When linebacker Casey Matthews was an NFL rookie, he was thrust into the starting lineup at the start of Training Camp after a lockout-shortened offseason. It was a quick start to his career, to say the least.
This Sunday, the Titans have a player in a similar situation in rookie linebacker Avery Williamson, who enters the game with three sacks and two fumble recoveries. Williamson has started six of Tennessee's 10 games so far this year, and has looked increasingly comfortable in his starting role.
Matthews said Williamson probably has a better grasp of the Titans' defense than he did when he was a rookie, because Matthews missed the organized team activities in his rookie year.
"I'm sure he has a better knowledge of his defense than I did," Matthews said with a laugh.
But Matthews was still able to muse a little bit on what his experience was like during his rookie year, a starting linebacker in the NFL with little time to ease into the system.
Matthews said a big part of stepping into the linebacker role and having success as a young player is being as open as possible to learning from players around you. When Matthews joined the team in 2011, he had veteran defensive linemen Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins lining up in front of him on every snap. Matthews said those players taught him things about playing football at a professional level, and their performance - picking up a combined 16.5 sacks that year - made life easier for him.
Matthews is sure Williamson is experiencing the same thing this season, with the play of Tennessee's Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey as Williamson's version of Cole and Jenkins.
"I've noticed (Williamson)'s playing pretty well, and I've also noticed that he's got a really good group up front," Matthews said. "I watched them, a lot of good guys, a lot of former first-rounders. And Jurrell Casey's playing unbelievable football right now."
A 6-foot-1, 305-pound end, Casey has had a good start to his fourth season with Tennessee, piling up four sacks and 44 tackles in 10 games so far this year.
Matthews, who finished with 37 tackles and a sack in his rookie year, said he also simply learned how to play the position better as the season rolled along, picking up information from the players around him and settling into the system. Williamson has clearly progressed with three sacks in the past three games.
"From my rookie season, other than the knowledge you gain over my four years with the defense - you get more comfortable, especially with all the reps you take," Matthews said. "As the season (goes on) you get more comfortable, things slow down and you're able to go out there and make some plays."