Paul Kuharsky: This team with these running backs is looking to use all of them, not for someone to emerge as what you call a starter. Who begins the game is irrelevant in their situation, and they are hardly alone in the NFL. I know it's inconvenient for fantasy purposes. But for football purposes, they are fine doing what they are doing.
Paul Kuharsky: He had a bad half. Granted, it was an awful half. But Jake Locker played far better after halftime. Quarterbacks who are a lot better than Locker have had awful halves before. This isn't sparking any move toward Zach Mettenberger. It would take quite a bit more.
Paul Kuharsky: It's two games. Bishop Sankey has had eight carries. He looked pretty good and pretty explosive to me in Kansas City. Of course they are excited about him.
I'm sure you've seen Hyde play in San Fran. Are Titans as excited about Sankey? I just don't see the same explosiveness right now. #pkmail— Carlisle Richards (@CarlisleKR) September 12, 2014
Paul Kuharsky: I think you're focused on the wrong thing. There will come a time when he gets more touches. And the question is about the distribution of the work. Who goes first isn't very important. Shonn Greene is averaging 5.6 yards a carry so far. What's the problem with him being first or getting the most touches at this point?
Will Sankey be the starting RB by mid-season? #pkmail— Tyler Haraway (@tkharaway) September 12, 2014
Paul Kuharsky: Why would you be looking to bench either of those two guys? Whisenhunt just pretty much blasted Justin Hunter. I don't know why you'd presume he'd respond well against a good defense. The time to look for Hunter to be a big fantasy guy is the week after he has a big week. And even then, you'd be nuts to play him ahead of Keenan Allen or Brandon Marshall. Bet you drafted those two well ahead of where you drafted Hunter. Play your high picks.
Is this going to be Justin Hunter's coming out party? Would you play him over Keenan Allen or Brandon Marshall? #pkmail— Fantasy Outlaw (@FantasyOutlaw) September 12, 2014
Paul Kuharsky: I think Gio Bernard has a lot better offense around him than Jamaal Charles does. I don't think they will hold the combo of Bernard and Jeremy Hill down the way they held Charles down. I don't think they get run over by them the way the got run over by DeMarco Murray either. Somewhere in between. Where there is a lot of room.
If Tennessee doesn't feel it can play McCourty and get effective work without risking further injury, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh would start.
Rookie Marqueston Huff was the next guy in against Dallas, and Brandon Harris was a waiver pickup after he was cut by the Houston Texans.
Both spoke this week about their learning curves and preparedness.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is ready to call on each of them.
"If you have a hat on, you have to be accountable," Horton said. "Marqueston is practicing hard. I know he's a rookie, but I have complete faith in him and it's great to throw these guys in there and get them tested.
" ... They are different, probably in their skill set. One is smaller and quicker, one is bigger and probably more explosive at the point. We will give them all playing time."
The Titans are certainly unproven beyond McCourty and Sensabaugh as the nickel.
Some were highly critical that the team didn't re-sign Alterraun Verner, who had an excellent year for the Titans in 2013 before jumping to Tampa Bay as a free agent.
It's worth noting that in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 56-14 thrashing Thursday night at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, Verner didn't do a lot to help.
Only Jared Cook (169 against Jacksonville in 2011) and Dave Casper (150 against Cleveland in 1980) have topped Walker’s 142.
He’s averaging 4.3 catches per game with the Titans, surpassing Frank Wycheck’s 3.5 career mark. And his 44.1 receiving yards per game is second only to Casper's 46.1.
Walker's stat line Sunday -- 10 catches for 140 yds and a TD -- made him the first Titan to hit those marks since Drew Bennett in 2004, per ESPN Stats and Info.
Walker’s start to the season has been big for the Titans. It’s also helped him get into first place in a league he’s in in Fantasy Fundraising, where people can create teams and compete with him and others week to week.
Players can challenge celebrity participants who represent charities. Walker is playing to raise money and awareness for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, while singer Kelly Clarkson represents St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Others involved include Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies, Troy Daniels of the Houston Rockets, actress Tiffani Thiessen and the band Montgomery Gentry.
Walker said he’s in first with a mish-mash of players, as much of his team was auto-drafted. His quarterback is teammate Jake Locker and he’s got the 49ers defense.
