NFL Nation: Nate Washington

Jared Cook helps Titans stay alive

December, 24, 2011
12/24/11
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CookDon McPeak/US PresswireJared Cook had eight catches for a franchise-record 169 receiving yards against the Jaguars.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer polls his quarterbacks on their three favorite plays out of each week’s game plan.

Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and Rusty Smith all voted this week for a deep crossing route.

It was a play the Titans ran with great success in a 23-17 Christmas Eve win over the Jaguars that kept Tennessee in contention for the sixth and final berth in the AFC playoff field.

The Titans need to finish in a three-way tie at 9-7 with the Bengals and Jets or with the Bengals and Raiders to earn the No. 6 seed.

The trio of signal-callers often votes the same way in separate, secret balloting which influences Palmer’s approach, Hasselbeck said.

“It’s mental telepathy or something,” he said. “We get along really well, we like the same plays. They think we’re cheating off of each other, but we’re not.”

Rarely does the favored play contribute so heavily to a favored result.

Hasselbeck leaned on it heavily and posted strong passing numbers despite two interceptions, with 24 completions in 40 pass attempts, for 350 yards and a touchdown.

Tight end Jared Cook is a big, fast, receiver-like threat. He disappears at times and has not been featured the way many of us expected he would be this season. In Week 15 he lost a deadly fumble in Indianapolis when the Titans were mounting a charge.

But he keyed this Titans win with eight catches for 169 yards and the 55-yard score on a mismatch with Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who was left in an unreasonably difficult spot by the coverage.

No tight end for the Titans or Oilers ever collected so much receiving yardage in one game. The previous record was 150 by Houston’s Dave Casper in 1980.

While the Jaguars have a strong front seven, they do not have particularly threatening edge pass-rushers. That helped the Titans feel comfortable lining Cook up less often next to a tackle, and more often in a two-by-two set, as if he were a receiver in a four-wide formation.

Nate Washington, also in a slot, typically drew nickelback Drew Coleman in coverage. Hasselbeck said that also helped get Cook into open space more often than usual.

Cook said the Titans talked all week about the opportunities they’d find against an injury-depleted Jaguars defense. The Jaguars are without both their starting corners, Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, and played Saturday minus starting safety Dwight Lowery. That meant Ashton Youboty and Morgan Trent started at corner and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was in the lineup at safety.

Youboty suffered a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter, and couldn't finish the game. He was replaced by David Jones, a player Jacksonville decided was not part of its future at the end of training camp.

Combine all that change with a gimpy Chris Johnson, who sprained an ankle last week, and the Titans decided to push it with the pass.

“We kind of looked at the first-15 script and saw there was a little change up from the normal,” Cook said, referring to the preordained 15 plays the Titans wanted to run out of the gate if the situations permitted for them. “We kind of got excited. So kudos to coach Palmer for kind of doing that and catching the defense off guard.”

Not to harp, but… While the Titans are over last week’s loss at previously winless Indianapolis, I can’t help wonder how things might be different for them had they taken this approach a week earlier against the Colts, who rush the passer better but also have a secondary minus three starters.

“It’s just hard to predict games,” Hasselbeck said.

It’s hard, too, to predict what happens in all the games that influence the Titans’ chances next week.

But the Texans are locked into the third seed, and have nothing to gain with a win and nothing to lose with a loss. If the Titans find their way in, their opponent isn’t in question. They’ll go right back to Houston for a wild-card game.

The Titans know they’ve blown a ton of chances that would have left them in a better spot.

“We’re alive,” guard Jake Scott said. “That’s all you can ask for right now. We’ve got to handle our business and hope for the help that we need.”

Final Word: AFC South

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Blitzing Cam Newton: The Texans have thrived when sending five or more pass-rushers. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Houston blitzes on 52.1 percent of drop-backs, second only to New Orleans. They allow a 48.2 completion percentage, only 5.5 yards per attempt, and have recorded 20 of their 24 sacks. Newton has thrown seven touchdowns and three interceptions in such circumstances. But he’s also taken 18 sacks, as many as any quarterback in the NFL. Linebacker coach Reggie Herring will work as the defensive coordinator with Wade Phillips recovering from kidney and gallbladder surgery. But Phillips drew up the plan, and the Texans should be doing what they've been doing.

