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Camp Notebook: Titans Aim to Create Space for CJ

Posted Aug 6, 2012

Dalton, Ga. — Matt Hasselbeck checked his first route, then his second.

The tight coverage prompted the veteran quarterback to look for another option. Hasselbeck calmly and accurately hit Titans running back Chris Johnson in stride on a crossing route, and Johnson won his matchup against Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon on the play.

It was just one 7-on-7 rep in a joint practice Monday afternoon at Coahulla Creek High School, but could be an indicator of the Titans’ intentions of creating more space for Johnson this season.

“He looked great today,” Hasselbeck said of Johnson. “He’s looked like he’s had a good camp so far. The next step will be getting him more involved in the passing game, but he caught a couple of balls today, and the more we can do that, the better.”

Johnson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. He’s also recorded 194 receptions, including a career-high 57 in 2011 when he carried the ball 54 times less than 2010 as defenses continued to scheme toward stopping the run.

The Titans installed more Run ’N Shoot offensive concepts this offseason, and although the competition for the starting QB job is open between Hasselbeck and second-year pro Jake Locker, the Titans have big plans for Johnson, who has benefitted from a full offseason in the system.

Titans coach Mike Munchak stayed with the Titans’ offense and the Falcons’ defense during the practice that used the football stadium and a baseball outfield that had half a football field painted in it.

“I thought CJ looked quick,” Munchak said. “I thought he did things very decisively. When he started to go outside, he did hard and full speed on the edge. When he decided to go downhill, he decided to go downhill. I thought our backs ran well. Sometimes there were holes, sometimes there weren’t, but overall, I thought that part looked nice, and I thought some guys made some big-time catches.”

Munchak mentioned Marc Mariani specifically, but Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins made touchdown catches to end a red-zone period and the practice on a positive note.

“It was good to get in there,” Williams said. “I think we had a good little workout today. Everybody is working toward the same goal, and we just had fun getting a look at a different defense.”

DIFFERENT COVERAGE: Hasselbeck said the Falcons play more bump-and-run coverage (where defensive backs contact receivers at the line of scrimmage) than the Titans defense and the alteration presented a good challenge for quarterbacks and receivers.

The Titans purposefully did not scout the Falcons because coaches wanted to see how players would respond to situations with little preparation.

“We didn’t watch any film,” Hasselbeck said. “We really didn’t prepare for them in any way, so you’ve really got to stay focused and involved. They’ve got some great players on the other side of the ball, so you’ve got to kind of know where those guys are and make sure you don’t throw toward them too much.”

Hasselbeck said it was somewhat difficult to avoid preparing for an opponent, but added he’s gained some familiarity with Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and head coach Mike Smith because he respects what they’ve done in their careers.

“It’s nerve-racking,” Hasselbeck said. “The nice thing is that Mike Nolan is kind of a famous defensive coordinator who, you kind of know what he does because you’re a fan of what he does, and Mike Smith, the same thing, kind of a fan of what he does defensively, and they’ve got Pro Bowl players on their defense, so you know how they play, so that helped a little bit.”

Munchak, Hasselbeck and Williams said the different experience of Monday’s practice and the film will allow for additional prep work before the Titans’ first preseason game on Saturday at Seattle.

“It kind of gets monotonous when you’re going against the same people every day,” Williams said. “Now, we’ll get a chance to go get some good film and see how it goes from there.”

Munchak added that it is important in the evaluation process as a team continues to develop.

“I think it just raises the energy level when you go against other people,” Munchak said. “They don’t know you as well and you don’t them, so it’s kind of more reality of what it will be like in a game. This is obviously not game conditions. We’re not tackling; they know they’re not going to get hit. I think it’s a necessary step, especially for the young guys. You watch your team come together a little bit in different areas when you come on the road.”

MUTUAL RESPECT: The Titans and Falcons competed intensely but kept in perspective what they most wanted to accomplish.

“I think Coach Smith and I talked about that,” Munchak said. “No one is going to make the team because they get in a fight. We can still compete at a high level without pushing and shoving, otherwise it’s not worth doing these things. A lot of times these things turn into who’s the toughest guy, and it’s a big fight and you don’t get any work done. This was more about getting better and competing, and I think you saw that today from both teams.”

Hasselbeck said the teams set the tone for the day at its start.

“Their coaches were real professional, and it’s been my experience that good teams know how to practice without pads, which usually means they know how to practice with pads,” Hasselbeck said. “You could tell Atlanta’s a good team. They’re mindset is to have a long season and make it to the Super Bowl. They get it. They know how to practice.

“Anytime you get to play against your peers, there’s just a healthy respect for one another and you want to continue to earn their respect each and every time,” Hasselbeck added later.

PRACTICE DRAWS PRAISE: The football and baseball field of Coahulla Creek High School are freshly created plateaus that are surrounded by scenic foothills topped with tall pine trees, but all eyes focused on how the teams competed with great energy and respect.

More than 8,600 fans attended the event, with many bringing an energy and enthusiasm several hours before the start.

“It’s a beautiful high school,” Hasselbeck said. “Someone asked me if it reminded me of being back in high school. I said, ‘No, it reminds me of being in college.’ It’s a beautiful campus, the locker rooms were great, the fields were in great condition, and it was a lot of fun. It’s a smaller stadium than we’re used to playing in, but the fans were equally as enthusiastic, so it was a lot of fun for us.”

The joint practice was a reunion of sorts between the franchises from a 1997 meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn., after the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Oilers for two seasons before becoming the Titans in 1999.

Munchak was in his first season as offensive line coach in 1997 and said the success from the previous event and the relative nearness of the teams encouraged the development of Monday’s meeting.

Munchak said the Titans would “love it” if future meetings in the middle can be arranged.

“It serves both our fan bases,” Munchak said. “Obviously it’s close enough where you have fans of both teams in this area, so I think it’s something Mike and I talked about, and if the schedules work, we’d love to keep trying to find a way to get together.”

Game Rewind: Tennessee Titans

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