NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With three preseason games played and two weeks until the season opener Sept. 7 at Kansas City, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt was peppered with questions about his team’s defense — or lack thereof from the first string, which has given up an opening-drive touchdown in each of its preseason outings. That includes Saturday night when Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan marched his offense 79 yards on 11 plays for an early score, culminating with a 31-yard scoring strike on a simple slant pass to wide receiver Devin Hester.
In the second half, on nearly the same exact play, wide receiver Julio Jones raced 52 yards to the endzone, giving the Falcons a 17-3 lead. Unlike Hester going untouched, Jones broke tackles by Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and strong safety Bernard Pollard before scoring.
Considering the Titans’ first-team defense has been previously torched by backup quarterbacks — Green Bay’s Matt Flynn and New Orleans’ Luke McCown — it leaves Whisenhunt more than concerned about a defense making the change to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Ray Horton
"Obviously, we feel like we want to progress with our defense,’ said Whisenhunt, whose Titans close the preseason Thursday against the visiting Vikings. "We’re making progress, but the thing that really irritated me mostly (Saturday) night was what we gave up — the two slants on third down that turned out to be big plays. Those are simple plays. We can’t do those kind of things."
Whisenhunt said it would be easy to point to limitations currently placed on defenders concerning tackling during practice. He also noted that the team has done little to no planning scheme-wise on defense for each of the three preseason games. Then again, a lack of a sense of urgency and subsequent productivity by the defense have been noticeable.
"We are trying to evaluate players," said Whisenhunt, whose roster must be to 75 players by Tuesday afternoon and then to a final 53 by Saturday afternoon. "A lot of it is one-on-one matchups. We are not scheming opponents. That’s the area — because it is an evaluation and because we’ve got a lot of guys — that’s one of the things when you are together for the first time that you have to work through.
"Obviously, we are all competitors, and we want to be better than what we have done defensively. But there are individuals that are playing very well on the defense. As we continue to clean things up, it will get better."
One of the culprits Saturday night on a blown tackle was Pollard, who whiffed on Jones. But the ninth-year veteran did lead the team last season in tackles, so there should no reason for concern in that regard long term.
"It’s preseason," Pollard said, "and this is going to happen. Obviously, we’re not hitting like that during the week, so everything is new to us on game day as well. So, we want to get it out of our systems. … This is obviously not what we want to put on film. But at the same time, we’re getting it out of our system right now.
"I know a lot of people are angry, me — you can’t be more mad than I am. I’m pissed off at myself. I know, we as players, we critique ourselves worse."
Individually, Whisenhunt pointed out the play of several Titans defenders as being exemplary, including end Jurrell Casey, who had his first sack of the preseason.
"That’s the one thing I love about Ken," said Casey, who led the team and was second among NFL tackles with 10.5 sacks last season. "He’s going to ride us to the drop of the dime. He’s going to keep pushing us until we can get better, and that’s what we are going to do."
Whisenhunt said he was so upset at halftime Saturday night with his first-team defense that he made them play longer in the second half than originally expected.
He rated his rant at halftime closer to a 10 than a five on his scale of intensity.
Another disturbing aspect of Saturday night’s eventual 24-17 win over the Falcons was that starter quarterback Jake Locker was sacked twice and hit multiple times. Titans running back Shonn Greene missed a blocking assignment on a sack by blitzing Falcons cornerback Robert Alford, while a blown blocking assignment up front allowed linebacker Paul Worrilow to have the other.
"We have some things that we need to clean up," Locker said. "That’s one of the areas we’ve got to communicate better as a group and be on the same page. That’s something we’ll address going forward."
Second-year guard Chance Warmack agreed with his quarterback that communication, or lack thereof, between the offensive line has to improve dramatically before the team opens the season in two weeks.
"Obviously, you don’t want your quarterback hit," said Warmack, last year’s first-round draft pick out of Alabama. "We have to make those corrections and get better at that. We just have to communicate better. That’s always what you want as an offense. Communications is key. Everybody’s confident within each other. We know what we are capable of as an offense (and) as a team in general.
"But we still have a long way to go in terms of being the team we want to be."