[+] EnlargeNate Washington
Jim Brown/US PresswireTitans receiver Nate Washington had two TD receptions against the Colts on Oct. 30.
Rematch: The Titans beat the Colts in the first matchup 27-10 on Oct. 30 in Nashville. Nate Washington caught two touchdown passes and Patrick Bailey blocked a punt that Jason McCourty recovered for a score. Curtis Painter attempted 49 passes in that game. I think the Titans would be thrilled if Dan Orlovsky dropped back anywhere near that often, as he’s mistake-prone, and the more Indianapolis has to rely on him the better the chance at interceptions, sacks and fumbles. Defensive end Dave Ball and tackle Karl Klug could be primed to force a turnover or two. Tennessee has not swept the Colts since 2002, the first year of realignment.

Serious scoring defense: During their seven-game winning streak the Texans have allowed fewer than 20 points a game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team with such a streak was the 2005 Bears, who held eight consecutive opponents under 20 points during an eight-game win streak. Carolina has topped 20 points in 10 of its 13 games, and has averaged nearly 31 points a game over its past four.

Rest and recovery: There is not a lot that can happen for the Jaguars to change things in their last two games. But they’ve got a weekend off now after Thursday night’s beat-down in Atlanta. They finish with division games at Tennessee and against Indianapolis. So we’ll see how Mel Tucker can get a battered team ready for familiar opponents and if the Jaguars are able to get Maurice Jones-Drew the yards he needs to secure a rushing title.

Tidbits: Since Washington became a regular in 2006, his 14.9 yards per catch is the seventh-highest average in the NFL. … Arian Foster is 43 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing, and Ben Tate is 180 yards shy of 1,000. When they both get there, they’ll become just the seventh set of teammates to hit the mark in the same season. … Texans receivers have dropped 11 passes, tied with Minnesota for fewest in the NFL this season. … Newton’s 39.2 red zone completion percentage is the third-worst in the league.

Guts, near glory for Nate Washington

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
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Nate WashingtonDon McPeak/US PresswireReceiver Nate Washington battled multiple injuries to help keep the Titans competitive on Sunday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nate Washington didn’t need to illustrate that he was ailing during his postgame chat with reporters in the locker room. We believed him.

But as his (bad) luck would have it, while he discussed a re-aggravated ankle injury and back troubles, he endured another wave of back spasms.

He passed on an invitation to sit. Then later he asked if it was OK if he moved to a chair.

Washington was the offensive star for the Titans in a 22-17 loss to New Orleans that damaged their playoff hopes but also showed that in bad circumstances they can hang with one of the NFL’s best teams. Tennessee had several chances to win it at the end, largely thanks to Washington’s six catches for 130 yards and a touchdown.

The career high in receiving yardage came after a week of no practice because of the painful ankle injury he suffered last week in Buffalo.

It didn’t come in a win, but it’s the pinnacle of his time in Tennessee.

He signed a six-year, $27 million contract with $9 million guaranteed in 2009. In his first two seasons after signing as a free agent from Pittsburgh, he was best known for his drops and he faced more questions about immaturity than the sort of big plays the Titans were expecting.

But all kind of forces have converged in one place for Washington this season, among them a new coaching staff, two new quarterbacks and an early season-ending injury to No. 1 receiver Kenny Britt.

He came into the day as the NFL leader in third-down receptions, a true sign of quarterback and playcaller confidence.

And it’s not overstating to say he’s been transformed.

In 2009 and 2010, he could be a mouthy, overly rambunctious locker-room presence, often in the center of loud debates after practice, arguments that could reach nonsensical levels.

He’s mellowed considerably, often coming across as contemplative, running his hand through his beard while speaking in low tones.

I think he used to think he was underrated, and he could bristle when asked about drops or even when he overheard a teammate being asked about one. Now, though he’s put himself in few bad situations, he qualifies as stand-up.

Initially reluctant to shift inside to the slot in three-wide packages, he’s thrived there.

The team is relying on him much more.

“The mentality of this team has taken me there,” Washington said. “I owe a lot to [receivers coach] Dave Ragone and to this coaching staff. They really believe in me.”

In what might have ranked as the biggest play of the game had the Titans found a way to win, Washington made an incredibly heady choice despite his throbbing ankle and pulsing back.

After he pulled in a 40-yard catch at the New Orleans 5-yard line and got pinballed by two defenders, he was hurting big time. Still, he had the presence of mind to get up and get set to allow Jake Locker to spike the ball and stop the clock with 7 seconds left.

Washington then went down, and attentive teammate Chris Johnson literally dragged him off the field.

