2013 AFC South Preview: Tennessee Titans

Hey look, Matt Weston just wrote a preview about our chances in 2013. - USA TODAY Sports

Matt makes the third stop on his imaginary tour around the AFC South in 2013 before the regular season starts. The third stop: Nashville.

This past month, Matt has compiled his season preview. Below are the archives for those who are interested:

Part 1: Jacksonville Jaguars

Part 2: Indianapolis Colts

Part 3: Madden Mini Camp All-Stars

Earlier this summer, I was in the midst of my road trip around the Midwest of America. We needed something to do during the day before we went out to the garishly infamous Second Avenue of Nashville, the Bachelorette Party Capital of the World. My girlfriend and I wandered from record store to record store, eventually settling in at Legends Corner, sipping on the bitter tang of a Yazoo Pale Ale while my brother and friend looked at Elvis Presley's car at the Country Music Hall of Fame. While we waited for them, I picked at the knowledge tree of the almighty iPhone. I read through "Fun Things to Do in Nashville" in a high-pitched voice. The only one to catch my eye at the time was to go where no Texans fan has ventured before--Tennessee Titans training camp. I looked at my girlfriend, pleaded and persuaded her while whispering compliments into her ear until her head nodded up and down. We closed our tab, met up with our other two companions and hurried out to St. Thomas Sports Park to see real actual football for the first time in six months.

When we arrived at the complex, it was a cool 95 degrees, much tamer than the hellacious summer we all had grown up in. I was greeted with wretched crinkled faces displaying looks of disgust and hatred. Perplexed by the insolent looks I received, we moved around the side edge of the complex like a dog looking for a hole in the fence to escape from. We finally found a suitable location in the south end zone where we could get a look at the play on the field. Directly in front of us trench battle was going on as defensive linemen bullrushed and spun around offensive lineman; somewhere behind the wall of 6'6" 320 lb. men, the skill players were competing in 7-on-7. The training camp was a madhouse as curse words from coaches were muffled over the blaring music screaming from speakers on the field. There was a sense of urgency everywhere as players sprinted from place to place. Rests were seldom taken. The fans around me held sheets of paper with the Titans' roster printed on it and pointed at various players they knew from Sunday. Others held memorabilia that they hoped Kamerion Wimbley would sign after practice was over. The best part of training camp was witnessing the people who can't afford game tickets or would rather save their $500 actually having the opportunity to observe their team in person.

The drills broke apart and the team came together to scrimmage. I was shocked to see the red jersey wearing Jake Locker fit the ball in air vent sized windows for his receivers to snag. Gulp, he looked actually decent. A fight broke out on the sideline as a mob of 12 players pulled at each other. Punches were thrown in a scene resembling a big cartoon ball of dust. The practice ended shortly after the melee and we began our trek back to the car. I opened the door, the mirror reflected back an image of a bull with a star for an eye and I crouched in so we could scurry to the Howard Johnson to rest up for the night.

Now we are less than a week from the season. This same Titans team will be taking the field against Pittsburgh this Sunday. We made it, everyone! We made it! We survived the lull until football begins again. So after a long training camp and a tumultuous off season of change, can the Titans surprise the league and vie for a playoff spot?

Offseason Moves and Draft

Arrivals:
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Shonn Greene, RB Jalen Parmele, WR Kevin Walter, TE Delanie Walker, OT Barry Richardson, G Andy Levitre, G Chris Spencer, C Rob Turner, DT Sammie Lee Hill, DT Ropati Pitoitua, ILB Moise Fokou, S Bernard Pollard, S George Wilson.

Departures:
QB Matt Hasselbeck, RB Javon Ringer, RB Jamie Harper, TE Jared Cook, G Steve Hutchinson, G Deuce Lutui, G Leroy Harris, C Eugene Amano, DE/DT Jarius Wynn, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, DT Leger Douzable, OLB Gerald McRath, OLB Will Witherspoon, ILB Zac Diles, CB Ryan Mouton, S Jordan Babineaux.

Draft: 1st-Chance Warmack (G Alabama), 2nd-Justin Hunter (WR Tennessee) , 3rd CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson(CB Connecticut), 3rd Zaviar Gooden (OLB Missouri), 4th Brian Schwenke (C California), 5th-Lavar Edwards (DE LSU), 6th-Khalid Wooten (CB Nevada), 7th-Daimion Stafford (SS Nebraska)

(Info from Walter Football)

The Big Nastys

The Tennessee Titans had an off season similar to the other AFC South teams. They looked over the Texans' roster, saw all of J.J Watt's stats, and thought, "Crap. We are going to have to play against this guy twice a year for the next 5-10 years." So the Titans paid Andy Levitre, one of the best pass blocking guards in the NFL, 6 years/$46.8 million, drafted Chance Warmack with the #10 pick, and signed blocking TE Delanie Walker for 4 years/$17.5 million. I loved the guard signings. I'm not a fan of paying Walker a large sum of money unless he's able to catch some passes from Locker in the red zone. All three were key pieces in rebuilding.

