As is always the case, the Tennessee Titans can't get any love.
It was only a few seasons ago that this team went 13-3 and unexpectedly took the league by storm. That year, they were led by Kerry Collins—at best a journeyman quarterback with poor returns over his lengthy career. After 16-plus seasons, he's still a 1:1 TD:Int signal-caller.
This season, the Titans will start Matt Hasselbeck. He's looked sharp and solid in preseason, and he seems to have learned the offense with time to spare.
More important is the development of first-round pick Jake Locker. Locker has looked poised and mature beyond his years prior to the start of the regular season.
Hasselbeck has suffered his fair share of injuries, and it wouldn't surprise anyone to see Locker under center at some point this season.
The Colts struggled last year, and the division wasn't decided until the very end of the regular season. This year, the Colts are in limbo with regard to their future hall-of-fame quarterback, Peyton Manning. He's listed as doubtful for their first week matchup against the Texans—a team that's given the Colts fits these past few years.
It's conceivable that Manning will miss much more than just the season opener. Even with a healthy Manning, the Colts reign over the AFC South seems tenuous, as was evidenced last year when they struggled against both the Texans and the Jaguars.
Back to the Titans. This is a team that appears to be returning to their roots—big boys clogging up the running lanes and forcing running backs to turn the corner, as opposed to running in between the tackles.
By adding Shaun Smith, drafting Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey, the Titans are eager to not only stuff the run, but shove opposing offensive linemen straight in to the grills of their quarterbacks. A reminder of the days when Albert Haynesworth regularly wreaked havoc in the backfield.
A healthy Derrick Morgan, who just underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose stitch, will be relied upon heavily to bring the pressure around the end, along with the freakishly-athletic Jason Jones, who will be moved from DT to right defensive end.
There's ample depth at the position as the Titans return Dave Ball (seven sacks in 2010), the steadily-improving William Hayes and Malcolm Sheppard.
At linebacker, the Titans did lose a fan favorite and solid, every-down linebacker in Stephen Tulloch. But by adding Akeem Ayers in the draft (he's expected to be one of the best, if not the premiere rookie LB this season), as well as acquiring Barrett Ruud, the Titans may have even improved their linebacking corps.
Let's not forget they have the experienced campaigner Will Witherspoon to steady the ship as well, and the always-enthusiastic Gerald McGrath, who will be battling for significant playing time this season.
The back end of the Titans defense has come in for heavy criticism over the past few years. It has always been my belief that a good or great D-line is what makes the secondary successful.
The Titans' success during their 13-3 season was in large part due to the number of turnovers created by cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Safety Michael Griffin.
However, their success can by-and-large be attributed to the stellar defensive play of Albert Haynesworth and the entire D-line that season constantly putting relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Finnegan's grasp on the starting corner position may be slipping, but the Titans shouldn't be too concerned, as they can boast two of the better young CBs in the league—Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner—both of whom aren't scared to play the ball instead of the receiver.
On offense, the Titans shouldn't be so predictable this season.
Even when Vince Young was playing at a high level and managed to lead a pathetic Titans team from an 0-6 start to 8-2 over the last 10 games of the season, the Titans (perhaps Jeff Fisher more than anyone) never seemed entirely comfortable in handing Vince the keys to the offense.
Last season as well, VY's best in the league, a year in which he boasted a quarterback rating of 100, you still felt as though they were reluctant to cut him loose. Titans fans shouldn't expect more of the same this season.
They've got a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck—an experienced, successful veteran.
This could be the year the Titans mould in to one of the most explosive offensive units in the league. However, they must stay healthy.
With Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and tight end Jared Cook in the receiving game, Tennessee has the perfect combination of intimidating size and speed. Much is expected out of Britt and Cook—both are projected to have huge breakout seasons.
In the slot, the Titans will have two shifty, sure-handed pass catchers in Lavelle Hawkins and Damian Williams.
The Titans boast one of the finest offensive lines in the NFL, adept at both keeping the quarterback upright and opening up the running lanes for arguably the most explosive player in the NFL—running back Chris Johnson.
CJ hasn't failed to disappoint at any point during his first three seasons in the league, proving to be more durable and hard-hitting than anyone could have anticipated.
No doubt about it—he's the best running back in the league. That isn't up for debate, as he's amassed more rushing yards over the past three seasons than any other running back in the league. He's a threat to go the distance at any time, anywhere on the field.
The Titans need to involve CJ more in the passing game, and perhaps limit his carries at times. In his second season in the league, he did rush for 2,006 yards but also chipped in with 50 receptions and 503 receiving yards at 10 yards a pop, numbers not to be scoffed at.
The key is to get this 53-million-dollar man (worth every penny) into open space, which would be easier to do if CJ was more of a focal point in the passing game.
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