3 Tennessee TITANS

The defense's new boss knows all about smashmouth. But can hard hitting make up for a massive loss up front?
September 06, 2009

IT HAS been 16years since a certain weekly sports magazine asked on its cover if Chuck Cecilwas TOO VICIOUS FOR THE NFL? Even now, at 44, the Titans' new defensivecoordinator gets the itch to hit someone. While he can't deliver the sorts ofshots he was known for during his seven seasons as a contact-craving,All-Madden safety, he's still feisty. "He actually gave me a little headbutt before the Hall of Fame game—and I was the only one in a helmet," saysAll-Pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan. "That's just Chuck being Chuck. Whenhe played, he was a trash-talking, hit-you-in-the-mouth kind of guy. For him,head-butting is getting us ready for the game."

Cecil, who ratedSI's cover because of a particularly violent hit on a Redskins tight end, facesthe challenge of replacing Jim Schwartz, who after eight years as defensivecoordinator takes over as the Lions' coach. Last season, with Cecil assecondary coach, the Titans' D allowed just 14.6 points per game, second onlyto the Super Bowl--champion Steelers' 13.9. Cecil has been with the team sincebreaking in as a lowly quality-control assistant in 2001, and his promotion isfurther evidence of the high value Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher places oncontinuity. "He was willing to learn coaching from the bottom up," saysassistant head coach Dave McGinnis. "Nothing was too menial forhim."

Despite hisreputation for intensity, Cecil rarely raises his voice on the practice fieldor in the meeting room. But then, what's there to get upset about when it comesto the Titans' defense? It sent four players to the Pro Bowl last February, andthree of them—Finnegan, and safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope—came out ofCecil's secondary. Tennessee's defensive backfield had 19 interceptions in2008.

Although theTitans lost All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who signed withWashington as a free agent, they have 10 starters back on each side of theball, and last season's playoff disappointment has left them supremelymotivated. Tennessee went 13--3 to earn the AFC's No. 1 seed and home fieldadvantage, then squandered it in a 13--10 loss to the Ravens in the divisionalround, when the offense turned the ball over three times. "There is a senseof unfinished business, but these guys understand you've got to startover," Fisher says. "You cannot archive what you've done in thisleague. It's not going to be easy, but because we're returning the starters andthe younger guys have gotten better, I feel like we're better than last year. Abetter team should do better in the playoffs."

Tennessee isindeed loaded. On offense the running game, led by Chris Johnson, piled up137.4 yards per game behind a pair of All-Pros, center Kevin Mawae and lefttackle Michael Roos. Veteran QB Kerry Collins gave his team a chance to winevery week after taking over for the erratic Vince Young, and rookies KennyBritt at receiver and Jared Cook at tight end are promising new targets.

Haynesworth, wholed the team in sacks with 8½, is an undeniable loss, but keep in mind that hewas in the game for only about 50% of the defensive snaps. And when it comes tothe defensive line, Tennessee has long preached rotation, rotation, rotation.No one player will replace the 350-pound Haynesworth at the point of attack,but Cecil is confident that Tony Brown, Jason Jones, Jovon Haye, KevinVickerson and rookie Sen'Derrick Marks will fill the void.

"I highlydoubt that losing Albert is going to be the story line of our season,"Cecil says. "Is it a possibility? Absolutely. But I would bet you a lot ofmoney that it's not. I think the guys we have here as a group are as good aswe've had. We're still going to put 11 guys out there and play Titansdefense."

PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS

COACH: JEFFFISHER
128--102 in NFL, 16th season with Titans

OFFENSE

NateWASHINGTON
POS WR
REC 40
YARDS 631
TTD 3

David STEWART
POS RT
HT 6'7"
WT 318
G 16

Chris JOHNSON
POS RB
ATT 251
YARDS 1,228
AVG 4.9
REC 43
YARDS 260
AVG 6.0
TD 10

Jake SCOTT
POS RG
HT 6'5"
WT 295
G 16

Kerry COLLINS
POS QB
ATT 415
COMP 242
PCT 58.3
YARDS 2,676
TD 12
INT 7
RATING 80.2

Kevin MAWAE
POS C
HT 6'4"
WT 289
G 15

Ahmard HALL
POS FB
REC 13
YARDS 138
TTD 2

Eugene AMANO
POS LG
HT 6'3"
WT 310
G 16

Justin GAGE
POS WR
REC 34
YARDS 651
TTD 6

Michael ROOS
POS LT
HT 6'7"
WT 315
G 16

Rob BIRONAS
POS K
FG 29--33
POINTS 127

Bo SCAIFE
POS TE
REC 58
YARDS 561
TTD 2

RB LenDale White(200 att., 773 yards, 15 TDs) will get the red-zone call; rookie WR Kenny Britt(87 rec., 1,371 yards at Rutgers) will push for a starting job.

