(Photo Via: Tennessee Titans Twitter)
If you were presented the following lists of the top five teams in a particular statistic:
- Los Angeles Rams
- New Orleans Saints
- New England Patriots
- Indianapolis Colts
- Los Angeles Chargers
- New England Patriots
- Indianapolis Colts
- New Orleans Saints
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Kansas City Chiefs
You would probably imagine the statistic was something like passing yards, rushing yards, touchdowns, or some other statistic describing how prolific the offense was. In a league captivated by high scoring, passing driven offenses, you would probably be surprised to learn that the above rankings are for run blocking and pass blocking, respectively. When you consider that each of the teams on the above lists is in the top-15 (top half) of the league in BOTH run and pass rankings, one can begin to paint a very different picture of the type of offense that drives success in the league. We see all of the highlight reel plays and long touchdown passes, and lose sight of the fact that the offenses that most often produce these highlights rarely allow their quarterbacks to be sacked and often average near 5 yards per carry on the ground.
One could then make the argument that if the offensive line is so important, the Titans should have been much better than slightly above average over the last 3 years. After all, we’ve heard for a while now that the Titans have one of the best offensive lines in the league. Let’s take a deeper dive and discover why that hasn’t necessarily been the case, and why I believe a renewed emphasis on the offensive line will be the key to the Titans getting over the hump this season.
Let’s go way back to 2016. The Titans were coming off a 3-13 season, but Marcus Mariota had shown signs of transcendence, Demarco Murray had been acquired for pennies, and the team shocked many by drafting the one-man wrecking ball Derrick Henry in the second round. Exotic Smashmouth had come to town and was ready to take the league by storm. After a slow start, the team put together a respectable season, Marcus had the best year of his career, Demarco Murray led the AFC in rushing, Taylor Lewan made the Pro Bowl, Jack Conklin was All-Pro,and despite a tough ending to the season, the Titans had ascended from mediocrity and become a team competing for a playoff spot.
The Titans offensive line statistics seem to reflect the offenses of those listed above. The line ranked 5th in rushing, and 15th in pass blocking. The Titans had found their franchise tackles to bookend one of the best lines in the league. However, one glaring statistic is indicative of the struggles the Titans would face over the next 2 seasons. The Titans rushing attack was ranked 11th around the left end, 1st at left tackle, 2nd at right tackle, 2nd around the right end, but 21st up the middle (which also includes at left and right guard).
2017 came around, and the Titans found success in the win column, despite a pretty significant statistical regression on offense. It seemed teams had cracked the code of Exotic Smashmouth, and the Titans run blocking rank dropped to 23rd in the league (though they were still 1st around the left end). There are many conceivable reasons for the decline, but Titans fans (and management) seemed to agree that the issue was not the players, but the scheme. Running into stacked boxes and the throwing on third and long wasn’t sexy or effective, but a healthy Marcus Mariota and Corey Davis and the arrival of Matt LaFleur were going to bring a high-flying 21st-century offense to the Titans.
Unfortunately, 2018 revealed a glaring weakness in the Titans highly-touted line. Though the Titans run blocking finished the year ranked 17th, considering over half of Derrick Henry’s yards came in the last 4 games of the season, and he was only averaging 3.7 YPC before that, even that ranking seems a little high. This was coupled with a pass blocking ranking of 29th. Many of you are probably familiar with the narrative surrounding the New York Giants that Eli manning was playing behind an awful line and was constantly running for his life. Eli provides an interesting comparison point to emphasize the rate at which Marcus Mariota was sacked last season. The Giants and Titans gave up the same number of sacks in 2018 (47), but Blaine Gabbert was sacked 5 times, so Eli was sacked 5 times more than Marcus. However, Eli dropped back to pass 250 times more than Marcus. If you dive a little deeper into comparisons, Marcus was the most sacked (by percentage of drop-backs ending in a sack) of all teams’ primary starting quarterbacks. When you consider this it should come as no surprise that Marcus was suffering with injuries for basically the entire season.
An even more interesting comparison for Marcus is Steve McNair (who was also known to play through injury). McNair’s career sack percentage was 5.3%. Last season, Marcus was sacked at twice the rate McNair was. McNair’s most sacked year he was sacked at a rate of 7.9% and no other year was he above 7%. McNair did run the ball a bit more than Mariota (about 10-20 times per year), but you can see that we shouldn’t be surprised that Marcus has been so injury plagued, and one could argue he should be lauded as McNair was for playing through injury (he’s only missed 8 games in 4 years).
One could argue that the transition to a more modern offense revealed a glaring issue with what had once been regarded as one of the best lines in football. Indeed, one need only watch a few games to identify where the holes were. The interior of the offensive line struggled to establish the run and struggled mightily to hold up in pass protection. There was rarely and semblance of a pocket for Marcus to step into (which resulted in a number of sacks for edge rushers despite decent blocking by the tackles). Jack Conklin also struggled to return to form after his ACL injury. Perhaps all the max protect passes that Titans’ fans had grown tired of during the Exotic Smashmouth days hid the poor play of the interior line. Whatever the reason, there is no escaping the fact that the Titans offensive line play was pretty poor last season. However, there is hope, and I believe that the teams focus on the line in the offseason will be instrumental in its success to come.
The Titans have cut ties with 2/3 of their interior offensive line, and went out and made a splash in free agency signing Rodger Saffold (who ranks in the top 10 in both run and pass blocking). The team likely plans to address the other guard spot in the draft (though its possible we could see some shuffling of the right side of the line due to the play of Dennis Kelly). I firmly believe we will see a resurgence in Jack Conklin’s play (its not uncommon for players to have a down year coming off of an ACL injury), and Derrick Henry seems to have figured something out. As we learned earlier, offensive line play (and the running game) is an integral part of the best offenses in the league. Critics of the Titans moves seem to think the Titans are living in the past. Ignore them. An emphasis on the offensive line and the running game will lead to a successful year for the Titans (despite being in a division that now looks like arguably one of the toughest in the league).
It all starts in the trenches, and though there may be some different names this year, Taylor Lewan and the boys will dictate the success of the Titans this season.