foot was any sort of issue.
  • Nate Washington returned to the receiver group jawing hard at cornerback Micah Pellerin, telling him not to do that and “if you’re beat, you’re beat.” Pellerin dropped a pick of Whitehurst on a throw Whitehurst didn’t seem to step into as strongly as he could have.
  • Second team defense: LE Al Woods, NT Antonio Johnson, RE Mike Martin, LOLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Zaviar Gooden, ILB Colin McCarthy, ROLB Akeem Ayers, LCB Tommie Campbell, S George Wilson, S Daimion Stafford, RCB Sensabaugh.
  • Washington, Dexter McCluster, Bishop Sankey and Mariani didn’t field balls, but each brought balls out of the end zone in a kickoff return period.
  • Kendall Wright made a nice sliding catch in traffic in front of Sensabaugh.
  • Stafford picked off a Tyler Wilson pass for tight end Jason Schepler.
  • Bernard Pollard was busting on Zach Mettenberger from the sideline as Mettenberger led the offense, shouting "Roll Tide." That's what someone said to Metenberger recently before sucker punching the former LSU player at a Nashville bar.

Camp preview: Tennessee Titans

July, 17, 2014
7/17/14
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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.
Clemens & Mallett & WhitehurstAP PhotosKellen Clemens (L to R), Ryan Mallett and Charlie Whitehurst give their teams a veteran option at the backup quarterback position.
The heavy lifting done, we've reached that point in the NFL offseason when it's acceptable to obsess about backup quarterbacks. And so here we are.

At the moment, two franchises -- the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings -- are refusing to trade backups to teams where they might have a better chance to play. Their approach, while different in the details, has in a larger sense helped illuminate the smartest approach to the position, one that bucks conventional wisdom but aligns with supply and demand.

The career backup, a veteran who has played enough to prove he isn't a starter but is still valued as a fill-in, should be a quaint notion in 2014. Smart teams are using the spot as a developmental rather than caretaker position, understanding how rare it is to find a veteran backup who can maintain a team's performance when the starter is injured.

Recent history suggests success is far more connected to a starter's durability than the experience level of the backup. Over the past three years, 31 of the NFL's 36 playoff teams have had a 15- or 16-game starter at quarterback. Only three of the remaining five got winning performances from their backups, and all of them -- Tim Tebow (2011), Colin Kaepernick (2012) and Nick Foles (2013) -- were decidedly inexperienced at the time of their ascension.

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Not everyone will accept conclusions based on a three-year sample size, but if nothing else, these figures help support an intuitive inference: There aren't enough good quarterbacks to go around and you're fortunate to have one. If he gets hurt, your path to the playoffs will be difficult no matter how experienced your backup is. That's the nature of the talent drop-off at this point in league history. Faced with a choice, why not choose the upside of a promising youngster over the low ceiling of a veteran?

Some teams seem to understand the consequence of those facts better than others. The Patriots often are hailed as a model franchise, much to the chagrin of those who wonder what would have become of them if Tom Brady had been drafted No. 198 overall instead of No. 199, but they have been ahead of the curve on this issue for a while. It has been eight years since the Patriots have employed a veteran backup (Vinny Testaverde, a mid-year acquisition in 2006) and they have since backed Brady up with inexperienced youngsters from Matt Cassel to Brian Hoyer to Ryan Mallett.

A traditionalist would argue that the Patriots, a perennial title contender, are better off with a veteran who could presumably navigate them to the playoffs. A realist would wonder if such a player exists. Is there really a net difference between Mallett's experience in the Patriots' system and, say, the experience of Ryan Fitzpatrick -- who has started 77 NFL games but lost 49 of them?

This is not to say a team should make a haphazard, hands-in-the-air decision at such an important position. A young backup must at least demonstrate proficiency in the offense during practice, and it's fair to assume Mallett has convinced the Patriots he could run their plays in a game setting if Brady were injured. Second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo hasn't had time to do that yet, which to me explains coach Bill Belichick's reluctance to trade Mallett this spring.

That's a big reason the Vikings haven't parted ways with Christian Ponder, who seems unlikely to start ahead of Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater. Their stance might change as Bridgewater moves through the offseason, but for now Ponder -- like Mallett -- represents a more comfortable option to back up their starter than someone signed off the street. As with other positions, smart teams prefer to develop their own backup quarterbacks.

That's what the Green Bay Packers tried to do earlier this decade with Graham Harrell, and the folly of their shift to veteran Seneca Wallace in 2013 was exposed when starter Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone after a 5-2 start. Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn won only two of the eight games Rodgers missed a part of, and the Packers won the NFC North at 8-7-1 only after Rodgers returned for Week 17.