Mike Munchak, the Titans' current head coach, was the offensive line coach for thirteen years from 1997-2010 until he was promoted to head coach after the Titans and Jeff Fisher agreed to part ways. The one thing it seems Munchak would like to do this year is run the football behind a bulldozing offensive line. He wants to create a team akin to the 2007-2008 teams, when the Titans went 23-9 and ran the ball for 4,308 yards. Coincidentally, 2008 was also the last time the Titans made the playoffs. Since then, they've been mired in quarterback controversies and have been mediocre at best. So Munchak is going to do what he does best--build an offensive line and try to resurrect the 2,000 yard version of Chris Johnson from his 1,200 yard tomb.

Their plan seems to be simple. Run the ball to eat up the clock and get in reasonable second and third down situations where Locker can succeed. Their logic is not faulty for the decisions they made this offseason (other than the Shonn Greene signing). Chris Johnson is one of, if not the, best running back in space when he can use his 4.24 40 and agility to make defenders look foolish. However, his speed is also is downfall. When he's not playing behind an offensive line that can create holes the size of the Red Sea, he tends to juke and stutter behind the line of scrimmage instead of accepting three or four yard rushes. This leads to negative plays and buries the offense in a hole on second and third down. As a result, Tennessee had only 260 first downs last year, good for 30th in the league.

I'll also limply toss some other numbers around like an elderly person flicking breadcrumbs to a pigeon to prove what else was wrong with the Titans' running attack. They had 1.19 yards in space (3rd) and 1.13 (18th) yards in the second level, an adjusted line yards of 3.35 (31st), 4.5 ALY up the middle (31st) and were stuffed at a rate of 24% of the time via the FOA. All this means that the Titans' running attack last year was inefficient and dependent on Johnson's ability to break long runs.

Tennessee is now giving Johnson exactly what he needs to thrive, an offensive line that on paper can move bodies around. The only problem is that it usually takes more than one year for an offensive line to turn into a five man wrecking crew. Offensive line play depends on five guys taking steps in unison, making the correct calls for them all to be on the same page and the ability to trust the man next to you so combo blocks and pulls work how they're supposed to. It's a more violent version of synchronized swimming. Repetition and chemistry is key. They made intelligent moves in who they brought in, but it will take longer than a few months of playing together in shorts this summer to see the results they're expecting.

Let's just look at how the Titans of the late 2000s Munchak is trying to copy did.

Year LT LG C RG RT Total AV Rush Yards Record
2006 Michael Roos Jacob Bell Kevin Mawae Benji Olson David Stewart 32 2214 (5th) 8-8
2007 Michael Roos Jacob Bell Kevin Mawae Benji Olson David Stewart 33 2109 (5th) 10-6
2008 Michael Roos Eugene Amano Kevin Mawae Jake Scott David Stewart 55 2199 (7th) 13-3
2009 Michael Roos Eugene Amano Kevin Mawae Jake Scott David Stewart 41 2592 (2nd) 8-8
2010 Michael Roos LeRoy Harris Eugene Amano Jake Scott David Stewart 37 1727 (17th) 6-10
2011 Michael Roos LeRoy Harris Eugene Amano Jake Scott David Stewart 49 1438 (31st) 9-7

Approximate value is a measure created by Doug Drinen, the founder of Sports-Reference. It is a baseline to measure a player's worth and contribution to a team. To come up with the value for offensive line play, he used games played, games started and Pro Bowls. It is a rough estimate, but it measures a player's continuity incredibly well. From the chart you can see how important a role time played in the Titans' success. The best season the Titans had was in 2008, when they went 13-3, had a total AV of 55, and rushed for 2,199 yards. This, plus having a top ten defense, led to their #1 seed in the AFC (stay tuned until the next section for more on this one). During this stretch run, the Titans went 54-41 and only replaced two offensive linemen, Jacob Bell and Benji Olson. Even more amazing is they only brought in one of their offensive linemen as a free agent (Jake Scott). Amano was drafted in 2004 and Harris was drafted in 2007; each was able to develop and gain experience playing with the starters for at least two years before catapulting into the starting lineup. Tennessee was able to instill a culture in their offensive line where the same guys played every game with each other. This translated into success running the football. What made these Titans' lines great was the continuity of playing together year after year after year after year together.

