Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pro Bowl will have to wait for Yanda

Ravens offensive guard Marshal Yanda (#73) in action against the Browns in the fourth quarter.

First up for the former Anamosa standout is a home playoff game Jan. 15 with the Baltimore Ravens

By David Driver

January 9, 2012

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Cedar Rapids native Marshal Yanda was sitting at home in Maryland when he got a telephone call late last month from John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

“I thought he was checking on my ribs,” said Yanda, the right guard for the playoff-bound Ravens.

That would seem logical since Yanda, 27, a former standout for Anamosa High and with the Iowa Hawkeyes, has been playing through pain the past few days.

But Harbaugh was calling to let Yanda know he had been named to the first Pro Bowl of his NFL career. He joined running back Ray Rice and fullback Vonta Leach as offensive Pro Bowlers with the Ravens, who ranked No. 3 in rushing yards (1,105) in the last seven games of the season.

“That was an awesome accomplishment, to be part of that group,” said the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Yanda, standing by his locker following a morning practice in suburban Maryland. “I felt honored.”

Yanda, in his fifth pro season, was quick to point out that the success of a team helps players get individual honors. “You don’t see too many Pro Bowl players from teams that are 5-11,” he said.

The Ravens are far from that type of team. Baltimore was 12-4 in regular-season play this season to win the AFC North title, which gave the Ravens a first-round bye and a home game against Houston on Sunday at noon. Baltimore is 8-0 at home this season.

“It is huge. You get that extra week of recovery to be ready and play,” he said of the bye. “That is big for us.”

This will be the fourth straight year the Ravens have made the playoffs.

“It makes you realize that is not common. To be in the playoffs every year … you don’t take that for granted,” Yanda said.

So what changes in the playoffs? “Ball security is obviously huge and running the football is huge in the playoffs,” he said. “The playoffs come down to one or two plays, usually.”

What if the Ravens end up playing the Steelers again? “I would expect another normal Pittsburgh-Baltimore game. It will be two good teams coming at it. I don’t expect anything less,” he said.

Yanda, a right guard, started all 16 games this season for the Ravens. Last year he started at right tackle in both playoff games as Baltimore totaled 516 total yards, including a team playoff record of 390 yards against the Chiefs in a wild card game Jan. 9, 2011.

Yanda was named to the Sports Illustrated (Peter King) All-Pro team in 2010. Now this year the accolades came with his first selection to the Pro Bowl, which will be held Jan. 29 in Hawaii.

Due to thigh and rib contusions it did not look like Yanda would play in Week 17 in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati. The Ravens had clinched a playoff berth but had not locked down a first-round bye going into the finale, which was a 24-16 win against the Bengals.

“It was tough. Once I got the blood flowing I felt pretty decent out there,” Yanda said. “I could play at a high level, so that was the important thing. I wanted to be part of that win. I knew they needed me. Two days after the Cleveland game (Dec. 24) I felt there was no way I could play. I progressed as the week went on.”

He had a big block on the fourth play of the game against the Bengals that allowed Rice to go 70 yards for a touchdown.

“During the game I felt pretty decent out there,” Yanda said. “At other times I did not feel as good. But overall I felt pretty decent.”

“I fell on my rib late in the fourth quarter. I was in a lot of pain. Everyone wanted to give me a hug (after the game). I told them to get away,” he said, with a big laugh.

What did he learn about himself by playing in the regular-season finale? “You want to play through pain. I am a quick healer and I was able to get back out there. I was able to play at high level and that was the important thing. I did not want to hurt the team in anyway.”

Yanda’s grit has made him a team leader. “There is no tougher than Marshal,” Harbaugh told reporters Jan. 2. “That is a reflection of our whole team. He optimizes that, certainly. He won’t tell you much about it, but for him to say he could barely breathe and play the way he did, obviously it was huge for us. He is an anchor of our offensive line, and when he is in there, we’re a lot better.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A very special unit: San Francisco 49ers loaded with key specialists

By Cam Inman
January 9, 2012

David Akers' four field goals and Andy Lee's five soaring punts were mere appetizers in the 49ers' season-opening victory. The best was yet to come, both in terms of a playoff-bound season and that game.

