This Sunday, the Tennessee Titans are looking for their sixth win, not for this year, but in the last two seasons. Last season they won two games and received Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota as compensation. This year they've stumbled into three wins. At the moment, they have a 76.7% of selecting number one overall in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Over the last two seasons they've gone from a frustrating mediocre team in a bad division to the worst team in a horrific one. The mediocre years came with Jeff Fisher and Mike Munchak at head coach. Fisher was fired for finishing 6-10 and missing the playoffs for a second season in a row. He was replaced by Fisher acolyte Mike Munchak.
Under Munchak, Tennessee adhered to the Trinity of Conservative 1998 Football while they waited for Jake Locker to develop. Run the ball a ton, play great defense, and win with your quarterback, not because of him. Locker's maturation was stagnant, though. He had problems staying healthy and couldn't overcome accuracy issues. Instead of cutting the cord, the Titans became even more right-winged and invested into their offensive line.
In 2013, Munchak's last season, they drafted Chance Warmack with the tenth overall pick, Brian Schwenke with a fourth round pick, and signed Andy Levitre. Tennessee went 7-9, and Munchak was fired. The next offseason, they pushed this strategy even farther by drafting Taylor Lewan with the eleventh overall pick, despite signing Michael Oher and employing Michael Roos.
In 2014, their offensive line was:
|LT||Michael Roos||6 years/$43 M|
|LG||Andy Levitre||6 years/$42 M|
|C||Brian Schwenke||4th Round (101)|
|RG||Chance Warmack||1st Round (10th)|
|RT||Michael Oher||4 years/$20 M|
This is the reason why the Tennessee Titans have turned from boring and mediocre into unwatchable and terrible. The Titans invested the majority of their resources into the offensive line. They needed it to dominate opponents. Instead, it returned below average results.
|Rush DVOA||Adjusted Line Yards||Main Back DYAR||Yards Per Carry||Adjusted Sack Rate||Sacks Allowed||Record|
|-8.9% (21st)||3.91 (17th)||24 (B.Sankey)||4.26 (19th)||8.9% (26th)||50 (27th)||2-14|
The 2014 supergroup of Roos/Lewan, Levitre, Schwenke, Warmack, and Oher was a bottom tier unit. The focal point of the team, the rushing attack, was 21st in DVOA. None of the running backs Tennessee employed found any success. Bishop Sankey led the team in DYAR, which measures a player's total value, at 24. This was good for 26th in the league. Adjusted line yards is a statistic from Football Outsiders that somewhat removes the running back to measure how well a team run blocks. Tennessee was 17th in the league.
In the passing game, the Titans were even worse. They allowed 50 sacks (27th), and were 26th in adjusted sack rate, which removes the counting aspect of sacks. As a unit they were credited with 56 blown passing blocks, and their two expensive free agents, Levitre and Oher, gave up 6.5 and 5.5 sacks each. Additionally, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was pressured 30.9% of the time, which placed him 33rd out of 36 quarterbacks with a minimum of 200 pass attempts. Tennessee couldn't protect the passer or run the football.
Individually, each one of these players are talented. Levitre has great feet, gets to the second level well, and is a perfect outside zone blocker. Michael Oher gets by in the pass game, is comfortable playing out of a 3 point stance, and works well in traditional double teams. Chance Warmack is a young player with incredible strength. Taylor Lewan is a genetically engineered 6'8" left tackle with great quickness and length. Brian Schwenke is a center that reaches defensive tackles well and is great at helping guards in the pass game when unblocked.
The problem is their individual talents didn't mesh as a five person unit working together. The left side of their line, Lewan and Levitre, were made to run the outside zone. They are quick players with great feet who can flow defenders one way before moving to the second level. The right side of the Titans' line, Warmack and Oher, were made to run traditional double teams with each other and plays where Warmack could pull.
Outside zone plays to the left were spoiled by backside players who ran around Warmack and Oher. This also prevented the Titans' running backs from cutting back, which is the main benefit of the outside zone. Power plays didn't work because Levitre couldn't move players vertically in double teams and one-on-one blocks. Too often, Warmack had nowhere to pull, and running backs danced around searching for a running lane that never materialized.
