Since we're closing in on the 2014 season opener, I thought it high time to bring back our Comprehensive Review to take a look at the game passed. This week, we take a look at Friday night's preseason match-up against the New Orleans Saints.
We got to see the first "real" consistent action from Jake Locker in the Super Dome on Friday, and for the most part, I was happy with what I saw. Locker was operating the offense with precision, going 8 for 11, including a beautiful back shoulder fade in the end zone to Justin Hunter. Not only was he accurate, Locker read the pressure well, and was able to climb the pocket when the ends over pursued behind him. Another positive was his decision making; Locker made the consistent decision to carry the ball when the routes were covered and the defense dropped eight men. The one time he tried to throw against that coverage, he almost got himself in trouble with a low pass that probably should have been intercepted.
He still showed a tendency to rush a throw or two, despite a lack of associated pressure. You'd like to see him buy more time in those situations, or break the pocket for the boundary to pick up a few positive yards. All in all though, Locker showed us that he is capable of running this new system effectively, and that his accuracy concerns have been overstated.
Behind him, rookie signal caller Zach Mettenberger put up impressive numbers in about two-and-a-half quarters of play (40 snaps). While still making enough rookie mistakes to give evaluators pause, he showed ambition and ability when delivering the ball, going 20 for 25 and a couple of scores. He made a similar mistake to Jake Locker during his time, lacking the loft on a boundary pass that was intercepted. His second turnover was a fumbled pass, but as many have said, it was a fraction of a second from being called as an incomplete. There were plenty of positives to take from Mettenberger's performance; I think he'll develop into a solid backup.
Both Quarterbacks' play was key in the Titans retaining their 100% red zone efficiency marker.
Justin Hunter was the star of the show against the Saints, flashing with two touchdowns and over 100 yards through the air. But Kendall Wright got involved early as well in less snaps, grabbing a nifty bubble screen for a few yards and running some tight outside curls as well. Nate Washington also nabbed a nice gain, though he didn't see much time on the field. The Titans QB's spread the ball around plenty, but the most consistent target was Taylor Thompson (5), the big defensive-end tight-end conversion project. He has been impressive through the first two games, leading the team in catches and posting consistent performances both as a blocker and as a pass catcher.
There was little accomplished Friday to help make the pecking order of the Titans second tier receivers any clearer. Marc Mariani, Michael Preston, and Derek Hagan had four low yardage passes caught between them, and all were imperfect, with both Mariani and Hagan having notable drops.
The offensive line improved on their showing against the Packers, keeping a cleaner pocket for Locker and opening up some running lanes for Shonn Greene. Free agent addition RT, Michael Oher, was clearly the weakest link during the game, and gave way to rookie Taylor Lewan before the rest of the starters were pulled. Oher has one particularly bad whiffed block, right before veteran Michael Roos gave up a bull rush on the left side of the line, resulting in a sack of Jake Locker by Junior Galette. The interior was more composed, with Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack leading the way. The blocking for the running game still has a ways to go, but they have made notable strides in all phases.
The offensive line were key in the team's ability to move the ball, leading to a relatively impressive 6.8 yards per play average on the day, resulting in 28 first downs. The Titans will look to continue that consistency in moving the chains.
The Running Backs
Shonn Greene (9 for 46yds) was the bell cow early and often, and he was effective between the tackles, locating the correct hole and picking up yards after contact. There have been plenty of doubters about his ability to live up to the contract he received, but the slightly slimmed down version of Greene was certainly impressive. He looked faster than his 2012 self, which is encouraging following a year where he was banged up for large periods. Behind him, Dexter McCluster got involved, but more so in the pass-catching department than his compatriot. McCluster showed his explosion when he caught a Jake Locker screen pass out of the backfield and took it for a first down.
When the starters were subbed out, rookie runner Bishop Sankey got to some extended time out there, tallying 31 yards on six touches on the ground. He is looking like the well-rounded back the Titans drafted him to be, though he needs to remedy the fumbling; he lost another one against the Saints.
The defense got off to yet another poor start, giving up six on their opening possession. The defensive line switched out from three and four men personnel groupings. They fared better after the initial series, but Casey and Pitoitua need to make a bigger impact out of the gate. I'm still not sold on Sammie Lee Hill starting at Nose Tackle, but he played well enough to warrant being in the mix.
The defensive line gave up four third down conversions on the first drive alone, then, along with the backups, rallied to allow only four more the entire rest of the way.
The tackling on the second level was suspect again, but improved over the waterlogged game of a week ago. Wesley Woodyard was very active, both in pass and run defense. Kamerion Wimbley also looked fresh in limited snaps. Behind them, Akeem Ayers was solid, notching four tackles and a sack (though it was due to coverage). Zaviar Gooden and Moise Fokou also had decent outings. Most of the trouble came from behind the group, in the secondary.
As noted by my co-blogger, Josh Gunnels, only this morning, the Titans have very little depth or flexibility at the cornerback position. Behind Jason McCourty, the group is very inexperienced, and it showed against the Saints, even against their second and third units. As a side note, rookie Marqueston Huff has looked pretty good through his first two games, both on defense and on special teams. He's coming along faster than many expected he would.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh were burned deep more than once by Joe Morgan and Brandin Cooks (though the latter failed to reel in the big end-zone bound toss). The position competition is still on per Ken Whisenhunt. Either way, none of the Titans secondary players did themselves big favors, aside from McCourty and, yet again, second year safety Daimion Stafford, who continues to surprise this year.
Travis Coons has had a strong camp, and the concerns about his ball trajectory seem a bit overstated. He has been accurate thus far. Maikon Bonani has been effective on kickoffs, but I'm waiting to see him hit some field goals before I jump on one ship or the other. It's not even certain that the 2014 Titans kicker is on the roster yet. If the Titans brass aren't entirely happy with either, it wouldn't surprise me.
Marc Mariani handled a majority of the return duties against the New Orleans Saints, and he showed he is an effective player at that spot. He had a big 50+ yard return wiped out by a Patrick Bailey penalty, and showed his skill and vision on a number of solid returns.
The team needs to start faster on defense, and limit the turnovers (they had a whopping five on Friday alone). End of story. The team looked crisp on offense, with Locker looking more than comfortable at the helm of the new offense, and the offensive line beginning to realize their massive potential as a unit. The running game has also been reliable so far, and as versatile as promised, with all three guys pitching in and getting results. Taylor Thompson and Justin Hunter have been asked to take the next step in their development, and so far in the pre-season, they've responded.
On defense, the transition to Horton's hybrid 3-4 is still very much a work in progress, but there has been some lights at the end of the tunnel, especially where Morgan and Casey are concerned. One of my top surprises has been the emergence of Daimion Stafford; if he can continue to impress, he might find himself playing time in some sub packages.