Ted Ginn Jr. blazed two trails to the end zone in the fourth quarter, returning a kickoff 102 yards and a punt 55 yards for touchdowns to seal a 33-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

With that Sept. 11 opener, the 49ers served notice that defense wouldn't be this team's only trademark unit. Special teams -- what coordinator Brad Seely terms the "dirty work" -- would also be a dominant force en route to the NFC West title and a No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs.

"We give it the importance that it deserves," coach Jim Harbaugh said the day after the victorious debut.

All that practice made for the perfect demise of several records: Akers set league marks by a kicker with 44 field goals and 166 points, and Lee had the best net average ever at 44.0 yards per punt.

Surrounding those two specialists is a remarkably cohesive and effective unit, likely the 49ers' best ever. The secret to their success? Here is a closer look at their six catalysts:

Brad Seely, assistant head coach/special teams coordinator

When Jim Harbaugh joined the Indianapolis Colts as their quarterback in 1994, he heard positive reviews of their former special teams coordinator, Seely, who had assumed the same role with the New York Jets.

Seely went on to win three Super Bowl titles as the New England Patriots' special teams coordinator from 1999-2008, and now he's helped put the 49ers three wins shy of the Lombardi Trophy.

Nicknamed "The Professor" by long snapper Brian Jennings for his installation of detail-oriented schemes, Seely is in his 23rd NFL season. His consistent, straightforward approach has won over players.

"You have to subvert your singular wants for the good of the team. That's what special teams are," Seely said in October, in his only interview this season with 49ers beat writers.

Brian Jennings, long snapper

Since his arrival in 2000 as a seventh-round draft pick, Jennings has forged a fabulous career thanks to his steady snapping skills. He wants every field-goal snap to look like a replay, and he's mastered that craft so well that Harbaugh called Jennings "a Jedi Knight of snapping the football."

The longest-tenured 49er, Jennings' expertise is balanced with a sense of humor and clever wit. Not many NFL long snappers have their own radio show, nor have many shaved their eyebrows during the season. No one other than Jennings has snapped a ball to a 49ers punter or holder since the turn of the century, and that includes the otherwise meaningless fourth quarters of exhibition finales.

Perhaps no other player has a better bond with Harbaugh, who said: "We've had discussions on Genghis Khan to Patton. I try to take time out of my day to make sure I get a little piece of Brian Jennings as much as possible."

Blake Costanzo, special teams ace

If anyone can define the all-out mentality of the special teams unit, it's Costanzo, a fifth-year player whose underdog career has relied upon his fiery style after kickoffs and punts.
"We fight to the ball every time to make a play," Costanzo said. "We have a lot of guys who take it seriously. Guys are willing to give every inch of their soul for the team."

Guys such as C.J. Spillman, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant, Anthony Dixon, Bruce Miller and Colin Jones. But Costanzo is the special teams' leading tackler, and his hustle is as evident as the colorful, NBA socks he wears daily.

A New Jersey native, he went undrafted out of Lafayette College in 2006. But he latched onto the New York Jets, headed to NFL Europe's Rhein Fire and then the Buffalo Bills. He blossomed the previous two seasons with the Browns under Seely, who's otherwise called "Blake's dad," as Spillman quipped.

"If I was a fan of football, I'd be a fan of Blake Costanzo," Seely said.

Andy Lee, punter

By setting an NFL record with a net average of 44.0 yards per punt, Lee earned a Pro Bowl invitation and first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors. His right leg has been a bona fide weapon as the 49ers have ruled the field-position battle.

But don't forget about his hands. Since 2007, no 49er other than Lee has attempted a punt or served as holder on a field-goal attempt or point-after kick. That amounts to the football hitting his hands 756 times.

