Defensively, the Titans’ play through the first six games of the season has been severely hampered by the loss of defensive end Jevon Kearse, who has been out since the second play of the season with a broken foot.
The secondary, which really has yet to jell, already needed additional pressure from the defensive front to help compensate for their inexperience.
At times the Titans have only been able to rush four (electing not to blitz, especially out of sub-packages), and without Kearse that becomes a much harder chore.
The ups of the 2002 season have featured such moments as harassing Donovan McNabb with six sacks in the opener and shutting down Fred Taylor and the Jacksonville offense. Lows include making inexperienced QBs like Quincy Carter and Patrick Ramsey look like Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas.
So let’s take a look at not only the defense, but also peek at how special teams and the coaching staff have fared thus far.
This group probably deserves an incomplete, simply because they are missing their best player – Kearse, who broke his left foot on the second play from scrimmage. Carter, a disappointment in 2001, has picked up some of the slack with six sacks, and has come up big in both the Titans’ wins this season. Carlos Hall did well at first filling in for Kearse, but then the rookie went down, forcing tackle John Thornton to shift to end, where he did well against the Jags.
At tackle, veterans Thornton, Henry Ford and Robaire Smith have been solid. Rookie Albert Haynesworth is improving, but is still catching up from missing training camp with a holdout, then an injury. This unit has had flashes where they have been good and stretches where they could not pressure the quarterback. Still, without Kearse, they have probably done about as well as could be expected with 16 sacks. Grade: C-plus.
Perhaps the brightest spot this season for the Titans has been the emergence of Keith Bulluck as a star. A three-down linebacker, Bulluck is seemingly always around the ball. The Titans’ other new starting linebacker Peter Sirmon has done OK as well, when he has been on the field. Teams have been using multi-receiver sets so often against Tennessee at times this year, that nickel back Donald Mitchell is averaging about 50 snaps a game, meaning Sirmon’s time in the defense is limited. Randall Godfrey has been bothered by a nagging ankle injury that has already cost him three games. Frank Chamberlin, a hard-hitter, has filled in capably, but the Titans could still use a healthy Godfrey in the mix. Also, rookie Rocky Boiman has picked up things well enough to be included in a 3-4 set used against Jacksonville last week. Grade: B.
Along with the running game, the play of the secondary has been called into question most this year. The Titans estimate that teams have put them in nickel and dime situations approximately 75 percent of the time, and they know they will continue to see it until they solve it. The scheme is complicated and first-year Titans Lance Schulters and Tank Williams are still learning on the job. Samari Rolle, has done fairly well, except for a struggle against the Cowboys and Joey Galloway. Opposite him, Andre Dyson continues to improve as he leads the team with three interceptions. The problem has been getting this group to jell as a unit. They are 27th in passing yards allowed, 27th in third-down efficiency and 24th in interceptions. It has been a combination of spotty pressure up front and missed assignments in the back. Whatever it is, it has to improve for the Titans to gather any type of momentum. Grade: D.
Individually, Joe Nedney is having a fine season, going 7-for-8 on field goal tries. Craig Hentrich’s punts are as high and hard to handle as ever. However, special teams has led directly to losses to Cleveland and Oakland. The punt cover team allowed the Raiders two TDs, and another against the Browns. Also, the hands team failed to cover an onside kick against Cleveland. Those areas have improved the past couple of games. Grade: C.
The Titans coordinators and Fisher have come under a lot of criticism this season, even prompting owner Bud Adams to lament that the team was “outcoached” after the loss to Washington. The team looked much improved against Jacksonville while using the same formula that used to work with regularity. The coaches appeared to rally the troops against the Jags, though you wonder where that fired-up attitude went during the four-game skid. Grade: C.