1 Tennessee Titans With Jevon Kearse finally healthy, the defense is ready to, once again, get its freak on

August 31, 2003

Like most athletes dealing with their first significant injury,
defensive end Jevon Kearse didn't handle his well. He says he
went into a deep funk last season while waiting for his
surgically repaired left foot to heal. He sulked. He wouldn't
talk about the injury with his relatives. And he spent far too
much time thinking about his life, pondering what he might do
when his career ended, which only made matters worse. He couldn't
think of a single option.

The Freak is a different man today. He smiles easily, jokes often
and generally thinks pleasant thoughts, often about returning to
work with a defensive line that includes a Pro Bowl end (Kevin
Carter), a monstrous tackle (Albert Haynesworth) and a
second-year end who tallied eight sacks in Kearse's absence
(Carlos Hall). "When I watched those guys play together last
year," says Kearse, a three-time Pro Bowler, "I had one thought:
What would it be like if I was out there and healthy?"

Tennessee can't wait to find out. A fracture of the fifth
metatarsal in Kearse's left foot limited him to the season opener
and the last three regular-season games, but the Titans finished
11-5 and won the AFC South. Now they can look forward to having
Kearse back at full power, though he was slowed in training camp
by a right ankle sprain. He first underwent surgery last
September--doctors put a screw in the broken bone--but the foot
didn't heal properly. Constant soreness late in the season forced
him back to the operating table on Feb. 13 for bone-graft
surgery. That seemed to do the trick. At the start of training
camp Kearse said, "I already feel 100 percent better than I did
at any time last season." When asked if anything should be read
into the coaches' limiting him to one practice during the first
week of two-a-days, Kearse said, "Trust me, if we had a game
tomorrow, I'd be able to play the whole way."

If Kearse returns to top form--he averaged 12 sacks during his
first three seasons--the Titans' defense should be even better
than last season's unit, which ranked 10th in the league. His
presence was undeniable when he came back last December.
Tennessee surrendered a total of 20 points. "It was amazing how
much faster quarterbacks were getting rid of the ball when Jevon
was in the game," says defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

Adds coach Jeff Fisher, "Jevon dictates protection schemes. When
he wasn't in there, we didn't have that rare speed coming off the
edge."

The 6'5", 290-pound Carter certainly will benefit from Kearse's
return. Carter had 10 sacks in 2002 despite facing constant
double teams. The Titans have little depth at defensive
tackle--Haynesworth and Robaire Smith will play most of the
snaps--but Schwartz already plans to move Carter to tackle on
passing downs. That would give Tennessee a line of Kearse,
Carter, Haynesworth and Hall, a look the Titans used late last
season. "The coaches will be able to juggle us all to create the
best matchups," Kearse says. "We're going to have a lot of
playmakers up front."

That's not the only place Tennessee will have playmakers. Samari
Rolle is an excellent shutdown cornerback, and he has two
ferocious hitters behind him in safeties Lance Schulters and Tank
Williams. The linebacking corps features a pair of young stars on
the outside. Peter Sirmon was so productive in his first year as
a starter that St. Louis tried to sign him as a restricted free
agent during the off-season. Keith Bulluck, who led the team in
tackles last season, is telling his teammates to play with the
same sense of urgency that they displayed in rebounding from a
1-4 start last year. "We started in a ditch and climbed all the
way out," Bulluck says. "We called ourselves the Tyrants because
we had to bully our way to the top. We still have to think of
ourselves as underdogs."

Opponents will have trouble thinking of them that way. With
Kearse bolstering the defense and ever-dangerous quarterback
Steve McNair directing the offense, the Titans will be among the
favorites for the AFC title. "With all the guys we have coming
back," Kearse says, "we're going to be scary." --J.C.

COLOR PHOTO: PRESTON MACK/BRSP A CURSE LIFTED After a frustrating rehab, Kearse is back doing what he does best: terrifying quarterbacks. COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS WILLIAMS COLOR PHOTO

UNDER THE GUN

Because he's a breakaway threat, running back ROBERT HOLCOMBE
is better suited to the Titans' wide-open offense than Eddie
George. A hip injury limited Holcombe to eight games last year,
but he still averaged 5.1 yards on 47 carries. With George's
durability in question, Holcombe needs to make the most of
whatever opportunities he gets.

