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Titans defense makes substantial improvements

New York Jets v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

Earlier this season, the Tennessee Titans defense was on pace to allow the most points in league history. The Titans were allowing over 34 points a game and had allowed 30 or more points in seven of their first nine games this season.

The defensive struggles prompted coordinator Jerry Gray to move to the press box from the sidelines in hopes of finding some kind of a spark for his struggling unit.

While it seems a little ridiculous that Gray moving upstairs immediately cured all of the Titans woes, something has changed to help turn the Tennessee defense around.

According to Teresa M. Walker of the Associated Press, the Titans rank in the top five in six different defensive categories since Nov. 11. The Titans are fourth in scoring defense since then allowing just 17.6 points per game. They are also third in total defense (286 yards per game), first in sacks per game (3.4), second in interceptions (10) and second in opponent’s passer rating (60.7).

We knew it wasn’t all the defense,” Titans head coach Mike Munchak said. ”It was turnovers, it was the offense. It was a lot of things that were leading to statistically things looking worse than they were. We obviously weren’t playing as well as we needed to play on either side of the ball.”

The strong performances haven’t waned despite being without starting middle linebacker Colin McCarthy the past three games due to lingering concussion symptoms. The Titans forced five turnovers from New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in the Titans 14-10 win over the Jets on Monday night. Tennessee intercepted Sanchez four times and recovered a fumbled snap inside the final minute to secure the victory.

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Jay Gruden: Criticize my coaching, but don’t call me fat

Jay Gruden AP

It’s been another rough week for Jay Gruden.

Questions about Robert Griffin III’s concussion and the quarterback’s continued struggles in the offense have revived talk about dysfunction inside the Redskins organization, leading to columns like the one Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post wrote on Friday around his observation that it “already feels like the season is starting to rot.”

Gruden said Thursday that he knows changing the “perception of this franchise” will require the team to win games and said that he and his players are “used to blocking out the noise” coming from outside the team. He did find one bit of negativity that crossed the line, however.

“I listen to it a little bit. I read some articles,” Gruden said, via Mike Jones of the Washington Post. “I kind of have to be up to date so when I come up here, I’m aware of what’s going on. I really dislike the guy that called me a fat ass. That really ticked me off. I don’t mind you critiquing my coaching style, but to make fun of my weight, that’s unfair. I’m only 225 [pounds]. But other than that, man, it’s football. If you win, you usually get positive reviews as a coach.”

Jones adds that Gruden was laughing when he took issue with the crack about his weight, which was made by radio host Scott Ferrall during a rant about Gruden’s decision to leave Griffin in against the Lions last week despite the repeated hits that Griffin took while trying to run the offense. Whether he really took offense or not, the good news for Gruden is that people will have plenty of criticisms to lob in his direction that have nothing to do with the size of his posterior as long as things keep going the way they have over the last year-plus.

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Randy Gregory makes a different kind of play, earns early camp exit

Randy Gregory AP

Rookie pass-rusher Randy Gregory keeps making plays that make the Cowboys smile.

But Thursday, it wasn’t a sack or a pressure.

Via Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Gregory bought the team an early departure from training camp by successfully fielding a punt. Coach Jason Garrett told his players they’d break early if one of the six linemen he chose could catch one (although we can’t imagine he’d have unloaded the planes and stayed an extra day if they didn’t).

“I had to step up, catch one for the team, send us back home,” Gregory said. “The pressure was all on me. I guess I performed well.”

Gregory said he hadn’t caught a punt since his freshman year in high school, but that didn’t deter him, completing the challenge on the first attempt. That created a celebration, as the players got home a day early before their home preseason opener against the Vikings this weekend.

“It’ll be good to get everybody back home, sleeping in their own bed tonight,” Garrett said. “We’ll go into Valley Ranch tomorrow and have a regular day before the game schedule and then play Saturday night.”

Of course, the Cowboys are counting on Gregory having impact in other ways this season, particularly early in the year, while Greg Hardy’s serving his four-game suspension. All the early returns on the second-round pick from Nebraska have been positive, and the Cowboys hope he rewards them for taking a chance on him when other teams were unwilling to.