The 2-0 Bengals look like a contender for a spot in the Super Bowl, and the 1-1 Tennessee Titans look like a candidate for another year of mediocrity.
Defensive concerns are big here. The Titans made all sorts of mistakes in run defense against Dallas, and Cincinnati has a threatening duo of backs in Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill. Tennessee will play better, but by how much?
With or without injured receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals should have some favorable matchups in the passing game. I don’t expect top cornerback Jason McCourty to play, which means coordinator Hue Jackson can plot for ways to get Marqueston Huff or Brandon Harris on the field and go after the lowest-ranking Titans cornerback.
Jake Locker needs to start a lot better than he did last week, and this is a challenging defense to do it against.
Weekly disclaimer: Unpredictability is the single biggest reason for the NFL’s popularity. No matter how closely I watch the Titans and how many people I talk to, predicating games, in my eyes, isn’t far off throwing a dart.
My prediction: Bengals 27, Titans 17
Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton said that was item one when he met with his guys this week.
“I made them aware of a stat. …Year in and year out for probably the last 20 years, if you lead the league or if you’re in the top 10 in turnover ratio, you get into the playoffs,” Horton said. “Well they’re [second] in the league right now."
Turnovers are an emphasis for every team every week. Against a good team on the road, lost fumbles or picks are ever harder to overcome, and the benefits of getting them can be even bigger.
The Titans have four takeaways and two giveaways so far this season.
Jake Locker is facing the biggest game of his career, writes David Climer of The Tennessean. “As the Titans attempt to break the cycle of mediocrity, Locker is counted upon to become a franchise quarterback. And true franchise quarterbacks respond to adversity. They respond to a poor game with a strong performance.”
Jason McCourty did more Thursday than he did Wednesday, but his fate for Sunday in Cincinnati is questionable, writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
Justin Hunter’s still working on chemistry with Jake Locker, writes John Glennon.
Tennessee's good and bad through two games, from Glennon of The Tennessean.
Locker was happy for a chance to talk about his chicken coop, writes Wyatt.
The run-pass ratio should improve in Cincinnati, writes Titans radio play-by-play man Mike Keith.
They've accomplished that by getting a strong pass rush from a defensive line that has been anchored by fourth-year defensive end Jurrell Casey. When it comes to stopping one man on defensive coordinator Ray Horton's base three-man line, Casey has to be it.
The Titans also have blitzed effectively, getting linebackers like the hybrid stand-up end Derrick Morgan into the backfield, as well as interior 'backers like former Kentucky standout Wesley Woodyard. Tennessee ranks ninth in the league in number of blitzes so far this season with 30. It has allowed one touchdown and gotten five sacks on blitz plays.
Tennessee is tied for second in the league with eight sacks.
Can the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Titans' blitz on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium?
How? First, by running the ball. Secondly, by continuing to dump off short screens for big gains to running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill (the tandem that, depending upon your preference, should also be known in Cincinnati as the "Hue Live Crew" or the "Hue-Tang Clan"). Third, the Bengals would be best served to simply do what they have already been doing. It's has been working.
Against the blitz last week versus the Falcons, quarterback Andy Dalton was 6-for-9 passing with 163 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came when the Falcons rushed the bulk of their defense in a Cover Zero formation that only left the cornerbacks on islands and one safety deep. With a well-run route by receiver Mohamed Sanu, Dalton passed just in front of the cornerback, and avoided getting sacked as Sanu went off and running, sprinting untouched for a 76-yard score.
When five or more rushers come at Dalton, he is sporting a QBR of 80.2 this season. Last year when teams blitzed him, Dalton's QBR was 51.6 and ranked 20th in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
A large part of the reason Dalton has been so successful in the first two games against the blitz is because he's been getting the ball in space to his elusive running backs, and because he and his receivers have been in sync when it comes to running shorter, more precise routes that will get the ball out of Dalton's hand quicker. The entire offense also has been solid protecting Dalton, with Bernard and Hill even stepping up and taking on linebackers or blitzing safeties.
