Titans defense gets another tough test in Rivers, Chargers

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The mantra around the Titans since start of spring drills carried through training camp and has now manifested itself in the first two games of the season.

It was all about “changing the culture” for a team that limped through a disappointing 6-10 season a year ago. That was especially so on defense, which yielded a NFL-worst 471 points last season to set a dubious franchise record for defensive futility.

In two road games thus far — a 16-9 win to open the season at Pittsburgh and a 30-24 overtime loss last Sunday at Houston — the Titans are yielding only 19.5 points per game. The aggressive defense has produced seven sacks and three interceptions. 

The Titans defense in particular and the team in general will get another stern test Sunday in the home opener when San Diego (1-1) and quarterback Philip Rivers come calling. In a home loss to Houston in which they blew a 28-7 lead and then a win last Sunday at Philadelphia, the Chargers have shown life under rookie head coach Mike McCoy.

And Rivers, the 10-year veteran, has played exceptionally well, completing 50-of-76 passes for 614 yards and seven touchdowns with only one interception. His overall rating is a sparkling 115.8

“That’s always important that we make his day rough,” Munchak said of pressuring Rivers, “but I’ve seen us make his day rough and him still perform. He’s not a guy you’re going to discourage easily, but we need to do that.”

In fact, the Chargers have beaten the Titans nine times in a row dating back to 1992 when Munchak was still playing at guard for the then-Houston Oilers. Last season, Rivers led the Chargers to a 38-10 whipping of the visiting Titans in Week 2.

In studying the Titans defense, Rivers noticed a marked change. 

Of course, the addition of free agents like safeties Bernard Pollard and George Wilson, end Ropati Pitoitua and middle linebacker Moise Fokou makes for new faces. And there is a different feel of aggressiveness that can be attributed to the hiring of defensive assistant Gregg Williams, who was suspended last season for his role in the Saints Bounty-gate deal.

“I think they have a super-active defensive front and front seven,” Rivers said of the Titans defense. “Their linebackers fly around, they’re real active, and they’re good pass rushers. The secondary is an experienced group, and it’s a good defense.  

“The way they played both teams — they played Houston really well, and Pittsburgh, holding them to nine points — it’s a good group.”

The first order of business from last season for the Titans was fixing the pass rush. Call that mission accomplished so far.

Against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Texans QB Matt Schaub, the push from the defensive line alone — not to mention the various blitz packages — was a constant threat and provided consistent pressure through the middle and on the edges.

“I think that it’s going well,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said of the defensive line play. “Again, we’re talking about more consistency. We just got to show up every game. 

“Teams are doing the same thing. Once you have a little success, they’re going to try and take that away from you the best they can.”

The push from the defensive front has been led by third-year tackle Jurrell Casey on the inside and fourth-year defensive end Derrick Morgan, a former first-round draft pick, on the outside. Each has six tackles and two sacks to lead the line in both categories. 

The other starting end, free agent signee Ropati Pitoitua, has five tackles. The other starting tackle, free agent signee Sammie Hill, was also effective before spraining an ankle at Houston. He will not play Sunday and could be out for several weeks.

“Overall, I think we’re heading in the right direction as far as what we’re doing pass rush,” Munchak said. “Morgan had another sack (at Houston). He actually had two sacks, one he lost because there was a penalty downfield which hurt him. He wanted that. He ended up with one sack and didn’t really have the other. 

“Casey won quite a few times up there, but just didn’t get the sack in this game. They’re getting better.” 

Following suit is the linebacking crew led by second-year Zach Brown on the outside. He tops the team with 20 tackles and has the team’s other two sacks. Fokou has nine tackles, while the other outside linebacker, Akeem Ayers, has been slowed by injury.

They’ll face a tough cover in Chargers tight end Antonio. Thus far, he has 10 catches for a team-leading 173 yards, including a long of 34 yards.

As for the Titans secondary, it got a big boost from adding Pollard, the big hitter who helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl last season. He is second on the team with 15 tackles plus an interception. But it was his big hit on Texans star receiver Andre Johnson on Sunday that made the most news.

While not being penalized on the play at the goal line where Johnson was trying to score, Pollard was fined $42,000 by the NFL for the hit that was deemed near the head of Johnson, who left the game with a concussion from the play.

“I’m not going to allow them to change the way that I play football,” said Pollard, who is appealing the fine. ” … It stinks. The bad part about us as players, for the fans, for the coaches, for the refs, it’s a lot of gray area. 

“Refs don’t know what to call, what not to call. It was a no call, now you come back and fine me $42,000 for what? For me to go make a play that was legal.”

Also standing out thus far in the Titans secondary has been fourth-year Alterraun Verner, who has had an interception in both games. That includes returning a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown against Houston that gave the Titans a late lead.

With the loss of receiver Malcom Floyd for the season to a injury, the Chargers must rely more on Eddie Royal to be the team’s lead receiver. He has 10 catches for 114 yards and five touchdowns.

“It still remains to be seen,” Rivers said when asked about the difference in the offense this season compared to last. “We’ve won one game. It’s early in the season. We have a long way to go.

“I think we’ve done some things to set the foundation for what we want to build on. But we have a long way to go, and the Titans are our next challenge.”