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Titans' D molded in Cecil's image: 'Ruthless' and 'vicious'

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The NFL-watching world has gotten its share of visuals this week on the edge of pro football.

Brent Celek has, too.

But instead of it coming from the likes of Brandon Meriweather or James Harrison, the Eagles tight end has gotten his eye-opener courtesy of one of the NFL's all-time intimidators, Chuck Cecil. And Cecil hasn't even had to take the field to show Celek what kind of impact he's having.

At this juncture of the season last year, the Tennessee Titans were 0-6 and coming off a 59-0 beatdown in New England. This year, they're 4-2 and coming off a 30-3 thrashing of Jacksonville.

The differences are vast, yet in one way, it's very simple. Cecil's that much better as a defensive coordinator with a full season as a game-planner and play-caller under his belt, and it's showing in the way his unit is playing.

"They play like him," said Celek, assessing what he's seen prepping for the Titans this week. "It's a great defense, they fly around, and they look like a bunch of jerks on the field. But as a player, I respect that. I can't wait to play them, because it'll be reciprocal. It's obvious what he's brought; it's a mentality, and it shows in their play."

It might have taken some time. But then, Cecil had quite an act to follow.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher had Gregg Williams running his Buddy Ryan-style of defense from 1997-2000, and Jim Schwartz at the controls for the eight years to follow. Both left for head-coaching jobs, illustrating the success each had, and Cecil's start in 2009 made it easy to point fingers.

It wasn't totally undeserved, either. The Titans allowed more than 30 points in four of the aforementioned six games, and ranked 31st in total defense. The 59-point defeat on that snowy October day against the Patriots was simply the crescendo of an ugly start.

The Titans, and Cecil, improved from there, and the defense allowed 17 or fewer points six times during an 8-2 finish. But the damage done by the early start was so severe that the team's season statistics remained near the bottom of the league, giving a proud group of defenders something to chew on.

"The biggest thing was at camp, Coach Fisher put the stats up on the board for the defense, and we were last in this category, and last in that category," middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "We made a pact -- that would never happen again. You see those numbers, and how much potential we have, and we said that's not us. And it's been like that from Day 1 at camp."

There have been improvements from players, of course. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has done his magic, and a deep, nasty group has developed up front, Gerald McRath and Will Witherspoon have been solid around Tulloch, and the secondary has gotten healthy after a rough 2009.

Still, as one team official put it this week, "As far as play-calling and being into the flow of the game, (Cecil) has improved as much as any one player on the team has improved." And it's showing in the results. The Titans might be just 16th in total defense, but they're fourth in scoring defense, tied for third in takeaways, and second in third-down defense, which was a staple of Schwartz's best groups.

Cecil wasn't new to the staff last year. He'd been there since 2001, Schwartz's first year as coordinator, so it's not like a new system was put in. But experience helps, and that's why some of the similarities in styles between Schwartz and Cecil are starting to come clear.

"Philosophically, they're similar," said Fisher. "Everyone's personality's different, but Jimmy was emotional, could be explosive, just as Chuck is. And they're both demanding when it comes to detail."

One area where Cecil has most certainly succeeded is in bringing his group closer together, something that was steeled through last year's hard times. Celek said that one thing that stuck out in his film study this week was the way the defense rallied to the ball, even those two or three guys on the backside of the play that you sometimes see taking a play off.

That's no mistake.

"Guys buy into it, no one's bigger than the team and we believe in one another, we fight for one another," Tulloch says. "Not to call teams out, but you see on film sometimes where guys might not go all out on certain plays. Why wouldn't you go full speed to the ball? Here, it's expected. Coach Washburn emphasizes that, and you see the big guys going hard every play, and if they're doing it, how can you not?


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"We go hard every play. We pride ourselves on that."

If it sounds like the way a certain safety used to play, then, well, it should. These guys are aware, too, of what Cecil did as a player. So they know the standard.

"He was a ruthless guy," Tulloch said. "He played downhill. He played vicious. And the way he played is the way he coaches."

And now, it seems, it's the way the guys he coaches play, too.

Going deep

The Chargers are a statistical anomaly -- ranking first in total offense and first in total defense, and carrying a 2-4 record.

Confusing as that might be, the answer to this outlier set of numbers is remarkably simple. The Chargers' special teams have stunk. To high heaven. And even as those Charger units improved last week in St. Louis, a stumble by kicker Nate Kaeding led to a blocked field goal, further proving that in this regard, San Diego can't seem to get out of its own way.

The Chargers gave up 30 points (four touchdowns and a safety) on special teams in their previous three defeats, which came by a total of 22 points. The block on Kaeding proved the difference in a three-point loss to St. Louis last week.