With regard to the dump-offs to Bernard specifically, the running back is pacing all Bengals pass-catchers in targets (16), receptions (11) and yards receiving (141). He's also averaging 14.6 yards after catch per reception. Only Philadelphia's Darren Sproles has a higher YAC per reception, gaining 15.7.
The best counter to a good blitz is always a good screen. So keep your eyes peeled for more action from Bernard.
Also keep your eyes peeled for more rushing action from Bernard and Hill, who combined to pick up 164 yards on the ground last week. Once the Bengals went ahead early against Atlanta it was easy to keep putting the ball the backs' hands. In all, Cincinnati rushed 45 times and only attempted 24 passes. One of those passes was Sanu's 50-yard completion to Brandon Tate.
When you consider the fact the Titans were gashed for 220 yards rushing by the Cowboys last week, it makes a ton of sense -- blitz or not -- to keep their defense honest by continuing to pound it with the run that fared so well in Cincinnati last Sunday.
On his weekly radio show on Titans Radio Tuesday night, Whisenhunt had this to say:
Justin didn’t have the greatest game last week. And I think those corners were a little bit more physical with him. The one he had, the long one down the sideline, he’s got to make that catch. That’s what our expectation for him, to be one of the top receivers in the league, has got to be. He’s gotten plenty of reps in practice and there are going to be plenty of opportunities in the game.
I don’t know which way the ball is going to go in the game a lot of it depends on the type of coverages that we play. But we had a long meeting Monday with our receiver group. Because as I said, that group did not play well in the game. And that’s an area where I felt that we have an advantage. Justin is one of those members I feel like can give us that advantage, but he’s a young player. He’s got to grow up and understand the intensity he’s got to bring to every practice and every game and the attention to detail. I’m very encouraged by what we’ve seen, but he’s going to grow in to that position, he just needs to grow up a little quicker and I think he got that message.
It’s a strong message from a coach that has rarely been critical of players in such settings so far. Clearly he hoped sharing it helped give it the weight he feels it needs.
Cincinnati’s got the NFL’s 26th ranked pass defense so far.
The Titans receivers were a bright spot in the preseason and the team’s pass-catchers have to be a strength for this team to have success. Whisenhunt expects a better effort from the group at Paul Brown Stadium.
That led me to consider whether the Titans' starters inside, Wesley Woodyard and Zaviar Gooden, are good enough to make up for their lack of size.
“I don’t think size and getting off blocks is a problem for Jurrell Casey or Ropati Pitoitua at end or either starting outside linebacker,” ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, said. “But it would worry me very much with both of those two smaller athletic inside linebackers.”
Gooden replaced Zach Brown, who suffered a pectoral injury in the opener and is on IR. Brown is 6-1, 248. A 17-pound difference with the move from Brown to Gooden is significant.
Ken Whisenhunt has been dismissive of size questions.
“I think it’s based on what they do well,” he said. “You look at London Fletcher, he played a long time in this league. How much did he weigh? To me, if they’re needed to fill a gap and they can do it, they’ll do it. We have physical characteristics for each position, and we try to place those guys in those positions, but it’s still about playing the defense.”
Now retired, Fletcher was listed at 5-10, 242 by Washington in his most recent bio.
I asked Williamson to list the top 3-4 inside linebackers in the NFL.
Here’s that list with their sizes:
* -- injured
Kamerion Wimbley qualified as a small defensive end the last couple years in the Titans' 4-3. Now back as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, he’s a better fit at 6-4, 258.
“If you’re not big, you definitely better be able to run and hit like a big guy,” said Wimbley said. “I think whoever we put out there, we have confidence they’ll be able to do their job and we don’t worry about size.”
The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback has dropped back 63 times in two wins this season and hasn’t been hit or sacked.
The Titans' ability to maintain the pressure at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday could be a big factor in their chances to pull what would be regarded as an upset.
“I think we’re doing good, to be ranked among the top teams in the NFL,” Titans outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley said.
Jurrell Casey spoke of the need to get Dalton off his first read, which will force him to hold the ball a beat longer.
If Dalton is in that quick rhythm, the Titans need to bat down some balls at the line. End Ropati Pitoitua has two batted balls this season, outside linebacker Derrick Morgan has two (one of which was in coverage) and Wimbley has one.
