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Titans' plan for Larry Fitzgerald draped in respect, not fear

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau sees a clear comparison between Larry Fitzgerald, his top defensive focus Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, and former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward.

LeBeau's defense has locked down T.Y. Hilton in two matchups but was beat to varying degrees by DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green. Fitzgerald, however, is a different style and breed of top receiver.

"He's got so much experience. His size is such that when he gets a little position, he can win. He reminds me of Hines Ward a lot," said LeBeau, who won two Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator on Steelers teams that featured Ward. "He's taller than Hines, but they are both big, strong wide receivers. Larry can basketball you, get you on his hip and go get it.

"Generally speaking, as we get older we don't get faster. But he's still damn productive. He does anything top receivers need to do. He's an excellent blocker."

There's a special aura around facing Fitzgerald and Adrian Peterson -- two guys several Titans players grew up watching and consider first-ballot Hall of Famers -- but the battle is draped in respect, not fear.

The 6-foot-3, 218 pound Fitzgerald is a 10-time Pro Bowler who is fourth all-time in receiving yards. He's on pace for his ninth NFL season with at least 1,000 receiving yards and six touchdowns. His consistency and ability to take over a game even at 34 is rare.

Fitzgerald is particularly effective when the Cardinals run rub routes, pick plays and screens for him. That's where his physicality, veteran presence and run-after-catch ability can take over. The Titans have preached tackling, angles and getting off blocks all week.

"I don't think you can shut down a guy like Larry Fitz. You can just try to contain him to catches under 10 yards. No big plays," Titans safety Kevin Byard said. "Our goal is to stop A.P. [Peterson], minimize No. 11 [Fitzgerald] and make No. 7 [quarterback Blaine Gabbert] beat us with other receivers."

Logan Ryan is expected to draw Fitzgerald on most snaps, if the Titans' top cornerback clears the concussion protocol as expected. Ryan returned to practice Thursday, but he has one more step to officially be cleared to play Sunday. Ryan has had a solid season, sometimes bending but rarely breaking against the receivers the Titans have faced.

"I don't think he really fears anybody," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of Ryan. "He's very confident in his ability. I'm sure he respects these guys, they've had long, productive careers. Respect's there, I'm sure it's mutual."