How paintball made the Titans' linebackers a stronger unit

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Great teachers find ways to make lessons more exciting and inviting for their students.

In the past, Tennessee Titans inside linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie had organized outings like go-kart racing. When the Titans were in Dallas in Week 9 last year, he led an impromptu walk to the site of President John F. Kennedy's assassination as a way to bring his players together off the field.

This year, McKenzie turned to a paintball trip during OTAs to drive home his point. McKenzie believes in building a family atmosphere -- that players will push each other when they're close like brothers.

Paintball was McKenzie's choice because he liked how it put players in an unfamiliar environment, forcing them to talk their way through uncertain situations.

"When we first started, they had no idea what the game plan was. But the communication was the coaching point, the area of focus," McKenzie said. "We split up teams and didn't know what was on the other side, so we have to communicate as we go through it. It's not the same guys in there side-by-side every time, so you have to learn to communicate with different people. It's the same thing on the football field. It's trust and accountability."

Starting linebacker Jayon Brown got the message loud and clear.

"Trusting each other that we will hold our positions down. That transitions over to the field. 'I got your left, you got my right.' That was a fun time for us to go out by ourselves and bond together," Brown said.

Veteran linebacker Wesley Woodyard was named the MVP of the paintball outing. Woodyard said he saw a different side of second-year linebacker Rashaan Evans, who had fun while learning off the field.

Evans' first reaction when asked about the trip? "That was lit!"

"I feel like communication, even though you know what you're doing, it helps you as a player because there are so many things you have to do as a linebacker," he said.

McKenzie joined his guys on the paintball excursion. He enjoys being a hands-on coach and, like head coach Mike Vrabel, won't hesitate to jump into a drill and demonstrate techniques for players.

Selected by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft, McKenzie played linebacker for the Patriots (2009-10), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2010) and Minnesota Vikings (2011-13) in his career. He was a team captain three times, so he knows a thing or two about leading a group.

"The linebackers, they're a family. Their position coach, Tyrone [McKenzie], has done a great job with that," Vrabel said. "We were all new here last year, and so it was a position that I spent a lot of time with. Tyrone developed those guys and we’re heading in the right direction."

The Titans' linebackers are a mix of veterans, rising stars and rookies. Woodyard is a 12-year veteran and the elder statesmen of the group. He started 30 games over the past two seasons but now finds himself behind Evans on the Titans' first unofficial depth chart. That kind of situation could cause a rift for a group that isn't closely knit, but Woodyard knows his presence sets the tone for the rest of the group.

"I'm a competitor. Whenever I get the opportunity to go out there and ball, that's what I am going to do," Woodyard said. "I feel like it kind of revolves around me, and however my tempo is set in the room. It's important to have a good leader in the room. If they see me every day working hard, they have no choice but to go hard."

Evans is no stranger to intense competition every day in practice after spending his college days playing for Alabama. He knows the benefits that come from competing.

"Everybody is trying to be better regardless of who plays or who starts," Evans said. "You have guys that challenge you and compete with you to make you a better player. We are constantly on each other to make sure we know what we have to do."

Then there's Brown, who not long ago was the youngster of the group but is now reaching veteran status. He had a Pro Bowl-caliber season last year, posting 97 tackles, six sacks and an interception. Being the one in the middle is nothing new to Brown, who joked about being the middle child in his family. He relishes the opportunity to learn from McKenzie and veterans like Woodyard and Darren Bates while helping younger guys like rookie David Long.

It's no coincidence that McKenzie fostered a "we before me" mindset in his first couple of seasons as a position coach. He started his NFL career with the Patriots under Bill Belichick, whose team-first mentality is a staple. So far, he likes what he's seen from his group this year.

"We are always going to do what's best for the team. Those guys, they are so team-driven. You always come back to the brotherhood," McKenzie said.