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Ryan Fitzpatrick thinks he can have a breakout year

Ryan Fitzpatrick AP

Could a broken jaw lead to a breakout year? Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick thinks the answer is absolutely.

Fitzpatrick, who became the de facto starter once IK Enemkpali fractured Geno Smith’s jaw, tells Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News that the journeyman-turned-starter-turned-journeyman could have a coming-out party at 33.

I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Fitzpatrick said. “So much of the game for the quarterback is the mental side of it. Everybody always talks about my arm and how horrible it is. I promise . . . you can put on some tape [and see] that I can make all the throws that you want me to make or that I need to make. . . . I see myself continuing to get better rather than declining.”

Once Fitzpatrick became the full-time starter in 2010 with the Bills, he had three straight 3,000-yard seasons, maxing out at 3,832 yards in 2011. He earned the kind of contract about which Michael Bennett would have loudly complained, and the Bills opted to move on in lieu of paying a $3 million roster bonus in March 2013.

It’s not out of the question that Fitzpatrick will have a solid year; while 33 is essentially 66 for running backs, quarterbacks are proving that they can perform at a high level after blowing out two-and-a-half-dozen candles, in the sweet spot between an enhanced understanding of the game and the remaining physical abilities.

Regardless, the bar is low — which may be good for Fitzpatrick.

‘That’s been the perception every year,” Fitzpatrick said regarding the notion that he doesn’t belong in the NFL. “Somehow I keep sticking around and finding new jobs. So I don’t really listen to the perception. I hear it, for sure. I just kind of shrug my shoulders and make sure that I focus on what I can control and focus on getting myself better.”

If it works, maybe the Jets will ultimately be glad that Geno Smith wasn’t available to start the season.

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Friday morning one-liners

Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game Getty Images

WR Chris Hogan isn’t worried about holding onto his Bills roster spot.

LB Kelvin Sheppard says the Dolphins have simplified their defense.

RB Dion Lewis can help his chances of making the Patriots on Friday night.

Jets S Rontez Miles has had a strong camp after a scary leg injury late last season.

The Ravens aren’t overly concerned about T Eugene Monroe’s bruised arm.

A faster start on defense is a Bengals goal this week.

Browns CB Joe Haden feels the team isn’t lacking talent at any position.

C Maurkice Pouncey’s injury won’t cause schematic changes for the Steelers.

Andre Hal is progressing in his move from corner to safety with the Texans.

A look at positions where the Colts still have decisions to make this summer.

Rookie Rashad Greene looks like he’ll be the Jaguars punt returner.

Who will start at running back for the Titans?

Said Bronos WR Demaryius Thomas, “I’m close. I’m about 95 percent. I’m not at 100 percent yet, and I say that because I mess up and have a little mental error on the field sometimes.”

The Chiefs don’t feel injuries on the offensive line have hurt their evaluations of the rest of the unit.

Raider coach Jack Del Rio thinks rookie DE Mario Edwards is “progressing very nicely.”

The Chargers are still figuring out what they have in rookie LB Denzel Perryman.

Cowboys LB Randy Gregory’s ability to catch a punt sent him and his teammates home early.

CB Prince Amukamara is looking forward to the Giants’ game against the Jets.

The death of a close friend has shaken Eagles WR Josh Huff.

Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post writes that it feels like the Redskins season has already started to rot.

The Bears haven’t had their top three wideouts at practice for most of this week, but coach John Fox won’t rule them out of Saturday’s game.

T LaAdrian Waddle and DE Jason Jones won’t play for the Lions this week.

A slimmed-down DT B.J. Raji is excited for the Packers season.

Vikings rookie LB Eric Kendricks is learning how to adapt to the NFL.

How much will Dan Quinn’s arrival help the Falcons defense?

Three players to watch when the Panthers face the Patriots.

CB Delvin Breaux has impressed for the Saints this summer.

Kwon Alexander has taken over the Buccaneers’ middle linebacker job, but may not call the plays during the regular season.

Cardinals LB Kevin Minter is lighter and healthier this season.

Malcolm Brown is trying to outlast the competition for a spot in the Rams backfield.

Kendall Hunter got the first carry for the 49ers in Thursday’s practice with the Broncos.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says he’ll be focused on the offensive line during Saturday’s game.

