Tennessee Titans 2010 Season Preview
By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With some extra money in his pocket, Chris Johnson can now zero in on his other goal - the NFL's single-season rushing record. The Tennessee Titans probably won't discourage his quest, since a record-breaking performance by their running back should help them get back to the playoffs after a disappointing 2009.
The Titans ended the season on quite a roll, winning eight of their final 10 games. However, that wasn't enough to get the club out of an early 0-6 hole that caused Tennessee to miss the postseason for the fourth time in its last six seasons.
Even more disappointing? The .500 finish came right after a 13-3 campaign in 2008, the club's best finish since posting the same mark in 2000.
There were still some positives to take out of the season. Johnson kept the Titans in the headlines week after week as he posted 2,006 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, while quarterback Vince Young also made himself relevant again.
The third overall pick in the 2006 draft struggled during his sophomore campaign and eventually lost his job to Kerry Collins the following season. Given a second chance due to the Titans' poor start last year under Collins, Young played well enough over 12 contests to win some games, getting some of the confidence back that he lost the previous year.
Head coach Jeff Fisher thinks his team can benefit with a full season of Young under center.
"Vince returns as the starter," Fisher said at the start of training camp. "I'm very pleased with his offseason, the commitment, the improvement ... I believe we have surrounded him with the best skill players to date that he's been on the field with. That simply will help in his improvement, he has room to improve but again I think what he was able to accomplish on the field this offseason, I think all the signs are there for him to have a great year."
While many may argue Fisher's assertion that the offense has improved -- Tennessee's selection of wide receiver Damian Williams in the third round marks the biggest addition -- simply having Johnson in the fold makes the Titans attack a threat to score on every drive.
Though he didn't get the new long-term deal he was seeking, the third-year running back did get a nice raise that killed any chance of his contract status becoming a distraction during the season.
The Titans will, though, need to see major improvement out of their defense and return game. Tennessee finished 28th in the league in both total defense (365.6 yards per game) and scoring (25.1 points per game), while failing to settle on one or two solid players to return kicks. Ten different players returned a kickoff for the Titans last year.
"Yeah, I did not anticipate [the 0-6 start]," said Fisher. "I thought camp [last year] was good. We overcame some things. We had some holes. The return issues were my responsibility. I didn't address that adequately enough, but we will do that this year. But I didn't anticipate that."
Fisher believes he addressed the return issues with the drafting of Williams, while the first-round selection of defensive end Derrick Morgan and third- round grab of linebacker Rennie Curran will add an infusion of talented youth to the defense. Fellow new faces on the defensive side of the ball are defensive end Jason Babin, linebacker Will Witherspoon and cornerback Tye Hill.
The Titans also come into 2010 with several off-the-field issues hopefully behind them. One of the biggest was Young's role in a fight at a Dallas strip club on June 13, but the quarterback was not disciplined by the NFL.
There were also offseason arrests of backup quarterback Chris Simms and Morgan, as well as the club's lawsuit against USC and its head coach Lane Kiffin after the university lured running backs coach Kennedy Pola away to be its offensive coordinator.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Tennessee Titans, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Baltimore, 13-10, in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Jeff Fisher (136-110 in 16 seasons with Titans, 136-110 overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Heimerdinger
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Chuck Cecil
OFFENSIVE STAR: Chris Johnson, RB (2006 rushing yards, 50 receptions, 16 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Cortland Finnegan, CB (63 tackles, 5 INT)
OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 2nd rushing, 23rd passing, 16th scoring
DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: t10th rushing, 31st passing, 28th scoring
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Chris Simms (from Broncos), QB Rusty Smith (6th Round, Florida Atlantic), WR Damian Williams (3rd Round, USC), DE Derrick Morgan (1st Round, Georgia Tech), DE Jason Babin (from Eagles), DE Raheem Brock (from Colts), LB Will Witherspoon (from Eagles), LB Rennie Curran (3rd Round, Georgia), CB Tye Hill (from Falcons)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB LenDale White (to Broncos), TE Alge Crumpler (to Patriots), C Kevin Mawae (not tendered), DE Jevon Kearse (not tendered), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (to Lions), DT Kevin Vickerson (to Seahawks), LB Keith Bulluck (to Giants), CB Nick Harper (not tendered), S Kevin Kaesviharn (not tendered)
QB: Though Young reclaimed his starting role, his 2009 numbers left room for improvement. He threw for 1,879 yards with 10 touchdown passes and seven interceptions in 12 games, and owns a career average of just 152.1 passing yards per contest over his NFL career. That won't cut it this year with teams ready to zero in on stopping Johnson; Young should have the opportunity to make some plays and will need to take advantage. The 36-year-old Collins (1,225 passing yards, 6 TD, 8 INT) appears as though he will accept a backup role even though his 2,676 passing yards and 12 touchdowns helped the Titans to their 13-3 year in '08. Simms played with Denver last season before rejoining the Titans, with whom he played in 2008, while the franchise also selected Rusty Smith in the sixth round of the 2010 Draft out of Florida Atlantic, so they have options should Collins get disgruntled.
RB: Johnson's plans are simple. Last year he became just the sixth player in league history to reach 2,000 rushing yards in a single season and he now wants to break Eric Dickerson's 1984 NFL single-season mark of 2,105 yards. Johnson also added a team-leading 50 receptions, giving the 25-year-old an eye-popping 408 touches last year, and the Titans will try to lower that number this year. An offseason trade of LenDale White leaves Javon Ringer, owner of just eight NFL carries, as the backup, with Alvin Pearman behind him on the depth chart. Rookie Stafon Johnson, who had already come back from a crushed neck and larynx suffered during a weight room accident in his final season at USC, appears out of the running after suffering a dislocated right ankle during Tennessee's preseason opener. Fullback Ahmard Hall has just nine carries over his last 32 games as his main job is clearing the way for C.J.