Nose tackle Sammie Hill said getting a hand on a pass at the line qualifies as a big play.
“You’ve just got to come off the ball real tough and get your hands up,” Hill said. “We know he throws the ball real quick. So our biggest thing is when we know that’s a part of their game, we’ve got to work to get the push and then get our hands up so we can get batted balls.
“For us, batted balls are just as good as hit and sacks, too.”
How does Jake Locker rank in the quarterback class of 2011? Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean examines the question.
To which I say: It would be hard to put Locker anywhere but No. 4 on this list of six.
Adam "Pacman" Jones is ready for his first game against the team that drafted him, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.
To which I say: He says he’s not angry about anything from his time with the Titans or the end of it. I’ve always been confused by that idea. What would he have to be angry about? The question would be if the Titans are past being angry. (They are.)
The Titans need to recover from their poor run-defense effort against the Cowboys while they are in Cincinnati, says David Boclair of the Nashville Post.
When he has time away from football, tight end Craig Stevens is a craftsman, says Lauren McMillin of the Titans' website.
The Tennessee Titans had trouble stopping the run last week when Dallas running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 167 yards in the Cowboys' 26-10 win over the Titans at LP Field.
The Cincinnati Bengals, paced by the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, improved to 2-0 last week in part because of the ground game. The running back duo sparked the win over the Falcons when it picked up all but six of the Bengals' 170 rushing yards and contributed in the receiving game.
All that suggests the Bengals have a slight advantage entering Sunday's Week 3 showdown in Cincinnati. Will Bernard and Hill continue feeding off each other and have another strong rushing performance against a poor rushing defense? Or will the Titans buckle up this week and make the necessary changes to prevent the Bengals from pulling a Murray on them?
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to discuss that and more:
Kuharsky: We'll start with you, Coley. Andy Dalton has gotten spectacular protection. The Titans have eight sacks and have rushed well, with a lot of blitzes from the secondary last week. What has keyed the Bengals in this department, and are they perhaps susceptible to anything they haven’t seen yet?
Harvey: It starts with solid offensive line play. The players on the Bengals' front have done a great job holding their blocks in the first two games. Then you have to credit the Bengals' play calling. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has called plays that get Dalton to throw quickly, delivering the ball to receivers in the type of short and intermediate routes that he mostly excelled with last year. You also have to credit the receivers for running precise routes and getting quicker separation than they did at times last year. That was their key focus during the preseason. Plus, you have to acknowledge the running backs. Bernard leads the team in targets this season, and on at least three occasions he has bailed Dalton out of possible sacks by remaining close to the line of scrimmage after blocks. On each of those broken plays, Dalton yelled out Bernard's name -- "Gio!" -- before dumping off a quick screen that gained big yards.
Along those lines, Dalton deserves an enormous amount of credit for being savvy to do that and for throwing the ball away when he hasn't had adequate passing lanes this year. He is susceptible to getting sacked this week, but playing all 3-4 defenses in the preseason helped prepare the Bengals for this week's challenge.
Paul, Jake Locker and Dalton hail from the famed 2011 quarterback draft class. Locker was picked eighth overall by Tennessee, Dalton 35th by Cincinnati. And the rest has been history. It certainly appears the Dalton experiment has fared better. So what is it about Locker that continues to convince Titans brass that he’s the man for the job?
Kuharsky: Well, GM Ruston Webster wasn’t the primary decision-maker then, but he was on board with the Locker selection and obviously remains so. As he sold Ken Whisenhunt on the job, Webster also sold him on Locker having a chance to be an answer at quarterback under the tutelage of the new coach. Locker works his butt off, says all the right things and has the respect of his coaches and peers. He is capable of a game like he played in Kansas City, where he was poised even under pressure, threw a couple TD passes, distributed the ball well and led a strong effort. He’s capable, too, of a dud of a first half like he posted against the Cowboys, when he couldn’t do a thing right.
The Titans have invested a ton in the offensive line over the past two seasons, and Locker has perhaps the best stable of targets the franchise has assembled since it relocated.
They back him, but he’s not under contract beyond this year. Locker has to stay healthy and win over Whisenhunt with a good body of work or the Titans can turn toward sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger and someone else next year.
