Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Punter Craig Hentrich is the longest tenured member of the Tennessee Titans, the only player besides recently returned defensive end Jevon Kearse to have played in Super Bowl XXXIV.
But even with 15 years in the NFL and 11 with the Titans franchise, Hentrich still enjoys trying to learn new ways to keep return men off balance and win the battle of field position.
This year, the Titans have already faced dangerous punt returners in Devin Hester of Chicago and Leon Washington of the New York Jets and managed to keep them in check.
Hester returned only two of eight Hentrich punts at Soldier Field on Nov. 9 for a 6.5 yards average, while Washington could return only two of five Hentrich kicks for just a 4-yard average.
This week, Hentrich and the Titans punt coverage team has another dangerous return man on the agenda in Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs, who many are touting as a Pro Bowl special teams player from the AFC.
So, it forces Hentrich to keep finding ways to keep those types of dangerous return men from breaking into the open field.
“These guys are so good nowadays you’ve got to find any way you can to keep it out of their hands. It’s just experimentation,” Hentrich said. “Cribbs and Hester and all these guys are so dangerous and can change the game so fast that you try any way to keep it out of their hands.”
Hentrich, of course, has his “knuckleball” punt that he has used for years — a kick that acts much like the baseball pitch in that it rotates only a couple of times, making it difficult for the return man to catch it.
This year, he has been doing more directional punting as well, and has downed 22 punts inside an opponent’s 20 yard line, after having just 24 all last year. He has had eight touchbacks and six other kicks go out of bounds. Against dangerous men, a fair catch would be a top goal, but nearly any punt that is not returned is a win for the punt team.
“That’s the first thought of any punter is to try to kick it high and cause a fair catch,” Hentrich said. “You get later on in the year when the ball gets heavy and doesn’t go that far, you’re happy with a 30 to 35-yard fair catch. That’s kind of the mindset we had going into Chicago, and that’s kind of the mindset we have going into this week.”
Safety Michael Griffin, one of the Titans’ gunners on punt coverage, appreciates the veteran savvy with which Hentrich operates.
“He makes my job a lot easier with great hang time and distance. He gives me a little bit more room to work against the people that are holding me up,” Griffin said. “With more hang time, it allows me more time to get down there. He’s been doing a great job just doing his job and giving the defense great field position.”
Hentrich also continues to work and develop different types of punts from different angles off his foot, and the possibility always exists that he would pull a something new from his bag of tricks.
“I don’t have a big bag, that’s for sure,” Hentrich said. “I just basically do what it takes to get the job done. You experiment with kicks, and it’s pretty dangerous doing that, because bad things can happen. But then again, if you punt to a guy, bad things can happen too. I don’t ask questions; I just do what I’m told.”
Special teams coach Alan Lowry said Hentrich has done a good job this season with the three elements needed to keep good return men at bay.
“He’s been working real hard on directional punting, and he’s done a good job with that, getting the ball on distance, direction and hang time all on the same punt,” Lowry said. “That’s the key is that you … don’t have a low hang time punt — even though it’s in a good direction, or he’ll have a chance to return it. He’s done a pretty good job with that. And then the other thing is what when we have punted middle, he’s done a good job with his hang time. He’s gotten the ball up high.”
Yes, but what of Hentrich’s penchant to continue to reinvent the punt like a crafty veteran pitcher would continue to experiment with different grips, arm angles and release points? It doesn’t seem to be something a lot of other punters even would attempt.
“They either don’t spend the time doing it or they don’t want to do it,” Lowry said. “He’s a really good athlete. There’s not one thing he can’t do, and so he’s just a really good athlete, and everything just kind of comes natural to him. He’s gets bored if he’s not doing something like that.”
INJURIES: The same three Titans players who sat out Wednesday’s practice were idle again on Thursday.
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was a spectator because of a sore hamstring for the second straight day. Fellow starting cornerback Nick Harper was also out of action because of a twisted left ankle he suffered in the Detroit game, though he returned to finish.
Backup quarterback Vince Young was also idle again on Thursday as his infected right thumb continues to heal.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher gave no assurances either way as to which of the three might practice on Friday.
READY TO RUMBLE: Finnegan sported a different name plate on his No. 31 jersey on Thursday.
Finnegan’s jersey said “PACQUAIO” after welterweight fighter Manny Pacquaio, who is scheduled to fight Oscar De La Hoya on Saturday night.
ROLLING: Bryan Pride, the ball of tape in the Titans’ locker room that has his own locker, name plate and weekly weigh-ins was listed at 122.4 pounds during his Thursday weigh-in.
“Bryan” was not on his Christmas tree stand, however, after Thursday’s practice. Instead he was behind the stool in front of his locker.
Asked why Bryan wasn’t on his stand, tackle David Stewart said, “He’s getting so heavy it’s hard for one person to pick him up.”
Browns at Titans
TV — WTVF Channel 5
What to watch for on offense: The Titans did not fare so well against the New York Jets’ 3-4 defense, but get another shot this week when the Cleveland Browns visit. Cleveland has Shaun Rogers in the middle of its line, and if center Kevin Mawae and guards Jake Scott and Eugene Amano can neuturalize him, it could create running room for Chris Johnson, who needs just 42 yards to reach 1,000 for the season.
What to watch for on defense: The Titans probably won’t blitz a lot, hoping their front four can do as they have much of the season and put pressure on the quarterbacks. The Titans would like to get Ken Dorsey, making his first start in three years, hurried and off balance and take advantage of his lack of arm strength by taking short seam throws away whenever possible.
Worth noting: The Titans can clinch the AFC South with a win Sunday and if it comes combined with a New York Jets loss in San Francisco, Tennessee would lock up a first-round bye for the first time since 2002.
Prediction: The Titans opened as 14 ½ -point favorites and there little reason to believe they won’t take care of their end of the bargain Sunday in wrapping up a playoff berth. Titans 31, Browns 10.