Tennessee had two different sections of their offensive line set up for different schemes. This play against the Texans from 2014 is a perfect example. They're running an outside zone play to the left. Lewan, Levitre, and Schwenke make great blocks. The back is tackled for just 2 yards because of the other side. Warmack can't take over the double team when Schwenke leaves, and Oher has no idea what he's doing against J.J. Watt.
This would've been a problem on its own, but it was exacerbated by the amount of funding that went into this unit. Tennessee went all in on its offensive line, and because there's no such thing as free lunch, they couldn't devote high draft picks and hand out expensive contracts to fix problems in the secondary, or to add talent to surround Jurrell Casey, or to bring in a receiver better than players like Kenny Britt, Justin Hunter, Kendall Wright of the "I hope he breaks out this year" mold.
If the Titans' offensive line was great and controlled the line of scrimmage, maybe they could have gotten away with the defense they had. Maybe the quarterbacks they used would have been capable with a better rushing attack. But they weren't. As a result, the Titans won just three games last season.
After finishing 31st in the league, Tennessee drafted Marcus Mariota, and changed their team-building strategy to talented, unlimited potential rookie quarterback + QB guru head coach = wins. This season, it didn't work and the Titans fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt after 23 games. His record was 3-20.
This Titans team still has plenty of holes. They have one of the worst secondaries in the NFL and rank in the bottom of the league at covering a team's #1 WR, #2 WR, other WR, and TE, according to DVOA. They can't run or throw the ball efficiently. They can't stop the run. They need more skill players to surround Mariota with, especially wide receivers that can attack the shorter part of the field. But most importantly, that same offensive line that never met expectations was further invested in with draft picks. It still has issues.
2015's incompetence has come behind a slightly different offensive line than the one they used in 2014. Tennessee cut Michael Oher, who now plays left tackle for the Carolina Panthers, and traded Andy Levitre for a sixth round pick to the Falcons. As a result of these deals, the Titans were forced to pay dead money in the short term to free up cap space in the long term. Tennessee was penalized $4.34 million this year for cutting Oher and $2.1 million this year, plus $4.2 million next year for trading Levitre.
In the 2015 offseason, Tennessee replaced these two by drafting Jeremiah Poutasi, a mauling 6'5" 335 pound tackle, and signing Byron Bell. Their Week One offensive line was:
||2014 1st Round (11th)
||1 year $1.5 M|
|C||Brian Schwenke||2013 4th Round (101st)|
|RG||Chance Warmack||2013 1st Round (10th)|
||2015 3rd Round (66th)
In the same measurements used to look at the 2014 offensive line, the 2015 Titans' offensive line has the following numbers:
||Adjusted Line Yards
||Main Back DYAR||Yards Per Carry
||Adjusted Sack Rate
||-12 (A. Andrews)
In every category, the 2015 unit is even worse than the one they had in 2014. They're on pace to give up more sacks than last year, and they're flailing away with the 49ers and Seahawks for last in the league in adjusted sack rate. Their rush offense DVOA is 13.9% less than last season. A different young running back is towards the bottom of the league in DYAR. And according to adjusted line yards, they are 26th in the league, and are again deficient at run blocking.
One of the reasons for this is Tennessee has used six different lineup combinations. This is the result of injuries, and again, a lack of production. Brian Schwenke dislocated his ankle in Week Five and is out for the rest of the season. Chance Warmack missed Weeks Three and Five because of a knee injury. Poutasi has been benched multiple times this year after getting destroyed by two of the league's best pass rushers, J.J. Watt and Cameron Wake. So they moved Byron Bell, a former undrafted guard, to right tackle, and started another UDFA, Quinton Spain, at left guard. Andy Gallik, a rookie sixth round pick who filled in for Schwenke, was benched this week for Joe Looney.
