Tennessee Titans 2013 Offseason Preview
SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy -- two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.
2012 Record: 6-10
Key Pending Free Agents: Jared Cook, TE; Leroy Harris, G; Fernando Velasco, C; Sen'Derrick Marks, DT; Rob Bironas, K
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (10), 2 (40), 3 (70), 4 (104), 5 (135), 7 (200)
Available Cap Space: $19.4 million
GM/Coaching Moves: On Jan. 7, the same day that his Bountygate suspension was lifted by the NFL, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was hired as a senior assistant defensive coach. ... Dowell Loggains has been promoted to offensive coordinator; the former quarterbacks coach had the job on an interim basis for the final five games of the 2012 season.
An inauspicious start doomed the Titans, who were blown out by the Patriots and Chargers by a combined score of 72-23 in the first two weeks. An overtime victory over the Lions in Week 3 revealed some offensive firepower -- the Titans put up a season-high 44 points and won in overtime -- but the defensive woes continued: Detroit scored 25 in the fourth quarter and finished with 41. Tennessee ultimately started 1-4 following two more blowout losses to the Texans and Vikings. The combined score in those games: 68-21.
Remarkably, the Titans responded with back-to-back wins over the Steelers (26-23) and the Bills (35-34), putting themselves in position to improve to .500 in a Week 8 showdown against the Colts. But that didn't happen and their season began to spiral out of control. Blowing a seven point lead in the fourth quarter, Tennessee fell in overtime, 19-13, then lost the next week, 51-20, while turning the ball over five times to the Bears.
Turnovers defined the season. In the Titans' six wins, they lost the ball just three times. In their 10 losses, they gave it up 25 times. There were moments to feel good, such as the 37-3 thumping of the Dolphins in Week 10, but those vibes were fleeting. Following their bye, the Titans went on a three-game skid starting in Week 12, losing to the Jaguars (24-19), the Texans (24-10) and the Colts (27-24) to fall to 4-9. They committed 10 turnovers during that stretch, including a season-high six to Houston.
If there was a silver lining, it's that Tennessee won two of its final three games. The loss was a bad one, a 55-7 beatdown by the Packers in Week 16. Even worse, the two wins were over the lowly Jets (14-10 in Week 15) and the two-win Jaguars (38-20 in Week 17). Against playoff teams, the Titans went 0-7. Of the six teams Tennessee beat, none finished better than .500. Most telling, the Titans had the league's worst margin of defeat (20.4 points).
3. Of Chris Johnson's six rushing touchdowns last year, three went for at least 80 yards. His 94-yarder against the Jets in Week 15 was the league's longest rushing touchdown of the season. Johnson and Barry Sanders are the only backs to have rushed for at least three touchdowns of 80 yards or longer in a single season. Sanders did it once, in 1997. Johnson has done it twice, in 2009 and again last season.
Big play potential is one thing, but questions remain about Johnson's consistency. The three-time Pro Bowler predicted that he would lead the league in rushing last season, but he barely finished among the top 10. His 1,243 yards ranked ninth, and he hasn't come close to matching his 2009 production, when the then NFL sophomore led the league with 2,006 yards. His output fell to 1,364 yards in 2010 and 1,047 in 2011. Seems broken, right? Last season's uptick of 196 yards is a sign that Johnson shouldn't be cut, as some have argued this offseason. (The team agreed, having picked up his $10 million option for 2013.)
The Titans might have ranked 21st in rushing, but Johnson wasn't the sole problem, even if he finished five games with the following rushing totals: 4, 17, 24, 24, 28. According to Pro Football Focus, the offensive line ranked 16th in run blocking. Of the nine other backs to finish among the top 10 in yards, only two (the Buccaneers' Doug Martin and the Bills' C.J. Spiller) ran behind lines that ranked worse than the Titans' in the PFF analytics model. Tennessee should keep giving Johnson the ball, but draft some big bodies who can regularly move the line of scrimmage.
35.2. According to Pro Football Focus, Jake Locker had a 35.2 completion percentage when he faced pressure last season, the lowest of any quarterback under duress. For comparison, veteran backup Matt Hasselbeck completed 52.4 percent of passes under pressure.
The defense ranked last in points allowed last season, surrendering 29.4 per game. The secondary gave up 55 passes of 20 yards or more, the eighth-worst mark in the league. Just how easy was it to move the ball against Tennessee? Opponents racked up 358 first downs -- more than all but two other defenses allowed -- and converted on third down 39.7 percent of the time. Opponents also averaged 375 yards of offense per game, more than all but five other defenses allowed.
The solution is simple: If the unit continues to falter under coordinator Jerry Gray, who enters his third season overseeing the defense, replace him with Gregg Williams. It's no secret that Williams was hired for his fiery personality and aggressive coaching style. Reports have surfaced that he might encounter trust issues with players following his role in the Saints' Bountygate scandal, but if the defense falters in 2013, Williams may be the guy to turn things around.
1. Invite a new kicker to training camp, even if free agent Rob Bironas is re-signed. Bironas' 2012 season was his worst in the past six years. His field goal percentage dipped from 90.6 in 2011 to 80.6 last year, and he struggled from a distance he once mastered: On 10 attempts in the 40- to 49-yard range, the eight-year veteran made just five. Having younger legs in camp to create competition for the job would be a wise move.
2. Is Kenny Britt worth the trouble? Drafted in the first round in 2009, the 24-year-old wideout has caused more headaches for the front office off the field than he has for cornerbacks on it. He showed great promise in his first two seasons, averaging 42 receptions and 738 receiving yards. Last season he finished with 45 for 589. General manager Ruston Webster has said Britt is "on the spot" to produce -- and his behavior is also under scrutiny. Britt was suspended for the 2012 season opener because of a DUI arrest that July, which was his eighth run-in with police since leaving Rutgers. He's made headlines this off-season for not cooperating with a police investigation regarding the stabbing of one of his friends in Jersey City, N.J. The investigation is ongoing and details remain murky beyond Britt driving his friend to the hospital. Britt's attorney, Robert Lane, has said his client is not a suspect and there is "zero chance" of him being arrested. But the team's patience with Britt, on the field and off, appears to be growing thin.
3. Troubleshoot with the Pistol. Jake Locker ran for 291 yards last season, trailing only five quarterbacks who are all viewed as being mobile, dual threats: Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Michael Vick. Adding the read-option scheme to the Titans' playbook could help both Locker and running back Chris Johnson flourish in 2013.
The job security of head coach Mike Munchak will dominate the conversation. In two seasons he's gone 15-17, and his Hall of Fame credentials as a player will do little to mitigate a poor start. He couldn't be in a tougher spot. The pressure to win is immense, but quarterback Jake Locker enters his third pro season having started only 11 games. He went 4-7 last season, completing 56.4 percenty of his throws for 2,176 yards. His interceptions (11) outpaced touchdowns (10). And he isn't just working through growing pains; he also had offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder after dislocating it twice last season.
Expect these questions to be debated throughout training camp and beyond: How much patience will Munchak have with Locker before turning to veteran backup Matt Hasselbeck? To what degree would that change cripple the long-term plans for the franchise? Can Chris Johnson return to Pro Bowl form? Did the Titans get the right pieces in the draft to help him? Is the defense salvageable? Will Kenny Britt respond to the challenge? And, most important, can this team win?