Had officials had to stop the clock after either play, the Titans would have been subject to a 10-second runoff because they had no timeouts, and the game would have ended.

“I knew I had to get up, that time was short,” he said. “At the same time, my ankle was hurting so bad. Somebody had hit me in my back and I started having spasms. I have to be better. I could have done a better job. I wish I could have stayed in, I wish I could have given these guys a little more.”

Said Ragone: “His football intelligence and IQ are, maybe not downplayed, just not talked about. He’s always talking about coverage. And the one thing that I respect is that when he’s telling me something, I can see it on film that he’s right most of the time. It’s good evidence on his part that he can recognize it and give it back. It allows the quarterback to trust him more, too.”

Washington repeatedly mentioned how he wasn’t “hanging his crown” on anything he’s done yet. He was sure to talk up his teammates and the Titans’ warrior mentality. He said he wasn’t the only guy hurting and working through it, just perhaps the most visible. He also spoke out against what he viewed as dirty play by Saints safety Roman Harper.

He’s a leader now. Back when he first met Ragone, it’s something the position coach told Washington should be expected of a seventh-year guy.

“A lot of these guys are looking to me now as a guy who’s going to push them in the right direction,” Washington said. “So with that being said I know I have to fly straight, I have to do things right. I’m not afraid of it, I accept it. From now on whenever these guys need me, I’ll be there...”

“I’m happy about the progress that I’ve made, but I think I have a long way to go. I think I have a lot more learning to do and I have a lot more plays that I can make.”

Titans spout off on Saints

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
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The Tennessee Titans are blowing the whistle on the New Orleans Saints.

Tennessee offensive linemen Jake Scott and Michael Roos said a whistle was being blown in the area of the Saints’ bench late in New Orleans' 22-17 victory against the Titans.

"Everybody on our side heard something, we're not sure where it came from exactly,’’ Roos said. “But it sounded like from over there, and until we know more I can't really say anything else. It's not something that should be done but until we can have somebody look at it, we'll have to wait and see."

Scott said the team’s television show “Titans All Access’’ caught the sound of a whistle on tape. A Saints spokesman said the team would have no immediate comment.

That wasn’t the only controversy out of the Tennessee locker room. Titans receiver Nate Washington spouted off about a play in which New Orleans safety Roman Harper was called for a facemask when tackling Damian Williams.

"Honestly, (Harper is) a dirty player," Washington said. "We watched film on him, he's dirty. And I don't appreciate it, I'm going to step out in public and say it: He's dirty.

"That was dirty what he did, it's unfortunate that he grabbed the facemask -- at the same time you don't walk over a guy and nudge him with your knee. You don't do that. That's dirty. And honestly, that's a dirty player, flat out. This is not just one game. He's been doing it all season. And I'm tired of it. I hope the league did something about it."
Displeased with the Saints after Sunday’s loss to New Orleans, a couple members of the Tennessee Titans aired their complaints.

Right guard Jake Scott said he thought someone at the Saints' bench was blowing a whistle late in the game that was conflicting with the whistles of the game officials. A producer of the Titans’ weekly TV show could hear it through a microphone being worn by left tackle Michael Roos.

And receiver Nate Washington had a big issue with the way safety Roman Harper took Damian Williams down by his facemask and then stepped over him, calling Harper "a dirty player."

My more detailed account of the accusations can be found here, on the ESPN.com NFL news page.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 22, Titans 17

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
4:33
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thoughts on the Titans’ 22-17 loss to the Saints at LP Field:

What it means: A largely unfavorable day. The Titans lost while one of the teams they are fighting with for position for a wild card berth, the Jets, won. The Texans’ last-second win in Cincinnati means that Houston clinched the AFC South, but it hurt another wild card competitor, the Bengals.

What I didn’t like: Penalties were out of control. Mike Munchak’s team is supposed to be a disciplined bunch, but special teams and the offensive line were primary culprits. Eight penalties for 54 yards consistently slowed the Titans or helped the Saints. A couple mistakes will happen, but on this scale it’s both unacceptable and unsurvivable. The Saints were sloppy too, but Drew Brees found his moments. And at times, like when he had all day to throw to an open Marques Colston at the goal line, a high pass wasn’t a problem as the receiver had time and space to go up and get it, then get it in the end zone for a 35-yard score. His follow up touchdown throw to Colston, from 28 yards, fell neatly between Alterraun Verner and Cortland Finnegan.