"Andy's so much fun to work with because he has great hands and is an athletic guy," Jennings said.

Lee also was a superstitious guy until this season. While he's opted to rely more on his religious faith, he also has welcomed astute guidance from Seely and a growing familiarity with Jennings, who knows exactly what side of Lee's body to deliver a snap when the 49ers opt for directional punting.

David Akers, kicker

A year ago on the playoff stage, Akers inadvertently began his cross-country journey from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Akers missed two field goals in the Eagles' 21-16 wild-card loss to the Green Bay Packers, spelling the end of his 12-year tenure in Philly.

The 49ers needed a replacement for retiring kicker Joe Nedney, and Akers wrestled with the decision to move his family from South Jersey to a rental house in Pleasanton. But Akers liked the 49ers' alluring presence of Harbaugh, Seely, Jennings, Lee and even Alex Smith, whose uncle, John L. Smith, coached at Akers' alma mater, the University of Louisville.

His finances ruined by a Ponzi scheme -- Akers testified about that to a Texas grand jury during training camp -- he signed a three-year contract and became the 49ers' biggest offseason acquisition. Their offense sputtered enough times for Akers to set NFL records by a kicker with 166 points and 44 field goals in 52 attempts.

"We wanted the best guy," Harbaugh said of courting Akers last summer. "That was our first guy that we wanted to talk to, and I know he had other options."

Ted Ginn Jr., returner/wide receiver

Before the season, Ginn took a pay cut. His salary reportedly got slashed from $2.2 million to $1 million. He responded in valiant fashion, clinching the season-opening win over Seattle with two fourth-quarter returns for touchdowns.

No one before in 49ers history had returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns in the same game, much less in the same minute. Ginn pulled off that feat with a 102-kickoff return and 55-yard punt return.
Not bad for a guy who hadn't won the kickoff-return job over rookie Kendall Hunter until the eve of the opener.

Ginn didn't take back any of his other 28 kickoff returns for a touchdown this regular season. But his average of 27.6 yards per return ranked third in the NFL behind the New York Jets' Joe McKnight (31.6 yards) and the Green Bay Packers' Randall Cobb (27.7).

Aside from kickoffs, Ginn also proved clutch on punt returns, but not only because of the league's fourth-best average of 12.3 yards per return. Ginn has not fumbled this season, not on any kickoff returns, punt returns or his 19 receptions.

Mark Tauscher thanks fans

Monday, January 09, 2012

Marshal Yanda named to SI's All-Pro team

My All-Pro team. As promised, here's the All-Pro team I filed to the Associated Press last Monday, the day after the regular season ended:

Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Victor Cruz, New York Giants. Very tough to leave off Wes Welker, who won the receptions crown by 22 catches, but Cruz was just so dominant late in the year.

Offensive line: LT, Joe Thomas, Cleveland. LG, Carl Nicks, New Orleans. C, Scott Wells, Green Bay. RG, Marshal Yanda, Baltimore. RT, Eric Winston, Houston. Brian Waters of New England was close at guard, but I love the year Yanda had, and how he played so well in pain late.

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, New England. As great as Jimmy Graham was this year, Gronkowski's one of the best all-around tight ends to come into the league in decades.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. Stunning that Rodgers got 47.5 of the 50 votes, as good as Drew Brees has been.

Running back: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville. When your foes know you're the only even remote offensive threat on the team, and you win the rushing title by 242 yards, that's impressive. (I'm supposed to name two backs, which I never do. The AP wants two, and I've explained for years if you have two backs and two receivers, how fair is that?

Fullback: Vonta Leach, Baltimore. A human anvil.

Defensive line: Jared Allen, Minnesota, and Justin Smith, San Francisco (ends); Haloti Ngata, Baltimore, and Sione Pouha, Jets (tackles). Smith played outside, or end, on four-fifths of the snaps he played this year, so I can't figure out why he'd be listed as a tackle.

