Titans' tight-knit offensive line looking to be NFL's best
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Only one offensive lineman needs to make a mistake to mess up a play, turning a promising drive into a three-and-out.
Keeping a group of five starting linemen together for consecutive seasons only makes a unit stronger.
The Tennessee Titans have done just that and are setting their sights on being the best offensive line in the NFL, even if their production will be measured only by how many sacks are allowed or the yards gained by running backs.
''It's a cool task we have ahead of us,'' Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan said.
Simply finding five linemen to start an entire season together had been an impossible task for this franchise before general manager Jon Robinson clicked the final pieces into place a year ago. Robinson lured center Ben Jones away from AFC South rival Houston and drafted Jack Conklin with the eighth pick overall out of Michigan State .
When right guard Chance Warmack chose surgery to repair a torn tendon two games into the season, Josh Kline, a waiver-wire pickup from New England just before the season, took over and seamlessly replaced the 10th overall pick in 2013. Quinton Spain, an undrafted free agent out of West Virginia in 2015, held onto the left guard spot he earned as a rookie .
Together, the line paved the way for DeMarco Murray to lead the AFC in rushing with the Titans ranking third in the NFL averaging 108.9 yards per game. They also allowed Mariota to be sacked only 23 times while allowing 28 overall to tie for the seventh fewest sacks allowed - a big improvement from the league-worst 54 in the quarterback's rookie season.
The Titans were one of only five NFL teams to rank in the top 10 in both rushing and fewest sacks allowed, along with Dallas, Oakland, New England and Miami.
Mariota gushes when talking about his protection.
''They are probably one of the best groups in the league,'' Mariota said. ''They really feel that way, and they should. They've done a great job. I think Ben up front does an awesome job of keeping those guys all together and communicating, making sure everyone's on the same page. Those guys are fiery, they love playing ball and we're lucky to have them.''
Titans coach Mike Mularkey says it's easy to see the linemen like each other. After the offseason program ended in June, the linemen stayed in Nashville and worked together.
''You've got different personalities from all five of them, and it's a fun group,'' Mularkey said. ''When it all comes down to it, they're the type of players we want, the physical players. Smart, physical and dependable players. They're what we want, and they're fun to be around.''
The linemen were a big hit during the Nashville Predators' run to the Stanley Cup Finals. They helped Mariota wave a rally towel before one playoff game while they held up catfish and chugged beer. Lewan says they're a tight-knit group.
''We hang out together, we drink together, we go to Preds' games together,'' said Lewan, whose fifth-year option for 2018 was picked up in April. ''It's a good time. If that carries over on Sunday, it's awesome. It's like playing backyard football with those guys.''
If nothing else, their communication with each other has grown from a year ago when Kline still was with the Patriots and Jones was just settling into the middle with all of them learning a different offense under new offensive line assistant coach Russ Grimm.
Lots of mental mistakes were made. Jones said veterans have counseled their younger teammates this year to get them ready as fast as possible.
''We're able to fly around more,'' Jones said. ''People not thinking, they're able to react.''
How much faster?
''I can just look at Spain, I look at Josh, they know what we're talking about,'' Jones said. ''It's a point where there's a lot less communication because everybody's on the same page.''
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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker