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2009 team preview: Tennessee Titans

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Inside Slant
The Tennessee Titans came into training camp with a bit of unfinished business hanging over them: specifically, their 13-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC divisional playoffs, which ruined a league-best 13-3 regular season.

The Titans now have to climb the regular-season mountain again, this time without All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth anchoring the middle of the defensive line, but with an offense they believe is much more explosive than the one that relied too heavily on the running game a year ago.

As for how the postseason unfolded last year with a No. 1 seed going by the boards, it will serve as motivation, but won't be dwelt on by coaches or players.

"When you're in that position where you go 13-3 and you get home field, and the regular season, you pretty much walk through it, you might think it's going to be the same, but it's definitely not," linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "Because playoff football is a totally different beast, and it's unfortunate that we had to learn that lesson last year the way we did. I'm sure if we're in that same situation this year, things will definitely be different."

The Titans will have to do so without Haynesworth, who signed a $100 million free-agent package with Washington, leaving the Titans minus their best defensive player from a year ago.

But that doesn't mean the cupboard is bare. Camp and preseason showed that end Kyle Vanden Bosch is back healthy from a groin injury that cost him six games and his effectiveness a year ago.

And even though new defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil might have to blitz more than his predecessor, Jim Schwartz, to help make up for losing Haynesworth, the Titans are confident that the waves of defensive tackles they have in Tony Brown, Jason Jones, Kevin Vickerson, Jovan Haye and rookie Sen'Derrick Marks can hold their own along the line of scrimmage.

The Titans do return 10 of 11 starters, but if preseason is any indication, they probably will have to be more creative in how they rush the passer, as the tackles were not consistently collapsing the pocket in preseason when their ends were forced upfield in their pass-rush lanes.

The back seven looked just as solid as a year ago as long as starters were on the field, but the Titans could have major concerns in the secondary if Cortland Finnegan or Nick Harper were to lose time to injury. The backups currently on the roster were mostly ineffective in training camp and preseason games, making that a potential problem area if injuries occur. The only backup to emerge from the fray with any sort of promise was rookie Ryan Mouton, who is now out with a high ankle sprain.

On offense, it is a decidedly different feel for Tennessee this preseason. Last year, the combination of Chris Johnson (1,228 yards rushing) and LenDale White (773 yards, 15 TDs) carried the offense behind a standout line that featured Pro Bowl players Kevin Mawae and Michael Roos. But the Titans finished 27th in passing for the second year in a row.

The Titans went out and signed Nate Washington away from Pittsburgh, and drafted receiver Kenny Britt and hybrid tight end/receiver Jared Cook this offseason. All three were quickly showing big-play ability in camp, though Washington is sidelined with a hamstring injury that could keep him out of the season opener.

Cook has made the biggest impact, as the Titans are finding creative ways to get him into mismatch situations, as a tight end, in the slot or outside as a wideout.

"He definitely has the potential to help us. He is a big guy who can run, and he's fast enough to get behind people," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "We put him outside at wide receiver sometimes, and he's holding his own against cornerbacks. I think he's one of those guys we can use a lot of ways and create matchup problems and help stretch defenses."

Britt began slowly with a hamstring injury putting him on the PUP list to start camp, but has quickly caught up and is now starting while Washington is sidelined.

Collins, 36, appears poised to better the 2,676 yards passing and 12 touchdowns of a year ago, and with the defense perhaps not as strong, the Titans will need better from the offense.

"I feel rejuvenated, bottom line. I feel really good, but at the same time, I'm coming into my 15th year, so I don't have forever," Collins said. "I'm trying to do everything I can to do everything possible to get ready to have a good year. ... I think we've upgraded at a lot of positions, and I think wide receiver is one of them."

COACHING: Jeff Fisher, 15th year, all with Oilers/Titans (128-102).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 13-3 (1st in AFC South, No. 1 seed in AFC playoffs); lost 13-10 to Baltimore in AFC divisional playoffs.

PREDICTING: 2009 regular-season record 11-5 (1st in AFC South); lose in AFC Championship Game.


