NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Of the many items on Tennessee’s needs improvement list, nothing may be higher offensively than running the ball better.
It’s a topic coach Ken Whisenhunt has repeatedly mentioned this offseason, a not so subtle message for an offense that can stand to improve across the board.
The Titans certainly have done what they could to address the running game by drafting a new fullback, running back, with plans to turn the offense over to mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota. They also have running back Bishop Sankey, a second-round pick a year ago, around all offseason too.
Whisenhunt said Tuesday they’re limited until they put pads on in training camp, so they’re working on fundamental techniques right now with both the offensive linemen and running backs. A big key is making sure the running backs get a sense of where the holes will be and being patient enough to wait for them to open up.
”We didn’t run it very good at all last year, so I’d say across the board we’ve got to get better at it,” Whisenhunt said.
The Titans struggled so much going 2-14 last season that only three NFL teams ran fewer times than Tennessee. They ranked 26th averaging 90.4 yards rushing per game and didn’t manage even a single game with a 100-yard rusher. Chris Johnson, cut in April 2014, was the last running back to top 100 yards for Tennessee on Dec. 29, 2013.
Tennessee tried to address the backfield last year when the Titans drafted Sankey. But NFL rules kept the running back from joining the Titans until Washington wrapped up its quarter, keeping Sankey out of all but the team’s final OTA and minicamp. Sankey led the Titans in rushing with 569 yards on 152 carries, averaging only 3.7 yards per attempt. He didn’t break off a run longer than 22 yards and scored only two touchdowns.
Whisenhunt didn’t talk about how much that missed time cost Sankey until this spring.
”One of the things you really underestimate is missing all of this time last year, and he was playing catch-up,” Whisenhunt said. ”And it’s tough to do that when you’re thrown to the wolves particularly in camp, and he just never seemed to really catch up. So he’s been working from Day One, not only on the physical, but the mental part” as well.
Both Sankey and Dexter McCluster, a free agent signee last year, have been around all offseason. McCluster, who ran for 131 yards, said that makes a big difference because he knows what he has to do and where to run.
The Titans also made sure to give Sankey more help in the draft, taking fullback Jalston Fowler of Alabama in the fourth round and running back David Cobb of Minnesota in the fifth. Fowler is known for his blocking and his versatility, while Cobb set a single-season record running for 1,626 yards last year. Cobb has been limited by a sore hamstring but is here for the offseason program.
But Mariota, the No. 2 pick overall, could provide the biggest boost to the run game. The Titans are incorporating some of the spread plays Mariota ran to such success at Oregon where he averaged 6.6 yards per carry in his three seasons. Mariota ran for 770 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in 2014 alone.
Whisenhunt has referenced how Seattle uses quarterback Russell Wilson to boost their run game, and Wilson ran for 849 yards last season.
”How much of that is planned?” Whisenhunt said. ”I don’t know. I wouldn’t say a lot of it’s planned. Some of it’s reacting to what’s going on and extending a play. Marcus can do those kinds of things. As far as how much we will plan for him to run, I don’t know yet. A lot of that’s going to depend on how we continue to go through that process as a team.”
Notes: Cornerback Brandon Harris hurt his left knee Tuesday and was seen walking through the locker room on crutches wearing a hinged brace. … The Titans practiced indoors because their outdoor fields remained wet from weekend rain.
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