All of the sudden, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for the run game in Nashville. The Titans will attempt to turn what was a disaster in 2014 into something of a strength for 2015. Ruston Webster added power and beef up front by selecting the likes of Jeremiah Poutasi, Jalston Fowler, David Cobb and Andy Gallik. So what are they up to? What is the master plan here? In my opinion, it feels oddly similar to 2013. The 2013 San Diego Chargers, specifically.
Let me explain.
Ken Whisenhunt took a step back for the 2013 season, accepting the offensive coordinator job in San Diego. Whisenhunt went just 18-30 after the retirement of Kurt Warner, bringing his time as the head man in Arizona to a painful close.
In steps the Chargers. Whisenhunt now had stability for the first time in three years at the quarterback position in Phillip Rivers. Rivers had perhaps his most successful season under the guidance of Whisenhunt, throwing for nearly 4,500 yards and over 30 touchdowns. However, the rushing attack was the story.
Former first round pick Ryan Mathews was coming off of his worst season as a professional, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry in 2012. The Chargers didn't have stability at the running back spot and badly needed a fix. The Chargers brought in Danny Woodhead, coming off of a highly successful campaign with the Patriots in 2012, as a complementary back.
Whisenhunt and Head Coach Mike McCoy were hoping that the two would feed off of each other in their opposing roles. It worked brilliantly. San Diego went from 27th to 13th in rushing as a team. Woodhead shouldered the load of snaps in passing situations, catching 76 passes. Mathews experienced the best season of his career, running for over 1,200 yards.
Fast forward to 2015 in Nashville. Ken Whisenhunt's first attempt at putting a rushing attack together for the Titans failed miserably. His second round draft pick couldn't find the field. He completely abandoned the run at times last year simply because he had practice squad players starting at both of his tackle positions. The entire offense was a dumpster fire.
So what is his plan for the upcoming season? Here's what I think Whisenhunt is thinking.
One of Ken Whisenhunt's favorite weapons was Danny Woodhead during his time in San Diego. He used him in a variety of different ways, but Woodhead excelled in the passing game. He brought in 76 passes for 605 yards and added 429 yards on the ground.
I believe Bishop Sankey could carve out his niche in a similar way. He wasn't overly involved in the passing game last year, but he was largely underutilized until the end of the season. I think he has the ability to fill this role which would open the door for David Cobb to eat up more carries. Sankey will likely never be a feature back, but he has a role in this offense. 150 carries and 50 catches is a realistic expectation for Sankey this season.
Hopefully we'll see Whisenhunt manufacture more opportunities for Sankey in space. Pro Football Focus credited Sankey with forcing 29 missed tackles last season, putting him at 10th in the league. Sankey should provide Marcus Mariota with a nice safety valve at the very least. Expect lots of swing passes and screens to start the season as the staff eases Mariota into the NFL game.
Ryan Mathews put up big numbers in 2013, logging 285 carries for over 1,200 yards. He had a much less significant role in the passing game, only catching 26 passes all season.
Cobb should inherit the power role, assuming the Titans cut ties with Shonn Greene as expected. Now, am I expecting Cobb to get 285 carries his rookie season? Absolutely not. However, it wouldn't surprise me to see him lead the team in carries. Cobb is a very capable runner with quick feet and a big frame. He's tough and is good enough in pass protection. I don't think 150 carries is out of the question for him.
Don't forget about the other guys either. Dexter McCluster, Antonio Andrews and Jalston Fowler will also likely play into this equation. I would expect McCluster to take on a receiving role, getting the ball in space with room to work. Fowler will make his money as a lead blocker, but should see his fair share of checkdown targets in the flats.
I'm fairly sure that Whisenhunt can't recreate his success in 2013, but this season should be a major building block. The offensive core has been set and depth has been added, so hopefully the dividends will pay off fairly quickly. A consistent run game is the number one thing that will assist a rookie quarterback. It is imperative that the Titans get yards on the ground this season and don't have to rely totally on Marcus Mariota early. Hopefully the combination of Cobb and Sankey running behind a finally healthy offensive line will be just what the doctor ordered.