Last year, the offensive line was shredded by injuries. The Titans had ten different players start a game for a shambled unit, which led to the inefficient rushing game discussed earlier, a total adjusted value of 36, a rushing DVOA of 3.8% (29th), 1,687 rushing yards (21st), and 4.5 yards a carry (10th). The problems stemmed from an offensive line of aging players who couldn't stay healthy, forcing Tennessee to rush in backups. Now Tennessee has brought in two new guys to replace the LG and RG; that should improve the harried line of 2012. However, the magic will not happen overnight. Based on the historical evidence provided, It should take longer than just a training camp together for the Titans to create an offensive line that can lead the Titans to 11 wins. Munchak can help the offensive line as much as he wants, but it will take some time for the unit to mold together into the Mr. Plow Tennessee needs and expects it to be.

Defense?

I believe the front office forgot that there was another side of the ball when they made their decisions this past offseason. It must have escaped Munchak and GM Ruston Webster's mind that Tennessee employed a top ten defense during their best seasons last decade. They either forgot the other aspect of the equation like an accounting major forgetting cash flow formulas in the middle of a midterm or thought, "Eh, we can just bring Gregg Williams in to fix everything." The real reason is probably that they suffered opportunity cost after investing too much money into the run game. They couldn't do the same for the defense, and the moves they did make will only offer a small advantage to the defense.

The Titans signed 6'4" 329 lb. Sammie Lee Hill to stuff the run. He is relatively unknown after backing up Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in Detroit. All I know is he is a titanic-sized man (see what I did there) and the Titans were 31st in stopping runs up the middle. Then they signed the head-hunting Bernard Pollard; that was surprising since the Titans are not playing the Pats this year. Pollard will bring toughness to the secondary. They also brought in a couple of players that can be described as "just a guy" to add depth to the team. That's it. That's all they did to improve the 25th ranked defense based on DVOA and the worst scoring defense in the league, a defense that gave up 471 points (29.4 per game). Their main acquisition came in the form of a different type of headhunter, Gregg Williams.

Gregg Williams is known for bringing an attacking style of defense that confuses offenses and forces turnovers. He's been a defensive coordinator for 13 years, 14 if you include his suspension for Bounty Gate. Williams has had mixed success in the league. What's important is how much he improves a defense when he shows up and if he can turn around the Titans' defense.

Since he became a defensive coordinator in the NFL in 1997, Williams has coached four different franchises and has had the following success in running a defense. The season before Williams came into office will be designated with "B.G.W" (Before Gregg Williams).

Team Points Yards Turnovers 1st Downs W/L
96 HOU Oilers B.G.W 319/16 4,610/6th 26/22 271/7th 8-8
97 TEN Oilers 310/12 5,121/16 19/28 279/23 8-8
03 Redskins B.G.W 372/24 5,412/25 30/12 325/28 5-11
04 Redskins 265/5 4,281/3 26/22 251/3 6-10
07 Jaguars B.G.W 304/10 5,021/12 30/11 286/9 11-5
08 Jaguars 367/21 5,295/17 17/31 289/11 5-11
08 Saints B.G.W 393/26 5,432/23 22/20 299/8 8-8
09 Saints 341/20 5,724/25 39/2 310/22 13-3 SB Champs
12 Titans B.G.W 471/32 5,999/27 24/16 358/30 6-10
13 Titans ??? ??? ??? ??? ???

There are a few interesting bits of information we can infer from the differences Gregg Williams has made to a defense. The best job he has done at transforming a defense was when he took over in Washington. The Redksins jumped into the top ten of every total team defensive category except for turnovers, which tend to fluctuate from year to year. However, the team only won one more game because Patrick Ramsey and a 34 year old Mark Brunell were the starting quarterbacks. His biggest blunder was in 2008 when he took over for Mike Smith, who became the coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Whether it was poor personnel or some other reason, the Jags defense flipped from a top ten defense with Super Bowl aspirations into a middling one which gave up too many yards. We all know how the story went from there, Williams led a shoddy Saints defense into one able to force turnovers to cover up their blemishes and won his first and only Super Bowl.

The only category Williams was able to improve his team in consistently was the most important one--points scored. His defenses gave up 9, 107, and 26 fewer points upon his arrival. The only time they gave up more was during his disaster in Jacksonville, when the defense allowed 63 more than the previous season. The rest of the stats fluctuated wildly from situation to situation. For example, when looking at first down improvement. the '96 Oilers went from 7th in the league in first downs given up to 23rd. Six years later, he improved the Redskins from 28th to 3rd in first downs. His historical stats even offer the same examples, as his defenses go from improving and failing from stat to stat year to year. Let's look at the turnovers forced from year to year:

97 98 99 00 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11
32 19 40 30 26 28 12 24 17 39 25 16

I've said before how turnovers change year to year. Gregg Williams' defenses were no different. In addition to turnovers, his defenses varied form year to year in different categories as well. Each year when one category is improved upon, another sputters in its place.

