Postcard from camp: Titans
In northwest Nashville at Baptist Sports Park, the Titans' year-round headquarters and training camp home. Downtown, just five miles southeast, is LP Field, home of the largest HD video screens outside of Cowboys Stadium. Two measuring 54 feet tall by 157 feet wide were put up at the north and south ends as part of a $27 million investment to upgrade the 13-year-old stadium. The better to see a rebuilding team that won nine games last season and came within a Colts game of making the playoffs.
With so much yet to be determined at so many key areas -- the quarterback battle between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, the confidence of All-Pro running back Chris Johnson, the maturation of this young defense -- it's tough to figure exactly how this team will look by the time it hosts New England on Sept. 9. Certainly all the pieces are here for a playoff run. It's just a matter of fitting them together properly.
"I think if this had been my first time as a coordinator I would've tried to force everything down their throats like I did in Buffalo, and fail like I did that first year," said Gray, a 15-year coaching veteran. "[In Tennessee] we put in a simple cover-2 package and some little blitz packages, but for the most part we just ran what those guys knew."
The result was a unit that played passively and totaled 28 sacks, the second fewest in the league. This year, the Titans have the time and the talent to pressure the passer. In addition to hiring four defensive assistants -- chief among them former Defensive Player of the Year Keith Millard, whose official title is "pass rush specialist" -- the Titans signed seven-year veteran Kamerion Wimbley, a tall, athletic linebacker who moves to defensive end. The result (so far) is a unit that's as fast and feisty as ever. I counted two instances where Hasselbeck -- attired, as is customary for quarterbacks in practice, in a red non-contact jersey -- was struck by one or more surging defenders.
His confidence is still a work in progress. It was there in practices, and fleeting in the preseason opener at Seattle last Saturday, in which he tallied eight yards on five carries. Johnson is a better player for his adversities. If he had to go through them again, he would. "It's something that I don't regret," he said. "At the end of the day it's about business."
Some are skeptical of his chances of replacing the eminently versatile Finnegan -- whose free agent departure to St. Louis cost the Titans' arguably their best defender from 2011 -- but around here that's just a rite of passage. Finnegan was similarly doubted when he took the baton from Adam Jones, as was Jones when he filled Samari Rolle's void. Verner doesn't mind the criticism. "Everybody has the right to voice it," he said. "It's just my job to silence the critics, go out there and perform."
Hutchinson is also a quick study, adapting on the fly last year when first-year coordinator Bill Musgrave replaced Minnesota's hybrid West Coast scheme with the run-based, ball control offense that he ran in Atlanta. Mastering Palmer's offense, which is more pass-based, should be no sweat.
The Titans drew the league's fifth-easiest schedule, but there are few slouches on this slate. Tennessee's first four games are against New England, at San Diego, against Detroit and at division champion Houston. Less than two weeks later comes a date against Pittsburgh, three weeks after that comes another against Chicago. If the Titans can come out of that rough first half unscathed and finish strong in games against the Jets, at the Packers and the Jaguars, they'll more than redeem last year's postseason near-miss. They'll be one of the conference's toughest outs.