NASHVILLE, Tenn. – After coming off their best preseason performance in last Saturday’s win over visiting Atlanta, don’t expect the Titans to come out full bore in their final preseason game Thursday night at Minnesota.
In fact, the Titans feel pretty good about themselves as they go through Thursday’s last dress rehearsal in advance of the season opener at Pittsburgh on Sept. 8. Then again, they still have some nagging questions – as well as nagging injuries –- to get taken care of between now and a week from Sunday.
Here are five questions for the Titans as they try to even their preseason record at 2-2 against the Vikings:
1. Is McCarthy ready to return to starting at middle linebacker?
While the Titans will play their starters sparingly Thursday night, there is one regular they would like to see stretch it out.
After missing all but the first few days of training camp and three preseason games with a hamstring injury, incumbent middle linebacker Colin McCarthy returned to practice last week and is expected to play extensively against the Vikings. The Titans want to see if he can be ready by the season opener.
If not, the Titans will then turn to Moise Fokou, the former Colt who was signed as a free agent as much for insurance against McCarthy’s injury-prone ways as his ability to play both middle and weakside slots.
“He wants to start. He wants to play,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said of McCarthy, a third-year linebacker out of Miami (Fla.).
He earned the starting nod midway during a rookie season that saw him have 76 tackles despite starting just seven games.
But last season as the full-time starter, he played in only seven games, nursing an ankle injury early in the season and a concussion later. This spring and early in training camp, he appeared healthy, but found himself in a battle for the starting nod with Fokou before injuring his hamstring.
“(McCarthy) doesn’t want to just be part of the team,” Munchak said. “He wants to be contributing in a big way, and he hasn’t been able to do that. We still think he’s going to be a big part of what we do this year, but he just needs to have an opportunity to play and get his confidence back and get through this one without any problems.”
2. Who eventually wins out at center and left cornerback?
Other than middle linebacker, there are only two other positions that have yet to be settled with starters still to be named.
One is at left cornerback, where fourth-year Alterraun Verner and third-year Tommie Campbell have been battling all through training camp. Like he did against the Falcons, Verner will start Thursday night, but when and how Campbell comes into the game might be different than last week when he relieved Verner several series into the game.
“We’re going to look and see how we’re going to handle the corner spot,” Munchak said. “Last week, we alternated. I’m sure we’ll probably do something similar on that regard on defense. I would think in the next couple days, we’ll have that finalized.”
The other position apparently still up for grabs is center, where veteran free agent acquisition Rob Turner, who started all 16 games last season for St. Louis at either guard or center, apparently has beaten out veteran Fernando Velasco.
But the Titans also want to give rookie Brian Schwenke a long look at the position. The fourth-round pick out of California was graded highest at the position by the Titans in the draft, and he entered training camp making a strong push to start alongside fellow rookie Chance Warmark, the right guard.
“Schwenke needs to continue to get reps,” Munchak said. “He’ll play most of the game, probably three quarters of the game with the other two guys playing quite a bit at guard again. I’d imagine that’s the way we’d go similar to what we did last week. Then we’ll let this thing play out and see the best combinations.”
3. Will the Titans carry three quarterbacks again?
With difficult roster decisions coming at several positions, there is a notion the Titans would only keep starting quarterback Jake Locker and backup Ryan Fitzpatrick when the final 53-man roster is released by Saturday at 5 p.m. CDT.
That would leave Rusty Smith looking for a job after spending the past three seasons as the team’s No. 3 quarterback. Because he has played in only three career games, Smith would be eligible for the Titans’ seven-player development squad, should he be cut by the Titans and then clear waivers and not be signed directly to another team’s 53-man roster.
“That’s something each year that’s part of the discussion,” Munchak said of keeping only two quarterbacks. “I mean a lot of teams are only carrying two. We discussed that the last couple of years, but we’ve kept three. Again, that’s one of those things that’s always on the table.”
Since being taken in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, Smith has played in three games with one start. Smith has played in all three preseason games behind Locker and Fitzpatrick, completing 11-of-18 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown with a passer rating of 94.7. He is expected to play all of the second half and even some of the first Thursday night.
4. Does the artificial surface of the Metrodome impact how regulars will be used versus the Vikings?
With the team coming off a short week and sporting several players with nagging injuries, the artificial surface of the Metrodome will impact the Titans’ player rotation on Thursday night.
“It definitely does,” Munchak said of considering holding more players back than unusual because of playing on the artificial turf in the preseason finale. “It’s something you consider at this time because we played on it at Cincinnati (in the second preseason game), but haven’t really practiced on it.
“It’s more of the guys who have injuries that you’re a little more concerned with that. You have to be smart. But, again, they’re not going to be playing that much, so it shouldn’t matter a whole lot.”
Plus, the roster was cut from 90 players to 75 players by the Tuesday deadline, so it’s hard to sit all the top players.
“You know when you cut the roster to 75 and you have about a dozen hurt or 10 guys or so,” Munchak said, “there’s only 60 guys to play in the game or so. We’re all going to play if we’re healthy, and the young guys will probably get a lot more reps than the others.”
5. Should the Titans be concerned about receiver Kenny Britt’s knee?
When healthy, fifth-year receiver Kenny Britt – the team’s 2009 first-round draft pick – can be as explosive as any receiver in the league. But he has had surgeries on both knees in recent years, and he will sit out Thursday’s game because of swelling in his right knee.
“He’d be able to play this game if it was a regular season game, no problem,” Munchak said of Britt, who has looked strong throughout training camp despite missing a few days to rest his knees. “If we’re already going to limit them with reps, and he’s coming off a short week and it’s on a tougher surface, that’s always a reason to let it rest.
“Otherwise, there’s no doubt that he’d be able to play. We’re not concerned for that. He’d be able to play without any restriction.”
In three preseason games, Britt has five receptions for 58 yards with a long of 18 yards. Last season, he had 45 catches for 589 yards and four touchdowns, playing in 14 games. But he never returned to full speed after tearing the ACL in his right knee in the third game of 2011.
Britt had 45 receptions for 589 yards and four touchdowns last season. He appeared in 14 games, bouncing back from an ACL tear in his right knee during Week 3 of the 2011 season. The injuries nagging him throughout 2012 and into this season, however, are in his left leg.