The Tennessee Titans sit at a crossroads entering the new season. The team enjoyed a surprising amount of success under first-year head coach and Oilers/Titans great Mike Munchak.
A renaissance year from Matt Hasselbeck overshadowed a throwaway year for Chris Johnson, no longer the CJ2K of the past.
After narrowly missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record, do the Titans trot the proven veterans back out onto the field in 2012, hoping for Hasselbeck to continue to play like it is still 2005?
Or do they unleash the talented young guns on the roster and hope to capture lightning in a bottle that Locker showed during limited time in 2011?
The Titans are a team with a promising future and a more explosive feel than they had during the Jeff Fisher era. Will they fix last season's problems with the rushing attack, pass rush and downfield passing to challenge the Texans for the AFC South? It depends on three important questions.
Has Chris Johnson regressed from CJ2K to CJ1K?
Throughout last season, Johnson ran like a shell of his former self, running very tentatively. He had less daylight to run towards with the horrendous play of departed guard Jake Scott and injuries along the line, but something was still missing.
When he was the most electric back in the league, Johson used to hit the smallest crease at full speed, inexplicably shooting through the other side. The 2011 version would avoid any contact, bouncing every run outside at his earliest convenience. His first two years in the league, Johnson averaged 4.9 and 5.6 yards per carry. In his second two, he has averaged 4.3 and 4.0.
Some blamed his decline on the training camp holdout that did not allow him to learn a new offense and others blame offensive line play. There are rumblings that Johnson has become lax in his workouts. Another culprit could be the new-contract syndrome that many players suffer.
No matter what, the old Johnson would have never been taken off the field. Especially not for Javon Ringer.
Towards the end of the season the Titans ran from more spread formations, naturally opening up bigger lanes for Johnson, and he showed improvement for a few weeks.
Of course, after rushing for 130 yards in Week 9, he ran for 13 yards on 12 attempts in Week 10. In Weeks 11 and 12 he ran for 190 and 153 yards, respectively, but he followed that with a dismal 23 yards on 11 attempts. Whether it was from the scheme or better condition remains to be determined.
As to his lack of explosion and acceleration in his game, the Titans’ contract stipulations might indicate that poor conditioning is what was holding Johnson back. The Titans included clauses forcing Johnson to work out at team facilities to earn workout bonuses. In working at team facilities, Johnson is reportedly in the best shape of his life. He will show improvement, but will likely never return to CJ2K form.
Like another NFL player who recently came to share a surname with Johnson after spending time as Esteban Ochocinco, Chris Johnson performed at his best with his chip on his shoulder and his game doing the only talking.
The winner of the quarterback competition could indicate his chances for 2012 success. Matt Hasselbeck did not scare defenses with his deep-ball ability, allowing the safeties to crowd the line of scrimmage. Will Jake Locker and his superior arm strength win out, allowing more breathing room for Johnson? Let's take a look.
When will the youth movement featuring Jake Locker begin in Nashville?
So much of this answer was dependent upon Kenny Britt’s recovery from the knee injury that ended his 2011 season and the more recent knee surgery on the opposite knee
. After his recent arrest for a DUI, Britt’s availability becomes even more questionable. His presence, or lack thereof, will determine the course of the Titans' offense.
Hasselbeck understood when he joined the Titans that he is just keeping the seat warm until Locker is ready to take over. Will the wily veteran or the cannon-armed young quarterback begin the season under center? It boils down to their unique strengths and supporting cast.
Although productive throughout the route tree, Britt destroys secondaries when catching balls on the sidelines and running vertical routes.
Locker has the arm strength to best take advantage of his vertical game. Hasselbeck has never had the strongest arm, and he has been successful when only he reads the defense at the line of scrimmage and makes intelligent decisions. Last season Hasselbeck's arm seemed to weaken down the stretch. Passes were floating and often arriving too late to take advantage of openings.
If Britt begins the season suspended or hobbled, look for Hasselbeck to initially get the nod. The Titans face a difficult string of games to kick off the season, which already finds Munchak favoring Hasselbeck's experience. If Britt were to be sidelined through that stretch, it might be too much to ask rookie Kendall Wright to assume a large role right away.
Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer will wait for their young pieces to prove that they are ready. Hasselbeck will use his expertise in the short, timing routes of the West Coast offense to build a solid offense around an emerging Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in Jared Cook and the dependable Nate Washington.
Over the course of the season, Hasselbeck will likely go down with an injury. His lengthy injury history is bound to repeat itself. The Titans will hope it will not happen until at least Week 5 against the Vikings, when the schedule starts to ease up.
By that time Wright will have become used to the speed and complexities of the NFL and Britt will be likely ready to join the lineup. They will make fast friends with Locker and his playmaking abilities. With the continued presence of Eugene Amaro at center, Locker’s mobility, pocket presence, ability to throw across his body on the run without hurting his throws will come in handy.
Will the defensive front find a way to disrupt opposing quarterbacks?
The anemic pass rush that the Titans produced last year allowed opposing offenses to pick them apart in the passing game. The secondary, despite the loss of Cortland Finnegan, is a solid unit that can succeed, but only in tandem with a imposing pass rush.
The Titans have addressed this problem by hiring an assistant, former Vikings defensive lineman Keith Millard, dedicated to coaching pass-rushing techniques. The Titans decided that the overall solution to their pass-rushing woes will come from within the existing roster based on their offseason activity.
Kamerion Wimbley did, however, join the team in free agency and will bolster the pass rush. The caveat is that Wimbley has not played the 4-3 defensive end position since college and may be used as a situational rusher.
Wimbley will not be more than a complementary part, but the Titans believe they have a stud already on the roster. Derrick Morgan was selected in the first round in 2010 with the 16th
pick. He has suffered through injuries and (during last season) conditioning issues that limited his production, keeping him from the potential he displayed as a disruptive force at Georgia Tech.
Morgan has been largely overshadowed by Jason Pierre-Paul, taken with that draft’s 15th
pick, but can not be depended upon to immediately make the same leap to one of the league's most dominant pass rushers. Karl Klug led the team with 7 sacks last year from the defensive tackle position and must continue producing at that level.
Akeem Ayers, a playmaking second-year linebacker, was progressively sent on more pass-rushing assignments as his rookie year progressed. The Titans plan to spend training camp instructing him to better rush the passer and become the poor man’s Von Miller. His ceiling does not reach that high, but any improvement from Ayers and Morgan would help the Titans immensely.