Count me among those who figured the Bengals would drop off at least a bit defensively with Mike Zimmer moving on to Minnesota. How have they dealt with his loss? And mandatory Pacman Jones question: What’s his role, how is he playing, and is he staying out of trouble?
Harvey: Let's get to the Jones question first. When he arrived in 2010 after his time in Tennessee and Dallas, part of the way he tried to reinvent himself was to drop his nickname in favor of his given name, Adam. Teammates still refer to him as Pacman at times, but people around the team have respected his desire to mostly go by Adam. In turn, he has respected them by mostly staying on the right side of the law. He had one verbal run-in last fall with a police officer that resulted in a citation. Also last fall, a judge found Jones not guilty of assaulting a woman at a Cincinnati nightclub in June 2013. The judge didn't think either party acted appropriately but noted that surveillance video showed where Jones had first been assaulted by the stranger with a beer bottle. Since then, Jones has gotten married and doubled his efforts to put his past behind him and not receive the type of notoriety that defined his days in Nashville.
As far as his role, that relates to the reason there hasn't been much drop-off following Zimmer's departure. The Bengals may have lost the beloved coordinator, but they lost only one regular starter from last year's defense in the offseason -- defensive end Michael Johnson. They remain chock-full of veteran talent with players, such as the 30-year-old Jones, who are playing the best in their careers. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Leon Hall are playing at high levels in a defense that has the same scheme and foundation as before. It also helps that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was already on the staff and was in charge of calling many of the blitzes that made Zimmer's scheme hum.
Although last week’s loss to Dallas was certainly deflating to a Titans defense that stopped the run well in Week 1, what was it that made Tennessee’s pass defense so effective last week against Tony Romo? How will Tennessee try to make Dalton's life as tough as Romo’s was last week?
Kuharsky: Don’t let the numbers fool you. They were "good" in pass defense against Dallas only because they were so busy getting run on that the Cowboys didn’t need to throw the ball. Dez Bryant had his way with them on the crucial drive that re-established who the better team was after the Titans closed to 16-10 in the third quarter. With top cornerback Jason McCourty out in the second half with a groin injury, Romo made the throws he needed to against Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh and the rest of the secondary.
The Titans have rushed well, so Alex Smith and Romo didn’t have a lot of time to pick them apart. But Smith lacked weapons, and Romo lacked necessity. The Titans have limited big plays, which is a huge theme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. If they can keep that up, the Bengals might have to earn their yards in smaller chunks.
What are the biggest differences between Jay Gruden’s offense and the one Jackson is using in his first year as coordinator with Gruden at the helm in Washington? If the Bengals are without A.J. Green, how dangerous can they still be?
Harvey: All you need to know is this: Dalton averaged 39.9 dropbacks in 2013. Through two games, he has averaged just 31.5 dropbacks. In short, the Bengals are passing less and running more. That was Jackson's charge this offseason when he said he wanted to instill a more physical, aggressive brand of offense from what the team had before. When the Bengals rushed 45 times last week with all but 10 of their carries coming inside the tackles, you could see exactly what Jackson was referring to. He wants to bruise defenses up front to open up the pass downfield.
Being without Green, as it appears they will be, will be a big loss. But considering the fact that Green was lost just six plays into Sunday's game and the Bengals still held up offensively, they should be fine passing to Mohamed Sanu, tight end Jermaine Gresham and the running backs. If it plays like it did last week, the Bengals offense can still be dangerous sans Green.
How fast is Delanie Walker, Paul? Outside of the AFC South we just see a physical, stodgy bowling ball of a tight end. But can he really be as dangerous in space as he seems to think?
Kuharsky: He was a terror last week. On his 61-yard touchdown catch, he bounced off a corner and galloped a long way, outrunning four Cowboys. Walker is a tough, smart player who was a good find. And Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end, is finding ways to use him just as Mike Munchak and his staff did in 2013. Walker can be a big matchup problem, depending on how a defense chooses to defend receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey. Tennessee has another tight end who can do some damage as a receiver. Taylor Thompson was a defensive end in college, but he finally has caught on to what it takes to be effective on offense in the NFL at the position he started at.