Facing Lions gives Titans' David Long chance to reconnect with Tyrone McKenzie

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Before this season, inside linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie was the only position coach that Tennessee Titans inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and David Long ever knew. Evans was entering his second season last year and ready to take over as the leader of the defense. Long was a rookie sixth-round pick that was looking to find his way in the NFL.

McKenzie will get to see firsthand how two of his young inside linebackers have developed since he moved on to become the inside linebackers coach for the Detroit Lions, who will be facing the Titans on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Long has taken over as one of the starters on the inside after an elbow injury cost Jayon Brown the rest of the season. The second-year linebacker became a critical part of an improved Titans run defense that has allowed an average of 88.3 rushing yards over the last three games.

"He kept me on my toes as far as rookie tests and stuff like that the night before our games," Long said of McKenzie. "He made sure that I was paying attention during the game and saw stuff that was wrong so that when I went in I wasn't doing the same thing wrong. He just made sure I was constantly learning."

Getting to watch clips of McKenzie -- who played linebacker for the New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings -- made Long realize that his coach's knowledge was coming from the perspective of someone who had been in his shoes before.

Added Long, "To know that he's been out there and has played ball was enough for me to know he's not telling us anything wrong and take in all the information that I could."

Long credited McKenzie for spending extra time with him to make sure he was prepared to play. The 2019 sixth-round pick proved he was ready when he started for the Titans in their 28-12 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional playoffs last season.

"When we got to the AFC divisional playoff game and Jayon was hurt, there was no doubt in my mind that David could step up and play at a high level," McKenzie said. "He did that, and it goes to a lot of the preparation that we put into him during the games when he wasn't out there."

McKenzie laughed while recalling how he had Long stand in front of the group and go through the game-day calls. The goal was to put him in as many game-type situations as possible in meetings and practice.

Under McKenzie in 2019, Evans led the team in tackles (139) and tackles for loss (11). He also recovered a fumble forced by Long and took it 53 yards for a touchdown. This year, Evans has emerged as a leader. McKenzie said from day one the goal was for Evans to be a focal point of the defense and lead the group.

The linebacker room at that time was special because it had a mix of veterans and younger players.

"We had a veteran that played at a high level in Wes [Woodyard]," McKenzie said. "He played in the league a number of years and had the season tackle record for the organization and in 2019 he became a backup. He was the ultimate pro. I was able to use Wood [Wesley Woodyard] as an example of what it looked like."

Brown was also a part of the group and excelled under McKenzie, especially in 2018 when he was one of only six NFL linebackers with at least six sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery during the season.

McKenzie, Evans, Long and Brown used to hold extra meetings in the mornings and called their group "The Breakfast Club." They would also meet the night before games and go through the call list and make sure they had everything down.

"It was a great room with guys that had no complaints or egos and wanted to get better each day. All of the extra meetings we did and drill work, they wanted to get better and saw the vision the organization had for them and wanted to get there," McKenzie said. "There were things we did out of the building to bring them together. You start from the foundation with those guys to help them grow and become starters in the league. They'll only get better. I miss those guys."

McKenzie organized paintball excursions and took the group on education trips such as visiting the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza in Dallas before facing the Cowboys in 2018.

McKenzie made the most of his first opportunity to be a position coach in the NFL during his two years with the Titans. Although he's with the Lions now, McKenzie is thankful for his time in Nashville.

"I appreciate Mike Vrabel for giving me the opportunity. I learned a lot from him while I was there," McKenzie said.