Furthermore, their Week 16 starting offensive line was:
|Player||Position||Contract/Draft Pick Acquired
||2014 1st Round (11th)
||2015 1 year/$660 K
|RG||Chance Warmack||2013 1st Round (10th)|
||2015 1 year/$1.5 M
All that being said, the Titans still have an offensive line with potential that's built around high draft picks. According to Dave Archibald at Inside the Pylon, they've used 27% of their draft capital on their offensive line, which is fifth in the league. It's a young unit. There's talent here. Tennessee shouldn't, and they probably don't, need to accept these picks as sunk costs and dip into free agency or use more high draft picks on the offensive line. Tennessee has the makings of a good offensive line with Lewan, Warmack, Schwenke, and Poutasi. Let's look at each of these players individually.
At the moment, Lewan is a top ten tackle in the game with the chance to be a top five one. His athleticism is among the best in the league, but there are little technique issues hampering him.
The biggest thing that sticks out is his feet. He's a shot of lighting out of his stance, and he takes his first two steps faster than most tackles. As a result, Lewan can reach any defensive end when Tennessee runs the outside zone. He's great in space in the second level and covers up defenders really well.
Not only is Lewan quick, but he's also strong enough to over power outside linebackers and defensive ends in one-on-one blocks. Often he's left on an island at left tackle against smaller players; he usually overpowers them and drives them vertically. In double teams, especially traditional hip-to-hip ones, he's a hammer. He is great at getting movement and peeling off to the second level.
The two problems Lewan has in the run game are that he doesn't latch onto the chest well and he makes too many assignment mistakes. He shoves more than punches. This leads to separation and allows defenders to make tackles even when they're blocked. The assignment issues are a team-wide problem, but Lewan really stands out. He'll come off the double team and block the wrong linebacker. He'll block the player they're trying to trap with a puller. These are rookie mistakes he shouldn't be making anymore.
At left tackle, Lewan was taken to protect the passer. Everything he does in the pass game is perfect except for one fatal flaw--he doesn't time his punch right. This play against Oakland is a perfect example. Lewan is matched up all alone with Benson Mayowa.
As mentioned earlier, Lewan is a cobra and snaps out of his stance in an instant. His first two steps are a flash. He takes two steps before Bell finishes his first.
Lewan continues to kick-slide at a forty-five degree angle.
This is when troubles arise. The defender is faking an inside move before attacking the outside shoulder. Lewan is antsy to make contact. He stops his feet and shows his hands. Too often, he stops and lunges for the defender. Instead, he should kick-slide one more time and then punch.
As a result, Lewan goes from being square and in front of the defender to turning his shoulders into him. He's quicker than the end and beats him to the edge. But because he stops his feet, the defender is able to get around him. Lewan now punches a smaller target and can't get his hands inside. He's standing up and leans over and into the defender. Lewan has no control over this block.
The end is able to take advantage of his pad level and drive through Lewan.
This spins the tackle around, and Mayowa has a path to the quarterback. Lewan stops his rush by turning into a basketball player and boxes him out.
And sometimes Lewan's hand placement is off. Instead of striking the chest, he'll catch the defender and wrap up.
Most of Lewan's pass blocks end up with him running the end past the quarterback. Because he stops his feet, he doesn't cover the defender up and gives up the outside shoulder. He then continues to fight and shoves the defender past the quarterback.
This is alright and is a necessary strategy for slower-footed tackles to depend on, but it doesn't completely stifle defenders, and it can lead to sacks when a quarterback maneuvers around the pocket when a play breaks down. Lewan has the footwork to beat the defender to the point of attack every time. He doesn't need to resort to letting the end go outside and push him on by. Yet for whatever reason, the brain can't communicate this with his arms when he kick-slides out.
If Lewan can fix these small technical problems, he has everything else down well enough to be a cornerstone on this offensive line for years to come.
Warmack is one of the stranger players I've ever seen. Right now, he isn't a good football player. His feet are slow. He takes terrible steps. He'll take entire games off like he did against Oakland. But he's huge, he's strong, and he's wide. He just looks like a starting offensive guard. He should be a better player than he is.
