|Titans aim to challenge for supremacy in AFC South|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 21 August 2008 14:08|
The salary cap purge and rebuilding this franchise went through? History. The Titans now have a roster featuring speed, talent and something they haven't had in years: experience and depth throughout.
They also got a fresh reminder last season on the importance of home-field advantage in the postseason after losing at San Diego 17-6 in the wild-card round.
Linebacker Keith Bulluck played for the Titans when they went to the playoffs four of five seasons between 1999 and 2003 and likes what he sees from his teammates now.
``I think this team is just as good as any team in the league,'' Bulluck said.
He's not alone.
``We definitely are shooting for the playoffs, absolutely,'' cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. ``Ultimately, you want to win the Super Bowl. That's why we play this game. That's what we have our sights set on.''
First, the Titans have to deal with the AFC South, which sent three teams to the postseason in 2007 and where they finished behind Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Coach Jeff Fisher is keeping the focus as tight as possible going into his 14th season in Tennessee, the NFL's longest tenure with one team.
``What's happened in the past has happened in the past, but we have had success within our division,'' Fisher said. ``That's where it starts. I think all three teams have improved, and I think we've improved so we'll just see what happens. We're a one-game-at-a-time team. That's the approach we're going to take this year.''
They'll find out quickly, starting with the opener Sept. 7, when Jacksonville visits Nashville. The schedule gives the Titans a good chance at a quick start with three of their first four games at home.
One of the NFL's stingiest defenses helped the Titans go 10-6 last season, and Tennessee returns all but one starter on a unit that held opponents to 291.6 yards per game. All Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth remains the key, and he's back after signing his franchise tender of $7.25 million for the season. Publicly, talks have been cordial, and the Titans say they want to keep him.
Haynesworth needs another big year to meet the incentives that would allow him to become a free agent after the season. If he does, then he should have a healthy season, which helps the Titans because their defense wasn't the same in the three games he missed last year with a hamstring injury.
They lost end Antwan Odom and his backup Travis LaBoy to free agency along with their 14 combined sacks, but Jevon Kearse is back on a two-year deal. The Titans are gambling that he is healthy enough two years removed from his knee injury to handle the single coverage he'll see opposite Pro Bowl end Kyle Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth.
Bulluck anchors the linebacking corps coming off a career year in which he intercepted five passes. The secondary features free safety Michael Griffin going into his second season, while Finnegan was so impressive playing at right cornerback for suspended Adam ``Pacman'' Jones last season that he picked up a two-year contract extension worth $16.8 million.
The Titans have set high expectations for the defense and want to go from fifth most yards allowed to fewest.
``We're working for that,'' Finnegan said. ``If not that, you want to be No. 5 again. Of course we're going to continue to work and start off Sept. 7 to take back the reins of a No. 1 defense.''
All Pro kicker Rob Bironas missed most of training camp with a pulled groin, and the Titans were in no hurry to rush him back. He reached his first Pro Bowl in 2007 as their best scoring threat with his NFL-best 35 field goals, including a league-record eight in one game.
But offense and Vince Young are where Fisher focused his attention this offseason, the area where the Titans must improve if they are to challenge the Colts and the Jaguars.
Fisher fired Norm Chow after the San Diego loss and brought back Mike Heimerdinger as his coordinator, the same guy who helped Steve McNair share co-MVP honors with Peyton Manning in 2003. Heimerdinger worked to refine Young's footwork and help him recognize defenses better.
``He's improving. He's progressing. He is learning the position, he wins games,'' Fisher said of Young. ``We got to the playoffs last year, and we're a better team so we expect to do better. People that we surround him with will allow him to be better.''
They also brought in Alge Crumpler, the four-time Pro Bowl tight end, and drafted running back Chris Johnson, the fastest player at the NFL combine. He'll bolster a rushing offense that ranked fifth in 2007, averaging 131.8 yards a game with LenDale White.
The changes should help Young improve his touchdown-interception ratio from the nine TDs to 17 interceptions he had, and Crumpler provides a big target in the end zone that should boost scoring from inside opponents' 20-yard line, an area the Titans ranked last in last year.
``More options are harder to stop,'' receiver Justin Gage said.
The Titans didn't make a big splash in free agency, but they are working to keep their own talent. They signed left tackle Michael Roos and right tackle David Stewart to six-year deals. They also signed Jake Scott away from Indianapolis to take over for now retired Benji Olson at right guard.
Tennessee's bright future is what brought Scott to town.
``This team was on the verge last year and has been for a couple years,'' he said. ``Now hopefully I can help push that over the top.''