WR/TE: The Titans used their first pick in 2009 to take wide receiver Kenny Britt (42 receptions, 3 TD), who responded by leading the team with 701 receiving yards. Tennessee is hoping Britt emerges as its No. 1 receiver, but he has struggled this offseason. Should Britt play his way out of a starting role, Justin Gage will likely move into the No. 2 slot behind Nate Washington. In his first season with the team after beginning his career in Pittsburgh, Washington had 47 catches last year with six touchdowns, while Gage (28 receptions, 3 TD) battled back issues and played in 12 games. Lavelle Hawkins and Williams will likely round out the wide receiver group. Bo Scaife (45 receptions, 1 TD) is Tennessee's primary catching tight end, while Alge Crumpler's departure opens up time for Craig Stevens to shoulder the blocking assignments. Jared Cook, a 2009 third-round pick, is also looming.
OL: Since being selected in the 2005 draft, tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart have emerged as the anchors of the Titans' offensive line. Roos is the leader, and his 6-foot-7, 320-pound frame opens up holes for Johnson on the left side. At 6-foot-7, 315 pounds, the quick-footed Stewart is no slouch on the right either. Center Kevin Mawae claims he was promised a roster spot by Fisher in the spring, but he remains unsigned. Instead, Tennessee re-signed Eugene Amano, who started at left guard last year but slides over to center. That moves Leroy Harris from a reserve role to starting left guard, while Jake Scott remains on the right side. This line stayed relatively healthy last year -- Roos has started every game the last five years -- meaning reserve tackles Michael Otto and Troy Kropog aren't looking at much time. Former undrafted free agent Fernando Velasco is in line to back up at center.
DL: After losing tackle Albert Haynesworth prior to 2009, ends Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch mark the latest exits. William Hayes (51 tackles, 4 sacks) started 11 games at left end last year, but suffered a knee sprain during camp and could miss the start of the season. David Ball would likely see more time with Hayes injured, with Babin in the mix as well. Morgan is lurking as well but has battled a calf injury early on in camp. Right end Jacob Ford led the Titans with 5 1/2 sacks last year, just ahead of defensive tackle and team leader Tony Brown (38 tackles, 5 sacks). Jovan Haye (32 tackles) has the inside track on the other starting tackle position ahead of the promising Jason Jones (4 sacks), who was limited to seven games last year due to a shoulder injury, and Sen'Derrick Marks. End Raheem Brock (32 tackles, 3.5 sacks with Colts) was signed late in camp to add depth due to injuries.
LB: Gone is Keith Bulluck, Tennessee's first-round pick in 2000 who the club opted not to bring back due to a torn ACL suffered late last year. Bulluck subsequently signed with the Giants. The Titans signed Witherspoon (80 tackles with Eagles and Rams) this offseason to replace him at right outside linebacker, while David Thornton (59 tackles, 1 sack) is hoping to recapture his starting spot on the other side as he comes back from a shoulder injury. Second-year pro Gerald McRath (47 tackles, 1 INT), veteran Jamie Winborn and Curran will push for playing time on the outside, though McRath will miss the first four games due to a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Stephen Tulloch (121 tackles, 2 sacks) signed his tender this offseason despite wanting a long-term deal and will start in the middle, backed up by Colin Allred.
DB: The Titans sent both strong safety Chris Hope (81 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) and free safety Michael Griffin (77 tackles,1 INT) to the Pro Bowl in 2008, when the club ranked ninth versus the pass and second in scoring defense. However, both slipped a bit in 2009 as the Titans finished 31st against the pass, allowing 258.7 yards per game. Tennessee needs both to rebound, especially the playmaking Griffin. Corner Nick Harper is gone, leaving Jason McCourty, Ryan Mouton and Hill to battle for the spot opposite of Cortland Finnegan (63 tackles), who led Tennessee with five interceptions last year. Rod Hood (16 tackles, 3 INT) was part of that battle, but he tore his ACL in June. Donnie Nickey and Vincent Fuller are the reserve safeties.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Fisher hopes to turn one of last year's weaknesses into a strength and will be banking on Williams to boost the return game. The USC product returned 25 punts for 339 yards with two touchdowns with the Trojans. Britt and rookie Marc Mariani (Montana) will also be used to return kicks. Aiming to put the ball between the goalposts is kicker Rob Bironas, who is very reliable and hit 27-of-32 field goal attempts last year. Punter Craig Hentrich retired following an injury-plagued 2009 season and his replacement last year, Brett Kern, should handle the duties solo this year. Kern averaged 45 yards per punt last year, putting just over half of those inside the 20. Ken Amato returns as the long snapper, a position he has held since 2003.
PROGNOSIS: Unfortunately for the Titans, they appear closer to the 8-8 team from a season ago than the one that won 13 games in 2008. Though they have arguably the top running back in all of football, the Titans' offense will need Young to take a big step forward as teams load up to stop Johnson. Tennessee's excellent offensive line will help, but the lack of game-changers in the receiving game will hurt. Tennessee also needs some of its young defensive players to step up and if Griffin and Hope regress again, the Titans stand no chance in a division that features the pass-happy Colts and Texans. It just seems that too many things need to go right for the Titans to get back into the playoff mix, and how often does that happen in the NFL?