Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Hold on a couple seconds. Don't rush.
Looking for bigger plays in Titans' passing game, it's tempting to consider the routes, the breaks, the steps, the cuts, the physicality, the hands, the body control, the throw or the protection.
But all of those things tie into rhythm, and there's no chance to find rhythm if a receiver can't get a clean release off the line of scrimmage.
Watch the Titans work and you'll see that Kerry Collins will look to the receiver whose defender is playing "off" first. But when defensive backs step up to jam them, trying to reroute them right from the start, the Titans are determined to win those encounters, which can be over in a flash and often go unnoticed.
And only from there can Tennessee's receivers make the strides so many are hoping to see.
How big is getting off the jam in the eyes of offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger?
Well, the team broke a 10-year streak of steering away from receivers in the first round back in April, taking Kenny Britt out of Rutgers with the 30th pick. He got a complete endorsement from Heimerdinger, who was especially impressed with Britt's ability to beat press coverage. He's a good fit for a primary theme.
Said Collins: "If they don't get a good release, it just compromises the timing of everything. ... Dinger harps on it all the time, he's always on them about good releases, taking the right release. Those first couple steps are critical for everything."
It's especially easy for receivers to look good in OTAs and minicamps. The press they see in an OTA session is not the same as they will see in camp or in games, and they don't have to brace for a big shot right as they pull in a pass.
But even with that context, it's been hard not to notice Justin Gage at the Titans' sessions. He's carrying himself with extreme confidence, the kind that suggests we may more often see the guy who torched the Jaguars last November in Jacksonville and played big against Pittsburgh in December.
"It all starts with talking to Dinger about releasing," said Gage, the team's tallest wideout at 6-foot-4. "In the past my biggest problem has been standing up too high. Being a tall receiver, that gives shorter DBs an advantage -- once I stand up high, I'm exposing a lot more of my body than I am if I stay low. So that's the biggest key right now: release low and tight.
"If you can't get off the line of scrimmage in rhythm or on time, that throws off the whole play whether you're running a decoy and clearing out for another receiver or it's a play intended for you. If you can't get off the line, that's throwing off the timing for our quarterbacks, the line and blocking schemes and the other receivers. The quarterback's not going to look your way, he's going to go ahead and check down."
Checkdowns are fine in the Titans' system, as the offensive line typically affords Collins great protection and the super-fast Chris Johnson is often the outlet.
Still, in his first incarnation as Tennessee's coordinator, Heimerdinger gradually opened up the offense and was never shy about taking shots downfield.
The top-seeded Titans flamed out with a January playoff loss to Baltimore, when their lack of dynamic weapons beyond Johnson was glaring after the rookie left the game with an ankle injury. In the second year of Heimerdinger's second term, he got upgrades both in free agency (the speedy former Steeler Nate Washington) and at the top of the draft class (Britt).
Those two may not only help create space for Johnson, but could draw some coverage from Gage, a physical player who is now very comfortable in the system and could be poised for his best season.
In 2008, Gage missed four games with injuries, but posted a 19.1-yard average on 34 receptions to go with a team-high six touchdown catches. That average was the highest for a player who saw regular action on offense for the Titans/Oilers since 1995, when Chris Sanders averaged 23.5 yards.
If he's to approach that sort of average again, Gage will have to continue to improve at clean releases. Of course, he and the rest of the Titans' receivers strive to get off the line of scrimmage cleanly all the time. But what's a realistic percentage? He said 80 percent.
Britt goes out of his way to credit Rutgers coach Greg Schiano for giving him the chance to get good against the jam. This skill developed far more in practices than it did in the Scarlet Knights' games, he said.
"From my freshman through my junior year, every day at practice we had press coverage," Britt said. "We really stressed getting off the jam. His defense is mostly press coverage, and in our league we didn't get much press coverage. We didn't get pressed in games at all."
Britt's worked only a little with the full team since the draft, as a tight hamstring cost him time. Still, he said he's already getting a sense of which defenders are more aggressive at the line and gaining an understanding of how quickly the quarterback has to make his first decision regarding his first read.
"Especially if you're the first look, the quarterback is coming off of you fast," Britt said. "If you can't get off the line, you're not getting the ball, you're not getting your stats and you're not helping your team."
[Look for an additional post in a bit, with a look at press coverage from a cornerback perspective, and some of your thoughts on the receivers who are best at it.]