3 Tennessee TITANS

The talent is there—leadership and maturity are the pressing issues
September 05, 2010

IN RECENT years the Titans have relied on veteran leadership. Players like linebacker Keith Bulluck, center Kevin Mawae and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch helped stoke the team in great seasons like 2008, when Tennessee went 13--3, and steadied the squad in uneven years such as '09, in which the Titans rallied from an 0--6 start to finish 8--8.

The question for 2010 is whether Tennessee has any leaders left to lean on after an off-season during which the team's locker-room generals either left voluntarily or were discharged. After 10 years in Nashville, Bulluck signed with the Giants. Mawae, who helped pave the way for the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack in '09, was cut. And Vanden Bosch hit a four-year, $26 million jackpot with Detroit after the Titans refused to engage in a free-agent bidding war.

"People make a lot of ado about the leadership, but I'm not concerned about it," coach Jeff Fisher says. "The guys that left were great, but the guys we have here are still great."

The best of them is running back Chris Johnson, who last season set a league record by racking up 2,509 yards from scrimmage, including 2,006 rushing. After a brief contract dispute over the summer (he wanted to be the NFL's highest-paid player but settled for a $1.25 million raise and will make $4.2 million this year), Johnson returned to the team and set his sights on reaching another league milestone, this one even more difficult than last year's. "I'm shooting for 2,500 [rushing yards]," he says, "but I'll be happy with anything over the record [of 2,105, set by Eric Dickerson]."

That was a bold statement, even more so considering that he'll have to do it behind a tweaked offensive line. With the release of Mawae, Eugene Amano slides over from guard to center and backup Leroy Harris steps into Amano's spot. But, as Fisher pointed out at the start of camp, "I'll remind you that last year at this time, when [Johnson] wanted to be the MVP and rush for over 2,000 yards, everybody kind of said, 'Oh yeah, really? We'll see what happens.' It happens."

Johnson will have a better chance of reaching 2,500 yards if Tennessee can develop a downfield passing game to prevent defenses from stacking against the run. Even though he led the Titans to an 8--2 record after returning to the starting lineup midway through 2009, quarterback Vince Young remains the object of much scrutiny. But, according to Fisher and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, Young was a hit in the off-season (as well as in a Dallas strip club in which he got into a minor scuffle in June), which they believe portends good things this fall for the fifth-year quarterback.

"I believe we have surrounded him with the best skill players to date that he's been on the field with," Fisher says. "That simply will help in his improvement. He has room to improve, but again I think with what he was able to accomplish this off-season, all the signs are there for him to have a great year."

One of those ascending skill players around Young is receiver Kenny Britt. After a breakout 2009 rookie season in which he led the team in receiving yards (701) and made a pinballing, game-winning catch against Arizona in Week 12 to keep Tennessee in the playoff hunt, Britt returned to Nashville for spring workouts out of shape. Hamstring and knee injuries reduced him to mostly an observer in practices. A bruised confidence contributed to dropped passes, allowing Nate Washington and Lavelle Hawkins to steal reps from Britt.

"When I'm not focused on the field, I'm gonna have some drops," says Britt. "I want to be the guy who makes his quarterback look good regardless. If he throws a bad pass, I want people saying I didn't get to it. It was my fault."

By the summer Britt was ready to challenge Washington and Justin Gage for a starting job. He rededicated himself to his fitness, with an emphasis on increasing his endurance. "A lot of times [last year] I needed an IV or a muscle relaxer just to keep going at 100 percent," he says. "What I want to do this year is start out the first game going all four quarters without stopping."

Britt is growing up, and so are many of the Titans. It's good timing because this season, they'll need to.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH JEFF FISHER

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 12

QB VINCE YOUNG

G 12

ATT 259

COMP 152

PCT 58.7

YARDS 1,879

TD 10

INT 7

RATING 82.8

RB CHRIS JOHNSON

G 16

ATT 358

YARDS 2,006

AVG 5.6

REC 50

YARDS 503

AVG 10.1

TTD 16

FB AHMARD HALL

G 16

ATT 1

YARDS 5

AVG 5.0

REC 12

YARDS 79

AVG 6.6

TTD 0

WR KENNY BRITT

G 16

REC 42

YARDS 701

TTD 3

WR JUSTIN GAGE

G 12

REC 28

YARDS 383

TTD 3

TE BO SCAIFE

G 14

REC 45

YARDS 440

TTD 1

LT MICHAEL ROOS

G 16

HT 6'7"

