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2009 Hall of Fame Game: Bills at Titans

TITANS OVERVIEW (2008 RANKINGS)

After finishing with a 13-3 record last year, good enough for the AFC’s top seed, the Titans’ 13-10 playoff loss to Baltimore didn’t do much to dampen their fans’ high expectations for this season. For a good read on their 2009 prospects, check out ESPN AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky’s Camp Confidential.

OFFENSE (#21 total yardage, #7 rushing, #27 passing, #t14 scoring):
After watching Vince Young’s stellar rookie campaign in 2006, who could have expected that greybeard Kerry Collins would be the Titans’ quarterback heading into this season? Probably not even the well-traveled Collins, who took over for an injured Young in last year’s season opener and ended up in the Pro Bowl, then signed a two-year, $15-million deal to remain the starter.

So where does that put Young, who left Bills defenders grasping at – and gasping for – air during that Christmas Eve game three seasons ago? On the bench for now, trying to deal with everything that’s happened since last September. But judging by a recent interview with Esquire, he’s apparently regained his confidence, if not the top spot on the depth chart.

“I’m in the best shape of my life,” Young said. “I’m back to playing my game and not worrying about what everybody else thinks. That was my mistake: worrying too much about critics. I’m only twenty-six, man. If you think you can write me off, just watch.
“I don’t know when I’ll start again. But I will be the next black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. And I will be in the Hall of Fame.”
We’ll see.

Whoever’s under center – Collins, Young, or Patrick Ramsey – will have one of the best young running back tandems in the NFL lining up behind them. Lightning-quick Chris Johnson was a revelation in his rookie season, averaging almost five yards per carry, scoring 10 touchdowns, and finishing eighth in the league in rushing. His partner in the self-proclaimed “Smash and Dash,” LenDale White, led the conference with 15 rushing touchdowns. After cutting what must have been copious amounts of Patron out of his diet, White showed up for camp at a svelte 228 pounds, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does when he’s actually in good shape.

With Justin Gage the only returning wide receiver to catch more than seven passes last season, the Titans made a serious attempt to upgrade at the position, adding Nate Washington from Pittsburgh and using their first-round pick on Kenny Britt, a 6-3, 218-pound wideout from Rutgers who holds the Big East’s career receiving yardage record. However, Britt won’t be on the field Sunday night. When he signed his contract and reported to camp this week, he he was placed on the PUP list due to a hamstring he tweaked during minicamp.

“I am really anxious to be out here with the team, to get the feel of it. It’s a little disappointing because it’s the first preseason game and my first NFL team and I’d like to be out there with my teammates. But right now I just need to get in the playbook and learn the plays,” Britt said.

While the wideout corps is in transition, the team appears set at tight end with veterans Alge Crumpler and Bo Scaife, and third-round pick Jared Cook (South Carolina) is waiting in the wings. The line also returns all five starters from last season, although Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae, still recovering from the torn triceps tendon he suffered against Pittsburgh late last season, won’t play on Sunday. Michael Roos and David Stewart could be the best pair of young tackles in the league.

DEFENSE (#7 total yardage, #6 rushing, #9 passing, #2 scoring):

Expect the Titans D to have a nasty edge under new coordinator Chuck Cecil, he of the multiple unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties and league fines during his playing career as a headhunting safety. Then again, they weren’t exactly soft last season – only Pittsburgh allowed fewer points, and Tennessee also finished second in turnover margin.

However, Cecil has to replace his best player, as All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth signed a $100 million contract to move to Washington. Former Buccaneer Jovan Haye appears to have the inside track to start next to holdover Tony Brown, with a pair of second-round picks, Sen’Derrick Marks (Auburn, 2009) and Jason Jones (Eastern Michigan, 2008), also in the rotation. Getting DE Kyle Vanden Bosch back at full speed after he missed several games last year with a groin injury should also help, and Jevon Kearse is back for another season on the left side.

All three starting linebackers return, with Keith Bulluck once again expected to start every game (113 in a row at last count) and lead the team in tackles. David Thornton lines up on the left side, with Stephen Tulloch in the middle.

