Titans fans endured a difficult 2012 season, but the franchise spent an unprecedented amount of money in free agency and drafted well this spring in hopes of a better ’13. Sports and Entertainment Nashville’s Chris Lee spoke with Mike Keith, “The Voice of the Titans,” about what we can expect from Tennessee this fall.
CL: Mike, you’ve seen the off-season workouts and been around the franchise. What are the notable things that have stuck out?
MK: The complete change in tempo, which was by design. They wanted to up the intensity level in off-season workouts, in practices, in the weight room… just turn up that energy knob as much as possible. And you’ve seen that in everything we’ve done. This is my 16th year with the ball club, and I’ve never seen the change as dramatic as it’s been in this off-season.
CL: Mike, I guess if you could select just one storyline from the Titans offseason, it would be an unprecedented commitment of resources towards building an offensive line. … Were you surprised at this, and how much better do you think the offense will be this fall because of it?
MK: The offense’s performance will increase dramatically because of what they’ve done. The realization came that we had gotten old there, and in trying to fix the problem last year, we brought in Steve Hutchinson, who was an older player who was not the Steve Hutchinson who’d been a seven-time Pro-Bowler. … He chose to retire… and we had a couple other players who are no longer with us who had battled injuries and were at the end of the line.
So, they go get Andy Levitre, who is in his mid-to-late-20s, a fifth-year player. They draft Chance Warmack from Alabama. They draft Brian Schwenke from Cal. They bring in Rob Turner, they bring in Chris Spencer. … They keep Fernando Velasco, who’s still a young player in his mid-to-late-20s, and the rebuilding of that interior of the offensive line will be the key component to taking this — not only this offense, but probably this franchise — back to where it needs to be. … And that commitment really is an overriding symbol to what this off-season has been: a very honest assessment of where the franchise is in a particular area, and going about whatever means necessary to fix it.
CL: With what they did on the line and with the signing of a really good backup to Chris Johnson in Shonn Greene, is it safe to say this will be a run-first team?
MK: I believe the design would be going back to those Titans of the Mike Heimerdinger era, that want to make you defend the run first and foremost. … When Mike Heimerdinger became the offensive coordinator, you absolutely knew it was coming and you had to defend it, and then the offense expanded inside-out.
What I mean by that is, there were always the throws to the tight end. There were the control plays on third down that helped you convert and keep moving. And then, there was this sense that they’re going to run it, they’re going to throw inside, they’re going to throw the slant, the quarterback’s going to run… and then you had to guard against the deep ball.
And if you’ll remember in 2002-2003, when our offense really became special top to bottom and Steve McNair was an MVP candidate and then an MVP winner, the deep balls became a huge part of what the Titans did. You’re going to see (offensive coordinator) Dowell Loggains put his own stamp on the offense, but he has said that Mike Heimerdinger is the big influence, and this organization sees this not only as a way to help the offense be more productive, but also to help the defense be more productive by staying off the field longer.
Run first? Yes… not run 90 percent of the time… but run first? Yes.
CL: Mike, drafting UT’s Justin Hunter and adding him to Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Nate Washington would seem to give the Titans as explosive of a bunch as the franchise has had in this state. Would you agree with that?
MK: When you put Delanie Walker and Craig Stevens and what Taylor Thompson can give, and a thought of putting Chris Johnson back in the passing game, then when you put the receivers together, I think we go back 10 years to 2003 when it used all of its weapons throughout the course of the year.
I don’t think opposing defenses are going to be able to say, ‘We have to stop Player X, and we’ve got the Titans stopped.’ I think they’re going to have to defend the Titans all over the field. … Not only do I think Justin Hunter’s a big deal, I think Delanie Walker is a huge deal, and I think the potential development of Taylor Thompson is another story that’s to be watched.
Of course, the No. 1 story is Kenny Britt and what he’s done this off-season, and him looking like a guy that can go back to that early-season 2011 form. If he does that, this offense may be scary.
CL: Mike, this may be an unfair question, but is this a make-or-break year for Jake Locker?
MK: I don’t see that so much. I think pronouncements are very easy to make in that way… I don’t think… you get final answers in year three. It’s a position where you have to develop, and it’s also an offense that has to develop around him. Some of (last season) found him playing with an offensive line that couldn’t protect him (or run block).
I think it’s an important year. … He’s gotta show dramatic improvement, and I think he will, but I think the fact that he has more help around him and a system that maybe fits him better is going to give him the ability to do that. Quarterback is the hardest position in sports. …You don’t often win totally because of the quarterback, and you don’t often totally lose because of the quarterback, but that seems to be the generality that folks often want to jump to. The same way, I don’t know that you say a guy at age 25 is, or isn’t.
In some cases, that’s the way it is… but I don’t think that’s the case with Jake Locker, and I believe he will be a much better-looking quarterback this season than he was the last.
CL: Last year wasn’t a great year for the Titans’ defense, and the Titans made an interesting move in bringing back former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams this off-season. How much do you think his presence will help?
MK: His presence has already helped. You can see it with a lot of things that he’s been able to come in and do to help Jerry Gray, because their philosophies are so similar. Of course, they’ve been together as player and coach. … They have a long relationship. They have a brotherly-type relationship where they are very honest with one another, and a lot of the things Jerry wanted to do last year, we didn’t have the personnel to do.
