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IT HAS been 16 years since a certain weekly sports magazine asked on its cover if Chuck Cecil was TOO VICIOUS FOR THE NFL? Even now, at 44, the Titans' new defensive coordinator gets the itch to hit someone. While he can't deliver the sorts of shots he was known for during his seven seasons as a contact-craving, All-Madden safety, he's still feisty. "He actually gave me a little head butt before the Hall of Fame game—and I was the only one in a helmet," says All-Pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan. "That's just Chuck being Chuck. When he played, he was a trash-talking, hit-you-in-the-mouth kind of guy. For him, head-butting is getting us ready for the game."
Cecil, who rated SI's cover because of a particularly violent hit on a Redskins tight end, faces the challenge of replacing Jim Schwartz, who after eight years as defensive coordinator takes over as the Lions' coach. Last season, with Cecil as secondary coach, the Titans' D allowed just 14.6 points per game, second only to the Super Bowl--champion Steelers' 13.9. Cecil has been with the team since breaking in as a lowly quality-control assistant in 2001, and his promotion is further evidence of the high value Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher places on continuity. "He was willing to learn coaching from the bottom up," says assistant head coach Dave McGinnis. "Nothing was too menial for him."
Despite his reputation for intensity, Cecil rarely raises his voice on the practice field or in the meeting room. But then, what's there to get upset about when it comes to the Titans' defense? It sent four players to the Pro Bowl last February, and three of them—Finnegan, and safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope—came out of Cecil's secondary. Tennessee's defensive backfield had 19 interceptions in 2008.
Although the Titans lost All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who signed with Washington as a free agent, they have 10 starters back on each side of the ball, and last season's playoff disappointment has left them supremely motivated. Tennessee went 13--3 to earn the AFC's No. 1 seed and home field advantage, then squandered it in a 13--10 loss to the Ravens in the divisional round, when the offense turned the ball over three times. "There is a sense of unfinished business, but these guys understand you've got to start over," Fisher says. "You cannot archive what you've done in this league. It's not going to be easy, but because we're returning the starters and the younger guys have gotten better, I feel like we're better than last year. A better team should do better in the playoffs."
Tennessee is indeed loaded. On offense the running game, led by Chris Johnson, piled up 137.4 yards per game behind a pair of All-Pros, center Kevin Mawae and left tackle Michael Roos. Veteran QB Kerry Collins gave his team a chance to win every week after taking over for the erratic Vince Young, and rookies Kenny Britt at receiver and Jared Cook at tight end are promising new targets.
Haynesworth, who led the team in sacks with 8½, is an undeniable loss, but keep in mind that he was in the game for only about 50% of the defensive snaps. And when it comes to the defensive line, Tennessee has long preached rotation, rotation, rotation. No one player will replace the 350-pound Haynesworth at the point of attack, but Cecil is confident that Tony Brown, Jason Jones, Jovon Haye, Kevin Vickerson and rookie Sen'Derrick Marks will fill the void.
"I highly doubt that losing Albert is going to be the story line of our season," Cecil says. "Is it a possibility? Absolutely. But I would bet you a lot of money that it's not. I think the guys we have here as a group are as good as we've had. We're still going to put 11 guys out there and play Titans defense."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
COACH: JEFF FISHER