The secondary is also set, and it’s one of the best in the league. Three Titans DBs went to the Pro Bowl last year, including All-Pro corner Cortland Finnegan and safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin. Nick Harper is the other starting corner, with veterans Vincent Fuller and Donnie Nickey, practice-squadder Tanard Davis, and former Texan DeMarcus Faggins – last seen futilely chasing Lee Evans into the Reliant Stadium end zone a few years back – battling for backup spots.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
No changes with either kicking specialist, where Rob Bironas signed a multi-year deal in the offseason and punter Craig Hentrich decided not to retire. However, the Titans will have to find a returner to replace Chris Carr, who moved on to Baltimore.

BILLS PLAYERS TO WATCH:

OL: Hopefully for those of you watching the game on television, NBC will cut away from its closeups of Terrell Owens long enough to take a look at the real story of the Bills’ 2009 season: can the line keep Trent Edwards upright long enough to get the ball downfield to No. 81 and running mate Lee Evans? Don’t know about you, but I’ve spent enough time reading between the lines of Langston Walker’s statements, and projecting how rookies Eric Wood and Andy Levitre will look. Time to watch them play.

The interior seems fairly set with some combination of Wood, Levitre, Geoff Hangartner, and veterans Seth McKinney and Kirk Chambers. Can’t say the same for the tackles, though, especially with Brad Butler nursing a bad back. Can Demetrius Bell live up to the fans’ high expectations for him? Was Jonathan Scott worth a roster spot? Will they have to move Chambers back outside? We’ll start finding out on Sunday. I also want to watch Marvin Philip work at center, because I was more than a little surprised when Pittsburgh released him last year.

QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick or Gibran Hamdan ... or proof that the team needs a viable Plan C? Lots of people, myself included, were ready to see J.P. Losman move on. That doesn’t necessarily mean his replacements will fare any better. Hoping to see something to ease those fears, because the odds of Edwards starting all 16 games this season rank somewhere in the neighborhood of a 90-degree day in Buffalo. In January.

RB: Dick Jauron knows what he has in Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, and Dominic Rhodes – perhaps the strongest corps of running backs the Bills have had since shoving Thurman Thomas out the door. While they may keep a fourth RB until Lynch comes back from his suspension – Xavier Omon, I presume – that’s no guarantee. Omon and Bruce Hall are both eligible for the practice squad, though. Cory McIntyre probably sticks around more for his special-teams duties than his play at fullback, but Darian Barnes can tell you that’s not a sure thing either.

WR/TE: The top five appear to be locked into position. If James Hardy is ready to contribute by the end of the preseason, that doesn’t leave much room for special-teams ace Justin Jenkins or anyone below him on the depth chart. At tight end, how quickly can Shawn Nelson become a factor? Judging by the recent “he’s lost out there” quote from his position coach, Charlie Coiner, it doesn’t look like he’ll unseat Derek Schouman for the starting job any time soon.

DL: With no Aaron Maybin sightings to distract me, I’ll also be keeping an eye on the John McCargo reclamation project. We know the guy has some talent. But will the change in position coaches bring it out, or was that just another excuse? Maybin’s continued absence should also give Chris Ellis more chances to make an impression.

LB: While Paul Posluszny’s and Kawika Mitchell’s names are written atop the depth chart in indelible ink, most Bills fans would like to see anyone not named Keith Ellison start at SLB this season. Question is, are any of the other ‘backers on the roster good enough to replace him? And with DiGiorgio gone for another year, Pat Thomas is the only veteran backup left. Time to see how Alvin Bowen’s knee looks, and how quickly Nic Harris is adapting to his new position. Keep an eye on No. 64, Ashlee Palmer, as well.

DB: Still no Jairus Byrd sightings as the second-round pick recuperates from sports hernia surgery, which all but guarantees that the Bills will open the season with a Donte Whitner/Bryan Scott combo at safety. There’s plenty of room to move both behind them and at corner, though. I’m willing to guarantee that for the second consecutive season, at least one defensive back cut by the Bills will make another team’s roster.

See you in Canton.

LINKS

Titans depth chart | 2008 regular-season stats
Bills depth chart | 2008 regular-season stats

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