Linebackers: Tamba Hali, Kansas City, and DeMarcus Ware, Dallas (outside); Derrick Johnson, Kansas City, and NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco (inside). So many good players here, and I feel terrible for not including Terrell Suggs, who could have placed at either end or OLB. He's ferocious. Hali and Ware were special too, especially the day Hali terrorized Rodgers in Green Bay's only loss of the year.

Secondary: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets, and Johnathan Joseph, Houston (corners); Eric Weddle, San Diego (free safety) and Kam Chancellor, Seattle (strong safety). Joseph was a big reason the Texans improved drastically, and Weddle became a premier roaming safety this season.

K: David Akers, San Francisco ... P: Andy Lee, San Francisco ... Return: Patrick Peterson, Arizona. Akers set the field-goal record. Lee had the highest gross plus net averages. Peterson had four return TDs.

MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. See last week's column for reason.

Off. player: Drew Brees, New Orleans. Not a copout. The best stat season ever by a quarterback deserves this.

Def. player: Justin Smith, San Francisco. Tape-watchers marvel how he never takes a play off. Watch how he caught Jeremy Maclin from 15 yards behind to clinch the Philly game in Week 3.
Off. rookie: Cam Newton, Carolina. Best season a rookie's ever had, I'd say.

Def. rookie: Von Miller, Denver. Slowed by bum thumb late. Edges Aldon Smith.

Coach: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco. Great candidates this year. Only one premier one.

Assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Houston. Took the 30th-ranked defense of 2010, lost Mario Williams early, and turned it into second-ranked D.

Comeback: D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Cleveland. Missed the last 26 games with two separate pectoral tears. This year, led the AFC in tackles.

Executive: Mike Brown, Cincinnati. Good draft netted long-term weaponry. Good trade raked Raiders over coals for Carson Palmer.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Marshal Yanda and the brutal, beautiful, violent game of football

By Kevin Van Valkenburg

January 5, 2012

We've spend a lot of time this year talking about how the NFL seems to be trying to tone down the brutality in football. For the most part, it their efforts seem less sincere and more like public relations, because the rules -- which Roger Goodell appears to make up as he goes along -- are enforced in such an arbitrary way, no one seems to know why some hits are deemed illegal while others are celebrated.

The truth is, football is brutality. It's stylized violence, and it's always been, whether it was Night Train Lane doing the hitting or James Harrison. And if you take that away, it stops being football, and it becomes something else. On many levels, that's OK. It's good for the game to continue to evolve, and maybe the things you love the most about football are exactly what Goodell, the NFL owners, and the major television networks, love promoting about the game: star quarterbacks and lots of scoring.

But what I love most about football is the way it tests some men. The way it asks them to mentally block out their pain -- pain that is usually a byproduct of all that brutality and stylized violence -- and continue on, typically out of loyalty or honor.

You were dazzled by Ray Rice's long touchdown runs against the Bengals? So was I. But deep down, there was someone on the field that day I admired even more. It was Marshal Yanda, who threw bulldozing blocks for Rice in that game, even though his ribs were so badly bruised it looked, and according to him felt, like he'd been kicked by a mule. Yanda, who injured his ribs the week before in a win over the Browns, was in so much pain during the week leading up to the Bengals game, he couldn't even bend to put on socks and shoes.

"I just wore sandals," Yanda said. "That way I could just slip them on and go."

Everyone outside the Ravens organization assumed there was no chance he was going to play. And if they had talked to Yanda on Wednesday or Thursday, they would have been correct. "Early in the week, I was in so much pain I was like 'There is no way I'm playing,' " Yanda said. "I was on some pretty heavy prescription drugs just to calm my ribs and legs down so I could sleep."