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Frank Gore keeps praising Andrew Luck

Frank Gore, Andrew Luck AP

Running back Frank Gore spent four seasons with quarterback Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. But Gore apparently never played with a quarterback until he signed with the Colts.

Gore gushed about Andrew Luck during a recent visit to The Jim Rome Show, and it’s hard to read Gore’s words without considering the implications for the quarterback about whom Gore never said such things.

“He runs meetings like a coach,” Gore said of Luck. “Basically, I’m playing with a coordinator on the field. He’s a football God. He sees everything, and he sees the big picture of everything.”

Gore made similar — but not quite as strong — remarks earlier this month.

“He’s different. He knows what’s coming,” Gore told Rome. “He lets me know when [there’s] something I don’t see. He’s just different. How he’s in the huddle, off the field, in the meetings, he runs it. He runs the show, even in the offseason, he ran it. One day he had running backs, the next day he has receivers. He’s just different. He’s a football God.”

There’s a chance that Kaepernick now has the same abilities, and that he simply wasn’t able to do so because his former head coach in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh, had a habit of running the show. As Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area recently explained it, Harbaugh “often took control and made the play call to the offense” during training camp and regular-season practices. (He even once practiced in full gear as the team’s No. 3 quarterback.) Under Jim Tomsula, Kaepernick now runs the show.

“It allows the players to have confidence in hearing your voice and you’re the one who’s going to be giving them direction on the field,” Kaepernick said. “It’s something that every quarterback should have the ability to do.”

The real question is whether Harbaugh did the same thing at Stanford, when Luck was the quarterback there. If so, Harbaugh trained Luck well — and possibly trained Kaepernick well, too.

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Vikings “aiming” for Trae Waynes to be starter in Week One

Oakland Raiders v Minnesota Vikings Getty Images

Like many rookie cornerbacks, Vikings first-round pick Trae Waynes had a rough time out of the gate in his first preseason appearances.

That led to a lot of negative instant feedback from outside the team, but defensive coordinator George Edwards stressed patience over immediate impact and said that Waynes was “right on course” to being the player that they wanted him to be. The timeline seems to have sped up a bit in Minnesota because Edwards said Thursday that the team had its sights on Waynes assuming a starting role for the first week of the regular season.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” Edwards said, via ESPN.com. “That’s what we’re all working for. But we’re just going to take it from week to week. We’ve still got two more [preseason] games to go, and we’ll just keep evaluating him through the process.”

Waynes has been seeing time as an outside cornerback across from Xavier Rhodes with Terence Newman kicking into the slot when the Vikings use three corners and that may be the starting role that Edwards has in mind for the rookie in the early part of the season. Given how frequently teams use such alignments, that would still a lot of playing time for a player that Edwards says has “gotten better from week to week.”

Veteran Captain Munnerlyn would likely handle third corner duties if the Vikings decide Waynes isn’t ready for the job.

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Nat Berhe having surgery to remove blood clot from calf

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Getty Images

The Giants got rookie safety Landon Collins back on the field this week, but the injury news at the position isn’t all good.

Nat Berhe has missed time this summer with a calf injury and he announced on Twitter that he is having surgery on Friday to remove a hardened blood clot from his calf. According to multiple reports, Berhe won’t play again this season and Berhe hinted at that prognosis in a subsequent tweet.

If so, he’ll be the fourth safety that the Giants have lost for the season since the start of training camp. Bennett Jackson, rookie Mykkele Thompson and Justin Currie have also suffered season-ending injuries.

At different points this summer, Berhe and Jackson were considered favorites for the starting job next to Collins come the regular season. The Giants now have Brandon Meriweather, Jeromy Miles and Cooper Taylor as possibilities for that role and they could also look outside the organization for more help as players shake loose from other rosters over the next 10 days.

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Dolphins making contingency plans if hurricane hits South Florida

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The Dolphins have more experience than any other team in the NFL — at least in terms of being ready for hurricanes.

So with Tropical Storm Erika expected to turn into a hurricane and possibly hit South Florida Monday, the Dolphins are well into their preparations.

We’ve discussed a couple different scenarios,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said, via Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. “We’ll be ready if we need to. Everything is on the table. We have to get our team ready to play in the regular season.”

