NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After two lackluster preseason losses to Washington and Cincinnati, the Tennessee Titans want to capture that winning feeling at home Saturday night, when Atlanta comes calling.
The starters are projected to play through the first half and into the third quarter, allowing for halftime adjustments. Certainly, third-year coach Mike Munchak would like to see the first-team offense, led by quarterback Jake Locker, sustain drives — which didn’t happen in the 27-19 loss to the Bengals.
Defensively, the Titans need to get off the field. They allowed the Bengals to put together three long drives after barely slowing the Redskins’ first-teamers, led mostly by backup quarterback Kirk Cousins in the preseason opener.
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The Titans are certainly dealing with their share of nagging injuries, although tight end Delanie Walker (knee) and middle linebacker Colin McCarthy (hamstring) did return to practice this week, but aren’t expected to play against Atlanta.
Munchak hopes both can play in the preseason finale (at Minnesota).
Here are five questions to address for Saturday, from the Titans’ perspective:
1. Can the linebackers all get healthy at same time?
This area figures to be a strength for the Titans. Linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio would just like to get them all get healthy at the same time to prove it.
McCarthy (hamstring), Akeem Ayers (ankle) and Zaviar Gooden (ankle) have all been ruled out for Saturday. On the flip side, middle linebacker Moise Fokou (soreness) and outside linebacker Zach Brown (ankle) are expected to play.
“We practiced with five guys,” Parlavecchio said with a laugh, “but I have the old philosophy of looking at the glass as half-full. For all of those gentlemen, at least it is not something that will be an extended period of time. The good news is that they will all be back.”
McCarthy, the starting middle linebacker who has been injury-prone the past two seasons, played in only seven games last year (concussion, ankle problems). That’s a large reason why the Titans signed Fokou, formerly of the Colts.
“I just loved the attitude that Moise brought to the game,” Parlavecchio said of assessing Fokou before signing him. “He’s a relentless football player. If you watch him play, he plays every down. He plays hard every down. He doesn’t take a down off. He’s a pure Mike (middle) linebacker. He can play sideline to sideline.”
Which has made for a spirited battle for the starting nod between Fokou and McCarthy, when healthy.
2. Center is the center of attention
In recent weeks, there has been a battle for the starting nod between veterans Fernando Velasco and Rob Turner, a free-agent signee who started all 16 games last season for the Rams at either center or guard.
Velasco started the first preseason game, while Turner started the second and is expected to start again Saturday. There is also another factor in rookie Brian Schwenke, the fourth-round pick out of California. He was also in the mix to start before being slowed in training camp by a hamstring injury.
“He’s going to be a guy we think should be able to play this weekend,” Munchak said earlier this week about Schwenke playing against Atlanta.
“He’ll get a lot of the offensive reps (Monday) when we start working on Atlanta. (Tuesday), he really just did scout reps to get his confidence back. We’d hope that he’d get through these next couple of days and play on Saturday.”
3. Should Titans be concerned about kicker Rob Bironas?
During the off-season, the Titans signed Bironas to a two-year contract extension worth $6.67 million per year ($1.5 million signing bonus). The average salary makes him the fourth-highest paid kicker in the NFL.
But Bironas has been slowed by back soreness in recent months. And in his first preseason appearance last Saturday, he missed on field-goal attempts of 38 and 37 yards after making one from 44 yards.
“I don’t think his back is bothering him,” Munchak said. “Coming off an injury or medical condition, you’re always going to be a little rusty because you haven’t really been in a game situation since last year. No, I don’t think his health is any reason why he missed.”
Last season, Bironas converted on 25 of 31 attempts — his lowest success ratio (80.6 percent) since 2006. In 2010-11, however, he made 90 percent of his tries; and his 85.6 percent career success rate is third in NFL history among kickers with at least 100 attempts.
“We just hope again that we give him more opportunities the next two weeks so he gets it behind him,” Munchak said. “He’s another guy that’s been in the league a long time and has success, so we know what he can do, so we just have to go out there and do that.”
4. How much will tight end be part of the new offense?
As first-year offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains continues to fine-tune a new offense that apparently caters to individual strengths, there has been little use of the tight end in two preseason games. Obviously, Walker missing some time at training camp has been a huge factor.
In 42 combined team receptions during the preseason, only four passes have been caught by tight ends — Brandon Barden (three) and Jack Doyle (one).
Walker, the former 49er who was signed via free agency, came off the PUP list on Monday and practiced for the first time during training camp. He underwent knee surgery prior to camp, but is expected to be ready for Week 1 of the regular season.
“Originally, with the surgery we thought that he’d play at some point, whether it be the third or the fourth preseason game,” Munchak said of Walker. “He’s kind of on that schedule to do that, now it’s just a matter of the smart way to go about it. Once he starts actually getting on the field and practicing and running routes and competing against the defense, all those things will affect what’s best for him.”
With San Francisco, Walker spent the past seven seasons backing up one-time Pro Bowler Vernon Davis (2009).
Walker has 123 career receptions for 1,465 yards and eight touchdowns, including 21 catches for 344 yards last year — for an average of 16.4 yards per catch (tops among tight ends with 20-plus receptions).
5. How important is victory for the Titans on Saturday?
With unprecedented movement in free agency and coaching staff changes, the Titans vowed to change the culture around a team that went a disappointing 6-10 last season. As part of that, Munchak has steadfastly maintained that winning preseason games was an important component of the team regaining its collective swagger.
“Winning always matters,” Munchak said. “We’re 0-2. I know when the score clears in two weeks it doesn’t matter, but it does. You want to win everything you do. You want to have success out there.
“We don’t want to be down 17-3 at halftime and say, ‘If it was a real game it would be different.’ That’s a fact obviously, but unfortunately we don’t want to be in that position.”
He then added: “We need to play better. We want to make plays. You’re not just going to start making plays in the opener. You got to start making plays now, and that’s why I always thought preseason was valuable.
“I know people that watch the games aren’t excited about preseason, but as far as a player or coach, that’s the reason I love having preseason.”