Tennessee Titans 2009 Preview
The Tennessee Titans seem to almost be taking a hands-off approach to the 2009 season. Perhaps that’s to be expected from a franchise that’s employed the same head coach for 16 years. Owner Bud Adams — who’s so hands-off that he still makes his home in Houston, some 785 miles from Nashville — believes Jeff Fisher and his Titans, who were an AFC-best 13-3 last season, have enough weapons to capture the Lombardi Trophy that has eluded this otherwise successful organization.
Only two new starters were brought in over the offseason, both to fill spots vacated by departed free agents: wide receiver Nate Washington steps in for Brandon Jones (now a 49er) and defensive tackle Jovan Haye replaces Albert Haynesworth (now a Redskin). The Washington acquisition is nothing new, really. The Titans have been infusing their mundane passing attack with middle-tier free agent receivers for years, each time investing a little more hope in the chance at striking gold. They did this with Yancey Thigpen in 1998. Then Carl Pickens in 2000. Then David Givens in 2006, and Eric Moulds in 2007. None worked out. Washington could buck this trend if he adjusts to this precision-passing offense. Or, he could represent a fruitless six-year, $27 million expenditure. In the end, the Titans will still be a run-first offense either way.
As scrutinized as it has been, the Haynesworth loss is also nothing new. After all, in 2007 Fisher and GM Mike Reinfeldt saw defensive linemen Antwan Odom, Travis LaBoy and Randy Starks break out and immediately leave for greener (as in money) pastures in free agency. None of the three did much in their respective new homes in ’08, while the Titans, on the other hand, actually got better.
Given that Tennessee never budged on its low-ball, incentives-laden offer to Haynesworth (the $20 million in guarantees they proposed were less than half of the guarantee money he received from the Redskins). It’s apparent the Titans believe they had maxed out their return on the star defensive tackle and can thrive with defensive line coach extraordinaire Jim Washburn developing a new wave of players. Smart thinking––Washburn’s defensive lines, while decent in talent but by no means mesmerizing, have been the biggest reason why this unassuming club has gone to the playoffs each of the past two years. With Washburn’s wisdom, the Titans ostensibly can carry on even with longtime defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz now serving as the head coach in Detroit. (Secondary coach Chuck Cecil assumes Schwartz’s old job.)
The franchise’s recent stability helps this cause. Tennessee’s roster management has been superb since Reinfeldt arrived in 2007. Under his guidance, the Titans have aced two first-round draft choices (safety Michael Griffin in ’07, running back Chris Johnson in ’08), plugged holes with solid, cost-effective veteran acquisitions (see guard Jake Scott, defensive end Jevon Kearse, safety Chris Hope) and reaped the rewards of a steadfast commitment to developing talent from within (see left tackle Michael Roos, tight end Bo Scaife, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Cortland Finnegan).
The topic of developing talent from within versus signing mid-major veteran free agents brings us to the quarterback situation. In the most positive of signs, there is no quarterback situation. Thirty-six-year-old journeyman Kerry Collins (who re-signed for two years, $15 million) is the starter, and 26-year-old enigma Vince Young (whom Bud Adams ostensibly compelled his staff to draft No. 3 overall in 2006) is the backup. Those who need to be told why haven’t been watching pro football the past 12 months.
So Collins and 19 other starters are back. But are they forming the team that started 10-0 last season, or the one that finished 3-4? Depends how you look at it. Some see a reliable, ball-control offense. Others see a lack of firepower. Some see veteran leadership in players like Collins, center Kevin Mawae and linebacker Keith Bulluck. Others see declining old-timers who are likely gone after the season (Mawae and Bulluck are both in contract years). Optimists crow that this is a fairly deep club. Pessimists quip “not anymore”, as a slew of players that includes Mawae, defensive tackle Tony Brown, defensive lineman Dave Ball and cornerback Nick Harper spent the offseason recovering from various surgeries.
