This preseason the Tennessee Titans won three of four games: a loss to the Carolina Panthers and victories over the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, and Miami Dolphins.
Considering that the organization won three games last season and two games the season prior, it is refreshing to see that the Titans already have three (preseason) wins before the start of the 2016 regular season.
Critics may rebut that preseason results should be taken with a grain of salt. There is certainly evidence to support that argument. The 2010 Chicago Bears, for instance, had four losses in the preseason, but finished the regular season with a 12-4 record.
These discrepancies occur because preseason battles are generally won or lost according to the play of second and third string players on the depth chart.
However, when you consider only the first quarter of each Titans’ preseason matchup — when first-team units are on the field — you find that the Titans’ starters outcompeted opposing starters.
After 15 minutes of play the Titans led 10-7 over the Chargers, 10-7 over the Raiders, and 14-0 over the Dolphins. Only to the Panthers did they trail 10-0.
These first quarter results are encouraging. And, in the words of cornerback Jason McCourty, winning in the preseason sets a precedent for winning in the regular season, which will certainly benefit the Titans as they look to escape a seven-year franchise slump.
“The wins don’t count, it’s preseason,” McCourty said, “but winning is a habit, so I think whether we win on the scoreboard or not, we want to have winning plays out there.
Coach Mularkey Is Serious About Smashmouth Offense
In February, head coach Mike Mularkey told NFL media that he hoped to replicate the old offensive system he ran in Pittsburg: an exotic smashmouth offense that emphasized a strong and physical run game.
To date, Mularkey has kept true to his word. During the offseason he and General Manager Jon Robinson signed running back DeMarco Murray, former Offensive Player of the Year (2014), and drafted running back Derrick Henry, former Heisman at Alabama (2015).
The two backs, nicknamed Thunder and Thunder, spearheaded the Titans’ offense this preseason. In fact, 57 percent of the Titans’ plays were rushes, and of those rushes Murray and Henry accounted for 44 percent.
Mularkey’s smashmouth approach has been successful thus far. During the preseason the Titans offense ranked first in rushing touchdowns (8) and second in rushing yards per game (161) and yards per carry (5.4).
Considering this success, expect the Titans to rush the ball often in 2016. In fact, the Titans look to be one of few teams that uphold the tradition of run-first offense as the NFL slowly adapts to a passing league.
Jon Robinson’s Era Has Begun
In January, Jon Robinson replaced Ruston Webster as the Titans’ General Manager.
Webster held the position from 2012 to 2015, but three seasons with just twelve wins led to his demotion. Robinson was hired a month later.
A former scout for the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Robinson brought the following philosophy to Tennessee — acquire hard working, productive, and reliable players during free agency and the Draft.
Under this approach, the changes in Tennessee were rapid.
Robinson acquired a number of veterans during free agency (RB DeMarco Murray, C Ben Jones, WR Andre Johnson, S Rashad Johnson, WR Rishard Matthews, LB Sean Spence, CB Antwon Blake, CB Brice McCain) and a number of productive college prospects during the Draft (OT Jack Conklin, RB Derrick Henry, WR Tajae Sharpe, DT Austin Johnson, LB Kevin Dodd, among others).
The acquisition of these players marked the beginning of the Robinson’s era in Tennessee. His regime change was entirely confirmed, however, in recent weeks when the Titans traded or released upper-round draft picks made during Webster’s era.
On August 16, the Titans traded WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Round 2, 2015) to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for offensive lineman Dennis Kelly. Then, the team released RB Bishop Sankey (Round 2, 2014), WR Justin Hunter (Round 2, 2013), and OL Jeremiah Poutasi (Round 3, 2015) in order to set their 53-man roster.
Now none of the second round picks made during Webster’s era remain in Tennessee. This fact, above all, demonstrates the arrival of Robinson’s era.
Defense Is The Biggest Concern Heading Into The 2016 Season
During the offseason, a betting man would have placed his cash on the Titans’ defense to perform better than the Titans’ offense in the 2016 regular season.
The Titans’ defense improved from 27th to 12th in 2015; legendary coach Dick LaBeau was promoted to defensive coordinator in January; Robinson brought in a number of defensive veterans during free agency; cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox recovered form injury during the offseason; and the Titans’ front seven ranks among the better units in the league.
However, three weeks during the preseason, the Titans’ first-team defense surrendered a touchdown during the opponent’s first offensive drive.
The San Diego Chargers moved 75-yards on seven plays, the last of which was a 44-yard pass from Phillip Rivers to Melvin Gordon; the Panthers moved 93-yards on five plays, the last of which was a 61-yard pass from Cam Newton to Ted Ginn Jr.; and the Raiders moved 58-yards on seven plays.
Long drives and big plays characterized the Titans’ defense last season, so as the unit looks to begin anew in 2016, this weakness is an immediate concern to address.