San Diego coaches are trying to combat the problem by putting starters like safety Eric Weddle, linebacker Kevin Burnett and wideout Legedu Naanee back on special teams to shake up things. The results were better on punts and kickoffs against St. Louis.

"It's frustrating it took all that to get to this point. We'd been top 5 in everything five years straight," said Weddle, who was put back on punt return, kickoff and kickoff return two weeks ago. "When you have a lot of young guys who haven't played at a high level or together, continuity can be a big thing. You're going through looks, it takes a minute to adjust. We couldn't afford to wait, so the guys are back out there."

The Chargers' bounce-back from bad starts under Norv Turner is well-documented, and if this team can tread water through the next few weeks, it could be dangerous down the stretch. Left tackle Marcus McNeill is back, Vincent Jackson will report in a week and be available for the last six games, and Ryan Mathews figures to improve as the season goes on.

A fourth straight late-season surge from the Bolts? If they get those special teams fixed, maybe.

I know this truth ...

... That Miami has found its next great pass rusher.

The Dolphins let Joey Porter and Jason Taylor walk in the offseason, and let's just say there hasn't been a whole lot of regret from the team's personnel department. Rookie Koa Misi has been solid on one side, but it's Cameron Wake that's opening eyes across the league.

Wake has six sacks through five games, and came up huge with a three-sack performance when his team -- coming off a 41-14 home loss to New England, a bye week and facing a trip into Lambeau Field -- needed him most. And his capability to do that hasn't exactly shocked the Dolphins brass.

When they were scouting Wake in the Canadian Football League, where teams throw the ball 80 percent of the time, there was plenty of evidence he could run down passers. "We knew he had that explosive pass-rush ability," said one team official. "We just needed him to build complementary game."

Last year, Wake's first with the Dolphins, he was employed as a nickel rusher, but this year, with Taylor and Porter gone, he has to do more. Wake's improving, but lacking the brute-force style that many 3-4 outside linebackers use to set the edge, the Dolphins are hoping that he uses his athleticism to make plays in the run game, the way Clay Matthews does for Green Bay.


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I don't know much at all ...

... About how Colt McCoy handled the spot he was in on Sunday. All I know is he's always shown up better on game day than in any other forum, and that was evident again in his Browns debut.

Considering that it came on the road in one of the NFL's most intimidating environments, against perhaps its very best defense, and on an emotional day for the home team (with Ben Roethlisberger's return), McCoy's 23-of-33, 281-yard effort was Herculean. The question now becomes, with Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace on the mend, whether McCoy can do enough this week in New Orleans to hold onto the job going into Cleveland's bye week.

But his Week 6 performance most certainly underscored the importance of being patient in evaluating quarterbacks. Through his first three preseason games, McCoy compiled a quarterback rating (34.3) that would make Ryan Leaf blush and was rumored to be on Cleveland's roster bubble, yet looked as poised as anyone could expect on Sunday faced with the Steeler defense.

One interesting nugget floating around is how much Jon Gruden liked McCoy after the then-Texas product went through his Quarterback Camp as part of an ESPN series last spring. Gruden, of course, was a Mike Holmgren assistant in Green Bay from 1992-94, and Holmgren was said to be the man in the Cleveland draft room that really pushed the idea of McCoy in April.

The final piece to the puzzle here? Gruden's name persists as a possible future coach of Cleveland.

First ...

Agent Josh Luchs' tell-all story in Sports Illustrated last week concluded with an apology to those in his business for outing them. But it wasn't the content of Luchs' account of the business that irked most of them, nor was it that he would go to those lengths to explain his action. What really bothered others in the business was that he portrayed himself as the average agent, and that his actions were typical of his counterparts. Does that stuff happen? Sure. But it's not everyone, and many agents worried that was the perception Luchs was trying to fuel.

... and 10

1) The Ravens could get safety Ed Reed back this week, and wideout Donte' Stallworth looks like he'll be a go for the Dolphins game after the team's Week 8 bye. Every team can use good players, but these guys each have the ability to fill specific needs for Baltimore. While Tom Zbikowski's done well in Reed's stead, the Ravens have lost a big-play element on defense. Baltimore has five takeaways through six games, after posting 32 last year, and Reed should help there. As for Stallworth, his ability to hit home runs should buoy a receiving group full of crafty possession receivers.

2) Speaking of Baltimore, New England's ability to knock off the Ravens has certainly changed some perceptions of a retooling team. But the Patriots didn't seem to have had their own feelings altered much. I asked one veteran if he felt the win would have a galvanizing effect on the club going forward. "Maybe it would," he responded, "if we didn't expect to win." Because of the youth of the club, some more ups and downs should come. But if that confidence is real, and not the result of one big win, that'd be important with the amount of young players New England is rolling out there.

