Titans coach Mike Munchak says he doesn’t know if quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will be healthy enough to start this Sunday’s game against winless Indianapolis.
The bigger question is does it matter?
Rookie QB Jake Locker showed last Sunday against the Saints the rocket arm and quick feet that made him the Titans first-round draft pick. The promising outlook for the Titans is Locker is just one of five rookies who have made a definite impact as Tennessee battles for a wildcard playoff berth.
While Locker may be the gem of the rookie class, the Titans drafted four playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
Outside linebacker Akeem Ayers has been a solid contributor all season with 60 tackles and two sacks. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy has been a spark since replacing injured Barrett Ruud. McCarthy has 48 tackles, one interception, and two fumble recoveries.
Defensive lineman Karl Klug had two sacks against the Saints and is the team leader with six. Jurrell Casey has been a force at defensive tackle and came close to intercepting a Drew Brees pass on the Saints last offensive play when the 300-pounder covered the tailback in the flat.
The future is now for the Titans young defensive stars, although it will have to wait for Locker, provided Hasselbeck is healthy enough to start this weekend.
“If Matt’s healthy, then Matt will quarterback us,” said Munchak. “As far as Jake, he’ll have plenty of time to be our guy. We wouldn’t put him in just to give him experience. We know we can win with him in there. We feel real good about what we’ve seen in just the two games he’s had a chance to play. Our thing is we have three huge games ahead of us, and we have to take care of all three of those if we want to play anymore.”
Should Locker get a chance to play, the Titans have full confidence in his ability. When Hasselbeck was injured with 11:03 left in the second quarter, Locker entered the game and threw three straight passes. That’s not the play-calling philosophy of a team worried about its rookie QB.
Locker finished with 282 yards passing and 36 yards rushing. He ran for a 6-yard TD that included a highlight-reel leap to the endzone in which his body was out of bounds but he slithered the ball inside the pylon.
He threw two bombs to Nate Washington, the first which went for a 40-yard TD and the second which took the Titans to the 5-yard line with :07 left. The Saints stopped the Titans on two plays to preserve a 22-17 win.
Munchak was impressed by Locker’s gutsy performance that fell just shy of victory.
“You’re going to see an exciting player who can make plays, who is fearless, who makes plays with his legs, who buys time, and comes into a tough situation against a good defense and made some big-time plays,” said Munchak when asked about Locker’s talents. “He gave us a chance to get back in that game and almost pulled the whole thing out. That’s the exciting part.”
Nursing a left calf injury on the sideline, Hasselbeck said he was excited about what he saw in Locker.
“I thought he did a great job, but nothing that he did really surprised me,” said Hasselbeck. “He’s a good player who has a bright future. I think the thing he did the best was just some protection things. One protection call in particular at the line of scrimmage was really nice and allowed us to have a big play. I was really happy for him for taking advantage of the chances he got. He’s doing a great job in improving and obviously he can run the ball too, which is nice.”
When you combine the Titans rookies with their second-year players, the team certainly appears to be building a solid nucleus. Kick returner Marc Mariani, WR Damian Williams, CB Alterraun Verner and defensive end Derrick Morgan are among the budding stars in their second NFL season.
Mariani made the Pro Bowl last year. Williams has emerged since the injury to Kenny Britt to catch 33 passes for 473 yards and five TDs. Verner has been solid in the secondary with 42 tackles. Morgan, last year’s first-round pick, missed most of his rookie season due to injury and has been a starter this year.