Secondary not passing muster for Tennessee

Inconsistent play, injuries mar unit

November 10, 2001|By Jim Wyatt | Jim Wyatt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac has been hurting the past couple of weeks, but he couldn't have picked a better time to get well.

When the Ravens meet the Tennessee Titans on Monday night, Grbac will have a chance to go against the NFL's 30th-ranked passing defense. Just the thought probably helped speed up Grbac's recovery from a chest injury that forced him to miss the past two contests.

When Grbac previously faced the Titans in October, the Titans started cornerbacks Samari Rolle and DeRon Jenkins and safeties Blaine Bishop and Joe Walker.

If he has watched film of the Titans since, he might not recognize the secondary. Because of injuries and inconsistent play, the Titans have started six different combinations in the secondary in the team's seven games.

As a result, the entire pass defense has struggled. The Titans have played numerous young players, including rookie cornerback Andre Dyson and second-year strong safety Aric Morris, both current starters.

"What you have is a young group back there that hasn't had a whole lot of success yet to build on, so the challenge is to find the positives whenever they may be and keep hammering away at those," Titans secondary coach Everett Withers said.

"We have to get them in position to do the right thing and give them enough confidence to make the plays. That's kind of where we are right now."

Tennessee's secondary, like Grbac himself, is getting a little healthier each day. Rolle, a Pro Bowl player last season, suffered a bruised spinal cord and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher during the Titans-Ravens game on Oct. 7. He missed the next two games but is now healthy again, and even picked up an interception last weekend against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Bishop, who moved from strong safety to free safety earlier this season, has missed most of the past three games with injuries. He is expected to be back for the Ravens game.

The shuffling in and out has certainly hurt the team's continuity. The Titans are allowing 257.6 yards passing per game during their 3-4 start.

"We just have to keep trying to tell them they've all made plays ... somewhere down the line," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said of the secondary. "We've been in position to make the play, it's just for whatever reason, we haven't made the catch, haven't made the hit, haven't made the tackle. ... But they've made plays before. They wouldn't be here if they hadn't."

Grbac is one of four quarterbacks with more than 250 yards passing against the Titans this season - Grbac threw for 259 yards in the Ravens' 26-7 win in October. Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson, Detroit's Charlie Batch and Jacksonville's Mark Brunell have all thrown for more than 250 yards against the Titans this season, and Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart threw for 232 yards.

Success like that was unheard of last season, when the team finished with the No. 1 defense statistically in the NFL.

But the unit is missing two starters from last season - starting cornerback Denard Walker, who signed with the Broncos, and starting free safety Marcus Robertson, who's now in Seattle.

Two other players - cornerback Dainon Sidney and safety Bobby Myers -were both lost for the year in the opener against Miami with knee injuries.

All the injuries have thrown others into the mix, including Walker, a rookie with three starts, and third-year cornerback Donald Mitchell, who has started two games and is used in situational packages.

"Everybody's going to make mistakes, but we all have to get up and get in position to try and make a play," Mitchell said. "The big thing is you can't let any of the confidence in your own ability get away from you. ... If you mess up, come back and make the next play. That's just what we have to do."

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