2014 Preview: Tennessee Titans
If the Tennessee Titans’ 2014 season is anything like their 2013, their fans are in for a long and frustrating year. The first four games showed great promise as Tennessee went 3-1 with their only loss coming in overtime. But in the fourth game, Jake Locker went down with a hip injury and with him came the season. The Titans only won four of their remaining 12 games, and those wins were against teams who had a combined record of 17-47.
That spelled the end of the Mike Munchak era and General Manager Ruston Webster hired former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as the new head coach and began changing the look of the team. Gone are notable Titans like Chris Johnson, Kenny Britt, Alterraun Verner and David Stewart. In their place, players like Michael Oher, Dexter McCluster and Wesley Woodyard. Webster and Titans fans hope that these changes can get the team back on track, and hopefully earn their first playoff berth since 2008.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Healthy Jake Locker
It’s no secret that the Titans will go where Jake Locker goes. Last season Locker had a grade of +8.1 after four games, good for sixth among the league’s quarterbacks. After his injury his play took a significant drop, until his season was ended after Week 10. While it was a small number of games, there were some good signs for Locker’s future development; finishing 2012 with a grade of -9.7 on plays under pressure, that moved to -0.7 in 2013, with only 24 fewer drop-backs. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason Locker shouldn’t continue to improve his game. It’s also widely known that this season is Locker’s last chance to prove that he’s the Titans’ franchise quarterback. That motivation and throwing to the likes of Nate Washington, Kendall Wright and a very likely improved Justin Hunter should help.
2. Ken Whisenhunt’s Offense
Make no mistake — Whisenhunt was brought in for his offense. The Titans’ passing game was poor at best, so look for Whisenhunt to work to improve that immediately. Last season, he took a Chargers passing offense that graded at +9.4 in 2012 and turned them into one that graded +77.8 in 2013. What makes it even more exciting for the Titans is that the Chargers were that good in the passing game, despite a pass block grade of -33.4. This bodes well for a team with an offensive line that struggles protecting their QB. Let’s also not forget that he helped Philip Rivers’ bounce-back in overall grade from -1.4 to +28.1 in just one season, a good sign for a team that needs a big season out of their own QB.
3. Can Blocking Help the Running?
While the Titans had an extremely average running game in 2013, this was not reflective of their run blocking ability. The Titans had the fourth-best cumulative run-blocking grade in the league at +56.3, while having the 10th-worst rushing grade at +2.1. The left side of the offensive line was one of the biggest reasons for the blocking positive. In 2013, the Titans ran 200 runs to the left and 201 to the right. The result was 855 yards to the left and only 715 to the right. Left tackle Michael Roos and left guard Andy Levitre combined for a grade of +24.7, which was the fifth-best tackle-guard combo run block grade in the NFL. The Titans also had two of the Top 10 run-blocking tight ends in Craig Stevens (+9.2) and Delanie Walker (+5.4). If their running backs can take advantage of this blocking and turn it into a solid running game, they could have a big year.
4. Quarterback Pressure Machines
One thing the Titans did well last season that will likely carry over to 2013 is rush the quarterback. The front seven has remained untouched, save for the additions of Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips. With Ray Horton installing his versatile 3-4/multiple-front defense, look for him to allow players like Jurrell Casey, the league’s third-best pass-rushing defensive tackle (+27.1 pass rush grade, 9.2 Pass Rushing Productivity) and Derrick Morgan (+13.4 pass rush grade) to continue to get after the quarterback from different spots on the field, while also allowing the smaller Kamerion Wimbley to move back to his more natural outside rush linebacker position, where he has had success in the past.
5. “Return” to Greatness
One thing to really get excited about for the Titans season this year is their return game. Leon Washington will likely start the season as the primary kick returner. Last season he averaged 30.1 yards per return, 6.74 yards more than the average NFL kick returner. They also signed ‘offensive weapon’ Dexter McCluster, who will likely take over as the lead punt returner. With 12.1 yards per return, he’s a big upgrade over a Titans team that combined for only 7.7 yards per return last season. McCluster also scored two punt return touchdowns, which is two more than the Titans scored. When an offense only averages 29.3 yards per drive like the Titans, those extra five or six yards can make a huge difference.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Keeping Locker Healthy
While some of this falls on Locker’s ability to avoid bad collisions as well as just plain luck, the likelihood of an injury to the quarterback can be lowered by a strong pass-blocking offensive line. That’s something the Titans lacked last season (-36.9 grade), and seemingly made little effort to improve this offseason. Despite having only one offensive lineman with a positive pass-blocking grade in 2013 (Andy Levitre’s +1.4), the Titans brought in tackle Michael Oher and his career -27.3. With Oher (four-year contract) and Roos locked in to the starting tackle positions for the moment, the Titans then used the 11th overall pick on another tackle Taylor Lewan, who is known for his strong run blocking, not his pass blocking, but showed well in his first preseason action. The Titans will be hoping Lewan continues down that road and pushes Oher sooner than later.
2. Replacing Chris Johnson
For years Johnson has been hyped as one of the top backs in the league, but digging deeper shows that he has always been a weak link (-49.0 career grade) in a strong system. He was rarely one to make plays on his own, but rather relied on his line to make great holes and his pure speed to get that big explosion play. The only aspect the Titans will miss is the big-play ability that was one of the best in the league, as shown by his 39.8% career Breakaway Percentage. However, all that being said, thinking Shonn Greene is the solution is a questionable at best. Over his five-year career, Greene has amassed a -16.2 grade rushing and, with a 16.9% Breakaway Percentage, he will not even come close to matching Johnson’s big play ability. The Titans have to hope they’ve got something special in rookie running back Bishop Sankey, otherwise their run game is in for a tough season.
3. Inexperience in the Secondary
One of the few bright spots last season was the Titans’ surprisingly above-average secondary. However, after the loss of No. 1 corner Alterraun Verner, the Titans are left with little experience in the defensive backfield. New top corner Jason McCourty has rarely had a bad game, grading below -1.0 only nine times in 63 career outings. Besides him and slot corner Coty Sensabaugh, the three corners vying for the second spot have a combined 184 NFL snaps played. Michael Griffin has proven himself an up-and-down free safety with wild swings from year to year and never particularly strong in coverage, but if something happens to him, then the Titans must decide between a natural strong safety in George Wilson, or use Daimion Stafford, a sophomore with 13 snaps played last season.
4. Getting off the Field
At first glance, the Titans’ seventh-best 34.3% third down defensive conversion rate might seem like a bit of an outlier for a team that finished 7-9. However, looking at it closer shows a troubling trend that helps explain the below .500 season. It is true that their defense was very good on third down, however they only managed to force third down 201 times. The Titans faced 329 first downs throughout the season, meaning they only got to a third down attempt following 61% of opponent first downs (league average was 68%). With only 25 turnovers forced, even if all those were on first and second down it’s clear that the Titans have a problem forcing third downs. Stopping third down conversions is important, but it’s more important to actually force those conversion attempts. If the Titans don’t find a way to stop teams on first and second down, they’ll never be able to take advantage of their strong defensive third down conversion rate and get off the field.
5. Total Lack of Depth
The Titans have a fairly decent group of core starters around the board, but what is more troubling is their lack of anyone behind those starters that can replace them. The running backs not named Green and rookie Sankey have never been anything more than role runners. The most prolific backup receiver on the Titans is Brian Robiske. Three offensive linemen backups have never even played a snap of NFL football. The defensive front seven backups are full of journeymen and rookies. The secondary is inexperienced. All in all, the Titans’ depth chart shows only one backup to be rated above average. If this team loses starters to injury, they’re going to have a tough time replacing them.