While Johnson, the rookie, explodes past defenders, White (25) prefers the direct hit.
Josh Umphrey/Getty Images
September 7 JACKSONVILLE 14 at Cincinnati 21 HOUSTON 28 MINNESOTA
October 5 at Baltimore 12 Bye 19 at Kansas City 27 INDIANAPOLIS (M)
November 2 GREEN BAY 16 at Jacksonville 17 at Buffalo (M) 23 N.Y. JETS 27 at Detroit (T)
December 7 CLEVELAND 14 at Houston 21 PITTSBURGH 28 at Indianapolis
Jevon Kearse, Defensive End: After four unproductive and injury-plagued years in Philly, the Freak is back where he started in '99, looking to rebound. The man who set a rookie mark with 14 1/2 sacks in the Titans' Super Bowl season ascribes his falloff to a poor fit in the Eagles' scheme. "I'm back in a city I know, with coaches I know and a scheme I know," he says. "I'm in my comfort zone."
As Vince Young learns some new steps, a deeper and more dangerous running game will provide a dependable fallback.
The buzzword around Nashville lately is footwork, and it's used totout quarterback Vince Young's chief improvement under offensive coordinatorMike Heimerdinger. After Young threw just nine touchdown passes and17 picks in 2007, coach Jeff Fisher brought in Heimerdinger to replace NormChow, who never meshed with Young. Chow tried to force him to stay in the pocketand go for short gains rather than tailor schemes to Young's skills, whichinclude airing it out and creating on the run.
This is Heimerdinger's second stint as the Titans' coordinator. He had thejob from 2000 to '04, and with his guidance Steve McNair, another gifted rusherwith a strong arm, was the '03 league MVP. Heimerdinger is known for ridingquarterbacks to get the best out of them while also playing to their strengths,and Young has embraced the approach. Despite leaving Nashville in the off-seasonto take classes at Texas -- fulfilling a promise to his mother to get hisdegree -- Young flew back on Wednesday nights to hit the field with Heimerdinger onThursdays and Fridays, honing his, yes, footwork before heading to thevideo room to dissect plays.
The focus on the feet should give Young a better feel for how and when to usehis big arm. "We always say, Let your feet talk to you," says Heimerdinger. "Wedid a lot of pass-rush drills so he could feel the pocket collapsing on himwhile remaining composed. When his feet move too much, he knows to pull the balldown and run."
In his first two seasons Young tended to take one look downfield and thentuck and run if no one was open. In contrast, during the preseason he wasstanding firm and scanning his options more. "He learned how to be a quarterbackthis off-season," says 15th-year center Kevin Mawae, "instead of just being anathlete."
It'll help Young's development that Tennessee has added free-agent AlgeCrumpler, 30, who spent the last seven seasons with the Falcons. The four-timePro Bowl tight end is a reliable target who knows how to get open, qualities theTitans need desperately in the red zone, where they ranked last in the league intouchdown efficiency (36.4%) last season. "Throw it in the zip code, and he'llcatch it," says Heimerdinger, who also praises Crumpler's leadership in thelocker room and his commitment to building an on-field rapport with Young.
Still, Young's not going to turn into Dan Marino overnight. That's where asolid running game comes in. Third-year back LenDale White gained 1,110 yards in2007 and is poised to build on that. While acknowledging that he's well over hislisted 235 pounds, White insists he's in shape. "I'll let you speculate asto the actual number," he says, "but I'm at my fighting weight." Fisher saysthat White improved his conditioning in the off-season, giving him moreseparation speed. Be assured, however, that White won't be trading in hisnickname, Thunder, anytime soon.
And where there's Thunder, there's usually lightning. When White was at USC,Reggie Bush filled that role; now it looks to be Chris Johnson, the first-roundpick from East Carolina, who was the fifth back taken in the draft. The5' 11", 200-pound Johnson led the NCAA with 2,960 all-purpose yards, and heblew away scouts at the combine last February by running the 40 in 4.24. "He'sjust a little bit faster than most guys," says Fisher with a grin. Mawae is moredirect. "Blazing," he says of Johnson's speed. "You don't realize how fast 4.24is until you see it on the field." The Rams got an eyeful in the first preseasongame, when Johnson took a handoff from backup quarterback Kerry Collins androcketed virtually untouched for a 66-yard touchdown.
Knowing that he has more weapons at his disposal can only speed Young'sdevelopment as an all-around quarterback. Add a coordinator who can maximize histalents, a calmer head and better foot ... well, you know, and he should lead the Titans to the postseason dance again thisyear. -- Lisa Altobelli
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