What I liked: Jake Locker put a good ball on him and banged up receiver Nate Washington made a great play looking it in while Jabari Greer flew by a second late for a 40-yard touchdown with 5:58 left in the game that closed it to 22-17. He hit him again right near the end for another 40.

What I didn't like: The Titans' last two plays from the 5-yard line. The first was well-defended by Tracy Porter, but I question throwing to Marc Mariani no matter if Washington was out hurt. Locker ran and bought time on the last play, but has to at least try a throw instead of getting sacked.

What I want to know: What’s the trade-off between an aggressive third-and-1 call with a throw into the end zone when you then fail to convert the quarterback sneak on fourth down? We're talking the Titans' second-to-last drive there.

Injury concerns: Matt Hasselbeck suffered a left calf injury that knocked him out of the game, thought he limped on and hopped off for one play when Locker took a tough shot to the ribs. Linebacker Akeem Ayers suffered a shoulder injury and No. 2 running back Javon Ringer injured his hand. Neither returned to action after getting hurt. Washington had to be tugged off the field by Chris Johnson after his late catch.

What’s next: The Titans head for Indianapolis for their second game against the winless, division-rival Colts.

Titans not inconsistent, just average

November, 20, 2011
11/20/11
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Michael TurnerDaniel Shirey/US PresswireTennessee was unable to contain Michael Turner as he rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown.
ATLANTA -- The Titans are getting mislabeled.

They are not an inconsistent team. If anything, their 23-17 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome made them even more predictable.

Over their past eight games, the formula’s been simple: They have beaten bad teams and lost to good ones.

It’s easy to see they are better than Denver, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Carolina. It’s just as clear they are not in a class with Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

The Titans are too sloppy, don’t find enough big plays and don’t match up well enough with quality teams. Ten games into the season, they’re 5-5 and it’s exactly what they deserve.

Sunday they played good enough red zone defense to stay in the game, but could never get back to even from 13-0 and 23-3 deficits.

A look at three key issues for Tennessee coming out of the game:

The quarterback situation: Matt Hasselbeck banged his elbow as he threw late in the third quarter. He couldn’t generate any power on the ball after that, so doctors had him yield to rookie Jake Locker.

“He did exactly what a second-team quarterback should do when he gets an opportunity,” coach Mike Munchak said.

Locker moved right and hit Nate Washington, who stiff-armed a defender and ran to the end zone on a 40-yard touchdown play. In the fourth quarter, working in hurry-up mode out of the shotgun, he ran for 11 yards on a third-and-10, he hit tight end Jared Cook for 22 yards on a fourth-and-17 and he found Washington for another touchdown with 3:09 left in the game.

The defense, however, couldn’t get provide him a chance to engineer a game-winning drive.

Locker finished with a 107.3 passer rating, but the Titans diffused any possibility of a quarterback controversy.

Hasselbeck is sore and he had ice wrapped around the inside of his left elbow and forearm as he spoke to the press. He said he’ll have an MRI Monday. Munchak said he wasn’t about to make a change based on the small sampling of Locker. If Hasselbeck is fine, “he’s the quarterback, there is no doubt about that.”

While Hasselbeck hardly has his best game -- 13-of-25 passing for 124 yards, an interception and a 49.4 passer rating -- the Titans aren’t going to forget how large a role he’s played in many of their good moments this season.

“Jake kind of puts a defense on its heels a little bit, because you’ve got a younger guy who can run,” receiver Lavelle Hawkins said. “That’s taking nothing away from Matt, because Matt is a great mind who knows how to read a lot of stuff and sees a lot of things before they happen. I think either, or is great.”

Making mistakes: Munchak’s Titans were supposed to be a disciplined team that executed precisely. But there was a major lack of precision in key moments against the Falcons.

The Falcons went for it on fourth-and-1 twice in the second half.

They motioned and reset, then motioned and reset again, making it seem like they were merely waiting for the defense to jump. On the first instance, Matt Ryan had the ball snapped and snuck at an unexpected time in the long sequence of shuffling.

And on the second, defensive end William Hayes was flagged for jumping offsides.

“There is no excuse for me doing that, it’s fourth-and-1, I’ve got to be patient,” Hayes said. “They got me.”

He actually got bailed out as Colin McCarthy forced a Michael Turner fumble on the next play and Will Witherspoon recovered it.

That’s when Locker took the Titans on the 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that cut the lead to six with 3:06 left.

