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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Safety Michael Griffin has a theory on why teammate Alterraun Verner has been a one-man turnover machine.
Maybe, just maybe the Titans ticked Verner off when they opened up his cornerback job for competition this offseason.
It's Verner's job for sure now, and he's leading the NFL with six takeaways all by himself. He's a big reason why the Titans (3-1) and undefeated Chiefs are tied for the best turnover margin in the league at plus-9 going into Sunday's game.
"He just has a knack of being around the ball, and he's always been a playmaker since a rookie," Griffin said. "He's just been playing great football. He's carrying the load right now, and the rest of us ... the entire secondary we got to start picking things up."
Turnover margin is one of the NFL's more important stats because a positive differential usually is a key to winning. A negative margin can be disastrous; Pittsburgh (0-4) is last in the NFL with a minus-11 turnover margin.
"You sure don't want to turn the ball over, and you want to accumulate as many as you can," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
The Titans have gone the first four games this season without a turnover, though they've come close to losing the ball more than once. They have tied the 1995 St. Louis Rams as the only team in the Super Bowl era without a turnover through four games. They have not had a winning record in a season when their turnover margin was below zero dating back to at least 1999.
Protecting the ball has become even more of a focus since a 34-12 loss to Chicago last November. The Bears forced five turnovers that game; the Titans were lucky that they held onto two of six fumbles.
"That kind of woke us up last year when that happened to us," Titans coach Mike Munchak. "We didn't think that could happen to us to fumble as many times as we did in one game. From that point on, it's been a mindset. On defense, it's been the opposite. You're working on it all the time."
The Titans certainly have, trying to make a habit of running to the ball and clawing to strip it out. Linebacker Akeem Ayers said it's becoming something that they do naturally as a defense.
"You look at the statistics of a defense, usually teams with the most turnovers at the end of the year are usually the team in the playoffs ... We're doing good at that right now. We want to get better."
Verner rotated with Tommie Campbell this preseason before finally being named the starter in his fourth season. The 5-foot-10, 186-pound cornerback came in with six career interceptions. Now he's tied for the league-lead with four interceptions after picking off two passes last week in a 38-13 rout of the Jets along with recovering a fumble.
"That's what competition does," Verner said. "It brings out the best in you because you have to be on top of your game."
Tennessee finished that win over the Jets with a season's best four turnovers, and Karl Klug recovered a fumble for a touchdown. Safety Bernard Pollard is the only other player with an interception, but the Titans have been very effective at sending a message on defense, according to Chiefs receiver Dexter McCluster.
"They're going to hit you ever single play, so all we can do is go out there and bring it at them," McCluster said.
The Chiefs are tied for third in the league with 12 takeaways. But they had their first three turnovers last week in beating the New York Giants 31-7, and Alex Smith said ball security is going to be a big emphasis against the Titans.
"They play physical, a physical defense you can see it shows up on tape," Smith said. "They challenge you outside, they challenge you up front. They play fast. They're a good unit. Not necessarily a household name on the unit, but they're playing really well."
Notes: RB Shonn Greene (right knee) and DT Sammie Hill (right ankle) missed practice again, and Munchak said it will be hard for either to play Sunday. ... DE Ropati Pitoitua (shoulder) and RT David Stewart (right leg) missed a second practice each but are expected to be on the field Friday. DB Blidi Wreh-Wilson (hamstring) also missed practice. WR Kenny Britt (neck/ribs) practiced fully for a second straight day along with LB Patrick Bailey (hamstring).
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org