Tennessee Titans 2013 Season Preview
By Jim Brighters, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - This time last year, the Tennessee Titans had all the reason in the world to brim with optimism.
They came off a 9-7 campaign that saw them flirt with a playoff berth.
It took only 12 months to hit the skids.
Chris Johnson, once a 2000-yard rusher, only managed 1,243 yards and anchored the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL.
Jake Locker was named the Titans starting quarterback before last season and only made it through 11 games. He managed 14 touchdown throws, 11 interceptions and 197.8 yards per game.
But, Locker supplanted Matt Hasselbeck and is Music City's man. For better or worse, Locker, the eighth pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, will be the guy in charge of the Titans offense on the field.
Off of it, that charge now belongs to Dowell Loggains, who was named offensive coordinator early last season. His intention is to re-establish Johnson as a force in the league, but steps were taken to make the run game more formidable.
Shonn Greene was signed as a free agent after a disappointing campaign as the New York Jets starting running back. As a change-of-pace, full-steam-ahead masher, Greene will lighten the load a bit on Johnson. Although Johnson was not a huge fan of the signing.
"I have never been a big fan of the two-back system, so I don't know how we plan on using him," Johnson told The Tennessean. "I'm not afraid of competition, but I was thinking we'd maybe get a draft pick for the other back. And you don't give a guy that kind of money to be just a goal-line guy and in tough-yardage situations. So we'll see what happens."
Insurance is a good thing, especially considering the recent woes of both Johnson and Locker. Ryan Fitzpatrick, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, inked a free-agent deal to back up Locker. It's completely believable that if Locker struggles (also, completely believable), Fitzpatrick will see the field.
To help the stagnant running game, the Titans signed free-agent guard Andy Levitre of the Buffalo Bills. He got real solid money and the team fortified its other guard spot with first-round draft pick Chance Warmack. The 10th choice in the draft is best described as massive, and he along with free-agent center Rob Turner finish the remake of the interior of what should be a pretty solid line.
If offense was the only problem for the Titans, everything would be solved.
The Titans defense was horrendous last season, however, finishing 27th in the league in yards allowed. They allowed a franchise-worst 471 points, which, of course, was dead-last in the NFL.
Perhaps the most important offseason acquisition on that side of the ball was special assistant, Gregg Williams. The disgraced former coordinator of the New Orleans Saints was hired to help this struggling unit.
It hasn't worked thus far in the preseason.
The defense, which added safeties Bernard Pollard from the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, and George Wilson of the Bills, has missed tackles and allowed long drives.
"We couldn't find a way to make a play," head coach Mike Munchak said after a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the second week of the preseason. "We got them in some third and longs, but to their credit, they converted and kept drives going and so that was disappointing to watch."
It's that simple - the defense has been disappointing and the offense needs to improve significantly.
2012 RECORD: 6-10 (3rd, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Baltimore Ravens in divisional round
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike Munchak (15-17 in two seasons with Titans)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dowell Loggains (sixth season with Titans, first as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jerry Gray (third season with Titans)
KEY ADDITIONS: G Andy Levitre (from Bills), C Rob Turner (from Bears), RB Shonn Greene (from Jets), QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (from Bills), WR Kevin Walter (from Texans), S George Wilson (from Bills), S Bernard Pollard (from Ravens), TE Delanie Walter (from 49ers), LB Moise Fokou (from Colts), DE Ropati Pitoitua (from Chiefs), DL Sammie Hill (from Lions), G Chance Warmack (draft), WR Justin Hunter (draft)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Matt Hasselbeck (released), G Steve Hutchinson (retired), TE Jared Cook, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, LB Will Witherspoon, DE Jarius Wynn
QB: Locker is never going to be confused with Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. He's probably not Kevin Kolb either, so all Locker needs to do is manage the game.
That's a phrase you often hear about average quarterbacks, especially ones with good weapons. If Locker can get the ball to said weapons, he might just be alright. Through two preseason games, he had completed 61 percent of his passes.
If Locker completes 61 percent of his passes this season, Titans fans should rejoice. Although, he needs to thrown some touchdown scores, and, while that's not all on him this preseason (his receivers have dropped catchable balls), Tennessee has to put points on the board when in close.
"We are finding ways to get down there to have opportunities to score points," Locker said after the Bengals loss in Week 2 of the preseason. "We have to find ways to score touchdowns when we get down there because, as you know, it can change the momentum of the game when you score seven instead of three."
Fitzpatrick should prove to be a very capable backup. He has three straight 3,000 yard passing seasons and threw at least 23 touchdown passes in each.
RB: Johnson was elite with the emphasis on "was." In 2009, he rushed for 2,006 yards and in the three years since, Johnson's best season was 1,364 yards in 2010.
If you're searching for an explanation as to why Johnson has tailed off, he's 27. While that's not old for a running back, or a human being, it's not exactly young for an elite NFL RB and Johnson has been remarkably durable which means there is plenty of mileage on his legs. He's missed just one game in his five-year career and averaged 290 carries a season.
The backup plan was a brilliant one, despite Johnson's incredible endurance. Greene was a disaster as a every-down back with the Jets, but as a bench back, he's sensational, averaging over 4.0 ypc.
