IT HAS been 16years since a certain weekly sports magazine asked on its cover if Chuck Cecilwas TOO VICIOUS FOR THE NFL? Even now, at 44, the Titans' new defensivecoordinator gets the itch to hit someone. While he can't deliver the sorts ofshots he was known for during his seven seasons as a contact-craving,All-Madden safety, he's still feisty. "He actually gave me a little headbutt before the Hall of Fame game—and I was the only one in a helmet," saysAll-Pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan. "That's just Chuck being Chuck. Whenhe played, he was a trash-talking, hit-you-in-the-mouth kind of guy. For him,head-butting is getting us ready for the game."
Cecil, who ratedSI's cover because of a particularly violent hit on a Redskins tight end, facesthe challenge of replacing Jim Schwartz, who after eight years as defensivecoordinator takes over as the Lions' coach. Last season, with Cecil assecondary coach, the Titans' D allowed just 14.6 points per game, second onlyto the Super Bowl--champion Steelers' 13.9. Cecil has been with the team sincebreaking in as a lowly quality-control assistant in 2001, and his promotion isfurther evidence of the high value Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher places oncontinuity. "He was willing to learn coaching from the bottom up," saysassistant head coach Dave McGinnis. "Nothing was too menial forhim."
Despite hisreputation for intensity, Cecil rarely raises his voice on the practice fieldor in the meeting room. But then, what's there to get upset about when it comesto the Titans' defense? It sent four players to the Pro Bowl last February, andthree of them—Finnegan, and safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope—came out ofCecil's secondary. Tennessee's defensive backfield had 19 interceptions in2008.
Although theTitans lost All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who signed withWashington as a free agent, they have 10 starters back on each side of theball, and last season's playoff disappointment has left them supremelymotivated. Tennessee went 13--3 to earn the AFC's No. 1 seed and home fieldadvantage, then squandered it in a 13--10 loss to the Ravens in the divisionalround, when the offense turned the ball over three times. "There is a senseof unfinished business, but these guys understand you've got to startover," Fisher says. "You cannot archive what you've done in thisleague. It's not going to be easy, but because we're returning the starters andthe younger guys have gotten better, I feel like we're better than last year. Abetter team should do better in the playoffs."
Tennessee isindeed loaded. On offense the running game, led by Chris Johnson, piled up137.4 yards per game behind a pair of All-Pros, center Kevin Mawae and lefttackle Michael Roos. Veteran QB Kerry Collins gave his team a chance to winevery week after taking over for the erratic Vince Young, and rookies KennyBritt at receiver and Jared Cook at tight end are promising new targets.
Haynesworth, wholed the team in sacks with 8½, is an undeniable loss, but keep in mind that hewas in the game for only about 50% of the defensive snaps. And when it comes tothe defensive line, Tennessee has long preached rotation, rotation, rotation.No one player will replace the 350-pound Haynesworth at the point of attack,but Cecil is confident that Tony Brown, Jason Jones, Jovon Haye, KevinVickerson and rookie Sen'Derrick Marks will fill the void.
"I highlydoubt that losing Albert is going to be the story line of our season,"Cecil says. "Is it a possibility? Absolutely. But I would bet you a lot ofmoney that it's not. I think the guys we have here as a group are as good aswe've had. We're still going to put 11 guys out there and play Titansdefense."
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
128--102 in NFL, 16th season with Titans
RB LenDale White(200 att., 773 yards, 15 TDs) will get the red-zone call; rookie WR Kenny Britt(87 rec., 1,371 yards at Rutgers) will push for a starting job.
There's nodrop-off in the return game with free agent Mark Jones (24.0 yards per kickoff,11.4 per punt for Carolina) replacing the departed Chris Carr.
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2008 RECORD 13--3
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 7 > 27 > 21
DEFENSE 6 > 9 > 7
10 at Pittsburgh (T)
27 at N.Y. Jets
4 at Jacksonville
18 at New England
8 at San Francisco
23 at Houston (M)
6 at Indianapolis
13 ST. LOUIS
25 SAN DIEGO (F)
3 at Seattle
NFL Rank: 14
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .508
Games against playoff teams: 6
The best record in the NFL in '08 didn't earn the Titans any favors. They takeon the three other AFC division winners, starting with the opener inPittsburgh; they face Indy and New England back-to-back before their bye; andthey have a short week to prepare for San Diego on Christmas Day (though theholiday travel should make it worse for the Chargers).
Nate Washington, Wide receiver
IT MAY not be too oversimplified to say that theTitans haven't gone deep into the playoffs since 2002 because they haven't hadanyone to go deep down the field. That's where Washington comes in. "Idon't have to be Superman," says Washington, the former Steelers No. 3receiver who signed with Tennessee as a free agent. "This is a team thatneeded a little bit of speed, and I can bring that with no problem."
Washington, 26, says he chose the Titans because ofhow many championship-caliber pieces they already have in place, including aPro Bowl--studded offensive line, a running game that in 2008 ranked seventh inthe NFL and a veteran quarterback in Kerry Collins.
In two of the last three seasons Washington led theSteelers in yards per catch, including 15.8 in '08, but he was overshadowed bywideouts Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. He'll have no such problem inTennessee, where the top two receivers last season were tight end Bo Scaife andrunning back Chris Johnson. Washington and Kenny Britt, the Titans' first-roundpick out of Rutgers, figure to add considerable length to a passing game thathas holdover Justin Gage as a solid possession receiver. "Nate's more thanjust a vertical threat," Titans coach Jeff Fisher says. "He's acomplete receiver. It's been a while since we've had the whole package in oneguy."
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES
POWER TRIO Finnegan was one of three Titans defensive backs to go to last season's Pro Bowl.