Thursday, August 31
Titans looking to go the extra yard

Three unsettled years hardened the Titans. They went from perennial underachievers to a team that met its potential with a 13-3 season, a stunning playoff run and a Super Bowl berth that propelled them into the consciousness of fans across the country.

The Titans have expanded offensively under new coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. That means you'll see Steve McNair throwing the ball down the field a lot more this year. Having Carl Pickens, a healthy Yancey Thigpen, one of the game's best offensive lines and a now-experienced McNair will make the offense even more dangerous.

Defensively, Jeff Fisher has been on the cutting edge of defensive schemes as long as he's been in the game.

"It's important we never, ever forget the great lessons we learned," general manager Floyd Reese told his team at its AFC championship ring ceremony.

One of those lessons comes from other recent breakthrough teams who didn't do enough to improve after their big seasons and fell back to the pack.

The Titans are confident they are better now than they were when they fell three feet short of forcing overtime in the Super Bowl.

Carl Pickens gives the Titans the long-absent big-play threat at wide receiver. Randall Godfrey and Keith Bulluck make the team more athletic at linebacker. Fred Miller should be an effective replacement for Jon Runyan at right tackle. Mike Heimerdinger is likely to be more creative and less predictable in the role of offensive coordinator.

All in all, things are looking up for a team expecting to not only match its run from last season but go one step further -- and end up with even better rings.

Quarterbacks: Heimerdinger has revised the offense so that when Steve McNair drops back, he'll run through specific progressions. No matter where his wideouts, tight ends or running backs line up, McNair will know exactly where to find them. Previously, McNair's progressions were more personnel-based.

McNair still tends to be late and short on the deep ball. But with Pickens now in the stable, things already have begun to change. With Heimerdinger serving as coordinator and quarterback coach, the communication problems McNair endured with two different coaches should be a thing of the past. Neil O'Donnell adds a ton to the locker room and practice field as the backup.
Grade: B

Running backs: The Titans wisely signed Eddie George to an extension, which pretty much ensures he'll play the rest of his career in Nashville. George's durability is unparalleled, as is his ability to play strong in the fourth quarter.

Eddie George
Eddie George rushed for 1,304 yards last season and scored 13 touchdowns.
With Heimerdinger looking to create mismatches by lining up different people in different places, George will be even more involved in the passing game. FB Lorenzo Neal had a big chance in the preseason to earn a larger role. While Heimerdinger likes the Titans' familiar two tight end set, he comes from Denver, where two-backs was the personnel set of choice.
Grade: A-

Wide receivers: Pickens is a serious upgrade at the wide receiver position, where Yancey Thigpen has been unable to stay healthy for an extended stretch and the rest of the pack has not been able to gain McNair's confidence on a regular basis. Now, Pickens will start with Kevin Dyson until Thigpen is fully healthy. When Thigpen returns, head coach Jeff Fisher will have to make a tough decision about his top three.

With Heimerdinger giving the wideouts more routes and action in the middle of the field, tight end Frank Wycheck will no longer roam there alone. Still, Wycheck will be a big key for McNair, who knows his primary tight end will always be in the right place at the right time. Rookie Erron Kinney looks good enough, so the Titans shouldn't suffer too much from the departure of Jackie Harris.
Grade: B

Offensive linemen: Once things became settled last year, this group was very solid. Fisher has decided to stay with the same lineup, save right tackle, where Miller takes over for Runyan. Miller is better-suited for the Titans' run-first offense than he was for the Rams' bombs-away style. Brad Hopkins is a quality left tackle, but he needs to cut down on his penalties.

Bruce Matthews solidifies everything from left guard. Kevin Long has been quietly effective at center, and Benji Olson earned outstanding reviews in 1999, his first year as the starting right guard. Depth-wise, the team is thin at tackle.
Grade: B+

Defensive linemen: Jevon Kearse established himself in just one season as a dominant defensive end. In his second year, he will play five or six more snaps a game, and five or six times a game he will shuffle to different spots on the line or be in position to take on a back or a tight end. Offenses will always have to worry where Kearse is, and that will help free up the Titans' other linemen and linebackers.

Defensive end Kenny Holmes is in a contract year, and he looked very good in the preseason. If he finally manages to stay healthy, he could be quite productive. Defensive tackle Jason Fisk was a great find in free agency, and he could end up with a bunch of sacks with offensive lines worrying about the edge rushers. Second-year defensive tackle John Thornton should play well enough to offset the loss of Josh Evans (suspension). The biggest concern heading toward the end of the preseason was depth at end.
Grade: B+

Linebackers: This position has been revamped, with RLB Eddie Robinson joining two new starters: Godfrey in the middle and either Greg Favors or Bulluck, the team's first-round pick, on the left. As long as the newcomers can play without overthinking in the team's complicated defense, the group, now coached by Jim Schwartz, should improve its production.

The Titans had been looking for a player like Godfrey for several years. He'll be on the field virtually every down and, according to defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, has the potential to be the best linebacker the franchise has had in 10 years. Look for more plays from the unit against the pass.
Grade: B+

Defensive backs: Cornerback Donald Mitchell tore up a knee in training camp and is lost for the season, a big blow to Tennessee's depth. Denard Walker had such a strong training camp that he held on to the left cornerback job he has owned since the middle of '97. However, he will miss the season opener vs. Buffalo because of a league suspension. Samari Rolle, on the brink of recognition as a top cover corner, will play on the right side, but he may more frequently follow a team's top threat all over the field.

Dainon Sidney is the third corner, and the Titans hope Ty Howard can be the fourth. Strong safety Blaine Bishop and free safety Marcus Robertson remain key cogs who need to stay healthy. Bobby Myers, drafted to back up Robertson, is coming along, but Aric Morris, a rookie strong safety, missed all of camp after two operations to treat a blot clot in his shoulder.
Grade: B-

Special teams
With a bumper crop of young players added to the mix, the Titans' coverage and return teams should be better. Frank Chamberlin, Myers, and Peter Sirmon are among the newcomers expected to make big contributions. The Titans needed Al Del Greco a lot less last season, and he missed a biggie in the Super Bowl, but he remains in the upper echelon of NFL kickers.

There is no better combination kickoff man/punter than Craig Hentrich. Derrick Mason reached a new level as a returner during the playoffs last season, and he needs to carry that into this season. "Home run throw back," which resulted in "The Music City Miracle," showed the team has a play for every occasion.
Grade: B+

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