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Titans Defense Focuses on Middle of Field, Limiting Yards After Catch


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The middle of the field will be a key area for the Titans to defend Sunday when Tennessee opens the season by hosting New England at LP Field.

Titans defenders said it's likely that Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will make catches between the numbers, but the primary focus will be limiting what those players do after catches.

The New England trio gained more yards after catches last season than on the front of the plays to boost production. Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez ranked first, fourth and ninth in the NFL, respectfully, in yards after catch.

Titans coach Mike Munchak said he thinks the success after the catch starts with consistent throws by Tom Brady.

"I think he puts it in a place where they can turn up without wasting motion," Munchak said. "You have certain guys that just have a knack for making the first guy miss. It's a combination of that. Obviously, they're good receivers. They've worked with each other a lot. I think a lot of it is that the ball placement is so good that they're able to take it. He puts it in spots where his receivers aren't going to get hit real hard. The safest spot to put it in, situations where they can run with it as they're catching it. That's probably the biggest part. That's what he does so well."

Welker, who led the AFC with 1,569 receiving yards, gained 732 of those after catching the ball. Gronkowski, who had 1,327 receiving yards, gained 656 after catching the ball, and Hernandez gained 519 of his 910 yards (57 percent) after the ball was in his hands. The three players combined to gain 1,907 of their 3,806 yards (50.1 percent) after catches.

"They move the ball very methodically down the field," safety Jordan Babineaux said. "They're OK with taking seven yards here and seven yards there and very seldom taking the deep shot, but Brady's a good game manager and he knows how to get their offense and manage them down the field.

"Obviously, they're going to make some catches and complete some passes, but the biggest thing we're emphasizing in the defensive backs room is we've got to tackle better," Babineaux added. "We have to minimize the yards after the catch, which is where they are good."

Cornerback Alterraun Verner has frequently practiced in the slot in passing situations this offseason. He said the combination of Brady and the options he has over the middle make New England's offense more successful than other teams.

"You have Tom Brady, who's an elite guy, and then the people they have working the middle are some of the best in this league," Verner said, "so when you put those combinations together and they have such a unity with each other that Tom Brady doesn't even necessarily know sometimes what his receivers are going to do but he feels it and they make it work, where some people don't have that bond with players, so that's what makes it so effective."

The Titans are unanimously excited about opening up against an offense that ranked second in yards and third in points per game in 2011.

"They do a great job of working the middle of the field," linebacker Colin McCarthy said. "We know they're going to do a lot of short routes in the middle of the field, five, 10 yards, trying to get them mismatched against linebackers. We're ready for that. We've got ways of defending that, and the biggest thing is getting pressure in (Brady's) face, whether it's with the front four or blitzing, we're going to get after that."

Tennessee displayed indications of a defense more able to dictate this preseason than it was a year ago when the Titans ranked eighth in points allowed but tied for 18th in yards allowed.

The Titans led the NFL this preseason with eight interceptions, including a league-best three by McCarthy, tied for fifth with 13 sacks and finished the four-game slate at plus-6 in turnover differential.

Safety Michael Griffin emphasized that making one play on defense won't be enough.

"If you manage to make a play, they've always got some backup plan for you," Griffin said. "You've just got to play good, sound defense."

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