Despite the distraction of a lockout-shortened offseason and a lengthy holdout from his superstar running back, first year head coach, Mike Munchak, organized an encouraging season for the 2011 Tennessee Titans. The season began with turmoil, ended with a playoff run that fell just short, and was filled with mediocrity throughout. The 2011 Titans played nine games that were decided by a touchdown or less; going 5-4 in those games. Overall, 2011 will be remembered as a season of new beginnings for the Titans. From the hiring of Muchak, to the drafting of Jake Locker, the Titans have turned the page from the Jeff Fisher era and look to build on the foundation laid in 2011.
Many believe that the 2012 Titans are once again going to be an average football team and finish in the middle of the pack in the AFC. An offseason highlighted by a flirting session with Peyton Manning and watching their best defensive player leave via free agency didn’t help, but there were some subtle upgrades. Ultimately, the development of Locker and Chris Johnson’s return to form has brought optimism and excitement back to this team.
Will they take another step forward and qualify for the postseason? Will they take a step back and finish below .500?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Dominant Defensive Line
The Titans defensive line has a chance to be a dominating group especially on the interior. The defensive tackle position has depth and contains players that truly compliment the playing style of the others. Second-year pros Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey will try to build on very impressive 2011 campaigns. Klug finished the season with an impressive (+7.3) overall grade and Casey an even more impressive (+14.0). If these two players can take another step in development they will be forces in the middle of the Titans defense in 2012. To do so they will need some help from the defensive ends who are loaded with talent. Derrick Morgan needs to live up to his first round selection and free agent pick up Kamerion Wimbley needs to be more consistent, but if they can play to full potential this can be a devastating group.
2) The Return of CJ2K?
Chris Johnson was average at best in 2011 and a return to superstar form is expected for the upcoming season. Johnson never seemed to get going after his holdout last year despite offensive coordinator Chris Palmer trying creative ways to get Johnson the ball. There is little doubt that a distraction-free offseason and full year in Munchak’s system will lead to better results in 2012. Munchak being an old offensive line coach would love nothing more than to lean on Johnson and his line to grind out victories. Johnson rushed for more than 100 yards only four times last year, coincidentally the Titans were 4-0 in those games. There will once again be a direct correlation between Johnson’s success and the Titans’ in 2012.
3) Protecting Your Assets
The Titans have a top notch offensive line, especially when it comes to pass protection. The entire starting offensive line graded out in the positive when it comes to pass protection, including right tackle David Stewart who led the entire offense with an overall grade of (+14.7) and a pass block grade of (+16.5). With a young quarterback, time and comfort in the pocket is essential and the Titans will provide Locker with plenty of time to make the right decisions. Newcomer Steve Hutchinson, takes over at left guard for Jake Scott who won’t return after a very solid 2011. An early August season-ending injury to center Eugene Amano will force the Titans to start a new center but the veteran presence along the line should help them overcome the injury and be just as solid as last year.
4) Truly Special Teams
The Titans feature one of the best kicker/punter combinations in the entire league. Rob Bironas has one of the strongest legs in the league and has become extremely consistent. Punter Brett Kern had a very strong 2011, finishing with 31 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and can help to flip field position and impact games. Losing return man Marc Mariani to a gruesome leg injury will hurt the return units but special teams still looks to be a positive for the 2012 Titans. The hidden yardage that special teams can provide will help give Locker and the offense some short fields to build some confidence.
5) Unlocking Locker
The Titans have turned over the offense to second year man Jake Locker. Ever since he was drafted eighth overall in the 2011draft, Locker was dubbed the Titans quarterback of the future. The future starts now for Locker and the Titans and his upside is endless. His athleticism and strong arm will provide the Titans with a chance to score on any play. With Locker, Chris Johnson and 2012 first round pick, Kendall Wright, the Titans have the potential to be one of the most explosive offenses in the league for years to come. His athletic ability aside, it was Locker’s grasp of the offense and playbook that essentially allowed him to win the starting job. The Titans are hopeful that the emergence of Locker will force defenses out of eight-man fronts and open more running lanes for Johnson. Locker is a rare athlete who will need to work on his accuracy to become an elite quarterback. He tends to hold the ball too long and can be indecisive at times. If he can improve his flaws and get better each week by the end of 2012 he can be on his way to a great career.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Next Man Up in Secondary
In 2011, Cortland Finnegan was the only Titan that made the PFF Top 101, ranking 44th overall with a total grade of (+15.8). He parlayed his success into a large payday in free agency joining old head coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. What he left behind is a secondary with a lot of promise, but they will all be asked to take a step up this season and fill Finnegan’s shoes. Alterraun Verner (+8.3) and Jason McCourty (+10.0) both had stellar seasons but how they will handle life without Finnegan will be key. The Titans used the franchise tag on safety Michael Griffin with hopes he will take a step forward in development and become the star of the back seven.
2) Pass Rush Anyone?
The Titans had one of the worst pass rushes in the league last year, and with the loss of Finnegan, this will need to improve in 2012. Morgan, who was drafted to wreak havoc on quarterbacks, has been slowed by injuries and finished last season with a pass rush grade of (-8.5). Defensive end Jason Jones also left via free agency but they replaced him with the former Oakland Raider Wimbley who can single-handily bring heat. Wimbley was very impressive in 2011 with a (+24.4) overall and (+16.3) pass rush grade. If he can duplicate those numbers he can help free up Morgan on the other side and provide the Titans with a nice 1-2 punch. If not, quarterbacks will have all day to pick apart the Titans’ defensive backs.
3)Britt-le Body and Mind
Kenny Britt continues to be an enigma at wide receiver for the Titans. He has all of the physical tools that coaches dream of, but injuries and off the field issues hamper the talented young wide out. Even if Britt can overcome a brutal knee injury that shortened his 2011 season, he may still have to deal with a suspension from off the field legal issues. Britt is going to have to decide soon whether or not he wants to be a stud receiver for Jake Locker for the next 10 years or if he will allow distractions to prevent him from ever reaching his full potential. Without Britt, the Titans will rely on veteran Nate Washington and rookie speedster Kendall Wright to carry the receiving corps, will that be enough?
4) Center of Attention
Many would argue that after left tackle, the center is the most important player on an offensive line. Losing four year starter Eugene Amano with an early August injury will take him out of the competition to be the Titans center once again. Three-year pro Fernando Velasco is expected to win the job this year and his signal calling and play recognition will be pivotal for an offense that will feature a young quarterback and rookie wide receiver. As solid as the offensive line was pass blocking last season, they did struggle to open lanes for Johnson to run. With some changes up front there is concern Johnson may have to do a lot on his own again.
5) Youth Movement
The Titans have gone to younger players with tremendous upside at a lot of key positions this year. There are certain to be growing pains this season that could cost the Titans a game or two. How these players, especially Locker, respond will be what determines if 2012 is a success or not. Locker is the headliner but players like Wright, Velasco, Morgan, McCourty and Griffin will be instrumental in 2012 and the immediate future for this franchise. Can Munchak and his staff develop these youngsters into Pro Bowl caliber players and bring the Titans to the next level?
What To Expect
While the Texans are the clear favorite the rest of the division is vulnerable and the Titans figure to be playing meaningful games deep into the winter. The young key players are a year older and they sprinkled in some veterans in key places. How the young head coach and players develop will be what determines whether 2012 will be another season toiling around .500 or one that ends in an AFC South championship.