Fixing Titans' defense<BR> focal part of offseason

Jevon Kearse may freak out when he checks the Titan's defensive huddle this season – only four starters remain from the 2001 opening game lineup.

The Tennessee Titans defensive situation can be summed up in two of the more famous quotes uttered by head coach Jeff Fisher during his tenure in Nashville.

The first one came last off-season after the Titans stumbled to 7-9, closing with back-to-back embarrassing home losses to Cleveland and Cincinnati that were largely the fault of the defense.

Fisher's quote at his season-ending press conference following the Bengals loss was, "I'll fix the defense. I can promise you that."

In an effort to do just that, change has been the M.O. defensively around the Titans headquarters. Of the 11 starters in the base defense from last year's season opener, only Jevon Kearse, Kevin Carter, Randall Godfrey and Samari Rolle are ticketed to start again this year.

The other seven spots will be manned either by players who were backups at that time last year, free-agent acquisitions or 2002 draft choices.

Last year's defense was hamstrung by injuries and ineffectiveness, so much so that the Titans had to junk some of the more aggressive packages in their defense just to simply try and compensate for the deficiencies in the secondary.

It was somewhat reminiscent of the 1997 and 1998 defenses that could only play "bend but don't break" defense because it lacked enough pass rushers on the defensive front. Enter Jevon Kearse from the 1999 draft and all that changed dramatically enough to land the franchise in its only Super Bowl appearance to date the next year.

Only time will tell if the many additions and changes this off-season can produce another turnaround. But as Fisher's other famous quote says, "A setback is a setup for a comeback."

If the Titans are to make that comeback and be serious contenders in 2002, then it will be up to the defense to provide the answers to the many questions regarding what went wrong in 2001.

Here is a look at how the defensive depth chart stacks up entering training camp.

Defensive end

Starters: Jevon Kearse, Kevin Carter. Backups: Juqua Thomas, Carlos Hall. Kearse and Carter were supposed to have been the most dynamic duo since Batman and Robin, but it didn't happen. There were a variety of reasons, ranging from opposing quarterbacks using three-step drops, to Carter's training camp injury, to the poor play of the secondary. Kearse did manage 10 sacks, but his total slipped slightly for the second straight season. Carter's season never did get untracked, as he managed just two sacks, though the Titans are quick to point out he was close a number of other times. Whatever happened in 2001, the Titans' success will be largely tied to how well their bookends play, and they need them to play often, as the did last year. Behind them are only inexperienced Juqua Thomas and seventh-round pick Carlos Hall. Saul Patu and Kevin Aldridge are longshots who hope to impress. Most of the roster is set, but don't rule out the Titans making a late signing of a veteran backup end or making a waiver claim sometime in the preseason.

Defensive tackle

Starters: John Thornton, Henry Ford. Backups: Albert Haynesworth, Joe Salave'a, Robaire Smith. Despite losing last year's starters, Jason Fisk (free agency) and Josh Evans (free agency/suspension), the Titans remain plenty deep at tackle. Thornton is back from a shoulder injury to reclaim the starting role he had in 2000, while Ford is hopeful of staying at tackle, as the Titans try to resist the temptation to again use him as the third defensive end. Haynesworth, Tennessee's No. 1 pick, possesses a world of physical talent. The Titans hope that talent will be displayed more and more as Haynesworth matures. He just turned 21 on Monday. Salave'a returns from injury and should be ready to resume a spot in the rotation by training camp. Smith is a dependable backup who should also see his share of playing time. Barring injury or major training camp surprises, there appears to be little room for any longshots at tackle on the 53-man roster.