But having gotten to know Yanda a little bit over the last few years, I had my doubts he was going to be in street clothes when Sunday rolled around. Deciding you're not tough enough for the task at hand, and that you can't tolerate how much it hurts, just isn't in his blood.
It's the same thing that drove Terrell Suggs to play in the AFC Championship game three years ago with a dislocated shoulder, which to this day is one of the most impressive displays of guts and toughness I've ever witnessed. (He sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice with one arm.) Yanda and Suggs could scarcely be more different. But they have remarkably similar philosophies when it comes to football. It's a game of toughness, of honor, and of loyalty. Everything else is secondary.

For the most part, we've become a society of caution, of prudence, and of rationality. If you're employed by someone -- and most of us are, because as Bob Dylan said, you gotta serve somebody -- you might love your job. But it would still be extremely rare for you to feel so loyal to your coworkers, you'd come into work with broken ribs. Even your coworkers would consider that irrational behavior. Your job would have to be at stake.

Football is different though. Football is not part of the rational world. Yanda was going to be paid whether he played or not against the Bengals, but he did not wish to look his teammates in the eye and acknowledge he could not contribute when they needed him the most. As foolish as it may sound, that's what I love about the game. Not beautiful touchdown catches, or breath-taking runs. The moment when a man puts himself through hell because he cannot let his teammates down, or let the pain win.

Every time Yanda grimaced, or struggled to stand last week, he thought about what was at stake for the Ravens against the Bengals. A win meant a first round bye and a home playoff game. It meant a much more realistic path to the Super Bowl.

He didn't want to think about what a loss might mean.

"I wanted to be able to play, and be a part of that win," Yanda said. "I knew they needed me to win. So I just sucked it up and played."

On the fourth play of the game, his pain dulled by adrenaline, he locked up with Bengals linebacker Ray Maualuga on handoff to Rice. He bulldozed Maualuga backward with remarkable ease, and Rice dashed though the hole. He didn't stop running until he reached the end zone, 70 yards later.

"Malaluga ran right into me and I just mounted him up," Yanda said. "I could almost feel Ray behind me, and went I saw his legs going, I knew he was gone."

It was a beautiful block and a beautiful run, exactly what the Ravens envisioned when they signed Yanda to a big free agent contract during the off-season. But there was still a ton of football to be played. Yanda grimaced and growled his way through the rest of the game, and on Rice's second long touchdown run, he got slammed to the ground and landed on his side. He was in so much agony, he asked Matt Birk to fill in for him on the extra point. But he was back in the next series, helping close out the game.

"After the game, everybody was celebrating and wanting to give me a hug," Yanda said. "I was like 'Get away! I'm dying here.' "

There are little moments in every special season that loom large once they're in the rear view mirror. Maybe Marshal Yanda's decision to grit his teeth and stand with this teammates for one more fight in the regular season will seem irrelevant a few weeks from now. But maybe not. Maybe it was evidence this team cares enough about one another to fight like hell, block out the pain, and extend the journey for as long as possible.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

"There’s not a tougher player I’ve been around in 27 years of coaching”

January 1, 2012

From Aaron Wilson's "Suggs' big play helps Ravens hold on for win"

YANDA RETURNS: Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda played through a lot of pain, starting and playing the entire game despite bruised ribs that prevented him from practicing most of the week.

Yanda delivered the key block on running back Ray Rice’s 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, bashing into middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

“I’m hurting right now, but it’s all good because we won,” Yanda said. “That was the goal. That was the objective to play because they needed me. I played and we won and it don’t get no better than that.”

Yanda had trouble breathing normally as late as Friday and was listed as doubtful on the injury report.

Yanda indicated that his ribs aren’t cracked, but said, “My cartilage is loose from my rib bones. I fell on it again and hurt it again at the end. At that point, I was just going to fight through it.”

Yanda’s grit didn’t go unnoticed.

“It was a huge boost,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We thought there was a chance he would play, but wasn’t totally sure. There’s not a tougher player I’ve been around in 27 years of coaching.”

The first-round playoff bye is especially meaningful for injured players like Yanda to recuperate.

“That was the plan: to play and get the bye,” Yanda said. “It’s huge. Things are good in Baltimore right now.”

