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4 TENNESSEE TITANS

Sept. 05, 2011
Sept. 05, 2011

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Sept. 5, 2011

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4 TENNESSEE TITANS

A first-rate line will buy time for the quarterback to learn the ropes

This is an article from the Sept. 5, 2011 issue

Late one day in August, Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass and saw a familiar sight: four receivers streaking downfield, with two about to break back toward the line of scrimmage. The deep-go/deep-comeback route combination is a play that Hasselbeck has called countless times while running the West Coast offense, and when he planted his back foot to throw he had no doubt his pass to one of the U-turning wideouts would yield a completion. He placed the ball over the receiver's inside shoulder, expecting him to break to the middle of the field. Alas, he broke toward the sideline. The ball sailed past him and skidded onto the turf.

In Seattle that pass would probably have been caught. But in Tennessee it's just another reminder of all that Hasselbeck must learn before he can go back to playing quarterback on muscle memory. He likens the challenge to inputting on a scrambled keyboard: "I'm a good typist, but if someone took the keys and moved them around, it would be hard not to panic."

For his entire 12-year career Hasselbeck has known no other offense but the West Coast. It was tough enough to learn during his first couple of seasons in Green Bay. And it was even tougher to master, though he eventually did that too over the next 10 years in Seattle, where he made three trips to the Pro Bowl and one to the Super Bowl. He had hoped to retire as a Seahawk and never have to learn another system.

When Seattle made it clear that it would not re-sign him, the 35-year-old Hasselbeck considered moving to the 49ers, in large part because of their West Coast tradition. Enticed by the Titans' strong offensive line, however, he signed a three-year, $20-million contract with Tennessee, which hasn't won a playoff game since 2004. Coach Jeff Fisher had a knack for spurring thrilling finishes that bought him job security. (In 2006, after beginning 2-7, he rallied Tennessee to a 6--1 run to close the year; in '09 the Titans finished 8--2 after an 0--6 start.) But when the team began last season 5--2 then dropped the next six games, there was no saving Fisher, who after 16 years at the helm was dismissed with most of his staff.

One of the few holdovers, offensive line coach Mike Munchak, was promoted to the top job in February. The 51-year-old Munchak—who has spent more than half of his life with the franchise, most notably as a Hall of Fame guard for the Houston Oilers—is a back-to-the-future hire: old enough to remember how long it took the team to evolve from run 'n' shoot to bleed-the-clock, yet open-minded enough to experiment and innovate. He has called on a slew of ex-Oilers for help, chief among them offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, a former receivers coach for the franchise who more recently built a reputation as a quarterback whisperer with the Jaguars and the Giants. Munchak made getting Palmer a top-notch passer his first roster priority. "We all knew back when I took this job that quarterback was the huge hole in this offense," Munchak says. "It was a mess. And now I'd say we're as stable as you can be."

Hasselbeck's timing, accuracy and play-action legerdemain should make him a natural fit for the run-based, New York Giants--like system the Titans have installed. The transition, though, has been bumpy. Along with acclimating himself to the offense's nomenclature and nuances, Hasselbeck has lacked playmakers. Do-it-all back Chris Johnson is holding out for more money. Big-play wideout Kenny Britt, who had two brushes with the law during the lockout, has been limited by a hamstring injury in camp.

The setbacks have made it unexpectedly difficult for Hasselbeck to put some distance between himself and Jake Locker, the No. 8 pick in the draft, out of Washington. Locker faces many of the same language barriers with his new offense, but unlike Hasselbeck, the 23-year-old has fleet feet and the ability to throw accurately on the run. One thing both QBs do have going for them is a top-flight offensive line: From 1997 to 2010 the Titans have allowed the second fewest sacks (28.3 sacks per season). And this year will mark just the third time during that period that Tennessee will begin the season with the same starting five. That group includes All-Pro left tackle Michael Roos and eighth-year pro Eugene Amano, who made a seamless transition to center from left guard in '10.

Line play alone could get the Titans back in the playoff hunt. "There are certain things that I can't do as a player," Hasselbeck says, "but I'm good when I have protection. Whenever we had success in Seattle, it was because of our offensive line. All of us, myself included, were just products of their dominance."