With three timeouts and the two-minute warning, Tennessee then needed to force a punt to get Locker the ball back.

And on the very first play from scrimmage, safety Jordan Babineaux slipped off Turner, allowing him to spring free for a 27-yard gain. Two Jason Snelling carries and a 6-yard Harry Douglas catch later and Ryan was ready to take a knee three times and shake some hands.

The Titans failed to slow Atlanta’s stars. Ryan passed for 316 yards, Turner ran for 100 and receiver Roddy White pulled in seven catches for 147 yards.

On top of that, the Titans were flagged for 10 penalties. They accounted for 86 yards and five of the Falcons’ 25 first downs.

“We didn’t play smart for 60 minutes,” Munchak said.

Mixed up routes: It seems every game the receivers have at least one mixed-up moment that costs Tennessee a chance or causes a problem.

The Titans were behind only 7-0 when the biggie in this game arrived.

Hasselbeck threw up the left side and Hawkins appeared to be out of position as cornerback Dunta Robinson intercepted the pass.

The receiver stopped running, looking around puzzled instead of pouncing to touch Robinson while he was down. Robinson got up and ran for 14 yards.

Guard Jake Scott yelled at Hawkins over the failure to stop a return. Hasselbeck pointed and screamed as he left the field, clearly annoyed by the way the play unfolded.

Damian Williams, who ran a post on the same side of the field, said the underneath receiver is supposed to cut in if the Titans are running it or cut out if they are throwing it. He said he was partially to blame for not getting the check communicated.

Said Hasselbeck: “I believe what happened is when I checked, Hawk wasn’t looking at me. I think when I checked they were adjusting who was on the ball, who was off the ball. I was trying to throw it to Hawk, yes. I’m not sure if he knew it was a pass or not.”

Mistakes will happen, I understand.

If the Titans are getting 1.1 yards a carry from Chris Johnson, they need to be an exact passing offense, however. Under the previous regime, Hawkins didn’t get on the field much because he was regarded as undependable.

On that and the Titans being average or worse, things don’t appear to have changed much.

Titans hanging in at half in Atlanta

November, 20, 2011
11/20/11
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ATLANTA -- The Tennessee Titans are fortunate to still be in their game with the Atlanta Falcons at the half.

Atlanta drove to an easy touchdown on its first possssion. Then Tennessee’s defense twice buckled down in the red zone after solid Falcons' marches, forcing the Falcons to settle for Matt Bryant field goals.

The Titans did well to move the ball in a two minute drive, getting a 46-yard field goal out of Rob Bironas just before the half.

It’s 13-3 though it feels a lot worse.

If the Titans can come out of intermission, play some defense and piece a scoring drive together, they’ll be right in the thick of it.

And the longer they can stay in the thick of it, on the road against a team that appears to have superior talent, the better, of course.

The Titans seemed to have a feeling for getting Nate Washington open and Javon Ringer’s done nice work as a pass-catcher. I’d like to see more of both.
PITTSBURGH -- Thoughts on the Titans’ 38-17 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next: The Titans have an off week to recover and get a head start on preparation for their crucial Oct. 23rd matchup with the Houston Texans at LP Field in Nashville.

AFC South Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
10/04/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. The secondary, Indianapolis Colts: Safety David Caldwell dropped an end-zone interception that really could have influenced the game early on. The three cornerbacks who were on the field a lot struggled to locate pass-catchers and get them to the ground. Are Terrence Johnson, Jacob Lacey and Chris Rucker good enough to hold up against superior passing teams like New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston and New England coming up later on the schedule? It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer right now is no.

2. Danieal Manning, Houston Texans special-teamer: We’re not knocking Manning the safety here. We’re knocking the guy who blocked a Pittsburgh field goal attempt on the last play before halftime. He circled around and was one of a convoy of Texans following Johnathan Joseph as he scooped up the kick to run it back for a score, and Manning inexplicably shoved kicker Daniel Sepulveda in the back. There was no way the kicker was going to threaten the play, and Houston was very fortunate to survive the lost touchdown. So props to Manning on the block, but he’s got to be smarter from there.

3. Linebackers, Jacksonville Jaguars: The team poured money into the position in the offseason, and Paul Posluszny and Clint Session are good players. But Posluszny dropped a pick and Daryl Smith let Drew Brees guide him out of bounds on an interception return. The backers were repeatedly victimized by running back Darren Sproles, who averaged 10.9 yards a touch, and tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught 10 balls for 132 yards. The Jaguars need more from these guys against players like that.

