Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck suffered a torn ACL in his left knee, ending his season and quite possibly his career with the team.
Bulluck, who had started 127 consecutive games at outside linebacker, suffered the injury when his left knee buckled on a running play in the third quarter of Sunday's 27-24 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins. Bulluck is a free agent at season's end and the Titans have not made any overtures toward extending the 10-year veteran's deal.
Bulluck isn't the only Titan going under the knife either, as fellow linebacker David Thornton will have surgery either Wednesday or Thursday to repair a pectoral muscle.
“Keith has kind of been a cornerstone of our defense. He’s been there for so many years,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Monday. “You can speak about the number of starts and the production. He’s gone from being AFC Defensive Player of the Week [last week vs. St. Louis]to obviously now being out for the season. It’s a blow, but we’ll plug people in and we’ll go on. That’s all we can do.”
In for Bulluck and Thornton are Gerald McRath, who has made three starts in Thornton’s place including Sunday against Miami, and Colin Allred, who has been mostly a special teams player in his three seasons in Tennessee.
“They’re both devastating losses to our defense. David was playing very well this year when he was able to play,” Fisher said. “I was pleased with the production from Gerald specifically, and also how Colin came in off the bench and got lined up and made plays.”
To help fill the gap, the team late Monday signed former Vanderbilt linebacker Jamie Winborn to a two-year contract.
"I'm super excited to be on a football team again," said the 30-year-old Winborn. "I know a lot of guys on this team already and I'm happy to be on the team."
Winborn has played for six NFL teams since being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 2001. He briefly was on the Houston Texans roster before being waived in October.
As for Bulluck’s future, Fisher said it is far too early to speculate what might happen to the veteran linebacker whose contract is up in March with no new negotiations on an extension having taken place yet.
“I don’t think I’m ready to discuss his future here, his contract, how it affects things. Those are things that will get worked out I think,” Fisher said. “I think the thing we’ll address here at the moment is the loss and what he’s done for us up to this point and also emphasize that when you lose a player in the starting lineup, younger players have to step up and play, and that’s what we’re expecting to have happen.”
Bulluck said via his Twitter account feed on Monday that he doesn’t want his career to end with the injury. His message said, “y'’all heard the news torn ACL...after 127 str8 games u already kno I ain't go'n out like this. My spirits r gr8 thx 4 the luv.”
Event though the Titans will turn to McRath and Allred beginning with a short week against the Chargers, roster moves are needed just to replenish the depth at linebacker. Mike Rivera, who has been on the practice squad all season, is an option. Also, former Titan Josh Stamer, who was let go in final cuts, is available after being waived by the Cleveland Browns last month.
The Titans defense struggled after Bulluck left, giving up 18 unanswered points to the Dolphins before pulling out the victory in overtime. Christmas night against the San Diego Chargers, who have won nine in a row, is an even bigger challenge for the suddenly depleted Titans. San Diego’s high-powered offense features quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates and running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles.
On a short week against a powerful offense, the learning curve is steep for the linebackers, who will now be fronted by fourth-year man Stephen Tulloch, who inherits the defensive signal calling and nickel and dime packages from Bulluck.
“We’re gonna expect them to know the defense,” Fisher said. “Our opponent is quite capable of scoring touchdowns and throwing the ball through the air, so we’re gonna have to do things to give us the best chance of stopping them. We can’t simplify things and have a chance to win.”