Tennessee's ailing secondary becomes a primary concernPosted: Monday August 11, 2003 9:55 PM
This is the eighth in a series of postcards SI.com's Don Banks will e-mail from his annual NFL training camp tour.
Monday, Aug. 11
Team: Tennessee Titans
In Nashville, at the Titans' Baptist Sports Park team complex, just minutes north of The Coliseum, its downtown stadium. Maybe it's the Southern hospitality, or maybe it's because this is my first foray this year in the more relaxed Central time zone, but there's a laid-back feeling to things around the Titans' offices. I've been to plenty of team complexes where such is not the case. In some locales, visiting reporters are as welcomed as a subpoena server. Not here. I got the feeling that if I cared to, I could have roamed the halls without setting off a seven-alarm security alert. And after all, what other NFL team has a Hall of Fame-like bust of its owner -- Bud Adams -- featured prominently in its front lobby? You gotta love the Bud man.
1. The Titans realize they lost two valuable pieces in their defensive interior with the departures of tackles John Thornton and Henry Ford, but they don't seem too worried about it. One reason is that in the second half of last season, man-child Albert Haynesworth, the team's 2002 first-round pick, started to show he's the genuine article. Haynesworth, who only turned 22 in June, finished last year with 22 quarterback pressures, second on the team to Kevin Carter's 33, and his seven tackles for loss trailed only linebacker Keith Bulluck's 10. With his rookie learning experience out of the way, Haynesworth is a solid bet to blow up even more backfields this year.
"You're going to have look long and hard to find a tackle who played better than Albert the last four or five weeks of the season," Titans head coach Jeff Fisher told me Monday.
Alongside Haynesworth will be fourth-year veteran tackle Robaire Smith, an overlooked player who crusty Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn considers "better than Thornton and Ford." Despite starting just twice last season, Smith led all Titans defensive linemen with 73 tackles, and added 2 1/2 sacks and 11 pressures. And he did it all with a string of injuries that kept him from being able to lift either arm above his shoulders.
The Titans don't have the depth they've had in recent years in the middle of their D-line, but don't fret too much. They've still got some front-line horses up front.
2. While no one was looking, the Titans climbed out of a 1-4 hole last season, won 10 of 11 and went on to play in the AFC title game. And a peek at Tennessee's early-season schedule this year reveals it could lead to another rough beginning. The Titans' first five games are all against teams that finished last season with a winning record, highlighted by the AFC Championship Game rematch against visiting Oakland in the Sept. 7 Sunday-night season opener.
After that big emotional crescendo, the Titans play at Indianapolis, home against New Orleans, at Pittsburgh at New England. All told, after being home in Week 1, Tennessee has just two more home games over the course of the following eight weeks. Throw in that the Titans play their final two preseason games on the road and it means Tennessee will be playing before the home folks just three times in 11 weeks.
When I asked Fisher about the tough early going, he made but one observation: "All five of those teams have got to play us, too. They're probably not happy we're on their schedule, either."
3. Word around camp is that Outland Trophy winner Rien Long was duly humbled by his draft-weekend tumble to the fourth round, and that the Titans have not seen any sign of the arrogant, got-it-made persona that the Washington State defensive tackle displayed at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. That's the sign of a lesson learned.
Long's reputation and attitude undoubtedly hurt him in the draft, where he lasted until the second day, going 126th overall. The Titans are hoping that the 6-foot-6, 302-pound Long can be counted on for about 20 snaps per game in their defensive line rotation.
4. With Kevin Dyson gone, lanky veteran Drew Bennett is the odds-on favorite to win the No. 2 receiver job opposite Derrick Mason. That's a pretty neat trick for a guy who made the Tennessee roster as a no-name collegiate free agent in 2001, despite never finding a steady role at UCLA. Bennett bounced between quarterback and receiver as a Bruin, but in the past two seasons in Tennessee, a team-high 42 of his 57 receptions have produced first downs. Bennett isn't going to wow you, but he knows how to find some open spaces in a defense and he's usually going to be underestimated by his opponents.
5. Speed kills and rookie receiver Tyrone Calico, the team's second-round pick, has enough of it to have his face on a most-wanted poster. But about those hands. Calico dropped a certain touchdown pass from Titans quarterback Billy Volek in the second half of Saturday night's 10-6 defeat of Cleveland, and Tennessee fans would be wise to never take anything for granted when the ball is heading in his direction.
The Titans would be content if Calico this year masters just a handful of routes in which he can use his exceptional wheels, and they might also try to plug him in on kickoff returns. Fisher said Calico's speed is so rare that you have to live with his inconsistent hands for the time being.