[+] EnlargePierre Garcon
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesBoth of Pierre Garcon's receptions Monday night went for touchdowns.
RISING

1. Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis receiver: He can be maddening with his drops -- he had one early against the Bucs. But the reason he’s around is that he can change games with one play. He had two of them for the Colts Monday night, grabbing Curtis Painter passes and doing excellent work after the catch. They were the sort of explosive offensive plays Indianapolis has to have if it’s going to be competitive.

2. Tight ends, Tennessee Titans: Among the people the team has talked of needing to help fill the void without Kenny Britt, Jared Cook was a top name. If teams choose to cover him and attempt to tackle him the way the Browns did, look for him to put up monster numbers. Craig Stevens is regarded as more of a blocker, but he did well to catch a touchdown. If Cook, Stevens and Daniel Graham can continue to be counted as good targets for the accurate Matt Hasselbeck, there is a lot of cause for hope. Those guys complementing receivers Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins are looking like a strong group.

3. Antonio Smith, Houston Texans defensive end: He’ll represent the entire defensive front here, which has been very good and which just overwhelmed the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line in Sunday’s win. Ben Roethlisberger can be exceptionally tough to drag down, but Smith and the Texans ganged up on him for five sacks and really hit him with great regularity. The secondary is vastly improved, but life is a lot better back when a quarterback like Roethlisberger has little time to work.

Wrap-up: Titans 31, Browns 13

October, 2, 2011
10/02/11
6:56
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Thoughts on the Titans 31-13 win over the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

What it means: The Titans share the lead in the AFC South with a 3-1 record after an impressive road win. They showed the loss of Kenny Britt won’t ground them as three different players caught touchdown passes and Chris Johnson ran for more than 100 yards for the first time this season.

What I liked: Matt Hasselbeck completed 10 passes, but three of them were for touchdowns. The Titans got a lot of yards after the catch and they jumped ahead 31-6 after safety Jordan Babineaux added a 97-yard interception return for a score. Johnson finally found something to build on. The Titans made Cleveland one-dimensional as Colt McCoy attempted 61 passes, absorbing four sacks.

Upside down: The Titans usually love to win time of possession. But losing time of possession big -- like 36:53 to 23:07 -- is just fine when you don’t hold the ball long because you’re making big plays in a hurry. Tennessee has touchdown drives of six, one and four plays.

Debut: Rookie quarterback Jake Locker got in late and handed off a bunch. He also threw his first regular season pass, an incompletion in Nate Washington’s direction.

What’s next: The Titans are on the road in Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the middle of their four consecutive games against the AFC South. Pittsburgh’s beaten Indianapolis and lost to Houston so far.

What I think they're thinking ...

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
2:21
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What I think they are thinking in the headquarters of the four teams of the AFC South…

Houston Texans

It was one game against a great team. We’ll hardly be the only team that Drew Brees shreds this season. We have to make sure guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Jason Campbell and Joe Flacco don’t have a chance to do anything similar. Offensively, we will work and work and work on our red zone production. People talk about our lack of killer instinct and we’re sick of hearing about it, but when we kick so many field goals when we have a chance to run away from a team, it’s a fair topic. We need to get to the root of that fourth-quarter pick and the three-and-out series, which were real killers. Fullback James Casey was great playing like the tight end we know he really is. Can we get that out of him on a regular basis?

Indianapolis Colts

No, we’re not claiming any moral victory. But we sure showed we’re invested and determined and have some pride with the way we played against Pittsburgh on Sunday. There is enough there that we can turn it into winning efforts against the teams we’re about to face -- Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Cincinnati. We have to remind ourselves as we game plan and as we play, that we’re not conceding anything by handing the ball off more. And we need to dissect our run defense against the Steelers to make sure we know what we did so we can keep doing it. We’ve got other lingering questions. Does Kerry Collins’ concussion mean he’s out next week? If he’s healthy, do we have a quarterback controversy anyway? Does it mean anything that we played against the run so well with Fili Moala out of the lineup?

Jacksonville Jaguars

Coaches need to work to hold onto players this week. How much faith can we have right now when the offense was so conservative -- never mind the rookie quarterback and the rain, let’s go win the game. Then Jack Del Rio says to blame him over clock-management trouble that cost us a play at the end. If a player makes a comparable mistake, he can earn entry into Del Rio’s dog house. So does Del Rio go in there now? These other teams with rookie QBs are energized by the fresh start. We need that, but it’s going to be hard to find against the Saints. It’s time for all these new defenders to show up with a few big plays. If we don’t get some against New Orleans, it could be ugly.

