Titans' D won't alter rough style, even after being called 'cheap'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil extended his hand to shake mine and, yes, his middle finger was still attached. It just won't be on display any more except for occasions of mannerly protocol such as this.

Cecil shook his head and laughed and referred to himself as something not suitable for this story, then swore off using the universal offensive hand gesture as if he was going cold turkey from cigarettes.

He knows he brought the wrong kind of attention to his team by flipping the bird in front of game officials last week in plain sight of TV cameras and said he was embarrassed. He's also $40,000 lighter in the wallet.

Cecil is not forgiving, though, of the newfound rep Broncos coach Josh McDaniels and quarterback Kyle Orton have cast upon his defense. Each accused Tennessee of being "cheap" and coached to play outside of the lines following Denver's 26-20 victory Sunday. And though the Titans refute the charges of being dirty by saying they're just playing physical, don't think Tennessee isn't digging their new street cred.

"For opponents playing us, they're already thinking about, 'Watch out for Cortland [Finnegan], watch out for that guy," safety Chris Hope said, smiling. "We already, sometimes, in the back of their minds, have them thinking about their safety at times. We don't go out and try to hurt people. That's not the nature of our game, and we're not taught that. We go out and play hard."

The Titans have not been known as a "cheap" or dirty team in Jeff Fisher's 16 years as their coach, which directs things to Cecil, who, as a player, was known as one of the most fearsome, rule-bending, frequently fined and, yes, dirty players in the game.

Cecil took over the defense last season from Jim Schwartz, the cerebral, percentage-playing guru who is now coach of the Detroit Lions. Cecil is a Schwartz disciple, so not much has changed schematically. The same can't be said for the temperament or attitude.

"What he talks about, running to the football, making an identity for ourselves, it just correlates with how you play," Finnegan, Tennessee's top cornerback, said. "I don't think we took so much his mentality by the way he played. It's just his coaching style is the way he played. We play just reckless football. You never know when it's your last play so give it all you have. I think we took on that mentality."

Coaches and coordinators can change the persona of a team or a unit. Buddy Ryan's Chicago Bears were as ruthless and aggressive as any defense ever was, as were Rex Ryan's Ravens, and now his Jets.

The Saints' defensive identity changed when the ultra-intense Gregg Williams stepped in last season, and he preached playing through the whistle and pounding opponents until they turned into human confetti.

While Cecil has his own coaching style, he told me he's too far removed as a player for guys to know about his illegal helmet-to-helmet tackling ways. The one-time safety doesn't talk about how he played and has never broken out film or newspaper clips to prove a point. Coaching players up to be more intense is more effective -- and maybe counter-productive.

The Titans are tied for the NFL lead with 16 sacks, but they also lead the league with nine personal foul penalties and are one of the most-penalized teams overall. They claim they're not doing anything more than other teams and that referees are simply flag-happy because their reputation is starting to precede them.

They are not going to back off.

"There's a difference between being a physical football team and a dirty football team," Hope said. "I want to be classified as a physical football team, not a dirty team. When you're dirty, you're doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with football. When you're physical, you may get a personal foul for hitting somebody head-to-head.

"You may get a personal foul for hitting a receiver coming across the middle. There's a difference. I know we don't back down so if anybody or any other team does something to us, we're going to retaliate. With our rap sheet and everybody classifying and labeling us as a dirty team, the flag is already half-way pulled out."

Dallas coach Wade Phillips said his film review didn't show Tennessee doing anything illegal. Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, considered by peers as one of the dirtier players in the league, said the Titans' style is simply rough and rugged, not outside of the line.

Finnegan, one of the smaller players in the NFL, invited the scrutiny when, early this season, he said he wanted to usurp Ward as the league's dirtiest player. He's already been fined $5,000 apiece for his role in a tussle with the Steelers and for roughing up Giants wide receiver Steve Smith. He was docked $5,000 again for his alleged -- and criticized -- punch to Denver lineman Chris Kuper while his helmet was off.

"I was just being me man," said Finnegan, who denied doing anything outside of the guidelines of football or sportsmanship on the play involving Kuper. "Oh well."

The Titans are in the midst of replacing long-time standouts like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Albert Haynesworth, and Jevon Kearse with younger players. Some of this ramped up testosterone might be the result of some fresher legs and a desire to create a new identity.

Then again, Titans players are a little edgy because the team is 2-2. At worst, they feel they should be 3-1, with the failure to cash out the Broncos late eating at them. Being stuck in the middle of the pack is not where they feel they belong. From a defensive perspective, the relentlessness is just on the ground floor.

Linebacker Gerald McRath returns this week from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He might be their most hyper-active, physical player. The defense will be even tougher with him on the field.

The Titans are a "no-name" team, Cecil said, with most people outside of Tennessee unable to name more than two of their starters (it's safe to assume he's talking about Chris Johnson and Vince Young). In contrast, the Cowboys, their opponents Sunday, boast a well-known roster of stars.

Cecil said the Titans want to be known for something. If it's for being a little rough, then so be it.

The picks are in

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