So what does this mean for the league overall? If you've committed to a starter, as roughly 26 of the 32 teams already have for 2014, it makes sense to prioritize development behind him rather than fool yourself into thinking you can prepare more reliably for his absence.

A Baltimore Ravens fan might be nervous with Tyrod Taylor behind starter Joe Flacco. I wouldn't be any more optimistic with, say, Charlie Whitehurst or Jason Campbell in that role. If Flacco is injured, chances are the Ravens are going to have a much more difficult time making the playoffs. Backups such as Taylor have an upside that might be revealed if and when he replaces Flacco. On the other hand, we have a pretty good idea of the lower bar a veteran would bring in that role.

The same could be said elsewhere. Do you really feel better about the San Diego Chargers' playoff chances with Kellen Clemens than you would if they had drafted, say, Zach Mettenberger? And if it doesn't work out for Jake Locker this season with the Tennessee Titans, why not play Mettenberger instead of hoping that Whitehurst can work magic he hasn't demonstrated in eight previous seasons?

Many coaches like the idea of having a "veteran in the room." If it's important enough to them, they should keep three or even four quarterbacks on their roster to accomplish that mission. But if you're committed to your starter, a veteran backup brings false confidence more than anything else. For the most part, Plan B in the NFL means missing the playoffs. You're better off hoping a young player will blossom in that role instead.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt rated it at least a two-club wind at the Tennessee Titans' practice fields on Friday.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Mark Humphrey/AP PhotoQB Zach Mettenberger warms up prior to throwing drills during the Titans' rookie minicamp on Friday.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the Titans' sixth-round pick, still lacks strength in his surgically repaired knee and will throw better when's he's all the way back. Still, his throws cut easily through the crosswind in the first of three days of rookie minicamp practices.

We knew Mettenberger would enter the NFL as a big pocket passer with a big arm. But this was the first time we got to see him with a Titans logo on his helmet slinging it in Nashville.

"I did a lot of good things," he said. "I'm still not moving as fluidly as I have in the past, but I am working every day to get back there."

Among the good things: A first-play completion of a bomb.

He said he doesn't have any limitations, but that the training staff is working to modify his workload to prevent any further issues with his knee.

Whisenhunt spoke of Mettenberger needing to continue to rebuild strength.

Said Mettenberger: "It's not (all the way) there. Being in a brace for two months, trying to learn how to walk, you lose a lot of muscle down in the thigh. ...You throw with your feet first and foremost, if you're under good balance and can (transfer) weight and do that efficiently, it makes the ball come out a lot better. I did OK today throwing, but as my leg gets better I fully expect to throw better."

As for the steady wind, he said it was nothing like the wind in Kansas, "but it was pretty bad today."

Whisenhunt complimented Mettenberger's command of the huddle and said things were not too big for the rookie.

First-round pick Taylor Lewan, a left tackle who also got a bit of work on the right, is fired up to be working with Mettenberger.

"He's an absolute stud," Lewan said.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some day-after draft thoughts on the Titans' newest quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, and newest running back, Bishop Sankey.

Mettenberger
Don’t overestimate Mettenberger at the start: The Titans clearly wanted to add a big, pocket passer to their stable of unproven quarterbacks. But sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger doesn’t roll into Nashville as a fix-it-now quarterback. Coach Ken Whisenhunt emphasized that the starting job remains Jake Locker’s. Mettenberger arrives with questions about a knee just four months removed from reconstructive ACL surgery as well as with reports of a back issue and a failed drug test at the combine.

If Locker is healthy, I expect he will start and veteran Charlie Whitehurst will be the game-day backup. The guy who would come off the bench for an injured Locker needs to have enough experience to play without having practiced, and that will be Whitehurst, not Mettenberger. If Locker is out for an extended time and Mettenberger has progressed, then it’s possible the Titans would install the rookie with a week to plan a game for him and get him ready for it.

Sankey can shine: Most Titans fans aren’t particularly well versed on the Pac-12, and geographically that’s understandable. They saw plenty of Tre Mason with Auburn and at least some of Carlos Hyde with Ohio State while they saw far less of Bishop Sankey in Washington. Mason was a great college back, but Auburn ran all kinds of misdirection stuff that got him into space, the sort of space it’s hard to create by scheme in the NFL. Hyde is a power guy, and the Titans view Shonn Greene as their power guy.

Tennessee wanted a well-rounded back who can do everything required of a three-down player. Sankey compares to Giovani Bernard of the Bengals, and he looked like a really good player in Cincinnati as a rookie. Greene and Dexter McCluster are going to get work for the Titans. But I’ll predict that out of the committee it’ll be Sankey who qualifies as the lead back and winds up with the most touches.

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