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Titans are cool, calm, collected ... and desperate

NASHVILLE -- Kevin Mawae understands his team is in trouble. At 0-4, things look pretty dim for the Tennessee Titans.

Mawae, the Titans' veteran center, sees it this way: It will probably take 10 wins to get into the playoffs in the AFC this season, maybe nine if your team is in the AFC West.

There are 12 games left. The next one is against unbeaten Indianapolis on Sunday night. The one on deck is at New England.

"Time to get a win," Mawae said.

Time isn't on the Titans' side. The team with the NFL's best regular-season record in 2008 hasn't shown any signs that they've figured things out.

Keith Srakocic / Associated Press
This isn't the first time Jeff Fisher has struggled out of the gate in his 16-year Titans tenure. This isn't even the first time he has started 0-4. Eight times, Fisher has started 1-3 or worse.
Jeff Fisher's worst four-game starts
Year Start Finish Playoffs
1994 1-3 2-14 None
1997 1-3 8-8 None
1998 1-3 8-8 None
2001 1-3 7-9 None
2002 1-3 11-5 Lost AFC title game
2004 1-3 5-11 None
2005 1-3 4-12 None
2006 0-4 8-8 None

One Titans player said things have broken down from periodic communication issues between players on the field. Coach Jeff Fisher said it's been a play or two a game -- like a dropped pass on third down -- that has doomed them. Tennessee lost its first three games by 3, 3 and 7 points, before losing by 20 to Jacksonville last Sunday.

The defense is no longer fearsome and the pass defense has been incredibly susceptible to big plays -- 15 over 20 yards and 10 touchdown passes allowed, the latter a dubious mark surpassed only by Detroit (12).

"It's little things," said Mawae. "There's nothing major going on with this team that's killing us. There's no discord in the locker room, nobody arguing amongst each other. The stuff that we got away with, that got overlooked because we were winning last year, has come to a head and we're losing. That stuff we got away with, it's caught up to us. It's a lack of communication in some areas. It's frustrating because you go watch the film and you're a catch away from keeping a drive alive or a block away from going 60 yards to the house.

"Jeff showed us a film of the little things that made a difference in the outcome -- a linebacker passing off a receiver to a safety who wasn't there. Communications breakdowns like that."

Though there is a sense of calmness and confidence among the players and coaches, it is tepid. The balloon is filling with air and it's either going to be deflated by a victory over the Colts or it's going to pop. If the Titans lose, frustration, anxiety, excuses and unhappiness are going to permeate. It's what happens during long losing streaks.

It could happen to an even higher degree with a team that has consistently been competitive and a franchise that felt it was talented enough at all levels to survive the departure of its best defensive player (Albert Haynesworth) and defensive coordinator (Jim Schwartz). Maybe it was a high opinion of themselves that got the Titans in trouble in the first place.

"The first week, we were like, 'Alright, we'll deal with it, make the adjustments and everything will be fine,' " Mawae said. "Now we're 0-4, it's frustrating. We're a better team than what we're showing on the field. We're just not getting it done. We know what it is but we're just not doing it. Guys understand what's at stake. ... We can bounce back from this.

"I've seen the statistics about starting 0-4 (only one team since 1990 has recovered to make the postseason) and know it's hard to make the playoffs, it will be thrown in our face until we get to .500. We're good enough that once we get it figured out, we'll be a very good team. We just don't have a lot of time to figure it out anymore."

These aren't the Rams or Chiefs or Buccaneers, who knew they were going to struggle because of turnovers and talent issues. These are the Titans, who seemingly have a nice blend of experience and youth, toughness and finesse and trust to be anywhere near the brink of playing a make-or-break game in October.

However, that is where they are.

A loss to Indianapolis Sunday night and they will be five games down to the Colts in the AFC South. Every one of Tennessee's losses has come to teams within the conference, so if they're lucky or actually good enough to rally into playoff position, they've hamstrung themselves in certain tie-breaker scenarios already. The Titans aren't entering the game thinking of doomsday scenarios. They were the last team to beat Indianapolis in the regular season, after all. That was Oct. 27, 2008 -- three weeks short of a year ago.

As much as the Titans say things are going to be alright, their pledge comes across more as a comforting mechanism, like a parent trying to soothe a child who is about to receive a tetanus shot.

"We feel like we're still a good team, we just need to go out and play, not worry about the playoffs and just go win a game," Fisher said.

With the defense clearly not what it was, the obvious finger-pointing heads in the direction of new coordinator Chuck Cecil and defensive tackles Jason Jones and Jovan Haye, who stepped in for Haynesworth after he was wooed to Washington in the offseason. The pass defense has been so uneven, Peyton Manning has to be thinking about how much fun he could have on Sunday.




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"We're playing the run well, said Fisher, whose club is allowing just 79.8 rushing yards a game. "With Albert we'd get some things on third down that maybe we're not getting now, but we're still getting pressure on the passer. The difference is we're seeing three-step drops, max protections. Ask (Jacksonville quarterback) David Garrard what he changed. He got rid of it. He held it too long the last few times we played and he adjusted. If we need to do anything on the defensive line, we've got to get our guys to get their hands up. If these quarterbacks are going to get rid of the ball, get your hands up and bat down the ball or obscure his vision."

The Titans have nine sacks and three interceptions, which isn't awful but is not awfully good, either. Tied for last in pass defense (282 yards allowed) and the abundance of busted plays in the injury-marred secondary especially don't bode well for Cecil, who was promoted to defensive coordinator from secondary coach. Had Cecil come from another team and didn't jibe with Fisher's defensive philosophy, that would put more of the onus on him.

Fisher has signed off on everything, though, and the repeated busts aren't because of scheme or because of play calls, Fisher insists. It's the execution of the scheme and the execution of those play calls. Players concur.

"Coach Cecil puts us in defenses that he feels should be able to stop things," outside linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "As players, we have to get out there and execute. You can call a perfect game but you can't call and play. The players are out there to play. We have to take the onus on ourselves to play the defenses that are called with the technique you have to play to be successful. Our defense really hasn't changed much."

Other than Tennessee's won-loss fortunes, what has changed has been the emotional 180-degree turn by fans in Nashville to replace starting quarterback Kerry Collins with Vince Young, who this time last season had been booed and benched. Now, at the very least, fans want to see if he can save the season, or at least get an idea if he's a long-term solution.

They point to Young's rookie season in 2006, when Fisher benched Collins in favor of Young, who led the Titans to an 8-8 mark after Collins started 0-3. Things are vastly different now, Fisher contends.

"I got a quarterback who's playing pretty well," Fisher said. "He's not the reason we're 0-4. ... If I feel it's time to change the quarterback then I'll change the quarterback. It's not time to change the quarterback."

Added Bulluck: "Right now our season is still salvageable. That's probably why that move hasn't been made."

The season definitely is salvageable, but, as Mawae said, there's not much time left to figure out how to get things back on track.

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