Notes and Quotes
--With Nate Washington down because of a hamstring injury, the Titans are taking a look at former Jacksonville WR Matt Jones, released in the spring because of off-field issues. Jones had 65 catches in 12 games for the Jaguars last year, but violated terms of a plea agreement from a 2008 felony drug charge, causing Jacksonville to let him go.

The Titans are woefully inexperienced at the receiver position beyond Washington and Justin Gage. First-round pick Kenny Britt has done well as has third-round TE Jared Cook, who doubles as a receiver, but the Titans have not been able to count on the likes of Lavelle Hawkins and Paul Williams to make the jump necessary to contribute regularly.

--WR/KR Mark Jones had a golden opportunity to secure the kickoff and punt return jobs last week against Cleveland and was unable to do so. Jones, who missed the first three preseason games with a hamstring injury, fumbled one kickoff after a 32-yard return, causing coach Jeff Fisher to declare the competition open, despite injured Ryan Mouton being the only real competitor against Jones. Jones' roster spot hinges on his ability to seize at least one or both of the return jobs for the regular season. He was eager for another chance in the preseason finale against Green Bay.

"I'm ready to relax and calm down. I think I was just a little too anxious," Jones said. "I just wanted to go out there and try to show them something, and I got my first fumble and it was just hard to swallow and turn the ball over on one of your kickoff returns.

"That wasn't me. That's not what I'm about, putting the ball on the ground and not coming up with it. I'm just going to go out there and be patient with it and not try to force anything and just play like I know how to play."

--With CB Nick Harper held out against the Browns, the Titans did a little experimenting in their secondary. They started Cary Williams and gave Jason McCourty an extended look, but they also took All-Pro Cortland Finnegan out of his usual right side spot and moved him to the left side, where Harper usually plays, for the night.

While it probably won't amount to much come the regular season, coach Jeff Fisher said it was good for Finnegan to step out of his element in the preseason game.

"It's good for corners. Over time, if you're not careful, you get left-handed or right-handed and you get real comfortable. We wanted to get him over there and get experience. It was good," Fisher said. "As talented as he is, he still wasn't completely comfortable over there."

--While most players on the bubble squirm when final cuts approach, Titans FB/TE Casey Cramer doesn't fret over such things anymore. That's because Cramer has found his name on the waiver wire at least five times since being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004. Cramer has had three different stints in Tennessee, counting a practice squad stay in '04, returning to the club last year just before the playoffs after being waived in camp, signed by the Miami Dolphins and released by them in December last year.

"I'm enjoying every minute of it. The main thing I'm going to do is do the best I can with every opportunity, enjoy the whole process and encourage the people around me," Cramer said. "A lot of the rookies, this might be their first training camp, their first cuts, and they need some encouragement. I'll let them know that we're not defined by our careers, but by our relationships we have with others."

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 - Both the number of touchdown passes and interceptions thrown by backup quarterback Vince Young through four preseason games. One of those interceptions was returned for a touchdown.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's always been our No. 2 quarterback, and he'll remain that. He's done a nice job most of the time on the field, and most of the time on Sundays or in the games and on the practice field. The stuff that we asked him to do in the ballgame, I thought he did a good job with." - Coach Jeff Fisher in announcing that Vince Young had held off Patrick Ramsey to be Tennessee's second-team quarterback.


Strategy and Personnel
The Titans released four players on Sept. 1 to get down to the 75-man roster limit, letting go of RB Rafael Little, WR Dudley Guice, C Matt Lehr and LB Tyson Smith.

Of that group, Little is the most intriguing as the Titans invested a full year in him on injured reserve last year to allow Little to rehab a torn ACL suffered in Senior Bowl workouts in 2008. Little was expected to challenge for the third running back spot, but rookie Javon Ringer quickly grabbed that, leaving him with no role.

Lehr, an eight-year veteran, had a particularly short stay, as the Titans signed him last week, then released him after less than a week.

--With Nate Washington down because of a hamstring injury, the Titans are taking a look at former Jacksonville WR Matt Jones, released in the spring because of off-field issues. Jones had 65 catches in 12 games for the Jaguars last year, but violated terms of a plea agreement from a 2008 felony drug charge, causing Jacksonville to let him go.

