A 9-7 record in2011 under first-year coach Mike Munchak and the presumed development of second-year quarterback Jake Locker had fans and observers intrigued by the Tennessee Titans chances of a playoff run in 2012.
Injuries to Locker and several other key players quickly scuttled those hopes, however. And despite scoring 50 more points in 2012 than 2011, Tennessee’s defense collapsed, allowing 471 points, the most in the NFL – and 154 more than the season prior.
There’s plenty of talent on this roster though. Locker has a trio of wide receivers and a resurgent Chris Johnson, who showed in 2012 that he has at least something left in the tank. Justin Stewart, editor and lead writer for Titan Sized, says if the Titans can avoid the injury issues of 2012, this team could once again challenge for a postseason berth.
Zoneblitz: What are your thoughts on the development of Jake Locker and will he be the starting quarterback in 2013?
Stewart: The 2012 season was certainly disappointing. Everyone had high hopes for him after some great play in 2011. It was all downhill from his injury in game one. Watching him miss six games and struggle throughout the season was rough, but I’m holding out hope for 2013. Locker was under pressure too often this past season and was also dealing with a shoulder injury, which certainly didn’t help him any.
With all the coaching changes and the pressure being on the coaches’ shoulders, as well as Locker’s, to get them back in the playoffs, I think we’ll see a fresh offense that pushes the ball down the field. There’s no doubt in my mind that Locker is the Titans starting quarterback in 2013.
Zoneblitz: Last year you indicated in our In Depth interview that you thought Mike Munchak’s first year as head coach was impressive. After 2012, there were rumors that his job was in danger. What are your thoughts on Munchak in this role now?
Stewart: Munchak’s second year certainly wasn’t as great as his first. My biggest worry about him since his hiring continues to bother me: his aggressiveness. He just doesn’t have that fire that coaches like Mike Tomlin and the Harbaugh brothers have, which I think is something really important in a coach. You need someone to fire up a team at halftime or in the last few minutes of a game and having a coach capable of doing that is something that’s underrated.
I still like Munchak, despite his lack of fire. His attitude is that everybody does their job and keeps thing professional. He’s created an atmosphere that players want to play in and at the end of the day he’s what the Titans have.
Zoneblitz: What are your thoughts on the hiring of Gregg Williams as a senior assistant and what do you expect his role will be and how will he work with coordinator Jerry Gray?
Stewart: I think hiring Williams will be looked back at as one of the Titans best offseason moves by the end of the 2013 season. Williams and Gray both go back a long ways and should be able to fix a defense that hasn’t struck fear into the hearts of anyone in a long while. Williams should help bring back the aggressive bite this defense has lost over the past few years, though obviously not to the point of “Kill the head and the body will die.”
People have talked about Williams and Gray perhaps butting heads, seeing as they’re both strong headed guys, but I don’t think that’ll happen. When Williams left to coach the Bills back in the day, he took Gray with him as his defensive coordinator.
If nothing else, Williams should help the Titans restore some sort of stability to the ever chaotic shuffle at safety. Williams always seems to get production out of his safeties.
Zoneblitz: The Titans gave up the most points in the NFL. What was wrong with the defense in 2012 and what has to happen to turn it around in 2013?
Stewart: The Titans had one of the youngest defenses in the NFL last year. There were times when half of the defenders on the field were rookies. That wasn’t their only problem though. They were short on defensive ends and safeties and the anchor of the entire defense, middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, was sidelined with injuries most of the season.
If the Titans want to avoid a repeat of last season, they’ll continue to add talent at both the safety and defensive end positions. The biggest thing they need to do to turn things around though is to tighten up the pass defense. No matter the safety, the Titans were giving quarterbacks better than 60 percent completion ratings. That just doesn’t cut it.
Zoneblitz: He was up and down in 2012 with some great moments and some dud-games. What does the future look like for Chris Johnson?
Stewart: I don’t think we’ll ever see him crack 2,000 yards again, however many times he may say that’s his season goal. That being said, I think Johnson’s poised for a good season. The Titans number one priority right now is sealing up all the holes in their offensive line and giving Jake Locker and Chris Johnson more to work with.
Long term, it’s hard to say. He’s got his big contract. It really just depends on how long he can keep the pep in his step. Once Johnson loses his burners, there won’t be much left to get from him. The Titans should be looking to add a bruiser back this year to put Johnson back in a situation similar to the “Smash & Dash” days. It’d lighten Johnson’s load and extend his career that much longer.
Zoneblitz: The Titans have plenty of offensive skill talent, but the offensive line was an issue in 2012. How must that be improved?
Stewart: Well, the Titans are definitely planning on bringing in a guard. The center of the line wasn’t the strongest and the Titans paid for it. They could also look at cutting veteran guard Steve Hutchinson loose after his latest injury. However they decide to go about fixing the line, you can bet that they’ll be adding at least one new face, if not two, to the middle of the starting lineup.
Zoneblitz: Would you have franchised Jared Cook – or any other player for that matter – and why or why not?
Stewart: I would have franchised Cook – if it had been a tight end tag. The reason the Titans didn’t do that is that Cook’s agent would have pushed for him to be tagged as a wide receiver, which would cost the Titan $4.5 million more. But the fact that it would have cost the Titans over $10 million makes me side with them. I think Cook is a great talent that could really blow up, but the Titans haven’t utilized him correctly and who knows if they ever could figure it out. Spend the money elsewhere and move forward.
Other than Cook, there really isn’t any other player the Titans would need to franchise, as he was their only big name headed for free agency.
Zoneblitz: Are there any players on the roster you can see breaking out in 2013?
Stewart: Wide receiver Kendall Wright and outside linebacker Zach Brown are both poised to have massive seasons. Wright, while not putting up amazing numbers, showed a lot of talent on the field. I think the Titans will find a better way to use him in 2013 and that he’ll really become an asset for the team.
Brown came on strong at the end of 2012 and can only get better from there. When you look at his performances even closer, it’s almost more impressive, as he was playing with a group of linebackers that was banged up to the point that Will Witherspoon was pushed into playing middle linebacker in turn with special teams captain Tim Shaw.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Titans do in free agency and the draft?
Stewart: In free agency I’d like to see the Titans add a veteran guard, specifically Andy Levitre of the Bills. That’d take a lot of pressure off of them upgrading the line via the draft. I’d also like to see them add some veteran presence to the defensive end pool. The Titans were short on ends in 2012 and it forced Morgan and Wimbley to stay on the field too much.
As for the draft, my hope is that the Titans have filled the few holes they have via free agency so that they are free to draft with the best player available philosophy. The Titans are shooting for the playoffs this year and adding players that can immediately contribute can only help them get there.
Zoneblitz: How far away are the Titans from being a playoff contender?
Stewart: I think they could make it in 2013. I know 2012 was a bust, but injuries and an overly complex offense was what really cost them their playoff berth. A healthy Jake Locker and Colin McCarthy paired with a revitalized group of safeties and the Titans are right back in the discussion.
It may not be the most popular opinion, but I think it’s true. It’s the mindset the coaches will be pushing. If they don’t make the playoffs, it’s going to cost a lot of coaches their jobs.
Go big or go home.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Stewart: SUPER BOWL OR BUST!!!…. Just kidding. I’ll settle for a playoff berth and some great play from Jake Locker and company.