Young Titans looking for playoff berth in ’12

The Tennessee Titans don’t have a next-year plan.

Yes, they are young enough that they appear to be in the early

stages of a rebuilding project, especially with coach Mike Munchak

turning over the offense to Jake Locker in his second season.

Still, their short-term goal is reaching the playoffs this year,

which would be their first appearance since 2008.

”The mindset, the talking about it, has been here long

enough,” veteran receiver Nate Washington said. ”We need to go

out and perform properly. I think every guy in this locker room is

focused on that goal, making sure they are giving everything they

have to get to that point.”

The Titans missed an AFC wild-card berth by a tiebreaker in

2011, going 9-7 in Munchak’s coaching debut for their first winning

record since `08. Munchak and his staff finally got the full

offseason they lost in 2011 due to the NFL lockout while the front

office stayed busy stocking up on youth for the defense.

Tennessee’s biggest offseason move came in March when it tried,

and failed, to convince former Volunteers star Peyton Manning to

return to Tennessee. Aside from owner Bud Adams, Manning’s decision

to pass on the Titans was fine with the rest of the team, which

said it was comfortable with the QBs on hand. Munchak made Locker

the starter on Aug. 20, and his teammates feel confident in both

the eighth overall pick out of Washington in 2011 and veteran Matt

Hasselbeck as the backup.

”We’re very happy we have both of those guys working for us,”

Washington said. ”It just so happens it worked out for Jake, but

we’re very fortunate to have Matt.”

Chris Johnson is determined to bounce back from the worst season

of his career. The running back nicknamed ”CJ2K” ran for a

career-worst 1,047 yards in 2011 after missing almost all preseason

in a holdout before signing an extension. He insists reaching 2,000

yards for the second time is a goal, but he also wants back in the

playoffs even more.

”I’m ready to get ready for New England,” Johnson said of the

season opening opponent on Sept. 9.

The Titans tried to help Johnson by signing left guard Steve

Hutchinson, a five-time All-Pro, and moved Leroy Harris from the

left to right guard. Fernando Velasco will start at center after

veteran Eugene Amano tore his right triceps early in camp. They

hope the changes and Johnson’s hard work revive the NFL’s

31st-worst offense that averaged 89.9 yards rushing a game.

The youth movement is strongest on defense where seven starters

could have three years or less experience, a number that could jump

to eight if Robert Johnson beats out veteran Jordan Babineaux at

safety opposite Michael Griffin. Their biggest free agent move came

by signing Kamerion Wimbley to boost a pass rush that was

next-to-last in the NFL in 2011 with only 28 sacks.

Munchak also hired Keith Millard, the 1989 NFL Defensive Player

of the Year, as a pass rush specialist. Results in the preseason

looked promising.

”I don’t care if it is a preseason game or not, if I was

watching that as an offensive line coach on the other side, you are

concerned,” Munchak said of his defense. ”When you can get after

the passer and create problems and put him on the ground and hit

him, that is something for them to worry about and that is a good

thing. You have to keep that going.”

Griffin, who signed his own extension in June after being tagged

as the franchise player, said he can see the difference from his

spot on the field.

”Not even having to blitz, four-man rush and just watch those

guys get after it, it reminds me a lot of when I first got here

with different names, younger guys,” Griffin said. ”I think it’s

a good thing not having big-name guys on your team. Having what you

may call underdogs, people don’t know who they are.”

The schedule isn’t easy for Tennessee, starting with that

imposing opener hosting New England. The Titans then head to San

Diego before returning to face Detroit in the first of their games

against the NFC North this year. They also visit AFC South champ

Houston on Sept. 30.

Still, Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman as a player, is

excited by what he sees.

”I think in certain cases we’re looking really good, and we

still have some areas to improve upon,” he said.

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