And so to bring in these bigger defensive lineman, to bring in more linebackers, to get better at the safety position with George Wilson and also obviously Bernard Pollard, all of those things are Gregg Williams trademarks, but they’re also Jerry Gray trademarks. I think Gregg has been the eye and the sky to provide personnel assessment, to provide draft assessment, to provide scheme assessment, and Gregg Williams can always provide attitude adjustment.
And I think he’s helped give that already. …I think everybody’s going to have a chance to see that during the course of the season.
CL: The signing of former Ravens’ safety Bernard Pollard brings a physical presence to the defense, but there were some questions about his coverage ability at the end of his Baltimore tenure. All things considered, how much does he help the Titans this year?
MK: Oh, wow, Bernard Pollard is a special guy. When I interviewed him for the first time, Chris, I couldn’t believe when he walked in the room. I thought, ‘Who’s the linebacker?’ He’s big, and he’s physical and he gets everybody’s attention. … He’s a strong safety… so to me, that means Michael Griffin’s going to be a free safety.
So… first of all, you have roles established. Good thing. Everybody knows he’s the strong safety… and don’t forget, George Wilson’s another good player who can play both. So you’ll see them switch in different situations. I think you’ll see the ability to have all three guys on the field at the same time in various packages. You’re going to be able to drop a safety very comfortably in the box when you play those run-first teams, because, let’s face it, the Titans’ big problem defensively (last year) is they were not guaranteed of stopping the other team’s run. … So first and foremost, you’ve got to stop the run.
I think the Titans are going to be able to better do that not only with the bigger defensive linemen, but also with the safeties. Last year, they gave up 127 rushing yards per game. They’d like to cut that number by about 30, and the safeties are going to give them a chance to do that, and with the tighter coverage they’re going to play, going to more of the press coverage, it takes some pressure off the safeties in that way. They’re gonna make teams really earn it on the outside and that’s going to be the biggest difference in scheme that you’re going to see, and I don’t believe that’s a secret to anybody.
CL: Following up on that, how much better do you think the secondary gets as a whole?
MK: I think they’ll improve big-time, because you’ve got the ability to have real competition on the outside. You bring in Blidi Wreh-Wilson in the third round from Connecticut, who’s a real good-looking press corner, and I think most people feel like he’s going to be able to provide something right away. … You’ve got Coty Sensabaugh, you’ve got Khalid Wooten who you drafted out of Nevada, you’ve got Tommie Campbell.
I think they’re better… and listen, Alterraun Verner’s going to have a role, too. He may win the corner job again, he may play inside, he may play all over. He’s a good football player. So I just think the overriding level of competition is going to give you the ability to have your best four, best five, best six, and in some cases, best seven, on the field.
What I think will characterize this defense is how they will utilize personnel in a way that, week to week, you’re going to see more people play, and that’s one thing that Mike Munchak made very clear that he wanted from Jerry Gray and from Gregg Williams. It comes from all over… I think no area will better be an example of that in 2013 than the secondary.
CL: The Titans have committed draft picks to linebackers in Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown and Zaviar Gooden in recent years, and all three guys can really play in space. Throw in Colin McCarthy, and you’ve got a pretty young and active bunch there. How should Titans fans feel about the future at the linebacking corps there?
MK: Ayers is a star. I think that Brown has a chance to be a star. If McCarthy can stay healthy, he’s about as good as anybody in running a defense. Don’t forget Moise Foiku, who is a really good player and has been running a lot with the first team at middle linebacker. Foiku is a really good-looking linebacker who can contribute, too, and the other part of that, too, is what they add in special teams.
So, I think you’ve got that athleticism, you’ve got guys that can really run, and they’re helped by the increased size of Sammie Lee Hill and Antonio Johnson and Ropati Potoitua… getting those bigger bodies up front. If you look at the Ravens for years, one of the reasons that their linebackers were so effective is that they had 340-pound guys playing in front of them. You’re not getting blocked by a lot of guards and centers with guys like that in front of you because they take up that space, and it frees up those linebackers to really run and make plays, and I think that’s a lot of the design of what the Titans want to do.
CL: Special teams was a real strong point at times last year, and now the Titans may get Marc Mariani back as well. How’s he recovering, and how strong will Tennessee be across the board there this year?
MK: Mariani’s recovery is one of the most amazing things that I’ve witnessed since I joined this organization. If you would have told me last August 23 when he went down that he would be running pass patterns in May, I wouldn’t have believed it. … I thought he would come back because of who he is — but to see him perform the way he has in May and June has been amazing. He’s still not 100 percent, he’s got a battle on his hands, not going to be easy to win a (kick-returning) job with Darius Reynaud here.
But I think those guys give them some great base at returner. We’ve got one of the best punters in the league in Brett Kern, one of the best kickers in the league in Rob Bironas, Beau Brinkley is as good a young snapper as there is.
So top to bottom in terms of the specialists, we ought to be outstanding. Considering you add George Wilson, you add Delanie Walker, you add linebackers who are good kick-cover guys and draft bigger corners who ought to be good kick-cover guys, this could be a really good top-to-bottom special teams unit, and that could be part of the team that wins a couple of games for the Titans this season.