The Titans are not a pretty team, which leaves their image up to the eye of the beholder. So, let’s take a closer look.
Kerry Collins’s two-year contract does not mean a two-year wait on the Vince Young era. Simply put, there’s not going to be a Vince Young era. The man does not have the mental makeup and pocket-passing skills to be an NFL quarterback. That’s why he may not even play ahead of free agent veteran Patrick Ramsey. In fact, Collins’s appeal is that he’s essentially the anti-Vince Young. He’s overcome personal adversity. He’s a fundamentally-sound passer. He’s not mobile, but he doesn’t have to be because he can read defenses.
Collins can still sling a football, though he no longer has the arm to rifle accurate passes in the face of an enveloping blitz. This became a problem down the stretch last season. The Titans hope that having better receivers could discourage teams from blitzing the kitchen sink at their 36-year-old. Nate Washington is not a star––heck, the guy took a few years just to become the No. 3 in Pittsburgh––but he’s speedy enough to be a downfield threat. Fellow starting receiver Justin Gage is capable of getting downfield, but he can’t be counted on to consistently shake defenders or corral tough catches in traffic. Still, playing across from a more viable threat like Washington should allow Gage to increase his reception total from 34 to something closer to 50. First-round rookie Kenny Britt is expected to become the unquestioned No. 1 receiver at some point, but for the time being, Britt’s big-play ability will be relegated to the slot, ahead of speedy but unreliable Chris Davis, and second-year possession man Lavelle Hawkins.
Tight ends Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler can bring something in the passing game, but offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger wants to focus more of the aerial attack on electrifying second-year running back Chris Johnson. The cantankerous Heimerdinger has said it’s up to Johnson to accept a more complex role. The thought of Johnson with the ball in space is bone-chilling to any defensive player who has tried tackling the ultra-quick, elusive star.
Johnson’s increased versatility would surely spice up the self-described “Smash ‘N Dash” ground game that he and 235-pound-plus running back LenDale White form. White has slimmed down in hopes of improving upon his ’08 numbers (773 yards, 3.9 ypc, 15 TD) in this, his contract year. But he could live 12 months a year off Nutrisystem and he’d still be a rotund pounder. White’s slow feet and methodical initial burst (which is barely a burst at all) draw critics, but the bottom line is, the man always falls forward. White brings great power behind unheralded fullback Ahmard Hall and should have no trouble keeping coveted fifth-round rookie Javon Ringer on the bench.
Making life easy on all these skill position players is the fact that this might be the most cohesive front five in football. The credit is widespread, starting with future Hall of Fame center Kevin Mawae. The 38-year-old isn’t just some wily veteran who calls great signals and unites the locker room––he’s still a trailblazing run-blocker who dominates at the second level. Mawae’s aptitude is the reason powerful but shaky left guard Eugene Amano can handle a starting role. Both men’s contracts expire after ’09, though, and with coaches, for some reason, being high on versatile third-year pro Leroy Harris, it’s doubtful that Mawae and Amano will play together past this season.
Right guard Jake Scott forms an excellent tandem with mudder right tackle David Stewart. Scott has sound strength and creates great angles in the run game. Stewart can move players when he gathers his technique, but more often he’s fistfighting for survival. Saving the best for last, we come to left tackle Michael Roos, a long-armed 315-pounder who enters his fifth season having just made his first Pro Bowl. Roos is so steady that he simply blends in. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak––one of the best in the business, by the way––runs a scheme that often asks Roos to seal as a run-blocker rather than lead out in front. Roos is as strong in this capacity as he is in pass-blocking, where he surrendered just one sack all of last season.
The Titans are often an illustration of what a perfectly-executed Cover 2 looks like. The four downlinemen all shoot the gaps with alacrity, outside linebackers David Thornton and Keith Bulluck cover the flats with keen play recognition, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch rarely gets blocked and misses few tackles, the cornerbacks all play the ball and the safeties consistently stay deeper than the deepest wide receiver.
