The regression of the Tennessee Titans offensive line is evident. With playoff aspirations on the line, can Russ Grimm reinvigorate his trench maulers?
The secret to the success of the 2016 Tennessee Titans rested solely on the production from the offensive line. The same group of offensive linemen returned the following year and looked to replicate and enhance the success achieved in 2016.
However, what was once believed to be the strength of the team has morphed into a hindrance that has contributed heavily to the offensive struggles.
What went wrong?
Identifying the Issue
Running Behind Lewan
According to NFL.com statistics, the 2016 Titans ranked first in the league in rushing first downs to the left. Taylor Lewan paved the way for DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, earning a Pro Bowl nod in the process. Lewan earned a trip to the 2017 Pro Bowl with the team ranking sixth in rushing success when going in Lewan’s direction.
The Titans ranked 18th in negative yards when running to the left in 2016, which is a good thing. The team had only 15 negative runs to the left, which put them on the right side of the stat. This season, the Titans improved and currently sit at 25th in fewest negative yards to the left, with only 12 negative runs.
Tennessee ranked third in the league in 10+ yards runs to the left in 2016, behind only Dallas and Buffalo. This season, the Titans rank ninth when running the ball to the left.
In terms of rush power, which measures “Percentage of rushes on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or TD. Also includes rushes on first-and-goal and second-and-goal from the opponent’s two-yard line or closer”, the 2016 Titans were fourth in the NFL and found tremendous amounts of success in short-yardage situations to the left.
The Titans did not drop off in this aspect and remain the fourth-best team in rush success when the play designs funnel through Lewan’s side of the field.
Offensive line play has been solid on Lewan’s part. Any success running the football has primarily come from running behind their Pro Bowl left tackle. The problem is, Tennessee cannot find success when running up the gut or to the right – thus making the team one-dimensional and fairly easy to game plan for.
Running up the Middle
Last season, Tennessee ranked 14th in terms of run success up the middle. The Titans dropped a few spots this season, currently ranking 16th when running behind Ben Jones and the interior offensive line.
Tennessee had the sixth-most negative runs when running behind center in 2016. This season, the team ranks 12th, which is better.
The Titans were 17th in the league for runs of 10+ yards up the middle in 2016. Tennessee is dead last for runs over 10 yards behind center, with only two runs going over 10 when following Jones. This has been problematic. The fewest in the NFL means the Titans lack explosiveness when running through the middle.
Tennessee ranked 20th in rush power in 2016, but this season have managed to improve to the ninth-best team when trying to convert short yards to move the chains.
Running Behind Conklin
The Titans were pleased with the successful season their rookie right tackle, Jack Conklin, was able to have in 2016. He had arguably the best season of any other rookie linemen and showed tremendous amounts of promise.
The 2016 Titans ranked 19th in run success when running towards Conklin. This season, Tennessee has fallen a few spots and ranks 21st when running right. Not a drastic drop, but a drop nonetheless.
Tennessee ranked 16th in 2016 for negative rushing yards to the right. The Titans rank sixth in the league for the most negative rush yards to the right. Losing the blocking production from Anthony Fasano has haunted the offensive line, but the player feeling it the most is Conklin.
Rookie tight end Jonnu Smith hasn’t come close to matching Fasano’s contributions in run blocking. Conklin struggled earlier in the season and experienced firsthand the difference Fasano made and how much of an impact he had on Conklin’s individual success.
The Titans ranked 11th in 10+ yards running behind Conklin and company right side. Tennessee has dropped to 15th this year in 10+ yards runs to the right.
Rush power significantly dropped off from 2016. Tennessee ranked fourth in terms of run power, but sit at 22nd this season. That is huge.
According to FoxSports.com, the individuals within the offensive line have improved in specific areas this season.
Lewan has cut his penalties in half, going from 12 in 2016 to five in 14 games thus far. Conklin has doubled his penalties. Lewan’s erroneous penalties in 2016 negated some big plays and, in some instances, were game-changing – but not in the way the Titans preferred. Conklin has suffered the same fate this season, as some of his penalties erased momentum-building plays that influenced the outcome of games.
Statistically, the team as a whole is playing more disciplined. The unit contributed 31 total penalties for 263 yards last season. This year, the team currently has 20 penalties for 180 yards.
The offensive line is close to matching their false start and holding penalties from last year. In 2016, the Titans had 11 false starts and nine holding penalties. This season, the core unit has seven false starts and eight holding penalties.
It will be difficult for Tennessee to avoid bulking up those numbers over the last two weeks, having to deal with the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars defenses. The playmakers on the defensive front for both the Rams’ and Jaguars’ physical and ferocious attack will generate some holding and false start calls. It’s just the nature of the game.
Titans Hall of Fame offensive line coach Russ Grimm was instrumental in building the monster that was the Tennessee offensive line last season. He needs to figure out how to get the group to play their best football over the next two weeks. A trip to the playoffs depends on it.
Grimm needs to reinforce the idea and instill the mentality within the offensive line unit that their individual accolades, improvements or game-by-game success is irrelevant to the team’s ability to prosper as a whole.
Below is a perfect snippet of what Grimm’s goal for the offensive line is and his method of helping the unit understand functioning as one group, not as individuals.
Lewan is playing out of his mind, but his individual success doesn’t make his job easier. His job becomes harder as defenses game plan to attack his side of the field. There is a reason why Lewan has allowed the most sacks of the unit: He’s getting the most pressure, but still is managing to weather the storm.
Grimm must focus on developing ways to find success running the ball up the middle or to the right to create more balance. If the Titans can begin to achieve success running outside to the left, defenses will be forced to respect runs to the opposite side of Lewan. Being forced to respect different parts of the field should open up the offense a little more and unclog Lewan’s territory somewhat.
How Grimm motivates the men in two-tone blue over the next few weeks will be critical. If he can light a fire, the same building blocks can achieve the same success as last season.