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NASHVILLE – Zach Cunningham didn’t need much time to make a good impression.

Who knows how good he’ll be with a full offseason of preparation?

The veteran inside linebacker stepped right into the middle of the Tennessee Titans defense last December when – just a week after getting claimed off waivers – he posted a team-high six tackles against Pittsburgh.

That pattern continued for the next month, as Cunningham led or tied for the team lead in tackles in four of the five games he played. During that stretch, Cunningham piled up 35 stops, a team-high total that was well ahead of second-place Amani Hooker, who produced 23. In fact, Cunningham had more solo stops than any of his teammates had solo tackles over that span.

“I think I came in and played pretty good,” Cunningham, who previously played under head coach Mike Vrabel in Houston, said. “There were some things with the defense that I already knew, so it was easier for me to pick up on. That was a plus for me coming into this team and the defense. I felt like I was able to pick up on things really quickly.”

A rundown of the Titans' leaders in tackles over the last five games of the 2021 season:

PlayerGamesTotal TacklesSoloAssisted

Zach Cunningham

5

35

26

9

Amani Hooker

5

23

12

11

Kevin Byard

5

22

16

6

Harold Landry

5

18

10

8

Kristian Fulton

5

17

13

4

David Long

3

17

10

7

Still, there are reasons to believe the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Cunningham will be even more of a force for the Titans in 2022.

One is simply the five games he played for Tennessee in 2021, which provided first-hand experience with the system.

Perhaps more importantly, Cunningham should benefit from a Titans minicamp and training camp, two things he didn’t have under his belt when he jumped in cold turkey last season.

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“Anytime you come in mid-year, it’s tough,” defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “Especially when you get thrown in the fire and you’ve got to go. So I think him just being here throughout training camp, continuing to become familiar with the players and the coaches … that’s a big part of it.

“I speak about relationships all the time and I think that’s a huge part of it, especially with his teammates, the guys he’s going to be out there with -- building that trust with them, and then ultimately just the understanding of the scheme and what we’re asking those guys to do.”

Also, Cunningham once again be playing under inside linebackers coach Bobby King, who replaced Jim Haslett during the offseason. King was Houston’s inside linebackers coach from 2018-2020, when Cunningham averaged 138 tackles per season – a total that included an NFL-high 164 in 2020.

“Oh yeah, it’s definitely going to be great to work with him again,” Cunningham said. “I loved him when we were back in Houston … so it’s going to be a good thing to get back with him.”

Added King: “It helps when you have a prior relationship with somebody. We had some solid years together. So it’s been good to get back with Zach, and I’m expecting a solid season out of him.”

The 27-year-old Cunningham traditionally has been stronger in run defense than in pass coverage. He’s never graded lower than 72.0 against the run, per Pro Football Focus, while never grading higher than 63.0 against the pass. The disparity was greater during Cunningham’s four regular-season games with the Titans last season, when he earned a 91.7 grade against the run, a 49.1 grade against the pass.

“Definitely there are things I can improve upon, like within pass coverage and even in the run game,” Cunningham said. “That’s going to help (having an) offseason, coming into it from the get-go, from the jump.”

Having seen Cunningham plenty of times over the years, King believes that when the speedy, hard-hitting linebacker is at his best, there aren’t many weaknesses.

“He’s a complete player,” King said. “He can play the run, he can cover. There’s not a whole lot in his game that he can’t do when he’s at the top of his game. He’s an instinctive guy and we expect him to have a solid year.”

Cunningham should prove part of a complementary inside linebacker pairing with David Long, who had a breakout season last year. In his first year as a starter, Long’s 10-game totals – 75 tackles, four tackles for loss, two interceptions and six passes defensed – were impressive.

“We’re both physical guys -- fast guys, quick guys, guys that can play every down, I believe,” Cunningham said. “So that will definitely play a big factor to this season.”

A season in which Cunningham’s second impression might even top his first.