Attacking Titans' D Through Air Won't be Easy




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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The theory is simple. The Tennessee defense took a hit with the free agency loss of Albert Haynesworth to Washington, and now quarterbacks will have much more time to throw downfield.

But the Titans secondary says it's not worried. After all, this group sent three of four starters to the Pro Bowl.

"We need to pick up where we left off last year,'' free safety Michael Griffin said.

Not many secondaries defended better in 2008 than that of the Titans. Only five NFL teams had more interceptions than Tennessee's 20, and the secondary had all but one of those.

Griffin trailed only Baltimore safety Ed Reed for most interceptions in the NFL with his career-best seven. Cortland Finnegan earned All Pro honors after developing into a shutdown corner with five picks himself. Strong safety Chris Hope also was a Pro Bowler with four interceptions.

Cornerback Nick Harper, the most experienced veteran, had offseason eye surgery to make himself more dangerous after just two picks. The unit had three interceptions returned for touchdowns, including Finnegan's franchise-tying 99-yard return.

When Haynesworth left for Washington on the first day of free agency in February, the four starters started working harder. Griffin said they stayed behind and drilled hard together.

"We know we may not have the pressure on quarterbacks like we did last year, so we need to improve on our coverage ability and also improve on making plays on the ball when we have opportunities,'' Griffin said.

Secondary coach Marcus Robertson is optimistic that tackles Jason Jones, Jovan Haye, Tony Brown and Kevin Vickerson will make up for Haynesworth's absence on the line. But he has been working with his defensive backs to improve their technique, showing them video cut-ups from last season where they got a bit sloppy at times.

"If we don't have a good foundation, at some point it's going to catch up with us,'' he said.

The biggest advantage this group has is NFL experience and entering their third season together as starters.

Hope won a Super Bowl title with Pittsburgh; Harper got his ring with Indianapolis before signing with Tennessee. They anchor the secondary with little catching them by surprise. Griffin, the top draft pick in 2007, trails only Reed for most interceptions over his first 32 starts with 10. Finnegan is the seventh-rounder from 2006 going into his third season as a starter.

They know each other so well that Harper said they can look around and check to different responsibilities among themselves.

"We're doing that in practice now. If it's a call, if it's something we want the safeties to see, he'll make a check and we're all on the same page so it's only going to make us better,'' Harper said.

The secondary's biggest challenge might be replacing depth lost to free agency. Chris Carr started two games at cornerback when Harper was hurt and had an interception. Eric King also provided crucial depth at cornerback, but both Carr and King left for Detroit.

The Titans drafted speedy corner Ryan Mouton out of Hawaii in the third round and nabbed Jason McCourty of Rutgers in the sixth. They also signed veteran DeMarcus Faggins to fill those spots.

"They're watching the veterans in front of them coming out doing the same thing - making plays,'' said Vincent Fuller, the nickelback who got his own new deal in February.

Robertson was part of a secondary in Houston in 1993 that had three players with four interceptions apiece, and he believes this current group can be one of the NFL's best. Harper said it's a matter of opposing quarterbacks picking their poison in which defensive back to test.

"Everybody's going to get the ball. Everybody's got range,'' Harper said. "Everybody's got good quickness, and we study film so we know exactly where we're supposed to be going into the game and what we're going to get.''

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