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 27

QB MATT HASSELBECK

ATT 444

COMP 266

PCT 59.9

YARDS 3,001

YD/ATT 6.76

TD 12

INT 17

RATING 73.2

RB CHRIS JOHNSON

ATT 316

YARDS 1,364

REC 44

TTD 12

FB AHMARD HALL

ATT 1

YARDS 1

REC 15

TTD 0

WR KENNY BRITT

REC 42

YARDS 775

AVG 18.5

TTD 9

WR NATE WASHINGTON

REC 42

YARDS 687

AVG 16.4

TTD 6

TE JARED COOK

REC 29

YARDS 361

AVG 12.4

TTD 1

LT MICHAEL ROOS

G 16

SACKS 10

HOLD 1

FALSE 3

LG LEROY HARRIS

G 15

SACKS 4

HOLD 5

FALSE 2

C EUGENE AMANO

G 13

SACKS 1

HOLD 2

FALSE 1

RG JAKE SCOTT

G 16

SACKS 0

HOLD 2

FALSE 7

RT DAVID STEWART

G 16

SACKS 4

HOLD 1

FALSE 3

RB JAVON RINGER

ATT 51

YARDS 239

REC 7

TTD 2

TE CRAIG STEVENS

REC 11

YARDS 122

AVG 11.1

TTD 2

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 26

DE DERRICK MORGAN

TACKLES 5

SACKS 1.5

INT 0

DT SHAUN SMITH

TACKLES 56

SACKS 1

INT 0

DT SEN'DERRICK MARKS

TACKLES 22

SACKS 0

INT 1

DE JASON JONES

TACKLES 38

SACKS 3.5

INT 0

LB WILL WITHERSPOON

TACKLES 92

SACKS 3

INT 2

LB BARRETT RUUD

TACKLES 118

SACKS 2

INT 1

LB AKEEM AYERS (R)

TACKLES 68

SACKS 4

INT 2

CB JASON MCCOURTY

TACKLES 44

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS CHRIS HOPE

TACKLES 101

SACKS 1

INT 1

FS MICHAEL GRIFFIN

TACKLES 107

SACKS 0

INT 4

CB CORTLAND FINNEGAN

TACKLES 100

SACKS 1

INT 2

DE WILLIAM HAYES

TACKLES 32

SACKS 1½

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K ROB BIRONAS

FG 24

FGA 26

XP 38

PTS 110

P BRETT KERN

PUNTS 77

GROSS 42.9

NET 39.1

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 6--10

September

11 at Jacksonville

18 Baltimore

25 Denver

October

2 at Cleveland

9 at Pittsburgh

16 BYE

23 Houston

30 Indianapolis

November

6 Cincinnati

13 at Carolina

20 at Atlanta

27 Tampa Bay

December

4 at Buffalo

11 New Orleans

18 at Indianapolis

24 Jacksonville (Sat)

January

1 at Houston

COACH: MIKE MUNCHAK

AGE: 51

FIRST SEASON WITH THE TITANS

The Hall of Fame guard is staking his reputation on play in the trenches—in particular on the offensive line, which he turned into one of the league's best units as its position coach. He has installed a more aggressive defense and tweaked the ball-control offense. If there's a worry, it's that he starts his tenure without Chris Johnson, who was holding out during training camp.

SPOTLIGHT

AKEEM AYERS, Linebacker

Along with adjustments to its offensive scheme, Tennessee is tweaking its 4--3 defense, in which the team has traditionally aligned the defensive ends as far to the outside as possible to create more space to beat blockers. The strategy has produced a decent number of sacks (40 in 2010, eighth in the league) but has backfired against the run (115.7 yards per game last season, 20th).

First-year coordinator Jerry Gray has moved his ends closer to the tackles, which will tighten the interior and funnel more action to the linebackers. "We all want to sack the quarterback, I understand that," says defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. "I'm trying to make sure we're better in terms of pushing the pocket and taking passing lanes away."

It's nothing, says rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers, that he can't handle. The 6'2", 254-pound Ayers, who amassed 183 tackles (29½ of them for losses) and 14 sacks in three seasons at UCLA, is not the speediest linebacker; he clocks in the 4.8 40 range, which partly explains why he fell to the 39th overall pick. But his size gives the Titans a defensive end--type body that can tie up blockers. "We know guys aren't going to try and run over him because most guys aren't as strong as he is," Gray says. "What he's got to do is get mentally prepared because offenses are going to try and trick him."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (HASSELBECK)BIT OF A HASSLE After 10 seasons in the West Coast offense of the Seahawks, Hasselbeck must learn a new scheme, and the early returns have been mixed.PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDT (MUNCHAK)PHOTODANNY MURPHY/ICON SMI (AYERS)