Part of the problem with Warmack is how the Titans have managed him. Warmack isn't a versatile player. What I mean by that is that his feet aren't quick enough to run every offensive play. He has issues reaching the outside shoulder and heading straight to the second level. Instead of running plays based on his strength, like power, counter, trap, and inside zone plays where he can get strong double teams, pull, and bulldoze players, he's having to reach and play in space. This isn't what he's good at.
Warmak has also played with numerous different tackles over the course of his career. He's played next to David Stewart, Michael Oher, Byron Bell, Jeremiah Poutasi, and Jamon Meredith. He hasn't had the continuity that's vital to successful offensive line play.
These are all outside issues. Warmack has personal problems of his own. Of these, the one most detrimental to his success is his feet. He's a slow-footed lumberer. Now, a player can improve foot speed, but Warmack has been in the league for three years. I don't see quickness jumping out of nowhere. He can, however, correct his footwork.
Footwork is the steps he takes. He doesn't gain ground when he pulls. He takes too many false steps when coming together on double teams. He crosses his feet on zone plays. This is a problem because it messes with his head placement. He doesn't hit his landmarks. He doesn't cover up defenders. There are a lot of plays where he hits the inside shoulder instead of the chest, which result in the defender winning outside and making the tackle. Better coaching and commitment on his part can fix something that just takes repetition.
This play depicts the problems Warmack has. Tennessee is running power and pulling Warmack from the backside to the play side linebacker, Karlos Dansby (#56)
His pull step is atrocious. Warmack doesn't gain ground with his step. He just spins around on this foot. He's already at a disadvantage. He'll now need to move faster to get to the linebacker.
Warmack heads towards the hole.
Here's another footwork issue. Warmack doesn't come tight off the double team. He takes a wide, lazy angle around the block.
His head is outside of Dansby at the moment. Instead of staying on the same path, he'll need to correct his pull so he can hit the linebacker's sternum.
Warmack changes direction to align himself with the linebacker, but now his head is on the inside shoulder.
Like every one of the Titans' running backs, Sankey has no idea where to run. He runs horizontal instead of vertical. He looks to bounce an inside run play outside.
When Warmack goes to make contact, he whiffs completely. His head placement his way off because of his footwork. He also leans into the block. He doesn't keep his head up, so he can't see what he's hitting. His head is down, and he misses Dansby. This is a consistent problem of Warmack's.
The main reason why players lean is because they lack strength. They can't create movement with their arms alone, so they'll use their head to add some oomf. Warmack doesn't have a lack of strength, though. He doesn't have to do this. Yet whenever he pulls or blocks linebackers, he usually dips his head into the block and misses.
Dansby sidesteps him and makes the tackle.
Warmack is a sloppy football player. He lunges. He takes poor steps. These are outrageous problems that shouldn't be here because he's so damn strong. It's his third year in the league. But over the years, with different blocking schemes and coaching changes, he's learned bad habits that have hurt his game. Most of his problems are fixable. If Warmack can correct them, the size and strength are there as a template to build upon.
Schwenke isn't the best athlete on this team, but he has the best fundamentals. He plays low and gets underneath the defender's pads. He takes sharp precise steps. His hands are always inside, and he never lets go. He's active and is always looking to help out in the pass game. He plays like a thrashing pitbull whose mouth is wrapped around someone's neck.
In the first quarter against Cleveland, the Titans are running a zone read play to the right. Schwenke has a traditional ace block with Warmack. They're blocking the defensive tackle, Danny Shelton (#71), to the linebacker, Dansby (#56). Schwenke snaps the ball and takes a horizontal step to the right.
He covers up Shelton nicely. His hands are inside. He's square and has a great base. The only problem is Schwenke could be a little lower, but his hands make up for it.
Before Warmack punches, Schwenke is able to move Shelton, a player that weighs 340 pounds, off the ball. This is because of his hand placement and his hip explosion.
Warmack displays his strength and shoves Shelton to create vertical movement.
