You will probably need a scorecard to recognize the Tennessee Titans linebackers Saturday night against the Atlanta Falcons.
Even though the game is considered the preseason “dress rehearsal,” the Titans will be without two of their three starting linebackers for the season.
Akeem Ayers suffered an ankle injury last Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals, and indicated that the injury is a high ankle sprain, something that will at least sideline him for the Titans' final two preseason games.
The injury is serious enough that Ayers didn't say 100 percent certain that he would be ready to go for the season opener in Pittsburgh, though he indicated the ankle was feeling better.
“They haven't really told me anything yet, so I guess we're just really playing day by day to see how my ankle feels and how I'm progressing each week and just pretty much go from there really,” Ayers said. “It's a high ankle. It wasn't as bad as a few guys on our team, but everybody heals differently. So I don't think it's that bad. It's starting to feel better already, but I pretty much just need to take care of it right now and go from there.”
Ayers is being counted upon as a key cog in the Titans defense, playing strong side linebacker like has the past two years in the base defense, but playing rush end in the nickel package. In fact, it will take two players on the defense to replace him. Patrick Bailey will line up in the base package, while Kamerion Wimbley will take Ayers' spot in the nickel.
“I was just really getting a feel for my new role on defense. I was doing a lot of good things, as far as really rushing the passer,” Ayers said. “I was getting a feel for it, and it's stuff that I really wanted to get a chance to finish the preseason out with. It is what it is. The best I can do now is just get myself healthy and do the best I can to get on the field as soon as possible.”
Weak side linebacker Zach Brown is out this week as well with a bruised and sprained right foot.
“They said they're gonna hold me out because it's preseason and they don't want to lose somebody during preseason and not have them for the regular season,” Brown said. “It's a bunch of things, but I'll be all right.”
Greg Jones, just back off an ankle injury himself, Kadarron Anderson, Tim Shaw and Jonathan Willard could fill in for Brown this week.
Zaviar Gooden remains out with a high ankle sprain as well. He has been out for the entire preseason.
Meanwhile, Colin McCarthy returned to practice for the first time in three weeks on Thursday after battling a hamstring injury, though he only did scout team work. McCarthy won't play against the Falcons, but Coach Mike Munchak said he hopes to play McCarthy against Minnesota in week four.
“He won't play Saturday, but this way he'll be able to play Thursday night (vs. Vikings). He's feeling good about where he's at. We'll see how sore he is after today,” Munchak said. “We'll get through tomorrow and we're assuming he'll be able to play next Thursday night.
“It's been awhile since he's played. … We need to get him healthy, and he needs to go out on a field and prove to himself that he can get through a game without something else happening.”
That, however, still won't be enough for McCarthy to wrest the starting job back from Moise Fokou in time for the season opener.
“I think that'll be hard to say that he's gonna be out there with the first group on the first play. I think he'll definitely contribute, and he'll be in packages where he can go out there and play in nickel or something. He'll play, but I don't know if him playing a little bit in Minnesota will be enough for us to feel like he's ready to go out there and take over at the position,” Munchak said. “That's why we brought in Moise and that's why we drafted Gooden, because we have had trouble staying healthy. We needed to upgrade the position. We're not worrying about that. We just need him out there. Again, last year at this time, we thought he was the MVP of our defense. He was out leader, making plays. Then he got hurt in the opener, and it's kind of been rough since then.”