Tank Williams. If you wanted to highlight the perfect example of the new breed safety in the NFL -- a position that now demands equal emphasis on physicality and speed -- you could do no better than Williams. Drafted in the second round out of Stanford last year, Williams is ridiculously big (6-2, 233 pounds) and fast (4.45 in the 40), and he loves to punish people.
Despite missing almost all of last preseason due to a hamstring injury, Williams, who is such a quick study, still wound up starting every game as a rookie. Williams packs a wallop as a hitter -- remember when he separated Jerry Rice from the ball in the AFC title game? -- and runs like a cornerback. And that's not just an empty boast, because he has been getting some work at nickelback in recent practices, given Tennessee's injury problems in the secondary. The Titans believe Williams is an emerging star, and they won't get an argument in many quarters.
Above the ankles, the Titans seem to stay pretty healthy. But what is it about feet that gives them fits? In 2001, running back Eddie George had his only sub-1,000-yard rushing season after undergoing offseason surgery on his right big toe. In 2002, defensive end Jevon Kearse's season was severely shortened after he broke a bone in his left foot in Week 1. And now, this year's top draft pick, first-round cornerback Andre Woolfolk, might need season-trashing surgery on his dislocated right big toe, suffered in Saturday's win against Cleveland.
It's true, balky hamstrings also have bedeviled the Titans in recent years. But, someday, the foot and toe trend has to end.
In the Titans' preseason opener against Cleveland on Saturday, Fisher turned a few heads and raised a few eyebrows with his unconventional fashion statement. Fisher coached in a new Reebok-produced shirt that is designed to be untucked, loose-fitting and hanging to mid-thigh. I didn't catch the sartorial highlights on TV, but I have been informed that it resembled Ralph Kramden's bowling shirt more than anything else. Fisher, perhaps chagrined by the dismay of the fashion critics who were on hand, has said he will retire the look and return to a standard coaching pullover from here on out.
"They're long and designed to hang out, but half my staff decided to tuck them in," Fisher said Monday. "They look bad tucked in. I wore it the way it was supposed to, so of course there were some comments about it. We were trend-setting. But I think there's probably a pretty good chance we won't see that one again."
Wanna know what scares an NFL head coach and his front office as much as anything this time of year? When one segment of the roster gets decimated by injuries, and for salary cap reasons, the team can't do much but hang in and tough it out. That's about where things stand for the Titans' banged-up secondary.
Driving to Nashville from Atlanta on Sunday night, I heard the news that Tennessee had lost Woolfolk for an unknown length of time with the dislocated toe, and that veteran safety Lance Schulters was sidelined after being diagnosed with a case of Bell's Palsy. The condition, which shouldn't present a long-term problem, has caused Schulters' facial muscles on one side to weaken and droop. In addition, his vision has been blurry, because his normal blinking mechanism is affected.
Schulters missed Saturday's game after learning of his condition, and Woolfolk was injured against the Browns. Woolfolk on Wednesday will be sent to one of the nation's leading foot specialists in Charlotte to determine if he needs immediate surgery to repair ligament damage, or can play on the toe after some healing takes place.
Even before their two most recent losses in the secondary, the Titans had some injury concerns with rookie safeties Jesse Sowels (knee) and Thomas Wright (shoulder) both sidelined. Sowels was scheduled to undergo knee surgery Monday. Things were so thin at safety Saturday that rookie Donnie Nickey, the team's fifth-round pick, played every defensive snap and special teams.
"I promise you he was the only player in the NFL who took every snap in a preseason game last week," Fisher said. "But it was only because we had no one else to play. With Lance being down, we went into the game with just three safeties."
But it's Woolfolk's situation that has the Titans the most concerned. The former Sooner was being counted on to handle the nickelback duties this year, replacing the valuable Donald Mitchell, who signed with Dallas in free agency. If Woolfolk is out for a significant amount of time, Fisher is contemplating a number of scenarios, including moving Tank Williams into the extra cornerback role.
"In any scenario, he's going to be sore for three or four weeks," Fisher said of Woolfolk. "Which is a shame, because he was on the come. He got better every single day he was here. He was in position to take over that spot and be good at it."
Woolfolk seemed optimistic Monday, but he won't know his fate until he sees a specialist. "It was like kicking rocks barefoot, 10 times in a row," he said, of the injury's initial pain. "It was just a matter of my shoe giving out while I was trying to make a tackle."
Schulters has been cleared to practice and was planning on taking part in the Titans' workout Monday night. Fisher has left it up to him to decide when he's ready. "It just depends on how my eye feels," Schulters said. "But I think it's going to be all right."
The Titans on Monday cleared a couple of roster spots in order to add secondary help, but there's no veteran name player on the way, Fisher said. Tennessee's cap can't handle even a veteran minimum salary.