Titans rookie Hunter making late-season strides

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Through 10 games, Titans rookie wide receiver Justin Hunter had only seven catches for 102 yards.

In Sunday’s win at Oakland, the second-round pick out of Tennessee broke through to notch career highs with seven catches for 109 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown early in the second half.

Five catches came on third-down conversions, including a 9-yarder on 3rd-and-6 to the Raiders’ 10 that kept the game-winning drive alive with less than a minute remaining.

“I felt like I played good,” said Hunter, who has been slow to learn the precision and demands of the offense, “but I think I could have played a little bit stronger than what I did (Sunday).

“I think I got pushed out of my route a few times but was still was able to get the ball, so I just need to work on that part of my game.”

Along with second-year wideout Kendall Wright and veteran Nate Washington, Hunter’s late-season emergence gives the Titans three viable options at wide receiver.

That is a comfort thought, since veteran Kenny Britt has been unreliable and ineffective, and Damian Williams has been sidelined with a hip injury.

“We didn’t know for sure,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said of Hunter’s progress that had included a pair of acrobatic touchdowns among his previous six catches.

“I think he’s had good coaching. I think (wide receivers coach) Shawn Jefferson’s done a great job with him. He’s constantly in his ear, constantly talking to him, constantly showing him how to be a pro.”

Hunter is also leaning heavily on Wright, who led all NFL rookies last year in receptions and tops the 2013 Titans with 65 catches, 763 yards and two touchdowns, and Washington (36 catches, 566 yards, two TDs).

“I think having another young player like Kendall (Wright) there, he’s seen how Kendall attacks the game in the second year,” Munchak said. “Then Nate (Washington) is one of our team captains. I think he’s done a great job in that room.

“The way they work in practice, he works hard in practice, he does scout-team reps. Him and Kendall don’t want to come off the field in practice. They’re competing, and that rubs off on you I think.”

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is starting for the injured Jake Locker the remainder of the season, has already established a rapport with Hunter and Wright.

“Kendall’s really stepped up all year for us,” said Fitzpatrick, who completed 30 of 42 passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against Oakland. “He’s been a real reliable guy for me — a guy that I really trust.

“Justin Hunter (Sunday), all his catches, he really stepped up and made some plays, and obviously the great run after the catch on the touchdown. He was making tough catches, getting hit, having to go to the ground on third down conversions.”

Griffin suspended by NFL

Free safety Michael Griffin was suspended by the NFL — without pay — for the upcoming Colts game, following his hit Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera.

It was Griffin’s second time this season and fourth since 2011 to be punished for a hit to the head and/or neck area of a defenseless player.

If the suspension is upheld, upon appeal, it will cost Griffin approximately $205,992 — 1/17th of his $3.5 million base salary.

“I told their training room staff I apologized,” Griffith said. “It was nothing intentional or me trying to harm anybody. I was just trying to do the job I am paid to do.

” … I prayed for him right then and there. I wasn’t meaning to do any harm.”

Playoff hopes still alive

The Titans (currently the AFC’s No. 6 seed at 5-6) control their own destiny for a playoff berth, although the schedule is daunting with trips to Indianapolis and Denver, before returning home Dec. 15 against 7-4 Arizona.

The AFC division leaders seem secure for playoff spots with New England (8-3) in the East, Cincinnati (7-4) in the North, Indianapolis (7-4) in the South and either Denver (9-2) or Kansas City in the West (9-2) — with the divisional runner-up likely garnering the top wild card.

That leaves the Titans among six teams — Jets, Dolphins, Steelers, Ravens and Chargers — all sitting at 5-6 and still in the hunt for the last wild-card spot.

Of the five other AFC teams with 5-6 records, the Titans have beaten the Jets, Chargers and Steelers. At 5-4, the Ravens have the best record within the AFC.

Britt play hard to figure

Britt went into this season with high expectations, especially since it was a contract year for a player who has shown flashes of explosiveness and brilliance. He was seemingly healthy after having surgeries the past few years on both knees, and his off-the-field shenanigans had been written off as a likable sort just needing maturity.

But with some early drops and costly penalties, the 2009 first-rounder found himself sliding down the depth chart. And every time he gets a chance, like in Sunday’s victory, he just doesn’t make the plays.

Britt couldn’t come up with a key 3rd-and-20 conversion where Fitzpatrick put the ball where it could have been caught. And then there was a simple drop late in the game … that was nearly a drive killer.

“That’s been a tough deal,” Munchak said of Britt, who has only eight catches for 67 yards and no touchdowns after entering the season with 142 catches for 2,354 yards and 19 touchdowns. “It’s been disappointing as we’ve talked about. He’s not playing much because of some drops and penalties early in the season.

“He didn’t play a lot (Sunday), but he gets open. That’s the thing, he’s getting open. He’s working hard in practice, and that’s why we’re giving him opportunities.”

Roster changes

On Tuesday, the Titans agreed to terms with veteran return specialist Leon Washington, while waiving former return guy Devon Wylie and offensive tackle Kevin Matthews.

A Pro Bowl selection in 2008 with the Jets and last season with Seattle, Washington has eight career touchdown kickoff returns, tying Joe Cribbs for the most in NFL history. He has returned 245 kickoffs for a 25.9-yard average and 168 punt returns for a 9.9-yard average during his 105-game NFL career.

The Titans also signed defensive tackle Frank Kearse to the practice squad and placed defensive tackle Chigbo Anunoby on the practice squad injured list.