Part of the plan is to possibly move practices Monday and Tuesday to an undisclosed location. Philbin wouldn’t reveal it, which is the best part of undisclosed locations.

The team said there are no plans to move Saturday’s home game against the Falcons, and the storm should be gone by next Thursday’s preseason finale against the Buccaneers.

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Kuechly says Moss is “always talking about” a return to the NFL

Miami Dolphins v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

At a time when it’s not clear how serious former NFL receiver Randy Moss is about a return to football, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly says Randy has developed a habit of talking about a comeback.

“He was at Cam [Newton]’s kickball tournament this summer,” Kuechly said on Wednesday’s edition of PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio. “He’s always talking about how he wants to come back and play.”

As to whether that comeback should happen with the Panthers, Kuechly said the team has “a lot of good depth” at the receiver position even after the season-ending injury to Kelvin Benjamin, citing players like Devin Funchess, Jerricho Cotchery, and Philly Brown.

“There’s a lot of depth at that wide receiver room right now and I think [receivers coach] Ricky Proehl and the coaching staff has done a great job at creating depth,” Kuechly said. “In the circumstances that we have right now I think we’ll be all right.”

Kuechly also talked about his contract talks with the Panthers, including whether he’d regard it as a distraction if the talks continue into the regular season. (He wouldn’t.) The only question now is whether you would click the thing in the thing below to hear everything Kuechly had to say.

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Leslie Frazier is totally cool with his boss taking over his job

Lovie Smith. Leslie Frazier

Lovie Smith hasn’t said much about his himself, but Buccaneers defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said he was fine with his head coach taking over defensive play-calling duties.

Smith made the change this offseason, cutting the coordinator out of the loop on calling plays in favor of doing it himself. He might have done it sooner, but being left without an offensive coordinator last year forced Smith to spend more time on that side of the ball.

“[Lovie] is going to be heavily involved as he’s always been with our defense, and he’s going to do the majority of the defensive play-calling,” Frazier said, via Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. “It really doesn’t change my role from a year ago, it really doesn’t. My role is to come in and help our defense and help them prepare for every ball game and help our team win. It really doesn’t change anything I have to get done.”

Frazier’s defense was 25th in the league last year, so some degree of change was justified. But as much as he says he’s fine with it, any time a head coach has to bigfoot one of his coordinators, it’s seldom a good sign.

“I’m excited for it,” Frazier said. “I think with his background and the defense we installed is the one he ran in Chicago, so it should be good for our defense, good for our team. I think we’re all looking forward to build on the momentum from this offseason and also what happened in that ball game Monday night.”

The Bucs did show better the last time out, forcing three turnovers. So Frazier has little choice but accept it, and do what he can to contribute.

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Tom Coughlin willing to adapt his methods to keep Giants healthy

Tom Coughlin AP

Take that, Walter Thurmond. The old dog has learned a new trick.

After being accused to not embracing “modern medicine” by his former safety who is now with the Eagles, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin gave his players a chance to do yoga or other alternative treatments during their recovery day.

According to Justin Tasch of the New York Daily News, the changes are part of a bigger schedule shift by the 69-year-old Coughlin. He’s giving his players a chance at what he calls a “GPS week,” which will have them running their more strenuous practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a pair of recovery days.

On those recovery days, the Giants players can choose from six recovery stations, including yoga and other alternatives to keep them fresh.

It’s a unique kind of a day and I’m interested in the feedback that I get from our leadership counsel and also from the assistant coaches as we go through the day,” Coughlin said. “Of course, the proof will come later as to how we perform.”

Giving the players two days off before a game is unconventional, and Coughlin said its continued existence would be determined by the results he sees.

“We’re gonna see,” he said. “I’ll see what it looks like and how — again, [Friday’s] another day of this experimentation. So we’re gonna go through that and see how we like it at the end of the week.”

Players will still go through meetings and a walk-through and lift on their recovery days during the GPS week, so it’s not as if they’re taking a spa day.

But for Coughlin to make a fundamental change in practice schedules at this stage in his life shows that he’s willing to adapt, and try to do something to prevent his team from being the most-injured team in the league the last two years. But it also signals that he understands that he doesn’t have a dictator-for-life type of job, and that changing the results are important to his own longevity as well.