Schwenke is still driving, has his hands inside, and doesn't let up.
Schwenke plays with tenacity and great technique. The only flaw in his game is that he's a little undersized, so he has trouble against bullrushes and moving defenders on his own. His technique frequently makes up for this, though. He should be the starting center in Tennessee for a long while. He's a great player, and it's a shame he missed the majority of the 2015 season.
I haven't seen a tackle as overwhelmed as Poutasi was this year. He gave up five sacks against the Browns in his first start, he was benched against the Dolphins after getting hazed by Cameron Wake, and he was benched against the Texans after getting demolished by J.J. Watt.
Poutasi doesn't have the quickness to be a right tackle. When he takes a natural, controlled kick-slide, he can't get to the point of contact before the defensive end. He gets beat to the spot and is forced to turn and face the defender to stop him from running around the edge. Poutasi opens the gate on nearly every pass block. This opens the path for the defender to get to the quarterback.
To stop this from happening, he'll speed up his pass set. This leads to him practically running to stay in front of the defender. His location will be in a good spot, but his body won't be. By having to hurry, he plays way too high. He'll stand straight up when he punches. This just opens him up to bullrushes and inside moves. No matter what Poutasi does, he loses.
Despite all of this, I still think he can be a viable NFL player. Poutasi is young, and he's enormous. He was a third round pick from Utah, and oh yeah, he's 6'5" and 335 pounds. His skillset is a better fit for a guard.
My reasoning behind this is that he's great at blocking linebackers, and he's strong enough to handle one-on-one blocks on his own. If he's strong enough to make these blocks, he should be strong enough to get movement on defensive tackles like how Warmack did on the previous play.
Tennessee is running an inside zone play with the fullback leading the way. On the backside, Poutasi is blocking down on the defensive end, John Hughes (#93).
Poutasi takes a zone step inside, a forty-five degree step that gains vertical and horizontal ground. Even though he doesn't have vertical quickness to kick-slide well, he does have lateral quickness. Poutasi is great at covering defensive linemen up and at getting to the second level.
When he punches, he's a little too high. Hughes crashes inside, and it surprises Poutasi. But it doesn't have a negative effect on this play, simply because Poutasi is a powerful behemoth.
His punch extinguishes penetration. Poutasi jars the defender backwards and runs his feet.
This crumples Hughes into a ball.
Poutasi can't play tackle in the NFL. He doesn't have the speed to play outside. However, what he has is the strength and lateral quickness to play inside. He's not a waste of a third round pick. If Tennessee moves him to guard, they can turn an unplayable investment into a NFL starter.
The last aspect for the Titans' offensive line moving forward is their scheme. Just like last season, the Titans have used every running play in the book with little success. Instead of honing in on a system and narrowing their focus, they're again all over the place. It would be different if they had five guys with a similar combination of speed and strength. But they don't. Instead they have five players on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Tennessee can still make this work. Whoever becomes the next head coach needs to create a central focus and reduce the number of plays the Titans run. If they do this, they can take advantage of their player's skills. It will also help out with the assignment errors and continuity problems that have plagued them in the past.
The Titans were never able to turn into the 2010-2013 San Fransisco 49ers or the current version of the Dallas Cowboys by building the kind of offensive line that dictates games. They spent the resources necessary to do it, but they brought in players with a variety of different strengths and ran too many types of plays to have success. They've lost Roos to retirement, traded Levitre, and cut Oher. Now they are left with a roster of young players who are getting closer to their next contract.
The development of these players is crucial for the Titans. Are these just sunk costs they're going to have to give up on? Or are they starters on this franchise for years to come that will allow Tennessee to invest elsewhere to fix the defense and surround Mariota with as much talent as possible? It's going to take a coaching staff and front office with a cohesive vision to bring these four players together, but the potential is here. If Tennessee can pull it off, they'll get a watered down version of their dream. They'll be able to focus on fixing the rest of their team without calling the last three years of personnel decisions a complete waste of life, time, and money.
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