Nine years ago on Christmas night, then-rookie linebacker Keith Bulluck first made his presence known to Tennessee Titans fans, returning an interception eight yards for a touchdown in a blowout of the Dallas Cowboys.
When Christmas rolls around this Friday, Bulluck will instead be conspicuous by his absence from the Titans lineup when they take on the San Diego Chargers. The 10-year veteran’s 127-game consecutive starts streak will come to an end, thanks to a torn ACL in his left knee last Sunday against Miami.
Bulluck and fellow linebacker David Thornton, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, will both be out, and a page will be turned for the Titans, who will have rookie Gerald McRath, making his fourth start, and Colin Allred, a second-year man making his first NFL start.
The two youngsters know what is at stake, as they will have to help slow the high-powered Chargers, winners of nine a row, in order to keep the Titans’ flickering playoff hopes aflame for perhaps another week.
That, in itself, is enough. But having to step in for Bulluck ups the ante even more.
“Keith Bulluck is Mr. Titan. He’s been here for 10 years and we all look up to him, especially the linebackers,” Allred said. “I definitely think we need to win one for Keith and at least play well for Keith.
“I’m really excited, but it’s bittersweet, to be honest with you. It really is. I didn’t want to see Keith go down. It’s kind of like replacing your big brother or your mentor. Somebody shows you the ropes, and one day you have to walk in for them, it’s kind of tough. But I’m excited about it and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”
McRath, who has made three starts in Thornton’s spot this season, said he has made it a point from the outset not to be the weak link when he is on the field, and hopes to continue that.
“I just want to take advantage of the opportunity I’ve been presented. I really want to pull my weight,” McRath said. “It’s something I’ve believed in since I’ve gotten here from day one, and I just want to be sure that I’m prepared and ready to make the plays that come my way.”
Not only are Allred and McRath having to add to their responsibilities, but so is middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who inherits the nickel linebacker role, and calling the defensive signals with the radio transmitter device in his helmet.
Tulloch, in his fourth season from North Carolina State, is ready to accept the additional workload, and says he is ready to fill the void left by Bulluck.
“You don’t replace Keith. Keith is a phenomenal player, a guy I look up to and many of the guys in here look up to. You don’t try to replace him,” Tulloch said. “You just let the guys understand that you’ve got to move on, and you’ve got to get in your playbook even harder and go out there and execute your assignments.”
Of course, this trio won’t have the natural chemistry that came from Tulloch, Bulluck and Thornton working together the past couple of yeas, but Tulloch is confident his lesser experienced teammates can do what is necessary beginning Friday night.
“Chemistry is something you need at the linebacker position. Colin and McRath do a great job of preparing, and I’m ready to go to war with them on Friday,” Tulloch said. “This is a family here. We believe in one another and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Meeting that challenge, says McRath, should come naturally to anyone one that is a competitor on this level.
“I think it’s something that’s natural. It’s a natural instinct of anybody that wants to compete, of anybody that wants to step in and fill the shoes of somebody that’s been doing something for so long,” McRath said. “Anytime you have to fill in for something that has been going good, you feel that responsibility and that it’s up to you do keep that production going. You don’t want to be the one to let it hit the floor.”
Not stirring the pot
Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman still apparently has issues with the Titans from a couple of hits when the teams played in December 2007, and Merriman suffered a knee injury in that game.
After Merriman had put a hit on Vince Young who was carrying out a play fake, the Titans later executed a crack back block from tight end Ben Hartsock, and then Merriman was injured later and accused Titans offensive linemen Kevin Mawae and David Stewart of dirty hits on the play.
“I’m not too worried about what he’s going to be doing. I’ve got to worry about what our offensive line is doing. I’m not real worried about that,” Mawae said. “If you read the San Diego papers, he said we cut him too. We didn’t cut him. Country [Stewart] fell on top of him. He got hit standing up. You can take whatever you want out of that. I’m trying to stay away from it.”
Asked about the possibility of facing Merriman, who has not practice this week, again, the low-key Stewart said, “Just another day at the office.”