Jake Locker hands off to Chris Johnson. Expect a productive run game in 2013 (www.usatoday.com)
For pundits and people who study schemes and personnel such as myself, it's hard to look at the Tennessee Titans and not see the next Seattle Seahawks or Baltimore Ravens. From an outside view, these type of teams were built from the trenches out. The defensive front seven and the offensive lines of both these teams are among the best in the league. It could be argued that as good of skills players as these teams have, the guys upfront are by far the strength of the team. In my opinion the Titans have the best offensive line in football, in addition to the most athletic front seven as well. A lack of talent at the skill positions has held this team back. With this past off-season, Tennessee may have completed their transformation into the upper-echelon of the NFL personnel wise. Building franchises this way can be a bit of a drawn out process, but as a team such as the San Francisco 49ers can attest, the results can be positively damning!
Coming off an under the radar 9-7 record in 2011, I expected the Titans to make a lot of noise in the AFC playoff race last season. What I got was a head scratching 6-10 team that didn't in the least bit resemble the previous years squad. A few weeks into the 2013 off-season, I'm starting to get the feeling that my previous notion may have been on a one year delay.
After selecting Chance Warmack, the offensive guard out of the University of Alabama, with the 10th pick in the 2013 draft, the Titans cemented what was widely viewed already as the leagues best offensive line. Left tackle Michael Roos (6'7, 320 lbs) and right tackle David "Big Country" Stewart (6'7, 315 lbs) combine to form possibly the nastiest tackle duo in the NFL. Both of these guys are extremely physical in the run game, yet athletic enough to anchor one of the leagues most explosive running attacks. Center Fernando Velasco (6'4, 312 lbs) is a very heady and versatile player in his own right. Having seen time at guard in addition to his center responsibilities, Velasco will now get to concentrate exclusively on playing center - due to the fact that possibly the premiere player at each guard spot now reside in Tennessee. Left Guard Andy Levitre (6'2, 305 lbs) was a big money free-agent acquisition from the Buffalo Bills - where he blocked for the successful running back duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Levitre is athletic enough to pull on stretch plays, and stout enough in the run game to open some serious holes. The aforementioned Chance Warmack will man the right guard position. To see this guy get after interior defensive lineman is a thing of beauty for fans of superior line play. He will absolutely maul defenders, and will be the tone-setter of this line for the next decade or so.
Tennessee Titans' head coach Mike Munchak instructs top pick Chance Warmack at Titans practice (www.usatoday.com)
With all the talent abound on the o-line, it should come of no surprise that the head coach is one of the greatest offensive lineman in franchise history. As a matter of fact - he's one of the greatest players in the history of the NFL. 2001 Hall-Of-Fame Inductee Mike Munchak spearheads this Titans franchise. The team is very much built in the mold he created as a player for the then Houston Oilers. (Who relocated as a franchise to Tennessee in '99. Subsequently a name change ensued) Munchak was a very gritty and physical player at left guard for the Oilers from 1982-1993. He was a ten time all pro selection as well as a nine time Pro Bowler. Munchak combined with fellow ten time all pro selection Bruce Matthews, to form a duo much like I expect guards Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre to evolve into. If the new duo is in need of some on-field advice, they need to look no further than their own meeting room! Coach Munchak hired his long time running mate Bruce Matthews to coach the offensive line in 2011 - upon being hired as the head coach. Having two Hall-of-Fame players to lean on is unfathomable for the development of a young team like the Titans. Young players often listen intently to guys who have been to heights that they strive to accomplish. Having those two coaches only adds to the smash mouth style of play that the Titans will use to reach that next level of success.
Though the Titans have had really good offensive line play for awhile, the tangible characteristic that separates this current incarnation of Titans football, from the previous two seasons - is the explosive group of pass catchers that can be trotted out in a multitude of personnel groupings.
Offensive Coordinator Dowell Loggains, 32, is in his first full season on the job. Though he took over ten weeks into the season, I saw a pretty good enough sample size of the way he likes the game to flow. Expect the Titans to get back to power running the ball first and foremost. The Titans acquired Shonn Greene (Formerly of the New York Jets) through free agency, which signifies the need to exploit the power run game. Greene is coming off his second consecutive 1,000 yard season. His between the tackles prowess and overall physicality will help to wear down defenses. If the Titans can get a nice mix of touches established between Greene and fellow running back Chris Johnson, expect a lot of explosive plays in the latter stages of the game. Johnson is four years removed from one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, with his 2,006 yard, 14 TD performance in 2009. Last season totals of 1,243 yards with 6 TD's (4.5 avg) can be exceeded with Greene helping to shoulder the load. Keeping Johnson fresh should pay dividends in the form of big plays. Factor in backup running back Darrius Reynaud's penchant for big plays on special teams (3 TD's on a combination of kick and punt returns) and you have a well-rounded group coming out of the backfield.
