The Tennessee Titans hung into the playoff race to the very end a year ago and won nine games in the first year of the post-Jeff Fischer era. Now the question is, with Indianapolis and Jacksonville seemingly down, can head coach Mike Munchak continue to keep Tennessee as the prime challenger to Houston in the AFC South, and this time sneak out a postseason spot. TheSportsNotebook looks at the questions of how we’ll remember the Titans when the 2012 season is over…
OFFENSE: Munchak is handing the keys to the offense to Jake Locker, the touted second-year man from Washington who has the talent and helped lead an otherwise mediocre college team into bowl games. But Locker also had consistency issues at the college level and there’s no reason to think the same won’t be true as he steps into the role of NFL starter. Tennessee has veteran Matt Hasselbeck as an insurance policy, but given that Hasselbeck can still start, or backup on a Super Bowl contender, the Titans might be enticed to trade him (a place like Arizona as a starter or Green Bay as a backup are logical)
Locker can be secure in that the edge of the pocket will be well-protected, with left tackle Michael Roos being one of the best in the game and right tackle David Stewart not far behind. The interior of the offensive line is a little messy. Steve Hutchinson is still a quality guard at age 34, but the other two spots could use some improvement.
What will help the new quarterback most of all is that running back Chris Johnson is in camp from the outset. Johnson, one of the NFL’s top rushers, held out last year and that’s even after the opening of camps were delayed because of the lockout. Johnson dealt with nagging injuries as a result and while he still rushed for 1,000 yards, he wasn’t the type of game-controlling back he’d been prior. I think we can expect to see the old Johnson back in 2012.
Another big boost to the offense will be the return of Kenny Britt. He’s likely to be ready to open the year after a knee injury early last season cost the team it’s best big-play threat and probably cost them a playoff spot. Britt likely faces an early suspension for a DUI, but he’ll be on the field before September is out. His return allows Nate Washington to settle into the #2 receiver spot, where he’s very effective. For the passing game to reach its full potential, Tennessee needs #3 receiver Damian Williams to get his techniques and mechanics under control and fulfill the potential he showed at Southern Cal.
DEFENSE: The Titans didn’t get a pass rush from their defensive line a year ago, a killer problem in a 4-3 front, so they’ve made some changes. Kamerion Wimbley, who had 7.5 sacks a year ago as an outside linebacker will move to end. The folks at ESPN’s Scouts Inc . say that Wimbley was better moving forward than he was backwards into coverage anyway and see little problem with him making the transition. 23-year-old Derrick Morgan is on the other side and he has the talent to make needed improvements.
Tackle Jurrell Casey anchors the interior, and at linebacker Will Witherspoon and Colin McCarthy are proto-type 4-3 linebackers. They’re not spectacular, but they make the plays they need to make. Second-year man Akeem Ayers will tell a lot about how this unit goes. If he builds on the promise he showed his rookie year, Tennessee will have an athletic linebacker to go with its steady rocks. If Ayers does not progress, then there’s a hole against the run.
Further run support is provided by strong safety Justin Babineaux, but he’s not good in coverage. The ability of free safety Michael Griffin helps to cover for a lot though. Whether Tennessee can take the next step defensively will depend on the progress of their corners. Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are already decent, albeit not great, corners. But their ages are 25 & 23 respectively, so if they can improve and start taking one-on-one responsibilities it frees up Griffin to do a lot more freelancing and potentially create more turnovers. And it’s big plays—be it sacks or turnovers—that Tennessee has to prove it can generate.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 7.5—This is a cautious number given the team won nine a year ago and if Indy and Jacksonville are as bad as many expect, the Titans could grab at least three, possibly four wins on the cheap. But it’s also easy to see Tennessee as a team that plays competitively, but unable to close. They’ll run the ball with Johnson and they’ll play respectable defense, but will they get big plays from Locker, Britt, Wimbley and Griffin? That’s a much tougher call. And if Locker doesn’t come through a 6-10 season is well within reach. As a result, though I see this team as about .500, I’m going to lean to the Under here.