Titans: Four observations from joint practice with Falcons
AUG 04, 2014 9:40p ET
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Here are four observations from the Titans-Falcons joint practice on Monday (Falcons training headquarters), with Tennessee's amped-up squad serving as the sole focus:
1. Let's give Bernard Pollard's 'pretenders' comment (below) a little perspective here
Full disclosure: I neither saw nor heard Pollard echo the P-word during Monday's session. Around that time, I was watching the Titans' offensive playmakers battle the Falcons' cornerbacks on the far field.
That said, I'm reasonably positive the Twitter pushback from the widey reported incident occurred before Tennessee and Atlanta got into a minor scrum at the practice field closest to the fans.
As such, Pollard's words weren't necessarily borne out of post-fight frustration.
So, what action precipitated the comment? For much of the day, the Titans defenders -- notably the outspoken, highly influential Pollard -- were outwardly exuberant on just about every big play, good and bad.
The offensive Titans were similarly stoked, running crisp up-tempo passing drills and diverse formations on a hot and humid day.
In fact, during their live 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills against the Falcons, quarterbacks Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst and rookie Zach Mettenberger routinely stretched the field with a series of mid-range slants and deep curls.
The club also had success running between the tackles -- an odd statement on its own, since defenders aren't really allowed to bring ball carriers to the ground during training camp. So, smallish backs should feel emboldened to face mountain-men defenders, like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, this time of year (compared to September).
It's hard to tell if there's any lingering issues between the Titans and Falcons. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee's head coach, has deep ties to Georgia Tech and the Falcons (played here from 1985-88); and the two franchises don't play enough -- just once every four years during the regular season -- to surmise any deep-seeded hatred.
Plus, the Falcons should be the ones boiling in anger, if applicable, after surrendering six sacks in a preseason defeat to the Titans last August.
And yet, the Titans players were the ones who practiced with the proverbial chip on their shoulders, as if they've been stewing over the Falcons' national attention of late -- whether it's the whole Hard Knocks experience (the HBO series debuts Tuesday night) or that pundits foresee the 4-12 Falcons making a bigger jump forward than the 7-9 Titans in 2014.
Either way, Pollard remained vigilant with his defensive troops on Monday, never letting them ease up the pressure against Atlanta's first-teamers.
2. Let's explore some quick-hitter ramblings on the Tennessee side
**The Titans practice at a faster tempo than most NFL teams. Every drill, every huddle break comes with the single-minded implication of speed.
And Whisenhunt certainly practices what he preaches. Every time the practice horn bellowed, the perpetualy active coach was among the first cluster of Titans players and coaches to arrive at the next station.
**On the flip side, the Titans offense cannot -- and will not -- succeed if quarterback Jake Locker (1,256 yards passing, 10 total TDs in seven starts last year) doesn't post a seasonal passing rate of 64 percent or higher.
Last season's 60.7 rate was certainly a noticeable uptick from his first two NFL seasons ... but it's still not good enough in a Whisenhunt-inspired offense.
**With the passing game, the officials at Monday's joint session weren't shy about throwing the flag downfield -- censuring both the offensive and defensive performers.
Basically, the NFL is using this period to drive home the fact that stealth push-offs -- including cornerbacks and pass-catchers -- will not be tolerated. Will it hold up for an entire season? We're thinking ... no.
At least not in Year 1.
Rhetorical question alert: The intensity of the joint practice was excellent. But it bears asking: Why did the Titans make the trip south to Georgia on this day ... knowing the two clubs will meet again during Week 3 of the preseason (Aug. 23) -- in Atlanta?
**Rookie Bishop Sankey (2,174 total yards, 24 TDs at Washington last year) has been given the ultimate gift from the football gods.
With the noted departure of Chris Johnson (now with the Jets), the Titans are absolutely in the market for a full-time, home-run back ... and Sankey has the size, speed, cutting ability and natural instincts to be an impact performer from Day 1.
3. The offensive line is once again whole, now that Andy Levitre has returned to action
Levitre's training-camp debut occurred on Monday, with the O-guard getting light reps against the Falcons -- his first significant physical activity since appendectomy surgery.
On the plus side, Levitre's absence enabled Taylor Lewan (Round 1 draft pick) to get some valuable reps with the first team.
According to reports, Lewan, a premium O-tackle prospect at Michigan, will float along the offensive line in Year 1 (guard, tackle) -- barring any unforeseen injuries to his veteran linemates. It's the perfect situation for a rookie breaking into the business, even if Lewan has all the physical traits of a starter-grade tackle.
At 6-foot-7, 309 pounds, Lewan has the unique ability to block out the sun when media members are watching practice from up close -- at the height of daytime.
4. Justin Hunter may be ready for his star turn -- a year ahead of high expectations
During a 1-on-1 "island" passing drill, Hunter crushed Falcons cornerback Robert McClain for two long touchdowns down the left sideline. And upon further review, it's hard to say that McClain's strategy for handling the second-year wideout was ill-conceived.
Hunter (18 catches, 354 yards) simply beat his man clean off the line and used that lightning-fast speed to create separation from McClain, who could very well be Atlanta's primary nickel asset come Week 1.
Which brings us to this: During the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 team drills, Hunter didn't have many downfield opportunities ... so it's hard to gauge his overall progress, when confined to tight spaces.
But let's take the positives from that: At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, the supremely athletic Hunter won't encounter many physical clones (at corner) when running patterns this season -- especially with receiver Kendall Wright (94 catches, 1,079 yards last year), all-everything back Dexter McCluster and the rookie Sankey commanding the lion's share of defensive attention.
As such, Hunter should be a dynamic red-zone force -- easily eclipsing his four touchdowns from last year. And the between-the-20s development should start kicking in, as well.
Just look at the numbers:
From Weeks 10-14, spanning five games, Hunter tallied two 100-yard efforts, two TDs and three outings of six-plus targets.
That's a substantial upgrade from Weeks 3-9 ... when Hunter never collected four or more targets in a game.