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It’s time for the Titans to get Dennis Kelly in the starting lineup

Tennessee’s backup tackle could help steady a struggling offensive line.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans offensive line has been a constant problem for the offense all season. The stats have all been shared a million times by now, but I’ll reiterate them here in case you missed them. Tennessee has allowed 42 sacks to opponents in 2018, second most in the NFL and already more than they allowed in either of the past two seasons. If you look at sacks per dropback the Titans are dead last, allowing their quarterback to be taken down on 11.6% of attempts.

The run blocking hasn’t been much better. The unit ranks 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and the team ranks 29th in yards per carry despite having the built in advantages that come with a mobile quarterback.

Some of the issues have certainly been health related. Taylor Lewan has missed one full game and parts of two others with a concussion and a foot injury. Jack Conklin missed the first three games of the season recovering from his offseason ACL surgery and then sat out another game and a half with a concussion. Quinton Spain was knocked out of the Ravens game and missed the entire Chargers game. Only Ben Jones and Josh Kline have started every game and even Kline missed some snaps in one of them.

Health can’t be the entire reason for the problems up front though. The starting five has been 100% healthy for the last three games now and things haven’t gotten better. In fact, they’ve actually gotten worse. Over the first 10 weeks of the season, Tennessee’s offensive line ranked 11th in PFF’s pass blocking efficiency metric and Titans quarterbacks were sacked 28 times (a rate of 3.1 sacks per game). Over the past three weeks the fully healthy line has ranked 30th in pass blocking efficiency and has given up 14 sacks (a rate of 4.7 sacks per game). The run game has gotten marginally better, with Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry combining to average 3.68 yards per carry over the last three weeks compared to 3.54 yards per carry over the first nine games. That’s still a terrible number.

On Sunday the Titans benched Quinton Spain at halftime, bringing in Corey Levin to play center while Ben Jones bumped over to left guard. The offense responded with one of their best halves of the season, putting up 271 yards and 20 points in the final 30 minutes. The difference certainly wasn’t all because of the offensive line swap, but it did appear to help settle things down in front of Marcus Mariota.

Whether that change sticks or not remains to be seen, but regardless of what happens with Spain and Levin and Jones, I think it’s time for the Titans to pull Jack Conklin and get Dennis Kelly in at right tackle. Conklin’s play has been rough for most of the season. Whether it’s because of his knee or the missed training camp time or the adjustment to the new offense or a combination of all of the above, it’s not trending in a great direction. The Jets game was probably Conklin’s worst of the season. He allowed two sacks and a quarterback hit in addition to picking up three penalties.

I’m not out on Conklin as a long term solution at right tackle. He was great there as a rookie and above average at worst in 2017, but things aren’t clicking right now and the Titans are lucky enough to have a very high quality backup in Dennis Kelly. Kelly has started two games at right tackle already this season — Miami and New England — and has appeared in several others. Over 95 pass protection snaps, he’s allowed no sacks, no QB hits, and just 2 hurries while being flagged just once. Compare those numbers to Conklin’s 4 sacks, 1 hit, 13 hurries, and 6 penalties in 294 pass protection snaps and you can certainly make a statistical argument for Kelly over Conklin. If you put stock in PFF grades, Kelly grades out as the team’s top pass blocker AND run blocker over the course of the season.

The tape largely backs those stats up. No game made that more evident than the Monday night contest in Dallas. Conklin left with a concussion after having some major issues with Cowboys star DeMarcus Lawrence early on. Kelly entered the game at halftime and was excellent the rest of the way. I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that the Titans best offensive performance of the season came a week later against the Patriots in a game that Kelly played from start to finish.

Again, this shouldn’t be viewed as a long term judgement of Conklin. Coming back from ACL surgery in under 9 months is pretty crazy. Doing it while also trying to learn a new scheme without the benefit of a single training camp or preseason rep is a massive task for even the best of players. Many players who suffer an ACL injury struggle the following season. Take a guy like Geno Atkins for example. In 2012, Atkins earned First-Team All-Pro recognition while totaling 12.5 sacks over 16 games. The next season he had 6 sacks through 8 games — well on his way to another double digit sack season — when he tore his ACL. He returned and started all 16 games the following year, but recorded just 3 sacks, tied with his rookie season for the lowest single season total of his career. In 2015, his second season back from the injury, he tallied 11 sacks and was back to his usual dominant self. He hasn’t looked back since.

Regardless of how Conklin says he feels, it’s unlikely that he’s truly where he needs to be physically. Benching a former first round pick is never an easy or comfortable thing to do, but I think making the move to Kelly at right tackle would be in the team’s best interest. The Titans don’t have the luxury of letting Conklin work out the kinks as they go anymore. They have to stack wins and Dennis Kelly gives them the best shot at doing that right now.