Chris Johnson & Shonn Greene after a game in 2012. Greene is now a Titan. (Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports)
With a renewed commitment to the power run game, one must expect a variety of explosive plays through the air. The Titans have more than enough firepower to excel in that aspect. Justin Hunter, the second round draft pick, could turn out to be the steal of the draft. Coming out of the University of Tennessee, Hunter has some of the same attributes that made Randy Moss a star! After tearing an ACL early in the third game of his sophomore year, Hunter bounced back to the tune of 73 catches for 1,083 yards - with 9 TD's as a junior. This more than doubled his output of his first two seasons combined! (In his first two seasons due to part time play, and the aforementioned injury, Hunter had 33 catches for 729 yards and 9 TD's) Displaying a unique set of skills for a player his size, Hunter is a deep ball specialist, who is almost indefensible in 1 on 1 situations down-field. He's much to tall for the average corner (6'4, 205 lbs), in addition to being faster (4.44 in the forty), and a superior leaper (39.5 inch vertical jump). I expect him to be worked into the rotation until he becomes the primary nightmare for coordinators and defenses alike.
Personnel wise, Hunter would be like the proverbial "Cherry on Top". The combination of Kendall Wright (last seasons rookie leader in catches with 64), Nate Washington (46 catches for 746 yards and 4 TD's), and the mercurial Kenny Britt (45 catches for 589 yards last season coming off an ACL tear the precious year) form more than a formidable trio of pass catchers. Wright did a great job adjusting to playing predominately in the slot, (Although I think he grades out better playing the X or Z receiver) he brings explosiveness and agility to the position. Washington is an explosive well-rounded pass receiver. But the player with the most upside is Britt. At 6'3, 215 lbs - Britt has a very similar skill-set to future Hall-of-Fame receiver Terrell Owens. He is an intermediate mismatch, who can't be brought down by the first defender due to his extreme physicality. In addition to being very fast - with a knack for big plays down-field - Britt displays a wide range of skills that put him in the upper-echelon in the NFL talent wise. If he can stay healthy, (and stay off the police's radar) he can be the linchpin to a potent, explosive, and versatile group of receivers. Throw in tight end/H-Back Delanie Walker, (Free agent acquisition from the San Francisco 49ers) and imagine the personnel groupings that will be thrown at defenses. Scary!
Titans one back four receiver set
Here we have a set that I expect to see a lot of in 2013. With the addition of the versatile Delanie Walker, the Titans can run a series of sets out of this formation. I highlight the prospective positioning of Walker. He's lined up off the line but closest to the left tackle. He can motion back into the backfield and be used as a lead blocker. This would throw defenses off if they try to defend him with a dime corner as they would be a lot smaller in their attack to defend a power run game. If he stays where he's lined up, the only linebackers who might be able to cover him man up, reside on his own team. Also imagine the rest of the receivers being Justin Hunter at X position. Kendall Wright in the slot, with Kenny Britt at his normal Z position. Now that's a whole lot of size and speed!
The straw that stirs the drink is third year quarterback Jake Locker. Upon film study, I saw a QB who possesses a skill-set akin to that of the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers. He is one of the five most athletic QB's in the entire NFL! At 6'3, 235 lbs - running a 4.5 forty - Locker is a big time threat when called upon to run the ball on or off schedule. He has a rocket for an arm, and passes extremely well on the run. He displays accurate touch on the deep ball, with the ability to ramp up or decelerate the rpm's on passes of the short variety.
