NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Running backs need room, quarterbacks need time, receivers need windows, and Tennessee's tight ends need to help all of the above.
The Titans have three tight ends with unique attributes to help on run plays, pass plays, and "double calls," which give quarterback Matt Hasselbeck a choice between running or throwing, depending what he sees across the line of scrimmage.
Daniel Graham is a seasoned sage known most for his blocking, Jared Cook is a developing a reputation for what he can do after catching the ball, and Craig "Cat" Stevens can block, catch and best connect Tennessee's rushing and passing attacks.
"He's kind of the glue," Hasselbeck recently said about Stevens. "He doesn't get a lot of credit, but he's kind of the glue of our offense. He brings things together—definitely a guy you can rely on, a guy you can count on."
"Glue" may not sound like the most flattering compliment, but it accurately describes an essential role. Defenses have to guess what the Titans will ask of the 6-foot-3, 268-pound Stevens on every play. If they guess that he's blocking and forget about him, he's capable of a dynamic play like the 58-yard catch-and-run that sparked a comeback win against Denver earlier this season.
"He's an excellent football player," offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said of Stevens. "He's a blocking tight end and a receiving tight end. When you have a guy like that, you're very fortunate."
Stevens caught a 12-yard touchdown the following week at Cleveland before suffering a rib injury that limited him in Tennessee's next two contests—losses at Pittsburgh and against Houston that were two of Tennessee's worst offensive performances this season. The Titans gained 306 yards against the Steelers and a mere 148 yards and seven points against the Texans.
Tight ends coach John Zernhelt said Stevens is an "incredibly valuable part of our offense because not only is he a solid blocking tight end, but he has very good speed and he's a very good route runner. As far as a blocker, he's a very good technician."
Stevens missed the Colts game to rest and heal and returned to the starting lineup against Cincinnati. He helped the Titans build a 17-7 halftime lead against the Bengals. The following week at Carolina, the Titans benefitted from a balanced offense in a 30-3 win over the Panthers. Tennessee's offense rushed for 172 yards on 35 carries and netted 211 passing yards against Carolina.
Stevens, who led the Titans midway through the season with 18.2 yards per catch, was not called upon in the passing game but did help Chris Johnson gain 130 yards rushing with a touchdown against the Panthers. It was the second time this season and first since the Cleveland game that Johnson gained more than 100 yards on the ground.
Stevens, a low-key and quiet guy, said he doesn't mind being asked to do different jobs and he's fine with not catching a pass in a game as long as the Titans win.
"Whatever they want me to do, I just try to do my best at it," Stevens said. "We've been trying to get the running game going. I just really want to be a big part of that and hold that point (of attack)."
Cook and Graham echo that mentality of wanting to accomplish whatever is asked, although their strengths are completely different.
Cook, at 6-5 and 248 pounds, provides a big target in the passing game and is showing the explosiveness to turn short or medium gains into game-changing plays. Cook did so against Cleveland when he caught a pass from Hasselbeck on a crossing route, dodged a tackle near the 50-yard-line and streaked the rest of the way for an 80-yard touchdown.
"It's just a matter of being consistent," Cook said. "I'm trying to come out and work hard on the little things, concentrate on the little things that separate you from everybody else and the little things that can set you back. It's about never being satisfied with the job that you're doing and always getting better. As long as you come out with that state of mind, you'll keep getting better."
Through nine games he had 19 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns, and his combination of speed and size make him a great candidate for catches during hurry-up offensive situations. The long gains and dramatic catches that Cook has made in his three years have Titans fans yearning for more.
Zernhelt said Titans coaches are happy with what Cook is doing and are looking to increase that role. He said Cook's attributes can create mismatches that Tennessee will try to exploit.
"You always have to stay ready," Cook said. "All three of us bring something different to the table. I think the coaches are doing a pretty good job of isolating the things that we bring to the table and using it to their advantage in the game. All of us know each other's plays.
"You've just got to know the whole playbook because Cat went down during the Browns game and I had to come in for him," Cook said. "Tight end is the hardest position on the field, so when you've got to know your role and two other guys' role, it gets pretty difficult."
The Titans signed Graham, a 10-year NFL veteran with two Super Bowl rings from his five years in New England, to add depth and experience to the group. The 6-3, 257-pound Graham said he quickly bonded with Stevens and Cook.
"Although I've been in this league longer than they have, they welcomed me into this team pretty well," Graham said. "We jelled pretty well when I got here. I think, in my 10 years, this is probably the best collective group of tight ends that I've been on and I've let the other tight ends know that. We all bring something different and unique to this team. We all have different areas where we can contribute in this offense."
Graham showed experience and leadership when he kept Stevens' spirits up during the recovery from the rib injury.
"When you get hurt, you almost feel left out, Graham said. "So we just wanted to keep him on his feet and let him know he's still part of the group."
Stevens said he appreciated the lift and the learning opportunities that Graham provides.
"We're kind of like brothers," Stevens said. "DG is a great role model and he's got a lot of knowledge on the game and has gone through a lot, so he's constantly giving us pointers, helping us out. We're really fortunate to have him."
Graham's lone catch of the year provided the game-winning score against Denver — for whom he played the previous four seasons. Denver guessed that he was blocking for a short-yardage run play. Graham showed his savvy with a great fake then rolled to his right and waited on a nice spiraling pass from Hasselbeck. Graham secured the ball then quickly threw it into the stands in jubilation.
"It's important that you make the best of your opportunity when you're called upon," Graham said. "Here, it's not too often when they throw to a tight end, but it seems like when they have, we've all stepped up and made big plays."