|While Johnson, the rookie, explodes past defenders, White (25) prefers the direct hit.
|Josh Umphrey/Getty Images|
14 at Cincinnati
5 at Baltimore
19 at Kansas City
27 INDIANAPOLIS (M)
2 GREEN BAY
16 at Jacksonville
17 at Buffalo (M)
23 N.Y. JETS
27 at Detroit (T)
14 at Houston
28 at Indianapolis
Jevon Kearse, Defensive End: After four unproductive and injury-plagued years in Philly, the Freak is back where he started in '99, looking to rebound. The man who set a rookie mark with 14 1/2 sacks in the Titans' Super Bowl season ascribes his falloff to a poor fit in the Eagles' scheme. "I'm back in a city I know, with coaches I know and a scheme I know," he says. "I'm in my comfort zone."
As Vince Young learns some new steps, a deeper and more dangerous running game will provide a dependable fallback.
The buzzword around Nashville lately is footwork, and it's used to
tout quarterback Vince Young's chief improvement under offensive coordinator
Mike Heimerdinger. After Young threw just nine touchdown passes and
17 picks in 2007, coach Jeff Fisher brought in Heimerdinger to replace Norm
Chow, who never meshed with Young. Chow tried to force him to stay in the pocket
and go for short gains rather than tailor schemes to Young's skills, which
include airing it out and creating on the run.
This is Heimerdinger's second stint as the Titans' coordinator. He had the
job from 2000 to '04, and with his guidance Steve McNair, another gifted rusher
with a strong arm, was the '03 league MVP. Heimerdinger is known for riding
quarterbacks to get the best out of them while also playing to their strengths,
and Young has embraced the approach. Despite leaving Nashville in the off-season
to take classes at Texas -- fulfilling a promise to his mother to get his
degree -- Young flew back on Wednesday nights to hit the field with Heimerdinger on
Thursdays and Fridays, honing his, yes, footwork before heading to the
video room to dissect plays.
The focus on the feet should give Young a better feel for how and when to use
his big arm. "We always say, Let your feet talk to you," says Heimerdinger. "We
did a lot of pass-rush drills so he could feel the pocket collapsing on him
while remaining composed. When his feet move too much, he knows to pull the ball
down and run."
In his first two seasons Young tended to take one look downfield and then
tuck and run if no one was open. In contrast, during the preseason he was
standing firm and scanning his options more. "He learned how to be a quarterback
this off-season," says 15th-year center Kevin Mawae, "instead of just being an
It'll help Young's development that Tennessee has added free-agent Alge
Crumpler, 30, who spent the last seven seasons with the Falcons. The four-time
Pro Bowl tight end is a reliable target who knows how to get open, qualities the
Titans need desperately in the red zone, where they ranked last in the league in
touchdown efficiency (36.4%) last season. "Throw it in the zip code, and he'll
catch it," says Heimerdinger, who also praises Crumpler's leadership in the
locker room and his commitment to building an on-field rapport with Young.
Still, Young's not going to turn into Dan Marino overnight. That's where a
solid running game comes in. Third-year back LenDale White gained 1,110 yards in
2007 and is poised to build on that. While acknowledging that he's well over his
listed 235 pounds, White insists he's in shape. "I'll let you speculate as
to the actual number," he says, "but I'm at my fighting weight." Fisher says
that White improved his conditioning in the off-season, giving him more
separation speed. Be assured, however, that White won't be trading in his
nickname, Thunder, anytime soon.
And where there's Thunder, there's usually lightning. When White was at USC,
Reggie Bush filled that role; now it looks to be Chris Johnson, the first-round
pick from East Carolina, who was the fifth back taken in the draft. The
5' 11", 200-pound Johnson led the NCAA with 2,960 all-purpose yards, and he
blew away scouts at the combine last February by running the 40 in 4.24. "He's
just a little bit faster than most guys," says Fisher with a grin. Mawae is more
direct. "Blazing," he says of Johnson's speed. "You don't realize how fast 4.24
is until you see it on the field." The Rams got an eyeful in the first preseason
game, when Johnson took a handoff from backup quarterback Kerry Collins and
rocketed virtually untouched for a 66-yard touchdown.
Knowing that he has more weapons at his disposal can only speed Young's
development as an all-around quarterback. Add a coordinator who can maximize his
talents, a calmer head and better foot ...
well, you know, and he should lead the Titans to the postseason dance again this
year. -- Lisa Altobelli