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Former first rounder A.J. Jenkins feeling confident in Dallas

A.J. Jenkins AP

A.J. Jenkins was one of the most disappointing first-round draft picks in recent memory, a wide receiver who spent only one season with the 49ers and never caught a single pass. He was only slightly better after he was traded to the Chiefs, and now he looks like a roster long shot with his third team, the Cowboys.

But Jenkins says he feels good about his chances in Dallas.

“I’m definitely getting my confidence back,” Jenkins told ESPN. “I’m in the playbook and trying to feel like myself back again.”

Jenkins has caught two passes this preseason, and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said he liked what he saw.

“He is one of those guys who keeps pounding away every day,” Garrett said. “He got a couple of chances in the game — made a good catch on a long third down, made a good catch on a contested ball down the field. He is one of those guys who has some ability.”

Those words of optimism aside, Jenkins probably won’t make the team. In fact, there’s a good chance that Jenkins will be gone after the first cutdown next week, and that this former first-round pick will be out of the NFL for good.

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Earl Thomas on track to play in season opener

Earl Thomas AP

Despite still wearing a red “no-contact” jersey in practice, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is expected to be ready to play in the team’s season opener against the St. Louis Rams.

“Earl got a lot of work this week,” head coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s getting ready to be in shape to play for the opener. His timing is getting down, his calls, and you can see him fitting in. His intensity that he brings is starting to show up. That’s important.”

Thomas came off the Physically Unable to Perform list on August 5th but did not return to practice until last week. He’s been held out of contact drills even while practicing as the team wants to limit strain on his surgically repaired shoulder.

With Kam Chancellor’s holdout continuing with no resolution in sight, having Thomas ready for the start of the regular season will be a big boost for Seattle. If Chancellor continues his stance into the regular season, the Seahawks will have a much better of chance of weathering his absence with Thomas patrolling the middle of the field.

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Tough decisions loom as teams turn towards end of preseason, roster cuts

NFL Getty Images

There are lots of jobs to be won across the NFL over the next seven days. There are almost as many to be lost.

Roster cuts are right around the corner. So, too, is the regular season. After this weekend’s rounds of preseason games, teams will be required to cut their rosters from 90 to 75. By Sept. 5, rosters have to be at the regular-season size of 53.

Practice squads are formed following that final cut, and just about every team finds itself busy scanning the waiver wire or trying to make a trade to plug a hole or fortify a position. On Sept. 6 teams can officially designate a player on injured-reserve as designated to return and claim players waived by other teams following the end of the preseason.

The Steelers and Patriots open the 2015 season Sept. 10. Everyone else plays Sept. 13 or 14.

The full NFL calendar through the season and into the spring can be viewed here.

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NaVorro Bowman says he’s “not really” spending two hours to get ready to practice

NaVorro Bowman AP

49ers linebacker Navorro Bowman recently told Peter King of TheMMQB.com that Bowman needs two hours of preparation time before practicing or playing. Bowman now says he doesn’t need two hours of preparation.

Via Matt Maicco of CSNBayArea.com, Bowman said the time that he devotes to preparing is “not really two hours.”

Apparently, it can be more than two hours.

“I’m just a perfectionist,” Bowman said. “I like to warm up my leg as much as possible and to go out there and have a perfect practice. If it takes three hours, I’ll take three hours. Some guys take a lot of things out of context. . . . I had surgery. [The knee] doesn’t feel the same as the other one, so I have to make sure I’m able to do everything I have to before practice starts. That’s where the time frame came from.”

Bowman seems to be sensitive to the perception that he’s returning too early from a torn ACL. Earlier this week, Rodney Harrison of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN said that Bowman runs the risks that offensive lineman will target Bowman’s knee in order to test it.

“Me coming back early,” Bowman said, “that would have been if I would have come back during the season last year.”

So Bowman believes he’s ready, and that the time to prepare has no relation to how he feels once he’s prepared.

Regardless of what Bowman told King or what Bowman said Thursday, the knee will be tested by opposing offensive linemen. He therefore should take whatever time he needs to prepare the knee for that reality.

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