Commentary

Camp Confidential: Even with Young, Titans' success rests on defense

Updated: August 18, 2008, 7:54 PM ET
By Paul Kuharsky | ESPN.com

Albert HaynesworthHarry How/Getty ImagesAll-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth leads a Titans defense that was ranked No. 5 in 2007.
NASHVILLE -- There will be days when Vince Young makes the play of the NFL day, does something spectacular, basks in improbable moments.

The Titans are not built to rely on those days.

Though his role may seem to put him in a box, Young has been asked to be a game manager first, a game changer second. The quarterback was miserable in the Titans' second preseason game, completing just 4 of 13 passes, but he didn't turn over the ball. After the game, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said it was a bright spot that Young wasn't intercepted. He also evoked this formula: The Titans remain a defensive team that wants to run, and even if Young plays significantly better in his third year than he did in his second, that will remain the case.

No matter who the Titans employ as their offensive personnel, it should never come as a surprise that head coach Jeff Fisher would run his team based on such a mold.

His Titans never fall for the idea of carryover. He and his staff preach that just because the team could do something last season, it offers no guarantee about this time around. Everything starts from scratch.

The 2007 Titans' defense ranked fifth in yardage and eighth in points allowed, but defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz doesn't want to talk about such relative successes.

"If you look at it with returning players and things like that, on paper you'd say we should be pretty good," he said. "… But we've been talking a lot on defense, though, about not falling into that trap. Just because we were good last year doesn't mean anything about this year. It's about staying hungry and things like that.

"Every year is going to be a little different. You can't count on one year rolling over into the next. The thing that helps with that is we've got such a hard-working crew, and they're smart and they're not going to fall into that."

Two guys on the right side of the defensive line will set the team's personality: nonstop end Kyle Vanden Bosch and contract-hungry tackle Albert Haynesworth. If they stuff the run and crush the pocket with the regularity they did last season, everyone's job will become easier. The Titans will look for more takeaways and more scoring opportunities, and they'll hope that a LenDale White-Chris Johnson backfield combo can key long and successful drives on offense that will allow the defense to stay fresh by playing with the team already ahead.

Key questions

1. Will Young be better?

Heimerdinger was brought back for a second term mainly to work the same magic with Young that he worked with Steve McNair. Young's footwork was a major offseason focus, and he won't get stuck bouncing on his toes eight yards deep in the pocket as he often did last year. When Young chooses to take off, he won't need to do as much work just to return to the line of scrimmage. He was inconsistent in camp and the preseason, but it seems that when those things click, he'll regain confidence as he sees that his new coach's advice is working.

Another big element is how Young will react mentally. Will he mope when things don't go well, or step up and shoulder his share of the blame? He's a winner, which should set a healthy and contagious tone. But if he hangs his head in his third season, his teammates will be watching that, too.

2. Are the weapons good enough?

Much was made of the Titans' failure to upgrade the receiving corps in any major way, though it's hard to pinpoint the game-changer the team missed in free agency or the first round of the draft. Tennessee didn't want to force what wasn't there and upgraded elsewhere instead. Tight end Alge Crumpler is the sort of security blanket Young has lacked, and he should help make the other tight ends more effective. And lightning bolt first-round running back Chris Johnson may do some of his best work as a pass-catcher. This team is far more dangerous on offense than last year's 10-6 playoff team. Imagine how well the Titans will perform if veteran receiver Justin McCareins plays well in his return to the team that drafted him and if fourth-rounder Lavelle Hawkins turns into an effective slot man.

3. Can Jevon Kearse effectively take over at left end?

[+] EnlargeJevon Kearse
Scott Miller/Getty ImagesJevon Kearse had 47.5 sacks in 66 games during his first stint in Tennessee.
Not by himself. Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy combined for 14 sacks from the spot last year, but both left for big free-agent dollars. Enter Kearse, a reclamation project eager to restore his name in the city he built it. Odds are likely that he's more of a situational player than wants to be, but his durability and the play of the other ends will determine the extent of his role. Jacob Ford, who missed his rookie season with a shredded Achilles, has won the trust of defensive line coach Jim Washburn, which is no small feat. Rookie William Hayes also will earn chances. The left end spot is the only real question mark on the defense, where every other starter returns.

Market watch

A less-is-more philosophy could benefit a couple of the Titans on offense. Miscast as the No. 1 tight end, Bo Scaife wore down the past few years. He will be more productive playing as the second guy, as Crumpler's presence should lighten his workload.

White also should improve with less playing time. He ran with good vision in the first half of the preseason and has an excellent line working for him. He also isn't flustered by the idea that Johnson could cut into his carries. Instead, White smartly hearkens back when he played in tandem with Reggie Bush at USC. He won over his coaches by showing good toughness last season, and although he isn't in phenomenal shape, he's never been in better shape during his NFL career.

Newcomer to watch

Johnson is electric with the ball in his hands, and he has the sort of speed that will burn any defender who blinks. It's tough to get a square shot on him, and that slipperiness may be more surprising to those trying to bring him down than his ability to get into fifth gear so quickly. He gives the Titans a dimension they've lacked for years.

Observation deck

Free-agent addition Jake Scott replaces retired Benji Olson at right guard and is a physical player who should fit in well. Eugene Amano is likely the new left guard. The offensive line remains a major strength. ... Fullback Ahmard Hall worried that Heimerdinger would prefer a two-tight end set, but the new offensive coordinator loves Hall and will give him chances to carry and catch in addition to his blocking. ... Restricted free agent Chris Carr symbolizes the sort of fill-in pieces that have become a priority under GM Mike Reinfeldt. Carr is an efficient unspectacular returner who can play corner or safety if and when needed. ...None of the second-tier receivers has done a lot to separate himself from the rest of the pack. The team shouldn't be married to Paul Williams or Biren Ealy if they can't show more in the second half of the preseason. ... If the Titans improve in the red zone, which has been a major point of emphasis, kicker Rob Bironas will have fewer chances. He connected on 35 field goals in 39 chances in a 2007 Pro Bowl campaign. ... The depth on the interior defensive line is significantly better than last season's. Second-round pick Jason Jones (who has a great wingspan) and Antonio Johnson replace Randy Starks and the no-name the Titans had behind Haynesworth and Tony Brown last season.

Paul Kuharsky covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter