Titans-Falcons Recap: Is Locker the Key That Will Open the Door to the Playoffs?

Take the Steve Miller Band’s Advice: When you take the money, RUN!: Time to stop making excuses and pulling punches. Chris Johnson has been nothing short of god-awful this season. Yes, the offensive line has had issues with run-blocking, but it was an inconsistent run-blocking unit last season, too. Yes, he had a great game against the Panthers last week, but an old woman pushing a walker can get 100 yards against the Panthers’ defense. Yes, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer calls more pass plays than his predecessor, the late Mike Heimerdinger, but that doesn’t excuse amassing only 509 yards in 10 games. That goes beyond underperforming a big contract or having a down year – it’s playing bad football. Johnson received a $10 million signing bonus this offseason and has a $3 million salary this year. In other words, the Titans are paying him $6.5 million for each rushing touchdown he’s scored this year.

There’s no way to justify Johnson's performance. He lacks the initial burst that made him so dangerous the past few years. Johnson’s missing burst made him much easier to defend, because Falcons didn’t have to worry about him making cutbacks in lanes up the middle. Atlanta defended the flats heavily in the beginning of the game, eliminating outside runs and screen passes and completely shutting Johnson down and allowing the Falcons to seize a large lead. He’s been horrendous. The passing game has been better than expected, but the lack of a running game has set the Titans’ offense back tremendously.

Titans defense bends, but doesn’t break: Lost in the frustration of the Falcons’ lead was the way the Titans’ defense clamped down when the Falcons got downfield. The Titans’ defense made multiple crucial stops in the red zone, forcing the Falcons to kick three field goals.

Of course, the "bend-but-don’t-break" description sounds like it works, but letting the opponent get in field goal range still lets them get points. Eventually at some point in the game the defense can’t even afford to bend. That point came with 2:36 remaining in the fourth quarter today. The Titans had used the last of their timeouts and the Falcons were facing 3rd-and-6 at the Titans’ 49-yard line. Matt Ryan fired a 6-yard pass to Harry Douglas over the middle of the field, and was able to kneel to end the game. If the Titans had stopped the Falcons on that down, the clock would have stopped with the two-minute warning and the Titans would have gotten the ball back with just under two minutes left. The Titans’ zones had left the middle of the field open all day, and their three-man rush wasn’t cutting it on other third downs. On the most crucial down of the game, they went with what hadn’t worked all game long. Players can’t make plays if their coaches don’t call plays that put them in position to do so.

Domination of the Titans’ Rotation: The Titans’ improvement on the defensive line came largely through its rotation of players. Most crucial to that rotation where the Titans’ use of Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug at defensive tackle, because their skill sets differ so greatly. The Falcons’ no-huddle greatly exploited the personnel on the Titans’ defensive line and prevented the Titans from substituting into the right line personnel.

Locker is key that will open the door to the playoffs: With Chris Johnson being absolutely useless, a ton of pressure was on the passing game, and the offensive line was falling apart in pass protection as the game progressed. The line’s poor performance led to Matt Hasselbeck’s injury and Jake Locker’s first meaningful playing time. It sure was meaningful, too: Locker got the Titans’ offense moving again, and brought the team within one failed defensive stand of having a shot at winning. His ability to move the pocket with his legs gives him longer to get the pass off, and his accuracy when throwing on the run was my favorite trait about him coming into the draft.

If there’s anything the Titans’ starting quarterback will be doing frequently the next few games, it will be throwing on the run. The Falcons game was crucial for the Titans’ playoff hopes, and they’re probably going to have to win out to win the AFC South. They can’t afford to have another game derailed by bad pass protection, and while Locker may not be as complete of a passer as Hasselbeck yet, his ability to avoid sacks will give him more opportunities to pick up yards through the air.

Additionally, Locker’s presence will bolster the running game. He’s built to take hits and even deliver them, and he’s definitely quick enough to escape containment and pick up yards on the ground. As defenses have to shift to contain Locker’s running, it will open up space for the excuse for a running back formerly nicknamed CJ2K. These next few weeks, the Titans will be fighting for their playoff lives. And depending on the severity of Hasselbeck’s injury, they may also be getting a good look at what their new franchise quarterback is capable of doing.

Colin McCarthy is here to stay: He was extremely solid in the run game and should replace Barrett Ruud long-term. He was a large part of why the Titans’ defense was vulnerable to the passes in the middle of the field, though. Such growing pains are to be expected, and if he improves in pass coverage the Titans could have their middle linebacker for the next five years.

Accountability: CBS cameras showed Chris Johnson clearly laughing and joking with the Falcons’ coaches during the postgame handshakes. That says everything about Johnson right there. When you’re handed a huge contract, certain expectations come with it. In a team largely lacking veteran leadership, the team’s former best player should be rallying the team and setting an example for the locker room. With the quarterback and coach leaving in the same offseason, Johnson was supposed to be the one constant the team could rely on. Instead, he’s laughing right after losing. While Vince Young’s temper tantrums and moping on the sidelines aren’t missed, being so nonchalant at the end of a loss is not what a leader does. In both performance and personality, Johnson has come up drastically short in his role in the Titans’ transition to becoming a new team. Now, it's time to "Ringer" in a new era at running back.

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