Obviously, every sector of the defense depends on another sector, though as with any Cover 2, the difference between mediocrity and greatness is found up front. First-time defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil will succeed as long as defensive line coach Jim Washburn keeps finding ways to collapse the pocket with only four men. That was easy to do with double-team magnate Albert Haynesworth, but now Washburn must make do with defensive tackles Tony Brown and Jovan Haye.
The 28-year-old Brown went from fringe starter to fringe Pro Bowler last season. He gets off the ball extremely well and forces offensive linemen to scramble throughout an entire play. If he can learn to shed double-teams, this front four will be fine. Haye is an astute run-stopper who will come off the field for intriguing second-year pro Jason Jones on third down. Titans coaches are adamant about Jones increasing his weight from 260 to 280-plus because he flashes great long-term potential as an everydown force. Of course, if they were unwaveringly confident in Jones’s ability to be more than just an athletic one-gap rusher, they probably wouldn’t have spent their second-round draft pick on 308-pound Sen’Derrick Marks.
Tennessee’s defensive line overwhelms opponents by muddying the pocket on every snap. To do this, they rely on rotating fresh bodies. Thus, all four defensive tackles will see significant action in 2009, just as backup defensive ends William Hayes, Jacob Ford and Dave Ball will see plenty of snaps behind starters Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch (and not just because the nimble Kearse, who battled offseason knee problems, and tenacious Vanden Bosch are both injury prone).
Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch probably wouldn’t have surpassed Ryan Fowler on the depth chart as quickly as he did if not for this destructive front four. Tulloch is at least 15 pounds lighter than the 250-pound Fowler and has some minor trouble shedding blocks. But when he’s untouched, he’s very effective. The guidance of veteran outside linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton are a big reason why.
Good as front four has been, it’s the improvement of the secondary that’s pushed the Titans defense into the upper echelon. Most notably, the improvement of cornerback Cortland Finnegan. It’s not often you see a seventh-round pick from a small school like Samford struggle as a rookie and then blossom into a first-class star by Year Three. But that’s exactly what Finnegan did in 2008. Chippy almost to a fault (he must drastically cut back on penalties), Finnegan is a staunch press corner who plays underneath yet can blanket receivers over the top. He’s also tremendous against the run.
Teams will start avoiding Finnegan this season––especially with Tennessee losing its top three backup corners in free agency and relying now on either Demarcus Faggins or third-round rookie Ryan Mouton in nickel. If the nickelback isn’t targeted, No. 2 corner Nick Harper, a stellar but somewhat reactionary Cover 2 aficionado, will be.
Strong safety Chris Hope is used in a variety of ways, while free safety Michael Griffin is primarily the last line of defense. Neither is particularly fast or hard-hitting, but both are borderline Pro Bowlers because they’re comfortable in this scheme.
Kicker Rob Bironas would have been franchise tagged had he not signed a four-year, $12 million contract. That’s how much the Titans like the big-legged ex-Arena Leaguer. Punter Craig Hentrich pondered retirement but decided that, at 38, he could gut through one more year of back pain in exchange for a $1.8 million salary.
Return specialist Mark Jones may have trouble making the final roster considering he can’t be of much service on offense. If Jones is gone, either Ryan Mouton or receiver Chris Davis could get a look.
There’s really no reason to doubt this team other than the fact the defense lost it’s most important player, Albert Haynesworth. It’s likely Tennessee can get past that, which means this is essentially the same club that won 13 games a year ago. And yet, subtly, there seems to be something missing. The Titans are old in some important places (quarterback, center, outside linebacker) and injuries––plus wear and tear––caught up to them down the stretch in ’08. With Indy still being Indy, and Houston on the rise, expect a mild decline in Music City.
Predicted finish: 3rd AFC South
| Jeff Fisher Titans, LenDale White Titans, Tennessee Titans Kenny Britt, Tennessee Titans predictions, Tennessee Titans preview, Titans preview 2009