DEFENSE

Keith BULLUCK
POS OLB
TACKLES 98
SACKS ½
INT 0

Nick HARPER
POS CB
TACKLES 71
INT 2

Jevon KEARSE
POS DE
TACKLES 34
SACKS 3½

MichaelGRIFFIN
POS FS
TACKLES 64
SACKS 1
INT 7

Tony BROWN
POS DT
TACKLES 52
SACKS 4

StephenTULLOCH

POS MLB
TACKLES 77
SACKS 1
INT 0

Jason JONES
POS DT
TACKLES 31
SACKS 5

Chris HOPE
POS SS
TACKLES 78
SACKS 1
INT 4

Kyle VANDENBOSCH
POS DE
TACKLES 24
SACKS 4½

CortlandFINNEGAN
POS CB
TACKLES 69
INT 5

David THORNTON
POS OLB
TACKLES 78
SACKS 0
INT 0

Craig HENTRICH
POS P
PUNTS 87
AVG 42.8

There's nodrop-off in the return game with free agent Mark Jones (24.0 yards per kickoff,11.4 per punt for Carolina) replacing the departed Chris Carr.

NewACQUISITION

TTD: Totaltouchdowns

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2009 SCHEDULE
2008 RECORD 13--3
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 7 > 27 > 21
DEFENSE 6 > 9 > 7

SEPTEMBER
10 at Pittsburgh (T)
20 HOUSTON
27 at N.Y. Jets

OCTOBER
4 at Jacksonville
11 INDIANAPOLIS
18 at New England
25 Bye

NOVEMBER
1 JACKSONVILLE
8 at San Francisco
15 BUFFALO
23 at Houston (M)
29 ARIZONA

DECEMBER
6 at Indianapolis
13 ST. LOUIS
20 MIAMI
25 SAN DIEGO (F)

JANUARY
3 at Seattle

(M) Monday
(T) Thursday
(F) Friday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL Rank: 14
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .508
Games against playoff teams: 6

ANALYSIS
The best record in the NFL in '08 didn't earn the Titans any favors. They takeon the three other AFC division winners, starting with the opener inPittsburgh; they face Indy and New England back-to-back before their bye; andthey have a short week to prepare for San Diego on Christmas Day (though theholiday travel should make it worse for the Chargers).

SPOTLIGHT

Nate Washington, Wide receiver

IT MAY not be too oversimplified to say that theTitans haven't gone deep into the playoffs since 2002 because they haven't hadanyone to go deep down the field. That's where Washington comes in. "Idon't have to be Superman," says Washington, the former Steelers No. 3receiver who signed with Tennessee as a free agent. "This is a team thatneeded a little bit of speed, and I can bring that with no problem."

Washington, 26, says he chose the Titans because ofhow many championship-caliber pieces they already have in place, including aPro Bowl--studded offensive line, a running game that in 2008 ranked seventh inthe NFL and a veteran quarterback in Kerry Collins.

In two of the last three seasons Washington led theSteelers in yards per catch, including 15.8 in '08, but he was overshadowed bywideouts Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. He'll have no such problem inTennessee, where the top two receivers last season were tight end Bo Scaife andrunning back Chris Johnson. Washington and Kenny Britt, the Titans' first-roundpick out of Rutgers, figure to add considerable length to a passing game thathas holdover Justin Gage as a solid possession receiver. "Nate's more thanjust a vertical threat," Titans coach Jeff Fisher says. "He's acomplete receiver. It's been a while since we've had the whole package in oneguy."

PHOTOSTREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGESPOWER TRIO Finnegan was one of three Titans defensive backs to go to last season's Pro Bowl. PHOTOGREG NELSON PHOTO

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)