Tennessee Titans

Hate to harp on it, but boy does having a true leader at quarterback make a difference. Look how good Matt Hasselbeck is helping make guys like Nate Washington. We had some moments in the win over Denver that should carry over for us, starting with the big goal-line stand. You better believe we were making a statement with that. Talk Texans all you like, but we’re 2-1, too, and feeling good about ourselves. We ought to be able to win in Cleveland even without Kenny Britt. But without him, we’re going to be counting even more on pass protection and Hasselbeck. It would be a good time to figure out and solve our run struggles.

AFC South Stock Watch

September, 20, 2011
9/20/11
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Luke McCown, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback: Pick the synonym for awful and it fits his game against the Jets: dreadful, horrendous, ugly. Four interceptions got him pulled in favor of rookie Blaine Gabbert, and now the Jaguars’ quarterback situation is up in the air. Whichever quarterback is in the huddle will be hoping for the return of tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf) and receiver Jason Hill (hip), who was unwise to question the hype surrounding Darrelle Revis in a week when he didn’t even play.

2. The Colts’ red zone offense: With Peyton Manning at the helm, this is an area where Indianapolis typically excels. Last season the Colts scored touchdowns on 67.9 percent of their possessions that crossed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. But as part of Sunday’s field-goal festival in the loss to Cleveland, the Colts moved four yards in six snaps in the red zone before kicking. Their lone red-zone touchdown came when the game had already been decided. Indianapolis’ defense isn’t good enough to make field goals stand up.

3. Pick a guy, Jacksonville Jaguars: The receivers are certainly candidates, as they did little against the Jets on McCown’s bad day. (And Hill embarrassed himself without even playing.) If safety Courtney Greene can be nudged out of the lineup for Chris Prosinski or Dwight Lowery, Greene may have made a case for the move with a poor game. And defensive end Aaron Kampman, who suffered a setback in his return from an ACL reconstruction, missed his second game and won’t play Sunday. The defense misses his leadership for sure.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Jim Brown/US PresswireMatt Hasselbeck successfully orchestrated a win against a tough Baltimore defense.
1. Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee Titans cornerback: Finnegan was excellent in the Titans' win over Baltimore with four tackles and three passes defended. He was consistently involved for Tennessee in a rebound effort that can’t be underestimated. And with the praise Mike Munchak has offered Finnegan, it sounds like his play so far is the culmination of his leadership during the lockout and a solid camp that featured a short, failed walkout in a contract dispute.

2. Jacoby Jones, Houston Texans receiver/ punt returner: He had an excellent catch on the sideline, tapping his feet to be in bounds, and three catches for 48 yards. His performance is a good contribution in an offense featuring Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. He also chipped in with an early 40-yard punt return that helped set the tone. On a day the team was without Kevin Walter, Jones did his part to make sure the team wasn’t lacking. Is he becoming more consistent?

3. Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee Titans quarterback: He keyed a solid offensive day against a Baltimore defense that teams struggle against. A week after he ended a disappointing loss in Jacksonville with a bad interception, he was very accurate. Though Chris Johnson couldn’t get going, the other elements Hasselbeck counted on when he signed in Tennessee came through. He wasn’t sacked and his pass catchers like Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Jared Cook made plays for him.

Rapid Reaction: Titans 26, Ravens 13

September, 18, 2011
9/18/11
4:19
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thoughts on the Titans 26-13 win over the Ravens at LP Field.

What it means: The Titans are nowhere near as bad as they looked opening day in Jacksonville. (And the Ravens aren’t nearly as good as they looked when the beat the Steelers.) Tennessee found big plays even as Chris Johnson couldn’t find room (24 carries for 53 yards). Matt Hasselbeck played winning football behind solid protection, making good throws to Kenny Britt and Nate Washington on big days for the two receivers, and the defense showed it can stand toe-to-toe with a physical line.

What I liked: The takeaways. Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty had interceptions and Jordan Babineaux recovered a fumble forced by Karl Klug. McCourty’s came off a Cortland Finnegan tipped ball. Finnegan got his hands on several.