Tom Dienhart mentions Neil Cornrich

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Dawson Does it Again

January 1, 2012

From Don Delco's "Browns can't capitalize on Steelers' mistakes"

DAWSON DOES IT AGAIN: For the fourth time this season, all the points in one game were off the right foot of Phil Dawson.

Dawson kicked a 26-, 45- and 49-yarder in the swirling winds at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"Today was a really tough day," Dawson said. "The wind, the temperature, the wet and the field, it was the perfect storm. You have to either use (the weather) to your advantage or let it sink you. I had to make a decision several years ago to figure out how to make it my advantage and kick well here."

Dawson finished the season 24-for-29 on field goals, 20-for-20 on extra points and, most notably, 7-for-8 from more than 50 yards.

"I gave my heart and soul to this team this year," Dawson said. "I feel pretty good about it."

Entering this season, Dawson was given the Browns' franchise tag and he signed a one-year tender for about $3.25 million. He will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Eagles' Henery most accurate rookie kicker

January 2, 2012

By Reuben Frank

Five hours after his season ended, Alex Henery became the most accurate rookie placekicker in NFL history.

Henery, the Eagles’ rookie fourth-round pick, made two more field goals Sunday in the Eagles’ season-ending 34-10 win over the Redskins at the Linc.

After missing three of his first 11 kicks, Henery made his last 16 and finished the season with 24 field goals in 27 attempts (88.9 percent), which at the moment the Eagles’ season ended, tied Cowboys rookie Dan Bailey for the most accurate season ever by a rookie.

Because the Cowboys were scheduled to play Sunday night, all it would take for Bailey to lock up the all-time NFL rookie kicking accuracy record was one field goal against the Giants without a miss.

But Bailey missed his only attempt of the night -- a 51-yarder as the first half ended -- which dropped Bailey below Henery and gave Henery the title of most accurate rookie kicker in NFL history.

Bailey finished 32 for 37 (86.5 percent).

Henery, the all-time NCAA career accuracy record holder at 90 percent, also broke David Akers’ franchise record for field goal accuracy in a season. Akers held the record at 88.2 percent, set in 2002 (30 for 34).

“Dan’s a good friend of mine and Dave’s a great guy, and they’re both great kickers, so just being mentioned in the same breath as those guys is a great compliment,” Henery said. “Dave was here so long and was such a great kicker for so many years here, to break a record that he held, it’s just a cool feeling to finish off the season on a positive.”

Two of Henery’s misses came from inside 40 yards in a one-point loss to the 49ers. The other was a longshot 63-yarder against the Falcons. Without that Falcons attempt, Henery would have been in the 92-percent neighborhood and be finishing one of the 20 most-accurate seasons in NFL history.

After the 49ers game, Henery was perfect, going 16 for 16. If he makes his first field goal attempt of 2012, he’ll tie Akers’ franchise record for most consecutive field goals made.

“Definitely happy with how the season ended,” Henery said. “Getting over those first few misses was huge. It was just a matter of working on some technique things, and after the first few games, everything just slowed down for me, and I was able to get into a rhythm and get back to kicking the way I usually do.”

Phil Dawson "is more than the team's MVP"

Terry Pluto's postgame scribbles from Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns

January 2, 2012

By Terry Pluto, The Plain Dealer

After the game, Phil Dawson mentioned he wasn't sure if he'd be back. There are a lot of Browns who should wonder about their futures here, but not Dawson. As he said, "I really missed only one kick all year." So true, as the others were victimized by bad snaps or blocking breakdowns. He is more than the team's MVP, he has been the one good thing about the Browns since the day they returned in 1999. Others came and went, but Dawson kept kicking field goals through the swirling wind on the lakefront.

Rookie of the Year: Karl Klug

By Terry McCormack

January 3, 2012

There is still one game left on the Titans schedule, but since we are at the end of 2011 it’s not too early to go ahead and hand out team superlatives for this season.

