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Last in the NFL in defense? Tennessee Titans see nowhere to go but up

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -Being ranked last among 32 NFL teams in total defense is a touchy subject with the Tennessee Titans.

They prefer victories over glitzy defensive stats or rankings. But a team that missed out on a playoff berth by one loss after going 8-8 knows they can play better, be stingier.

"We just weren't good enough," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "We didn't hold up our end of the deal. If we were top 10 or even middle of the pack on defense, we would've been in the playoffs. We know it's on us to take that next step."

The Titans finished 2006 ranked last in total defense allowing 369.7 yards per game, and they spent nine of the last 10 weeks at the bottom. They ranked 30th against the run, 27th against the pass and 31st in giving up 25 points per game.

They had only 26 sacks in 2006, a big drop from 41 the season before. Free agent defensive end Simeon Rice, whose 121 sacks are second only to Michael Strahan's 132 1/2 among active players, met with team officials Friday and could provide a boost if his shoulder is healthy enough.

Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who missed five games to suspension last season for stepping on Andre Gurode's face, said the main objective is to move up 22 spots.

"We couldn't really do much in the run and pass. We've just got to step up. We've got to be a better defense. We've got to get back to where we used to be, the Tennessee Tyrants," Haynesworth said of 2002 and 2003 when the Titans ranked no worse than 12th.

For now, the Titans are taking little steps.

"We are preaching turnovers, aggressive play, stripping the ball, overlapping, tackling, and of course we have to shore up the run defense," coach Jeff Fisher said.

For a change, the Titans will be able to pick and choose who starts this season. They have much more experience and depth in training camp than in recent seasons when little room under the salary cap forced them to go young.

They brought in Ryan Fowler to compete against Stephen Tulloch, a draft pick last year, for middle linebacker with the retirement of Peter Sirmon. Gilbert Gardner, waived by the Colts, is around to provide depth and help on special teams.

The Titans also brought in veteran cornerbacks Nick Harper and Kelly Herndon and safety Bryan Scott.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz pointed out linebacker Keith Bulluck didn't become a starter until his third season, because there was so much experience ahead of him. He sees much more competition, with perhaps only five starting spots secure.

"Hopefully, we can have more competition, and it'll not only make starters better but the backups better," Schwartz said.

The Titans showed promise by being resilient in 2006.

They protected a lead in a 31-13 win at Philadelphia on Nov. 19 despite being on the field for 91 defensive plays. The defense scored five touchdowns, second-highest in the NFL last season, and three came in a 24-17 victory over Jacksonville on Dec. 17.

Cornerback Reynaldo Hill, fighting to keep his starting job this year, sealed a victory at Buffalo on Dec. 24 with an interception in the final minute.

"The one thing we need to keep our eyes on is to win the game," Schwartz said. "That's going to be the No. 1 goal. We can do that by getting better on defense. We don't want to lose sight."

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