The Titans are woefully inexperienced at the receiver position beyond Washington and Justin Gage. First-round pick Kenny Britt has done well as has third-round TE Jared Cook, who doubles as a receiver, but the Titans have not been able to count on the likes of Lavelle Hawkins and Paul Williams to make the jump necessary to contribute regularly.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Vince Young was declared the No. 2 quarterback by coach Jeff Fisher after an up-and-down performance against Cleveland. Young was 17 of 24 for 174 yards and a TD, but also threw an interception that was returned for a score and fumbled at the end of the first half near the goal line on a running play.

--QB Patrick Ramsey now slides into the No. 3 quarterback role, hoping to retain a spot on the 53-man roster. Last year was the first time Tennessee had carried three quarterbacks in recent years, but Ramsey knows Mike Heimerdinger's offense well, which is a plus.

--WR Nate Washington said his injured hamstring is improving and he hasn't given up hope of playing in the Sept. 10 season opener against his former club, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

--TE Jared Cook leads the team in receptions with 17, but might miss the preseason finale with a foot injury suffered against Cleveland. He should play in the regular-season opener.

--OT David Stewart, bothered by a sore knee that cost him three preseason games, is back practicing and should be a go for the regular season.

--DT Jason Jones is back after missing three games with a bone bruise in his foot. Jones is expected to be the teams' starting left defensive tackle.

--CB Ryan Mouton remains out with a high ankle sprain and could be out of the season opener because of the injury.

--LB Josh Stamer has been bothered by a groin injury that has cost him most of camp and preseason. Stamer is on the roster bubble, and his injury situation probably isn't helping his job security.

PLAYER TO WATCH: RB LenDale White remains the understudy to Chris Johnson, but now more than 30 pounds lighter at 228, White is poised for a much more productive season. And just in time for him to cash in as an unrestricted free agent at season's end (provided there is not an uncapped year in 2010). White looks must faster with the weight gone, but appears not to have lost any of his power to gain the tough yards in inside.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/30, WR Kenny Britt, Rutgers - After beginning camp on the PUP list with a hamstring injury, Britt has come on strong, showing playmaking ability. If Nate Washington's hamstring injury lingers, Britt will start the season opener at Pittsburgh.

Rd. 2/62, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, Auburn - Marks won't have to be an impact player early because of the numbers in front of him. The Titans will ease him in, barring injury to players ahead of Marks on the depth chart.

Rd. 3/89, TE/WR Jared Cook, South Carolina - Perhaps the steal of the 2009 draft, if his regular season resembles anything like his preseason and camp production. The Titans will get creative in finding ways to isolate him on defenders in one-on-one situations.

Rd. 3/94, CB Ryan Mouton, Hawaii - Was coming on to claim the third cornerback (outside) job when a high ankle sprain shelved him. Judging from the others in that competition, the spot will be waiting for him when he returns. Also could get into punt/kickoff return mix.

Rd. 4/130, LB Gerald McRath, Southern Miss - McRath will cut his teeth on special teams this year, but coaches like him enough that he could be the heir apparent to Keith Bulluck, perhaps as early as next year.

Rd. 4/135, OT Troy Kropog, Tulane - It will be mostly a sit and learn season for Kropog, who is being groomed to be the third tackle behind Michael Roos and David Stewart.

Rd. 5/173, RB Javon Ringer, Michigan State - Ringer immediately seized the No. 3 running back spot with an impressive camp. He could be in the kickoff return mix and get a few carries a game, even in a crowded backfield.

Rd. 6/203, CB Jason McCourty, Rutgers - McCourty will play on special teams and be a project fourth or fifth corner as a rookie.

Rd. 6/206, WR Dominique Edison, Stephen F. Austin - Edison came on in camp, showing good hands, and appears to have passed Lavelle Hawkins and Paul Williams in the receiver pecking order.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter - Kerry Collins. Backups - Vince Young, Patrick Ramsey.

Collins has an upgraded supporting cast this time around, and will be counted on make the offense more balanced than a year ago. Given time and protection, he can still rifle the ball at age 36. Young has gotten better this offseason, but is still plagued by poor decision-making at times. Ramsey is a nice insurance policy at No. 3, but the Titans in most years past have only carried two QBs.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Chris Johnson, FB Ahmard Hall. Backups - LenDale White, Javon Ringer.