The last component to look at is the win-loss record. When Williams takes over a defense, it doesn't actually improve the overall team very much the first year he takes over. In fact, it doesn't affect a team's record at all. The year before Williams arrives, teams are historically 32-32. The next year, they improved by a margin of 0 games at the exact same record of 32-32. The only case where something different happened was his time in New Orleans when Drew Brees played QB on the other side of the ball. Overall, Williams has not had an impact on a team's overall record. He has, however, been able to improve a team's defense 75% of the time when he assumes control.

This season, I believe there are three stats the Titans will improve in. Turnovers will increase because Tennessee only had 24 turnovers (16th in the league). Their sack total will increase because of players they have like Derrick Morgan (6.5 sacks, 17 hits, 28.5 hurries) and Kamerion Wimberly (6 sacks, 4 hits, 14.5 hurries); those guys were able to get to the QB, but arrived too late to actually bring him down. Lastly, their scoring defense will improve simply because there is no way it can get any worse after giving up 471 points. Williams has a proven track record of improving this category when he takes control.

I would feel better about the Titans' defense improving dramatically if they actually paid players to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball. Williams will make an impact for the reasons mentioned above, but because of a lack of talent, the Titans will go from a rotting banana peel (horrendous) to a bag of Cheerios (mediocre).

The Hurt Locker

Let's say that the offensive line is able to improve faster than I think it will because of the mind of Munchak and Williams revolutionizes the defense. It still won't matter unless Jake Locker can play better than he has so far. For the Titans to make the playoffs, Locker has to show he is kind of like a NFL quarterback. So far we have no idea who Jake Locker is and what he can bring to a NFL team. In Locker's career, he has only started 11 games and played in 16 due to backing up Matt Hasselbeck in 2011. A life-changing hit by Glover Quin last season knocked him out for a few games and forced him into shoulder surgery this offseason. His scouting report out of college was that he's a great athlete, with a Zurg Blaster for an arm, but his downfall is he's about as accurate as a coin toss. He has yet to evolve into anything more than the player he was when he was a Husky at the University of Washington.

Year Record Completions Attempts Completion% Yards AY/A TDs INTs Rush Yards/TD
2010 7-6 184 332 55.4% 2265 6.8 17 9 385/6 (3.4 Y/C)
2012 4-7 177 314 56.4% 2176 6.0 10 11 291/1 (7.1 Y?C)

2010 was Locker's senior year at Washington. 2012 was Locker's first year as the starting QB at Tennessee. The sample size is about the same. It's spooky how nearly identical these two seasons are. It's like someone took an eraser to the purple jerseys of UW, repainted them white and metallic blue, and replaced the W with the flaming thumbtack. The only difference between the two seasons is in 2012 Locker was injured and was unable to develop any sort of rhythm with the offense.

Now here we are in Locker's third season. He sits at the cafeteria table with Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert, eating a meal that only is edible if everything is mixed together. Each one of these guys are the same sort of player. They were drafted high, have failed to justify their team's decision to choose them while every other team snagged the best defensive talent to perhaps ever arrive into the league at the same time. The only optimism is each of them is young. Ponder and Locker are 25 and Gabbert is 23. There's a waning and unlikely possibility they can turn into something serviceable. Ponder has played the best of the three and will probably be given another year if he falters this season, but Gabbert and Locker are close to being dragged off the roster like a Paranormal Activity movie. At this current moment, I highly doubt Locker can complete passes at a rate of 60%. If the Titans can run the ball well enough and put him in 2nd and 1 situations, it might be possible. If Locker can hit a deep ball or two and improve his accuracy with a revitalized running game, the Titans' offense could be exceptional this season. The problem is, based on the evidence, there are no signs pointing to Locker being able to complete this task.

Conclusion

Based on all the reasons listed, I believe the Tennessee Titans will win 7 games and have a cat fight with the Colts for second place in the AFC South. However, if the oval ball with pointy ends bounces certain ways, Locker completes more than 55% of his passes, Johnson runs for 1,600 yards, the offensive line mimics the unit from 2008, and Gregg Williams makes a 2003-2004 Redskins-esque improvement to the defense, the Titans can go 9-7 and fight for the second wild card spot. It's a multitude of ifs, but weirder things have and can happen. Still, their long-term best case would be if they go 7-9, use their money improve the defense this time, possibly make a change at QB, build behind the offensive line they created, and turn into an AFC South threat in 2014.

All stats are from Pro Football Reference & Football Outsiders.

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