The Titans simulated game action with some 11-on-11 at their home stadium. It was a session that saw the best, and the worst, of Jake Locker as the young QB tries to cement himself in the Titans' long-term plans
By Dan Greene (@)
I’m at LP Field, just across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville, where the Titans are holding a sunset-wrapped Saturday night practice seven days before hosting the Packers in their preseason opener. After a week of sessions at the team’s training facility five miles away, new head coach Ken Whisenhunt put his team in game-like conditions. He gave each unit a 12-play drive against its counterpart—first team on first team, second team on second team—with an officiating crew, down and distance markers, and headset play-calling. But alas, it is not yet time for live tackling, so full-blown football must wait a bit more.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Jake Locker moving the ball well on the starting unit’s lone possession. His blockers gave him time to step up and find Nate Washington again and again. All told, Locker completed six of seven passes on the drive, yet the one incompletion was concerning. Looking for tight end Delanie Walker down the seam in the end zone, Locker’s underthrown ball hit the hands of linebacker Zach Brown. Brown flubbed the would-be interception, but those balls won’t always be dropped. Somewhere on the divide between Locker’s half-dozen completions and the errant pass that nearly undermined the whole drive, the Titans offense hinges.
How this team can go 12–4
Any path to double-digit victories begins with a four-game feast of Jacksonville and Houston, Tennessee’s transitioning AFC South brethren. To win within their division and beyond, Whisenhunt will need to shape Locker into the kind of quarterback Mike Munchak’s staff thought they were getting when they drafted him eighth overall in 2011. Locker showed flashes last season—he threw six touchdowns and no interceptions over the first four weeks. But he has had accuracy and consistency issues dating back to his collegiate career at Washington, where he completed just 54.0% of his passes, and has yet to stay healthy for a full season. Whisenhunt’s success stories (Ben Roethlisberger, Arizona-era Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers last season) are encouraging, as are Tennessee’s underrated cadre of weapons.
Defensively, new coordinator Ray Horton will have to successfully convert much of last year’s 4-3 personnel into his hybrid 3-4. Some of the changes won’t be much of a stretch, like Jurrell Casey moving to the end of the line where he’ll still play like a three-technique tackle. DE-turned-OLB Derrick Morgan will need to balance his pass-rushing prowess with a linebacker’s coverage responsibilities. And a replacement must be found for Pro Bowl corner Alterraun Verner, who signed with Tampa Bay in March.
How this team can go 4–12
If Locker again misses significant time, or just doesn’t make the proverbial leap to the next level, this team isn’t going to win a lot of games. While Whisenhunt has done wonders for other quarterbacks, the struggles of Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson and Max Hall have proven the coach is not quite an alchemist. And there remains a chance the defensive changes don’t take hold until some more tailoring is done in a second offseason.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Shonn Greene is still here. In part because upside is the elixir of fantasy sports, second-round pick Bishop Sankey has been getting seemingly all the attention in this backfield. But while the rookie will play a significant role, he won’t be getting all the touches. Greene is expected to receive more than half of the carries, which should offer fantasy owners a solid workload for a discount price in the later rounds.
2. Dexter McCluster will be in the mix too, both in the backfield and as a receiver. The former Chief signed a three-year, $12 million deal with Tennessee this offseason. He was brought in to be the kind of versatile threat Danny Woodhead was under Whisenhunt in San Diego last year. Woodhead had 1,039 total yards and eight scores in 2013, yet McCluster is often being left undrafted.
3. If you’re looking for a late flier at receiver, keep an eye on Justin Hunter. The 34th overall pick out of Tennessee in ’13, Hunter has height (6-4) and speed (4.4 40-yard dash) and has added some strength, bulking up from 193 pounds to 206 thanks in part to his girlfriend’s copious chicken dinners. Primarily a deep threat as a rookie, Hunter is now being asked to run a wider array of routes and will be a much more regular part of Whisenhunt’s offense.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Nate Washington||LDE||Ropati Pitoitua|
|LT||Michael Roos||NT||Sammie Hill|
|LG||Andy Levitre||RDE||Jurrell Casey|
|C||Brian Schwenke||OLB||Derrick Morgan|
|RG||Chance Warmack||ILB||Zach Brown|
|RT||Michael Oher||ILB||Wesley Woodyard|
|TE||Delanie Walker||OLB||Kamerion Wimbley|
|WR||Justin Hunter||CB||Jason McCourty|
|3rd WR||Kendall Wright/Dexter McCluster||CB||Coty Sensabaugh/Blidi Wreh-Wilson|
|QB||Jake Locker||SS||Bernard Pollard|
|RB||Shonn Greene/Bishop Sankey||FS||Michael Griffin|
|FB||Jackie Battle||Nickel DB||Coty Sensabaugh/George Wilson|
|K||Travis Coons/Maikon Bonani||P||Brett Kern|
Wright will start in the slot and receive ample targets, but McCluster will line up there as well and will play enough snaps all over to warrant mention among the starters... Greene will be the primary ball carrier, with Sankey receiving maybe a third of the carries plus work in the passing game. Greene worked with the first unit in the practice at LP Field... Sensabaugh, who played in the nickel package last season, has been getting a lot of work with the first team. If he ends up starting opposite McCourty, George Wilson will likely see some time in the slot... The kicker competition remains wide open.
Best new player in camp
Wesley Woodyard, linebacker. He lost his starting gig in Denver last season but landed a new one in Tennessee. Nice: Derrick Morgan’s praise of Woodyard’s work as the quarterback of Horton’s complex and adjustable defense. Nicer: Woodyard’s mostly-one-handed pick-six of Zach Mettenberger during seven-on-sevens Saturday.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Jason McCourty will make his first Pro Bowl, making him and brother Devin, a Pro Bowler for the Patriots four years ago, the third set of twins to achieve the honor.
Something I’ve never seen before
This was my first time watching an NFL team go 11-on-11 in an empty stadium. Well, mostly empty. There were some fans in the section behind where I was standing, but from my vantage point the backdrop of the action was a swath of empty blue and red seats. While watching I was intrigued by the potential novelty of an actual game being played under such circumstances—the incongruity of the field’s intensity and emotion and the atmospheric void of a towering, vacant structure surrounding it. Unfortunately that novelty would, by definition, be experienced by virtually no one. And it would never happen anyway.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
With Whisenhunt and Horton forging new identities on both sides of the ball, there are understandable reasons for optimism. But so much of this team’s course will be chartered by Locker’s success or lack thereof. Locker is in the final year of his contract, meaning the most important identity that must be resolved this fall is that of the team’s long-term quarterback: Locker, or TBD.