Starters: Keith Bulluck, Randall Godfrey, Peter Sirmon. Backups: Frank Chamberlin, Rocky Calmus, Rocky Boiman. At linebacker, the Titans have less experience, but have gotten decidedly faster and more athletic. Eddie Robinson was a salary cap cut, and Greg Favors was allowed to depart via free agency. Only Godfrey in the middle remains from last year's starters. Godfrey is coming off knee and wrist problems from a year ago, but should be full go by the regular season. Bulluck, a former first-round pick who played in the nickel package and four linebacker sets last year, is ready for full-time duty now and the Titans are expecting his athleticism and three years in the system to make a big difference both against the run and in pass coverage. The other linebacker spot is up for grabs with Sirmon working with the first unit through mini-camps and perhaps staking the early claim to the job. Chamberlin, a middle linebacker by trade, is a hard-nosed competitor and will push for playing time as well. Rookie picks Calmus and Boiman have both been impressive with their ability to quickly learn the system, their knack for playmaking and their speed. They'll be put to good use on special teams, with a challenge by one or both for playing time in the defense not out of the question. Former practice squad player Byron Thweatt will try to hold his roster spot by making a name on special teams.


Starters: Samari Rolle, Andre Dyson. Backups: Dainon Sidney, Donald Mitchell, Mike Echols, Tony Beckham. No stone has been left unturned this off-season to revitalize the secondary and the infusion of new and healthy talent should be a welcome sight. Even Rolle, a Pro Bowler in 2000, fell off last season thanks to injuries and contract problems, and Titans coaches spent the off-season giving him a refresher course to refine his technique. Rolle is also now expected to assume more of a leadership role as the senior member of the Tennessee secondary and seems to be embracing the added responsibility. Opposite him, Dyson is a year older and wiser as a cover corner. He assumed the starting role five games into last season and took his lumps early, but learned from it, grabbing three interceptions. Sidney, who wrecked his knee in last year's season opener, has been cleared for full duty in training camp, and if he shows no appreciable drop-off in play, could challenge for at least a nickel role. Mitchell was slowed in his first year back from a knee injury in 2000, but now appears to be closer to being 100 percent again. Much of Mitchell's value is in the nickel and dime packages and on special teams. Beckham has the size, speed and instincts to someday be a solid cover corner, but is extremely green having played at Division III Wisconsin-Stout and will need a lot of coaching and attention in the short term. Word is that Echols plays much bigger and more aggressively than his 5-9 frame would suggest, but he has missed all the mini-camps recovering from a stress fracture in his leg. It remains to be seen how far behind he will be come training camp. This group should be a major improvement over last year's group that included cap cuts DeRon Jenkins and Michael Booker.


Starters: Lance Schulters, Tank Williams. Backups: Bobby Myers, Aric Morris. This was another black hole a year ago and three of last year's safeties are gone – Blaine Bishop was a cap cut, and the Titans never seriously pursued Daryl Porter and Perry Phenix in free agency. Schulters was the Titans big free-agent prize of the off-season, signing a six-year $20 million deal. He will take over at free safety and has already been hard at work learning the defense and applying it during mini-camps. Schulters bring much of the same hard-nosed toughness Blaine Bishop displayed, only he is younger and healthier than Bishop was in his final couple of seasons in Tennessee. The strong safety spot is up for grabs, but the Titans are giving second-round pick Tank Williams every opportunity to claim the position. Williams missed virtually all of the mini-camps because of an NFL rule prohibiting him from practicing before his school year was complete. But now he is at the Titans complex taking a crash course in the defense to be up to speed by training camp. Myers, like Sidney, was lost in the season opener last year with a knee injury. He was the starting free safety a year ago and will back up this time around, though he could still see action in certain packages. Morris' missed tackles and pass coverage deficiencies a year ago cost him a chance to claim the strong safety spot outright. He remains valuable on special teams and has been working this off-season to improve his defensive play. Tony George, trying to come back after being out of the league last year, is a good special teams player who hopes to force his way into the strong safety mix. Joe Walker was in over his head as a rookie last year and will need to show improvement in the preseason this year.


Craig Hentrich had another solid season punting this year. It will be interested to see how his season unfolds as he enters the final year of the deal that made him the first million dollar punter. Part of the reason they signed him was because he could not only punt, but also hold for kicks and take over the kickoff duties from then-kicker Al Del Greco. He no longer is the kickoff specialist, but still holds for kicker Joe Nedney.

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