What I didn’t like: Poor tackling allowed Ray Rice’s 31-yard catch and run TD and the kickoff coverage team flailed when David Reed went 77 yards just before intermission. Johnson simply couldn’t find room, but somehow Javon Ringer did.

Telling: Mike Munchak and Chris Palmer were aggressive on a fourth-and-1 deep in Baltimore territory in the third quarter. Ringer took a pitch and scooted into the end zone for a touchdown that put Tennessee up two scores, 17-10.

What’s next: The Titans host Denver at LP Field as Tennessee looks to continue establishing something at home.

Dave RagoneAP Photo/Mark HumphreyFormer NFL QB Dave Ragone brings a fresh perspective as the Titans' receivers coach.
Nate Washington admits it. When the Titans receiver first heard that a quarterback-turned-assistant-coach, Dave Ragone, would be overseeing Tennessee’s wideouts, he had doubts.

“He might kill me, but yeah, I was a little skeptical at first,” Washington said. “I didn’t think negatively, I just didn’t know what to expect. It was, ‘OK, what is this guy going to bring to us?’"

It didn’t take long for Washington to gain an appreciation for his new coach. Ragone has brought new energy to a job that’s been a sore spot for a franchise that’s struggled at the position since relocating to Tennessee in 1997.

The Indianapolis Colts also have installed a quarterback at wide receiver coach, flipping Frank Reich to the spot in a swap that sent his predecessor, Ron Turner, to oversee quarterbacks.

It might not qualify as a trend yet, but in the AFC South, a lot of receivers are learning a great deal about routes and coverages through a quarterback’s eyes, something both teams say is a big deal.

“(Reich) knows what it is he’s looking for in the route, in the breaks, in the coverage," Indianapolis vice chairman Bill Polian said. “So, it gives the receiver a totally different perspective. It isn’t about necessarily running this route to get open against this guy. It’s about running this route in a certain way that allows the quarterback to get him the ball. It’s a sophisticated nuance and it’s important.”

Even early in training camp, Reich’s top guy, Reggie Wayne, was singing his praises.

[+] EnlargeFrank Reich
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireColts assistant Frank Reich, in his first stint as a receivers coach, has made a good impression on his position group.
Heading into a contract year trimmed down, Wayne asked Reich in their first interaction to coach him like a rookie. Now, he should be a key factor for Kerry Collins as he fills in for the injured Peyton Manning.

“[Reich] understands what’s kind of tough to do as a receiver and what’s not tough to do,” Wayne said. “A lot of coaches, they’re not able to display or give you that… Frank’s helped with my stance and starts. He talks to all the receivers about getting in a great stance and being able to come off the ball. He gave us a quote already, he said, ‘Plant the seed for speed.’ That stuck with me. He’s big on details and that’s good.

"“We’ve got to make him look good. That’s what it’s all about.”

Ragone throws a lot to his guys in Tennessee. He likes to show off he’s got a big arm.

“He throws more balls than the quarterbacks at practice,” said offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who hired Ragone in the UFL.

Ragone prepared for his new role during the lockout with hours of research. The new coach read everything and talked to everyone, sifting through drills that can bring things out of a group that’s often seemed to sleepwalk. One that takes place after practice once in a while has receivers reaching with both arms around a goal post stanchion.

That comes from New England Patriots receiver Deion Branch, a teammate of Ragone’s from Louisville who offered it up a few years ago when Ragone asked Branch for his favorite drill. Players can’t bring the ball to their bodies, so they must concentrate on catching the ball with their hands while working on the strength of their fingers.

But it's more than just catching the ball. Washington and Kenny Britt both talked about a new sense of what exactly qualifies as being open that they have learned from a guy who played three seasons as a backup with the Texans and won an Offensive MVP award in NFL Europe.

“You can’t run the route any way you want to and be thinking that you’re right just because you’re open,” Britt said. “Sometimes it’s the timing of the play and it can really hurt the quarterback with how many steps to take and how many hitches he has to take before he throws the ball.”

Ragone looks forward to crossing paths with Reich, a much more successful NFL quarterback, when the Titans meet the Colts.

Will the two start a revolutionary movement of former quarterbacks to wide receiver coaching positions?

Let’s not jump on that, despite Matt Hasselbeck telling me “it would be very easy to do.”

First we need to see how receivers in Indianapolis and Tennessee do with the new tutoring.

“[Ragone] is leading us in the right direction and we’re getting to the potential that we could have been [getting to before],” Washington said. “It’s exciting right now.”

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