Johnson is poised to do even more in year two after a stellar rookie season (1,228 yards). He should still get about 60 percent of the carries, while White is slimmer and more determined this time around. Ringer's strong preseason might necessitate him getting 4-5 carries a game as well, while Hall remains an underrated standout fullback.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Bo Scaife. Backups - Alge Crumpler, Jared Cook, Craig Stevens.

Scaife led the Titans with 58 catches last year, and was franchised. Had the Titans known then they would be getting such a prospect in Cook, perhaps they wouldn't have franchised Scaife, though the veteran will still get the chance to produce. Crumpler has added bulk and will be the primary blocking tight end, but still has good hands, too.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Nate Washington, Justin Gage. Backups - Kenny Britt, Dominique Edison, Lavelle Hawkins.

Washington is currently down with a hamstring injury, but is a solid upgrade and nice deep-threat complement to holdover Gage, who becomes the possession receiver. Britt will start while Washington is out and is a big-play threat. Behind them, depth is thin, as Edison is a rookie project, and Hawkins has not yet shown consistency. It gives the Titans an excuse to use Cook as a WR in certain packages.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Michael Roos, LG Eugene Amano, C Kevin Mawae, RG Jake Scott, RT David Stewart. Backups - C/G Leroy Harris, T/G Mike Otto, T Troy Kropog.

Roos and the veteran Mawae, back from elbow surgery, are Pro Bowl players, while Stewart is rising to that level as well. Scott proved solid after coming from rival Indy last year, while Amano mans the other spot. Harris is good enough to start at guard or center, while Otto and Kropog are youngsters earning their stripes under Coach Mike Munchak's tutelage.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Jevon Kearse, LDT Jason Jones, RDT Tony Brown, RDT Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups - DE Jacob Ford, DE Dave Ball, DE William Hayes, DT Jovan Haye, DT Kevin Vickerson, DT Sen'Derrick Marks.

The Titans are overloaded on the d-line, with a healthy Vanden Bosch (groin) and Jones key to offsetting the loss of Albert Haynesworth. Brown slides into Haynesworth's RDT spot, letting Jones and Haye split time on the left where they are more comfortable. Keeping 10 defensive linemen might be unusual, but all these guys are NFL quality players who should contribute at some point this year.

LINEBACKER: Starters - LLB David Thornton, MLB Stephen Tulloch, RLB Keith Bulluck. Backups - OLB Gerald McRath, OLB Stanford Keglar, MLB Colin Allred, MLB Ken Amato.

The starters here are solid and do their jobs in coverage and stopping the run well. They aren't asked to blitz very much, so they won't rack up sack totals, but will lead the team in tackles. The Titans are likely to go young with their backups. They are high on the potential of McRath and Keglar, while Allred gets high marks on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Cortland Finnegan, FS Michael Griffin, SS Chris Hope, LCB Nick Harper. Backups - S Vincent Fuller (nickel), CB Ryan Mouton, CB Jason McCourty or CB Cary Williams, CB DeMarcus Faggins, S Donnie Nickey.

All but Harper made the Pro Bowl last year from the starting unit. The first four are solid, as is nickel back Fuller, who doubles as a backup safety. Beyond that, it is scary. Rookie Mouton should be OK as a backup cornerback, but is out with a high ankle sprain. McCourty is probably fighting Williams for one spot, with the loser likely going to practice squad. Faggins struggled badly enough in preseason that a perusal of the waiver wire for an upgrade at one or more backups spots here is likely.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Rob Bironas, P Craig Hentrich, LS Ken Amato, PR Mark Jones or Ryan Mouton, KOR Jones or Javon Ringer.

Bironas is one of the NFL's best kickers and was rewarded with a new contract in the offseason. Hentrich returns after pondering retirement. The veteran is solid, but don't be surprised if the Titans keep A.J. Trapasso on the practice squad as insurance. Jones is clinging by a thread in his bid to win the return jobs. Mouton's injury helps him, but Ringer might win the kickoff job. Another area where waiver wire help is a possible.

Tagged: Titans

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