Postcard from camp: Titans
More time to install the defensive scheme should result in a much better pass rush
After a down year in 2011, Chris Johnson is working on regaining his confidence
Matt Hasselbeck is trying to be more mobile, but may have already lost QB battle
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Andrew Lawrence had to say about Titans camp in Nashville, Tenn., which he visited on Aug. 3. Read all of our postcards here.
In northwest Nashville at Baptist Sports Park, the Titans' year-round headquarters and training camp home. Downtown, just five miles southeast, is LP Field, home of the largest HD video screens outside of Cowboys Stadium. Two measuring 54 feet tall by 157 feet wide were put up at the north and south ends as part of a $27 million investment to upgrade the 13-year-old stadium. The better to see a rebuilding team that won nine games last season and came within a Colts game of making the playoffs.
With so much yet to be determined at so many key areas -- the quarterback battle between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, the confidence of All-Pro running back Chris Johnson, the maturation of this young defense -- it's tough to figure exactly how this team will look by the time it hosts New England on Sept. 9. Certainly all the pieces are here for a playoff run. It's just a matter of fitting them together properly.
1. The defense is feisty again. One of the biggest ways in which the lockout hurt the Titans was in their defensive preparation. It left first-year coordinator Jerry Gray with little time to implement the 3-4 principles he prefers, so he abandoned those and installed a basic 4-3 package that he figured his young charges could absorb more quickly.
"I think if this had been my first time as a coordinator I would've tried to force everything down their throats like I did in Buffalo, and fail like I did that first year," said Gray, a 15-year coaching veteran. "[In Tennessee] we put in a simple cover-2 package and some little blitz packages, but for the most part we just ran what those guys knew."
The result was a unit that played passively and totaled 28 sacks, the second fewest in the league. This year, the Titans have the time and the talent to pressure the passer. In addition to hiring four defensive assistants -- chief among them former Defensive Player of the Year Keith Millard, whose official title is "pass rush specialist" -- the Titans signed seven-year veteran Kamerion Wimbley, a tall, athletic linebacker who moves to defensive end. The result (so far) is a unit that's as fast and feisty as ever. I counted two instances where Hasselbeck -- attired, as is customary for quarterbacks in practice, in a red non-contact jersey -- was struck by one or more surging defenders.
2. Chris Johnson has a new appreciation for camp. Last year the fifth-year back posted the most scrutinized 1,000-yard season in history. He only has himself to blame: First, he not only set the bar too high by running for over 2,000 yards in 2009 but also by declaring that he could do it again and again. Second, he operated under the delusion that such efforts can come without sweat equity. "I felt like no matter how long it took for me to get here, I could jump on the field and just be better than everybody," said Johnson, adding that he was quickly humbled. "It's crazy because any time you come to camp the first time you're still kinda nervous. It's even worse when you go into a game and it's full speed."
His confidence is still a work in progress. It was there in practices, and fleeting in the preseason opener at Seattle last Saturday, in which he tallied eight yards on five carries. Johnson is a better player for his adversities. If he had to go through them again, he would. "It's something that I don't regret," he said. "At the end of the day it's about business."
3. Matt Hasselbeck will do whatever it takes to stay in the QB competition, but is it too late? That includes cribbing moves from Locker. Determined to shed his reputation as a statue in the pocket, Hasselbeck showcased his feet in some team drills, throwing on the run and even bolting for yardage himself when he couldn't find open receivers. "I want to be able to move better," he said. "Throwing on the run is not something that I've really done a lot of in the last ... since college. It feels like that's a little bit more of what we'd like to do here." The problem is that he didn't do much of it against the Seahawks. On Monday coach Mike Munchak announced that Locker will start at Tampa on Friday. Could this be the beginning of the end for Hasselbeck?
Alterraun Verner, cornerback. The Titans won't have Cortland Finnegan to lean on in pass coverage anymore, which puts Verner on the spot. A savvy corner who completed a degree in mathematics and applied sciences at UCLA during the offseason, Verner can play outside in base defenses and inside in nickel and dime packages.
Some are skeptical of his chances of replacing the eminently versatile Finnegan -- whose free agent departure to St. Louis cost the Titans' arguably their best defender from 2011 -- but around here that's just a rite of passage. Finnegan was similarly doubted when he took the baton from Adam Jones, as was Jones when he filled Samari Rolle's void. Verner doesn't mind the criticism. "Everybody has the right to voice it," he said. "It's just my job to silence the critics, go out there and perform."
Steve Hutchinson, guard. The Titans really lucked out when they picked up the seven-time All-Pro guard on waivers. He's an ideal replacement for Jake Scott, who remains unclaimed after the team let him walk in free agency. Like Scott, Hutchinson is huge (6-foot-5, 313 pounds) and vocal, and his voice will be especially valuable in the wake of the loss of starting center Eugene Amano for the season with a torn triceps.
Hutchinson is also a quick study, adapting on the fly last year when first-year coordinator Bill Musgrave replaced Minnesota's hybrid West Coast scheme with the run-based, ball control offense that he ran in Atlanta. Mastering Palmer's offense, which is more pass-based, should be no sweat.
The Titans drew the league's fifth-easiest schedule, but there are few slouches on this slate. Tennessee's first four games are against New England, at San Diego, against Detroit and at division champion Houston. Less than two weeks later comes a date against Pittsburgh, three weeks after that comes another against Chicago. If the Titans can come out of that rough first half unscathed and finish strong in games against the Jets, at the Packers and the Jaguars, they'll more than redeem last year's postseason near-miss. They'll be one of the conference's toughest outs.