3) Can we stop with the idea that the renewed emphasis on existing rules regarding big hits will have a major effect on defenses? It's too much. First of all, going for the crushing blow leads to far more whiffs than good, fundamental tackling ever would (naturally). Second, if someone needs to adjust to keep themselves from leading with their head, that's on them. No coach teaches what Brandon Meriweather did on Sunday. And no defensive football player hasn't been taught to keep his head up and eyes ahead at all times. Defensive players have a legit beef when it comes to rules put in to promote the passing game. This stuff is in a different category.

4) Little coincidence that Justin Forsett had his biggest day under Pete Carroll as his former Cal teammate Marshawn Lynch arrived to take much of the heavy lifting off his plate. Forsett finished Sunday's win over Chicago averaging almost 7 yards a touch (10 rushes, 67 yards; 1 catch, 9 yards), and showed real explosiveness in a more specialized role. Lynch, who was in Forsett's wedding in June, didn't go crazy, but his grind-it-out style should help a Seattle team that's still outmanned often to shorten games and create chances to win. In the big picture, after going through retreads like LenDale White and Julius Jones, Carroll seems to have found his backfield. The club has let Forsett and Lynch know they're part of their long-term plans.

5) Talent isn't the problem in Dallas. Absent-minded play is. When a smart, hard-working player like Miles Austin is making those kinds of mistakes, you know the problem is deep-seeded. But this isn't a team without personnel issues, either. The high-priced offensive line, which has been uneven in the three years since old position coach Tony Sparano bolted for Miami, is on notice. Left tackle Doug Free and guard Kyle Kosier are in contract years, underachieving Leonard Davis is a chopping-block candidate with a $6 million base for 2011, and center Andre Gurode and right tackle Marc Colombo both have longevity questions because of their injury history. No matter what, the Cowboys offensive front figures to look different in 2011.

6) Could a two-quarterback system work in Philadelphia? "With the personality of these guys, yes," said Celek. "But only because they work so well together. That wouldn't work with some other quarterbacks." Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick have each inspired the confidence of their teammates, and each knows the offense well enough that the scheme doesn't change much depending on who's receiving the snap. In fact, Celek says the only real difference is that, when Vick's in the game, a pass pattern is more likely to turn into a blocking assignment at a moment's notice. Even their personalities aren't much different, and that's led to the two "constantly rooting for each other," Celek adds. "It's all genuine, too. Trust me, I wouldn't believe it if I wasn't a part of it."

7) This week, Sports Illustrated ranked the NFL's coaches from 1-32 based on their playing careers. No. 1 was easy, Mike Singletary in a landslide. Last was, too, since Todd Haley didn't play college football. There was plenty to discuss in between, and Sean Payton, who coached with Haley in Dallas, was asked this week about the subject. "I think playing ability and coaching ability is not prejudiced at all to where you're from or the size of the school you're from," he said. "Some coaches hadn't played football but have become very good head coaches." Of the eight coaches to win Super Bowls in the last decade, three played in the league -- Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, and Payton, a replacement player during the 1987 strike -- and one more (Brian Billick) was drafted.

8) Many teams are expecting a second-consecutive mass exodus of underclassmen in the draft next spring, which could add up to another pretty deep class. This could be the final year of big bonus money for first-round picks. Or a rookie salary scale could be forced through before the draft picks sign as part of a new CBA, though last year's class was told that wouldn't be the case. Either way, chances are juniors and third-year sophomores won't know by the time they have to make a decision in early January, and that uncertainty could push some to take the plunge. But word is that if there is a work stoppage looming, it's expected to keep Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, a prospective first-overall pick, in school.

9) Expect, at some point, Trent Edwards to get a legitimate look at quarterback for the Jaguars. Most believe that Jacksonville was intent on getting Edwards on the field Monday night, injury to David Garrard or not. The fact that he was competent in that performance will likely get him an extended audition some time soon. Edwards is fighting through a thumb problem now, but his chance is coming.

10) Since this is my first of these, I want to open it up to the readers and ask for any suggestions you might have. The plan is for this to be something you all can take going into the games on Sunday, and a place that's packed with small pieces of info and things to keep your eye on going into the games. We'll be tinkering with it through the rest of the season, and trying to make it better as we go. So if you have ideas, feel free to reach out via email (albert.breer@nfl.com) or Twitter (@albertbreer)... and I'll be sure to read them, respond to them, and employ the best ideas. Looking forward to interacting with all you guys here at my new home. Oh, and we're going to try to give this column a name, too, so you can chime in with ideas on that as well.

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