WT 320

LG LEROY HARRIS

G 15

HT 6'3"

WT 302

C EUGENE AMANO

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 300

RG JAKE SCOTT

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 292

RT DAVID STEWART

G 15

HT 6'7"

WT 315

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 28

DE JASON BABIN

G 12

TACKLES 16

SACKS 2½

INT 0

DT JOVAN HAYE

G 15

TACKLES 32

SACKS ½

INT 0

DT JASON JONES

G 7

TACKLES 15

SACKS 4

INT 0

DE JACOB FORD

G 15

TACKLES 22

SACKS 5½

INT 0

LB WILL WITHERSPOON

G 11

TACKLES 59

SACKS 1

INT 1

LB STEPHEN TULLOCH

G 16

TACKLES 121

SACKS 2

INT 0

LB STANFORD KEGLAR

G 12

TACKLES 6

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB JASON MCCOURTY

G 15

TACKLES 29

SACKS 0

INT 0

FS MICHAEL GRIFFIN

G 16

TACKLES 77

SACKS 1

INT 1

SS CHRIS HOPE

G 16

TACKLES 81

SACKS 2

INT 3

CB CORTLAND FINNEGAN

G 13

TACKLES 63

SACKS 0

INT 5

SPECIAL TEAMS

P BRETT KERN

PUNTS 37

AVG 45.0

NET 41.4

K ROB BIRONAS

FG 27--32

XP 37--37

POINTS 118

PR ALVIN PEARMAN

RET 11

AVG 10.2

TD 0

KR KENNY BRITT

RET 8

AVG 21.8

TD 0

New acquisition

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 8--8

September

12 Oakland

19 Pittsburgh

26 at N.Y. Giants

October

3 Denver

10 at Dallas

18 at Jacksonville (M)

24 Philadelphia

31 at San Diego

November

7 BYE

14 at Miami

21 Washington

28 at Houston

December

5 Jacksonville

9 Indianapolis (T)

19 Houston

26 at Kansas City

January

2 at Indianapolis

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: T1

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .547

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 5

ANALYSIS

The Titans should avoid repeating last year's slow start—they open at home with the Raiders, then face the Roethlisbergerless Steelers—but their playoff fate will be decided by a string of five divisional opponents in the final six games. If there's a bright side to traveling to Indianapolis in Week 17, it's that the game often has been a throwaway for the Colts.

SPOTLIGHT

Derrick Morgan, Defensive end

THE TITANS didn't expect Morgan to be available to them in last April's draft. An 8--8 record left them with pick No. 16, and the chances of scoring a talent like the rangy 6' 3", 278-pound defensive end at that spot seemed unlikely. But when the Eagles traded up to grab Michigan end Brandon Graham with the 13th selection and the Giants snagged South Florida's Jason Pierre-Paul two picks later, Tennessee knew it had its man.

More so than most other teams, the Titans have a knack for developing fearsome pass rushers. It doesn't matter if they're first-rounders like Jevon Kearse (whom they took 16th overall in 1999) or second-rounders like Kyle Vanden Bosch (35th overall by the Cardinals in 2001). Their latest project is Morgan, who led the ACC in sacks (12½) last season and ended his Georgia Tech career with 30½ tackles for loss. His ability to both rush the passer and stop the run instantly boosts a defense that ranked 31st against the pass and 28th overall in 2009, Chuck Cecil's first season as coordinator.

Though Morgan was slowed by a calf injury in training camp, the Titans' coaching staff believes he has the work ethic and consistency to help fill the pass-rushing void created by the losses of Vanden Bosch (whom the Lions signed in free agency) and Kearse (not re-signed). The focus is on getting Morgan healthy and on the field. "He's got great hands and feet," coach Jeff Fisher says. "Working with [defensive line coach Jim Washburn], he's going to get significantly better."

In short, Morgan has the makings of another Titans success story.

PHOTOBILL FRAKESMIND MATTERS Britt has the tools to be an elite receiver if he keeps his head right. PHOTODONNJONESPHOTOGRAPHY.COM/TITANS

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