By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) When you consider that 2011 was the first year Jeff Fisher wasn’t calling the shots in Tennessee in 17 years, and combine it with a protracted holdout involving their superstar running back, the Titans 9-7 record was impressive. Throw in the fact that five of those seven losses came by seven points or less, and there was reason to have justified optimism for 2012.
Unfortunately, the first half of the season hasn’t worked out as the Titans hoped.
That optimism made the Titans a surprise suitor for the services of one Peyton Manning. Owner Bud Adams was prepared to make Manning a “Titan for life,” hoping he would be lured back to where he played his college ball. To me, this was a curious match for a few reasons, the Titans are in the same division as the Colts, and the Titans had just invested the eighth-overall pick in 2011 on quarterback Jake Locker.
In the end, Manning chose Denver and the Titans quarterback battle involved Locker and veteran Matt Hasselbeck. Since there was no clear-cut winner in the preseason competition, the Titans decided that the future was now and handed the keys over to Locker. After an encouraging 378-yard, two-touchdown performance in a Week 3 win against the Lions, Locker suffered a fracture to his non-throwing shoulder the following week, shelving him indefinitely.
Fortunately for the Titans, Hasselbeck is a viable contingency plan. While he doesn’t have the arm strength he once did, he can still make the right reads and deliver accurate passes from the pocket. In addition to lacking a fastball, Hasselbeck doesn’t have anywhere near Locker’s mobility, which affects the running game.
With a mobile quarterback like Locker, the element of a naked bootleg must be accounted for by the defense. By freezing a backside defender for just a split second, cutback lanes – something Chris Johnson has made a lot of money on – form, which can turn into big gainers. Despite slow starts the past two seasons, Johnson remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous playmakers.
Certainly, the Titans switch to a zone-blocking scheme has contributed to Johnson’s struggles. In this scheme, there is no set hole for a running back, rather, they’re asked to read the play-side defensive tackle and linebacker to determine where to run. This requires patience, which can be a foreign concept to a player like Johnson, who is accustomed to getting the ball and going north-south.
There’s also a potential mismatch with the Titans offensive line, particularly the interior. Successful zone-blocking lines typically favor athleticism, but the Titans have opted for power.
Losing center Eugene Amano (torn triceps) for the season forced some shuffling among an already suspect group. Fernando Velasco has taken over at center, veteran free-agent Steve Hutchinson is at left guard, and Kevin Matthews (the son of offensive line coach Bruce Matthews) is at right guard. Matthews replaced Leroy Harris, who suffered a knee injury last Sunday against the Colts.
The Titans tackles – left tackle Michael Roos and right tackle David Stewart – are a reliable pair. Roos’ footwork has made him one of the more consistent pass-blockers in the league, but he’s had his struggles this season. Stewart is a mauler in the run game, who has been labeled a cheap shot artist by many opponents. In fact, he was fined earlier this season for personal fouls he committed against the Texans. The athleticism of this duo will be repeatedly tested against an athletic Bears front.
The Titans have some weapons to work with in the passing game, but they’re limited with Hasselbeck under center. Kenny Britt is an explosive talent on the perimeter, but knee troubles and off-the-field issues continue to plague him. Britt has rare size to speed ratio and will fight for the ball at its highest point. Look for the Bears to limit the amount of man coverage on Britt, as he’s an explosive vertical threat who commands safety attention over the top.
Britt is complemented by Nate Washington, who is enjoying a career year, rookie Kendall Wright, who is showing a lot of promise, and uber-talented yet underachieving tight end Jared Cook. Cook recently took to the media and requested a trade, but like most players who go this route, he has no leverage.
The Titans offense has yet to find it’s identity. Two weeks ago on the road in Buffalo, they scored on every red zone possession (4) and put up a season-high 35 points. Yet, just last week at home versus Indianapolis, they ran four plays in the red-zone for -4 yards. Against a defense as sound and opportunistic as the Bears, it’s hard to see how the Titans will score enough points to win on Sunday.
Defensively, the Titans are a mess, ranking at the bottom of the NFL in both passing and rush defense. Only Washington has given up more passing yards and touchdowns. Against the run, to make it relative to their opponent, the Titans give up almost twice as many rushing yards per game (139) as the Bears do (77). That’s a stunningly bad combination.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is under the gun this season for not only his unit’s awful performance, but some costly blunders in the Colts game. Not once, but twice on the Colts final drive in regulation the Titans had only 10 men on the field. That is simply unacceptable and Gray is very fortunate to still have his job this week.
The Titans have young talent across their defensive front, but so far, the results haven’t been there. Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug were stout in 2011, with Casey being a factor against the run, and Klug collapsing the pocket from the inside. They added third-round pick Mike Martin (Michigan) to the mix as well, giving them a raw, but talented defensive tackle rotation.
The Titans scooped up big-ticket free agent defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, who was a cap casualty in Oakland. Wimbley has exceptional speed off the edge and will pose a challenge to the Bears iffy offensive tackles. Wimbley is paired with Derrick Morgan, who is a solid, yet unspectacular player.
The Titans have more questions than answers at the second level of their defense. Zac Diles has been placed on IR, and the roles of rookie Zach Brown (the guy Mike Mayock said was “allergic” to contact) and Akeem Ayers have flipped. Brown is now the nickel linebacker and Ayers is being used as a pass rusher. Mid-season moves like this typify a team struggling to find the right mix.
Losing Cortland Finnegan’s in free agency was a huge blow to the secondary. They responded by extending veteran Jason McCourty with a whopping $43 million extension, $20 million of which is guaranteed. Considering the talent differential, this move is somewhat of a head-scratcher, as Finnegan got $50 million / $26.5 million.
Free safety Michael Griffin is the Titans best defender. Griffin, a two time Pro-Bowler, has excellent range, ball skills and is a willing hitter in run support. In order to take some pressure off the secondary, the Titans pass rush must prove upon their sack total, which has only generated 11 through eight games.
Overall, the Titans seem to be a few years away from being a playoff contender. This season was supposed to be a year to get Locker needed experience and give a glimpse into the future. Instead, it’s resorted back to the game-managing Hasselbeck, so they still won’t know what their future at quarterback might look like.
However, with a defense this bad, it really doesn’t matter. Teams will be able to run the ball at will on them and play keep away. This will force the Titans to have to throw the ball, which isn’t their strong suit. Add it all up, and this season has a chance to bottom out in a hurry for the Titans.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.