This season will be crucial for the development of Locker. Despite going into his third season, Locker has only started eleven games in his career. As a matter of fact, Locker has only played in parts of five other games prior to the eleven he started last season. So in 16 games, Locker has thrown for 2,718 yards, 14 TD's - 11 Int's while completing 55.5% of his passes. He's also gained 347 yards rushing (7.1 avg) with an additional two TD's. Headed into this season, Locker is the unquestioned starter after the departure of stop-gap veteran Matt Hasselbeck. He will get the full amount of reps in the off-season that comes with being the #1 guy. If he can get the benefit of a healthy o-line, along with the inordinate amount of offensive talent that surrounds him - I see no reason why Jake Locker can't garner the type of attention payed to a lot of the other young, athletic QB's currently of note. Locker must stay healthy, and make operating from the pocket his primary goal this off-season. When he has great mechanics in the performance of his drops, his accuracy is satisfactory. When he drifts, and doesn't set his feet - he throws some of the most erratic passes in the league.
Locker will improve with more game action. Offensive Coordinator Dowell Loggains will get the best out of him by establishing the power run game which will give rise to a more effective play-action fake. Receivers like Britt and Hunter will take full advantage of Locker's deep ball prowess off said play-action. Expect one of the most-balanced offensive attacks in the league with multiple formation groupings in a deep roster of offensive talent.
Jake Locker in a shotgun set
Here's is a perfect example of what Jake can do with a clean pocket. This is how you match arm talent to superior personnel.
The Titans pick up the blitz which allows Locker to perform his drop with perfect mechanics. Look at him driving off that back leg to achieve maximum velocity on this deep throw to Britt.
Britt beats his man and leaves enough room for locker to put the ball up the field and away from the defender. Not an easy throw at all. This type of throw not only takes some good arm strength (As you can see the safety closing) but some great anticipation as well.
Locker put it where it absolutely had to be. Enough air for Britt to run under it and not break stride, but enough RPM's to beat the safety. This is a big time throw that went for 46 yards. A healthy Britt would probably break the tackle and take it to the house. This is the kind of connection we should expect from locker to Britt and Hunter on these deep throws in the Loggains offense.
The defense is equally stocked with athletic talent. Coordinator Jerry Gray does a great job of utilizing the speed and versatility of his defensive personnel through a mix of different blitzes and personnel packages. Outside linebackers Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers head a very fast and physical group of linebackers. Both Brown and Ayers are two of the fastest in the league, with Brown possibly being THE fastest (along with San Fran's Patrick Willis). Weak-side linebacker Zach Brown's 93 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 Int's (2 TD's totaling 156 yards!) and 1 forced fumble were just a foreshadow of what I expect him to be. Being that he was only a rookie, the league better take notice of this budding star. His counterpart, Strong-side linebacker Akeem Ayers is every bit as good. His 104 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 Int, and 1 forced fumble sheds light on his versatility as well as his productivity. Although a sideline to sideline player, Ayers could be a 15 sack guy if he played stand-up rush linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Having him in nickel packages as a blitzer along with Brown and defensive ends Kamerion Wimbley (6 sacks) and Derrick Morgan (6.5 sacks), creates opportunity in the form of havoc. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is a very intriguing player in his own right. If health is not an issue, this trio could make a case for being one of the best in a 4-3 scheme.
Zach Brown with a 79 yd Int for a TD! (Photo courtesy of USA Today images)
The secondary has some very good talent in it as well. Corners Jason McCourty (93 tackles, 4 Int's) and Alterraun Verner (81 tackles, 2 Int's) lead a very fast, sure tackling unit. Tommie Campbell, Coty Sensabaugh and rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson will add depth on defense as well as special teams. On nickle situations one of those three will play the second corner spot with Verner sliding into nickel to take advantage of his great open field tackling ability.
The Safeties may be the strength of the defense. Veteran strong safety acquisitions George Wilson (formerly of the Buffalo Bills), and Bernard Pollard (Former Baltimore Raven) combine with severely underrated free safety Michael Griffin (79 tackles, 4 Int's, 2 forced fumbles) to give the Titans a stout last line of defense. With Griffin playing center-field, both Wilson's 104 tackles, and Pollard's 98 tackles, will be a much welcomed addition. Expect packages with all three safeties on the field at the same time.
The 2013 Tennessee Titans have a roster that's built from the inside out. If they can establish a power run game, while creating big play opportunities off play-action, they will cut down on the self-inflicted mistakes that plagued the team in 2012. Having impressive talent on both sides of the ball, with a versatile offensive and defensive scheme, will lend itself to undoubtedly turning this franchise in the right direction quickly. "Big Boy Football" is most certainly back in the Music City!
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