As the Titans head into the New Year with at least some gasp of playoff life remaining, Mike Munchak’s first season as a head coach has to be deemed a success. Yes, there have been disappointments – losses to Jacksonville and Indianapolis, as well as coughing up a 10-point lead at home against Cincinnati.

If the Titans had won those three games they would have a one-game lead over the Texans headed into this week’s finale in Houston. A playoff spot would already have been secured.

As it is, the playoff scenarios will all be sorted out this weekend. Still, there is enough of a body of work to hand out various honors, as well as a few prizes for less-than-stellar work.

Most Valuable Player: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Yes, Hasselbeck’s play has been erratic, but his demeanor has not. Hasselbeck has solidified the quarterback position in a way that was desperately needed.

A quarterback has to be a leader, and Hasselbeck is one. Vince Young never was, and Kerry Collins wasn’t vocal enough as a part-time starter to really lead. Not only is Hasselbeck showing leadership, he is mentoring Jake Locker to eventually be the team leader as well. Runner-up: Receiver Nate Washington.

Offensive Player of the Year: Washington. No player has improved his game more than Washington this season. He has shattered his previous career high for receptions, becoming the first Titans player to catch 70 passes in a season since Derrick Mason and Drew Bennett both did it in 2004.
Washington also has a chance to become Tennessee’s first 1,000-yard receiver since that year as well, if he can pick up 69 more receiving yards in the finale at Houston. Runner-up: Receiver Kenny Britt. Britt was hurt three games in but, before that, was on his way to being dynamic as the go-to receiver.

Defensive Player of the Year: Cornerback Jason McCourty. He leads the team with 93 tackles, second on the team behind Jordan Babineaux, and is tied with Michael Griffin for the team lead in interceptions.. In fact, on Griffin’s interception Saturday against Jacksonville, came on a McCourty deflection. Runner-up: Linebacker Colin McCarthy. The fourth-round pick made an immediate impact and even earned Defensive Player of the Week in the AFC for his two forced fumbles and fumble recovery against Buffalo. Had he started all year, he would have won this award.

Rookie of the Year: DT Karl Klug. This is a tough call because of so many rookie contributions.
The Titans thought Klug would be part of their defensive end rotation. He instead he ended up being one of their best defensive tackles with a team-high seven sacks.
Not bad for a fifth-round draft choice. Runner-up: McCarthy. As stated earlier, McCarthy did extremely well after getting his shot, and looks to have solidified the middle linebacker spot for several years to come.

Special Teams Award: Kicker Rob Bironas, who was solid again this season, hitting 26 of 29 attempts thus far, including six of seven from beyond 50 yards. It’s somewhat hard to understand why he didn’t make the Pro Bowl. Runner-up: Cornerback Tommie Campbell. Yes, Campbell has had some bouts with immaturity and penalties, but other than the penalties in Indianapolis he has been solid as a gunner on special teams. His kickoff return against Tampa Bay was amazing.

Most Improved: Wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins. Coming in, “Hawk” had a whopping 19 catches over three seasons. He frustrated quarterbacks and offensive coordinators with his inability to run precise routes. But when Britt went down, Hawkins stepped in with 44 receptions as the third receiver. Runner-up: Tight end Jared Cook. Cook might have gotten the nod for this award if not for the fact that there were games where he completely disappeared, including Buffalo and New Orleans (no receptions).

Biggest Disappointment: Running back Chris Johnson. This should come as no surprise, given the expectations that came following a holdout and a $53 million extension. Johnson still needs 14 more yards to reach 1,000, quite a fall given that he had 2,006 just two years ago. Runner-up: Safety Michael Griffin. With Jerry Gray coming on board as defensive coordinator, and Griffin in a contract year, big things were expected from the free safety who has shown enough flashes to be a Pro Bowler three years ago. But it hasn’t happened. Griffin has been run over on tackles by Michael Turner and failed to break up a pass play for a big gain that cost the Titans in the opener against the Jaguars.

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