ENEMY LINES
An opposing scout's view

"Steve McNair is obviously their MVP. He has a cannon, and he
understands the game better. He's not trying to run as often, and
when he does scramble, he's looking to make a play downfield. The
big question is, Will he stay healthy?... Eddie George isn't as
dominant as he used to be. When you're a punishing runner and you
carry the ball as much as he has, you tend to decline pretty
fast.... They really don't have impressive talent at receiver.
Frank Wycheck is getting old. Derrick Mason has quickness and
good hands, but he doesn't have great deep speed.... Benji Olson
and Zach Piller are as tough as nails. They aren't very mobile,
but they're superaggressive at the point of attack.... I think
their lack of depth at defensive tackle will be an issue. They
have to hope Albert Haynesworth can hold up while playing more
snaps.... I like the young safety Tank Williams. They have a very
complicated system, and they rely on their safeties to make a lot
of adjustments. He picked it up pretty fast.... This team will be
good as long as the starters stay healthy. If the Titans have to
rely on too many second-line guys, they're in trouble."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 7 OAKLAND
14 at Indianapolis
21 NEW ORLEANS
28 at Pittsburgh

Oct. 5 at New England
12 HOUSTON
19 at Carolina
26 at Jacksonville

Nov. 2 Open date
9 MIAMI
16 JACKSONVILLE
23 AT ATLANTA

Dec. 1 at N.Y. Jets (Mon.)
7 INDIANAPOLIS
14 BUFFALO
21 at Houston
28 TAMPA BAY

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 9
Opponents' 2002 winning percentage: .523
Games against playoff teams: 7

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2002 statistics

2002 RECORD: 11-5
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 11/20/17
DEFENSE 2/25/10

COACH: Jeff Fisher; 10th season with Tennessee (76-58 in NFL)

EDDIE GEORGE

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
RB 25 343 1,165 3.4

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
36 255 7.1 14

STEVE MCNAIR

POS. PVR ATT. COMP. %
QB 41 492 301 61.2

YARDS TDs INT. RATING
3,387 22 15 84.0

GREG COMELLA

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
FB 394 1 0 --

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
10 70 7.0 0

DERRICK MASON

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 67 79 1,012 5

FRANK WYCHECK

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
TE 141 40 346 2

BRAD HOPKINS

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LT 6'3" 305 lbs. 14 14

ZACH PILLER

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LG 6'5" 315 lbs. 13 13

JUSTIN HARTWIG

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
C 6'4" 300 lbs. 3 0

BENJI OLSON

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RG 6'4" 315 lbs. 16 16

FRED MILLER

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RT 6'7" 315 lbs. 16 16

DREW BENNETT

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 192 33 478 2

DEFENSE

RE JEVON KEARSE 4 tackles 2 sacks
RT ALBERT HAYNESWORTH 30 tackles 1 sack
LT ROBAIRE SMITH 34 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
LE KEVIN CARTER 42 tackles 10 sacks
OLB KEITH BULLUCK 127 tackles 1 sack
MLB BRAD KASSELL 0 tackles 0 sacks
OLB PETER SIRMON 93 tackles 2 sacks
CB SAMARI ROLLE 48 tackles 2 int.
SS TANK WILLIAMS 61 tackles 1 int.
FS LANCE SCHULTERS 84 tackles 6 int.
CB ANDRE DYSON 61 tackles 3 int.

SPECIAL TEAMS PVR

K JOE NEDNEY 212 36/36 XPs 25/31 FGs 111 PTS.
PR DERRICK MASON 67 9 RET. 6.7 AVG. 0 TDS
KR JUSTIN MCCAREINS 285 13 RET. 23.1 AVG. 0 TDS
P CRAIG HENTRICH 65 PUNTS 41.9 AVG.

PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 89)

"Derrick Mason has quickness and good hands, but he doesn't
have great deep speed."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)