Apr 27, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans first round draft pick Kendall Wright stands between Titans general manager Ruston Webster (left) and head coach Mike Munchak (right) during a press conference in the Titans Training facility at Baptist Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE

The Guest Spot: Tennessee Titans 2012: Becoming A Playoff Contender

Our first Guest Spot article comes to us courtesy of Joshua Huffman. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaRHuffman

No Peyton Manning? No problem. No free moon pies? Fewer problems.

The Tennessee Titans weren’t supposed to win more than seven games even with Kenny Britt in 2011. They became the only team who didn’t qualify for the postseason despite having a winning record (9-7). That was a solid accomplishment when one considers the situation that rookie head coach Mike Munchak found himself in. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants also finished with a 9-7 record (excluding postseason).

The Titans can silence more critics by winning the AFC South in 2012. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts are both rebuilding with new coaching regimes and unproven quarterbacks. The Texans lost two-fifths of their offensive line and Mario Williams. There are also doubts as to how effective Matt Schaub will be upon his return from a lisfranc injury.

What can the Titans do now that they’ve had an entire offseason to work with this coaching staff? If they can address these five concerns, the sky is the limit in a conference that lacked a truly great team in 2011.

The Replacement For Cortland Finnegan

Barring injuries, the Titans are scheduled to face a slate of quarterbacks in their opening three games that include Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Matthew Stafford. Things won’t get much easier when they face the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers in two of their next three games. All these teams have Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks or wide receivers. Some have both.

It goes without saying that the Titans must quickly adjust to life without Cortland Finnegan, who signed with the St. Louis Rams this offseason. The Titans are returning four of their best defensive backs with Alterraun Verner, Jason McCourty, Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux. The nickelback (or No. 2 cornerback if Verner plays nickelback in spread packages) should come down to a training camp competition amongst Ryan Mouton, Chris Hawkins, Tommie Campbell and Coty Sensabaugh.

They’d all better be prepared for Week 1. There are few quarterbacks who are as talented as Brady at spreading the football around and exposing vulnerabilities in a secondary. Expect a lot of four-wide sets (plus Rob Gronkowski) in this opener.

Upfront

The Titans’ secondary performed remarkably well when one considers that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only team who finished the season with fewer sacks. The Green Bay Packers’ secondary fared much worse, despite having one more sack than the Titans. Shaun Smith also hasn’t been the run-clogger that this defense needs in their four-man rush schemes.

The defensive line has been restructured this offseason. They essentially replaced versatile defensive lineman Jason Jones with Leger Douzable. They signed Kamerion Wimbley immediately after they shifted their focus from the Manning Sweepstakes. The Titans used the 2012 NFL Draft to select defensive tackle Mike Martin and defensive end Scott Solomon. Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey should continue to progress in their
sophomore campaigns.

The Titans need Wimbley to give them more production from their defensive ends. Derrick Morgan will hopefully have more success than he has had in his first two seasons. Dave Ball should be a serviceable option for depth. Look out for a breakout year from Akeem Ayers.

The Health of Kenny Britt

The Titans used the 20th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on Baylor University wide receiver Kendall Wright. The pick was somewhat scrutinized because they already have Kenny Britt and Nate Washington as their starting receivers. They also have some up-and-coming receivers with Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins. The question is whether it was necessary to invest such a high pick on a position that’s normally rich in talent outside of the first round. Would they have been better served going after a defensive linemen or someone like David DeCastro?

Personally, I liked the choice. The Titans needed another downfield threat for their vertical passing game. They also needed to insure themselves in case Britt suffers another injury, or has a setback with the cleanup surgery on the knee that he injured during a regular-season game against the Denver Broncos. Britt is an immensely talented athlete; his problem is that he hasn’t proven that he’s durable enough to be a No. 1 receiver. Britt missed four games in 2010 because of a hamstring injury. He also missed most of the 2011 preseason because of a hamstring injury. This doesn’t include the risk from legal trouble that he has occasionally found himself in.

Now if Britt can remain healthy? He has the talent to be a top-ten, maybe top-five receiver. In that case, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer has no reason to not turn this into a top-ten offense. The Titans have a great pass-blocking offensive line and athletic skill-position players that should create plenty of mismatches for opposing defenses. That doesn’t include the respect that defenses must give to Jake Locker’s mobility (if he starts).

A Revival From Chris Johnson And The Ground Game

Chris Johnson earned Pro Bowl nominations in each of his first three seasons before he inked his contract extension in 2011. There was plenty of controversy as to whether his disappointing 2011 season was a result of him, the offensive line or the play-calling. Personally, I’m with those who feel that it was a combination of all of them. The offensive line wasn’t creating enough running lanes. When they did, Johnson elected to go elsewhere. The combination of Johnson’s decision making and the offensive line’s poor run-blocking led to the NFL’s 31st-ranked run offense in 2011.

This must change. Steve Hutchinson should be an improvement over Jake Scott as long as he remains healthy. It’ll be interesting to see who wins the job as the starting center. I’m hoping that Johnson will benefit from having an entire offseason to prepare. Maybe they can get more contributions from Jamie Harper or even Javon Ringer?

Matt Hasselbeck vs. Jake Locker

Coach Munchak fared well in his first season as a head coach. However, I felt like he made one crucial mistake: starting Matt Hasselbeck in a Week 15 game against a winless Colts team. The Titans insisted that Hasselbeck was healthy throughout the week. That didn’t appear to be the case when he was hobbling on one leg after a handoff on the opening series. The offense was extraordinarily conservative as they appeared to be limited to check-down passes before Hasselbeck was removed in the third quarter.

Hasselbeck started all 16 games for the first time since 2007. The problem was that he shouldn’t have been active for some of them, much less starting. Hasselbeck had a 13-to-6 touchdown ratio before he re-injured his thumb against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 9. Amidst other injuries, Hasselbeck had a 3-to-8 touchdown ratio from Week 10 through Week 16. He had 297 passing yards with two touchdowns against the Houston Texans in the regular-season finale.

I think most fans would agree that we want to see Jake Locker legitimately win the starting quarterback job in training camp and not be rewarded it because of his age or upside. Personally, I have my doubts about whether Hasselbeck can manage a high- scoring offense and maximize the potential from the skill-position players that will surround him. I thought Locker played very well in limited action in 2011. Of course, much of that action was against soft coverages and prevent defenses.

I’m uncertain as to whether veteran loyalty or lack of confidence in Locker had anything to do with Munchak’s insistence on playing a visibly-injured Hasselbeck in the second half of the season. That mismanagement was the difference between a playoff-less season and at least a do-or-die game in the regular-season finale for the AFC South championship.

The chances that Hasselbeck remains healthy for the entire season are very slim. Maybe Munchak decides on using Hasselbeck as his starting quarterback to begin 2012. What Munchak needs to understand is that he must make the switch if Hasselbeck gets injured. There might be controversy as to which quarterback is better when they’re both healthy. There’s no controversy that a healthy Locker is better than a banged-up Hasselbeck.

 

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