"We want someone we felt was established, that we knew we could count on, that had carried the load that we needed him to," Munchak said of Greene. " We wanted to make sure we had a back that could do both things, could get us 10 or 12 carries a game, could run five times a game, could run 25 times. We thought he fit that mold. He knows how to handle that mental toughness of moving the chains and we need that."
WR: Nate Washington and Kenny Britt are the expected starters and Britt had a great offseason. He didn't get in any trouble.
However, Britt, and all of the receivers, had some dropping issues in the second week of the preseason and when your quarterback can be shaky, the pass- catchers need to catch passes.
"All of the receivers do, that is something they work on every day," Munchak said. "It's frustrating again when we have an opportunity to make plays and we aren't making those kinds of plays."
Kendall Wright had become a favorite target of Locker, but he went down with a sprained right knee. It was feared to be a torn ACL, but it's just a sprain and Wright is supposed to be back in time for the season.
In Wright's absence, Damian Williams will line up in the slot. Kevin Walter was signed as a free agent from the Houston Texans, although he'll begin the season on the PUP list.
This is a pretty solid group for young Mr. Locker.
TE: Delanie Walker was brought in to replace Jared Cook, who bolted to the St. Louis Rams for a big-money contract. Walker did an admirable job spelling Vernon Davis in San Francisco last season, but his Titans tenure started later than expected. After arthroscopic knee surgery, Walker began training camp on the PUP list. He was activated on Aug. 19 and should be fine for the season- opener.
OL: This group underwent perhaps the most radical overhaul on the team. The three interior spots will be filled by new personnel and they're all playing very well in the preseason.
Levitre was a steep signing, but worth it. He was maybe the best offensive guard on the market and should be able to run-block effectively enough with the new focus on running.
Warmack is an animal in a football jersey and could become an elite guard quickly.
Rob Turner has suddenly emerged as the starting center. Rookie Brian Schwenke got hurt and Turner's nastiness has allowed him to become the front-runner to hike the football.
"When we started looking at the free agents, that's one of the first guys Bruce (Matthews, offensive line coach) came to," said Munchak, who, like Matthews, is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman. "He thought that he brought, to me, what we were looking for, a tough guy down by the pile, good leader, been in the league a while."
Tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart are both solid.
DL: This is another improved group for Tennessee with the additions of defensive tackle Sammie Hill and Ropati Pitoitua. The common denominator among the pair is that they are massive, massive human beings. That coincided with Munchak's goal of beefing up the line.
In the all important Week 3 of the preseason against the Atlanta Falcons, the line tallied six sacks, including five of starter Matt Ryan. The first unit allowed only six points against the Falcons first-teamers.
"We had an emphasis going into this game to get after the quarterback and disrupt the passer and give us a chance," said defensive end Derrick Morgan. "We know Atlanta has a really explosive offense. The secondary gave us a chance to get back there and gave us time to get back there and disrupt it."
This is a very strong group.
LB: Free-agent signing Moise Fokou supplanted Colin McCarthy at one of the linebacker spots. Second-year inside backer Zach Brown could be ready for a big sophomore season and Akeem Ayers, who, like Brown, is a little nicked up before the campaign begins in earnest.
"You think they're going to be back and we think they will be, but it is concerning," acknowledged Munchak.
If everything evolves as expected, the Titans linebackers could be very good.
DB: The Pollard and Wilson signings were huge, especially Pollard, who came off a Super Bowl victory. He will start at strong safety and Michael Griffin slides to his natural position at the free safety spot.
Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are the starting corners, and while neither is a household name, they are more than capable.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rob Bironas has been one of the game's best kickers over the last eight years. He ranks second in scoring in franchise history and was re- signed in the offseason. Bironas struggled in first two preseason games, but bounced back with two made field-goals against the Falcons, including a 53- yarder.
Brett Kern will handle punting duties. He's a capable veteran.
Marc Mariani made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010, then got hurt last season. He was on the mend until a shoulder injury has now put his spot on the roster in peril. Darius Reynaud filled in for Mariani last year and returned two punts and a kickoff for a touchdown.
COACHING: Pop quiz, hotshot. Who is the only current NFL head coach enshrined in the Hall of Fame?
That would be Mike Munchak. He's not in Canton for wearing a headset, rather as a 10-time All-Pro, but that commands a certain level of respect among your players.
Munchak owns a 15-17 career record as leader of the Titans and before that, he was an offensive assistant/quality control coach and the offensive line coach for 14 seasons.
That could explain why the Titans are so invested in becoming one of the league's best running teams again and why they rebolstered the interior of the offensive line.
Munchak probably won't be confused with Don Shula or Bill Walsh, but he is a capable man. He's probably on the hot seat to some extent, so it's an important season.
THE SKINNY: The Titans are in purgatory.
They are talented, but in no way a 13-3 type of talented team.
And, Tennessee has flaws, but not 3-13 type of flaws.
The AFC South is a pretty tough division with the Houston Texans still at the top and the Indianapolis Colts making the playoffs in Andrew Luck's rookie campaign.
Another season around .500 is very possible and being on the fringe of the postseason should be expected.
Ultimately, it all rests on Locker.
08/30 09:30:55 ET