NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans started the season at 3-1 and were playing as well as the 2008 season — the last time Tennessee made the playoffs.
Third-year quarterback Jake Locker had settled nicely into a playmaker role (dual threat), the rushing attack appeared to be re-emerging, the offensive line was retooled and there were several receivers making plays down the field.
The defense that had given up the most points in the NFL — setting a franchise record for defensive futility — got several shots in the arm. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was hired soon after his NFL reinstatement for his part in the Saints’ Bounty-gate case.
With both sides of the ball getting infusion from free agency and the draft, it appeared the Titans had also turned the corner and were back to respectability, after last year’s 6-10 debacle.
Things changed after that.
During the 3-1 start, Locker was injured against the Jets on Sept. 27, missing the next two games.
Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the offense struggled in losses to undefeated Kansas City and NFC favorite Seattle.
By the time Locker returned a week ago Sunday (a loss to San Francisco), the combination of injuries and poor play against some of the league’s best teams had the Titans under .500 for the first time this season.
Following last week’s bye and heading into Sunday’s road game with St. Louis — and former Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher — the Titans are at a crossroad.
The Colts (5-2) have opened a two-game lead in the AFC South, and wins are paramount to not only keep pace, but also garner enough for wild-card consideration.
With Sunday’s game marking the season midpoint, here’s a position-by-position report card for the Titans:
With Locker as the starter, the Titans are a respectable 3-2, including an overtime loss to Houston, in which Tennessee blew a lead late in the fourth quarter.
Locker has completed 94 of 152 passes for 1,047 yards with eight touchdowns, one interception and a 97.1 QB rating. He has also rushed for 127 yards at a team-leading 7.1 yards per scamper.
But best of all, the team was finally Locker’s — as denoted by his heir-apparent status after being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Locker had not only mastered the offense of first-year offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and become a team leader, he had also emerged as the face of the franchise.
The Titans QB was rushed back to duty following the hip and knee sprains because of Ryan Fitzpatrick, the former Bills starter, who struggled mightily.
Granted, Fitzpatrick faced two strong defenses in Kansas City and Seattle, but he also threw four interceptions with two touchdowns and completed only 52.5 percent of his passes (61.2 rating). Grade: B-
After the first three games, sixth-year back Chris Johnson led the AFC in rushing with 256 yards. In the four games since, he has averaged 27.5 yards per game, with the 39 against the 49ers (on nine carries) representing an improvement in yards per rush (4.3).
Johnson’s only two scores have come from 15 receptions.
Shonn Greene was signed after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with the Jets to provide a change of pace to the shifty and speedy Johnson. But he got injured in the opener and carried the ball only once in his return against San Francisco.
The lack of productivity is a combination of poor blocking, Greene’s injury, Johnson’s efforts and the fact teams stacked the box when Fitzpatrick played and Locker returned.
Whatever the reason, the ground game was nonexistent during the three-game losing streak. Grade: C-
The good is that veteran Nate Washington and second-year Kendall Wright have been productive and reliable, especially when Locker plays.
The bad is that former first-round pick Kenny Britt, in the final year of his contract, has been nearly nonexistent with only eight catches for 67 yards.
Expected to be the leading receiver, Britt was thought to have been on the trading block Tuesday, but no deal came before the deadline. He is used mostly fifth in the current rotation of receivers.
With 64 receptions last season (tied for first among 2012 rookies), Wright leads the 2012 Titans with 40 catches, 433 yards and one touchdown. Because he has uncanny ability after the catch, Wright’s yards-per-reception average is low at 10.8.
Washington just keeps getting the job done with 26 catches for a team-leading 439 yards (16.9 per reception).
Veteran tight end Delanie Walker, who played the previous seven seasons for the 49ers, was hoped to be a prime target. He has been slowed by a nagging knee injury and started only four games, but he has played in every game and his numbers are improving to total 23 catches for 237 yards and a score.
Promising rookie Justin Hunter, a second-round pick out of Tennessee, has only three catches, with two going for touchdowns. Grade: B-
Head coach Mike Munchak and O-line coach Bruce Matthews are Hall of Famers as former offensive linemen for the Oilers/Titans, and it doesn’t reflect well that the offensive line is again underachieving.
Tackles Michael Roos (left) and David Stewart (right) are considered bookends, but Stewart has been unable to practice much because of a calf injury.
That has caused slow development between him and rookie right guard Chance Warmack, the No. 10 overall draft pick out of Alabama.
Making matters worse in the middle is that veteran Rob Turner started the first six games at center, but was benched and recently replaced by rookie Brian Schwenke, a fourth-rounder out of California.
Andy Levitre was the top free agent on the market, among left guards, and signed a six-year deal worth $46.8 million.
When Turner beat out former starter Fernando Velasco, the Titans released him. But Velasco signed with Pittsburgh and has started every game since the Steelers lost center Maurkice Pouncey to injury. Grade: C
While the Titans were busy in free agency and the draft, many felt they did little to upgrade the defensive front. Well, they were wrong.
Former Kansas City end Ropati Pitoitua and former Detroit tackle Sammie Hill have fit into the rotation nicely. At 6-foot-8 and 298 pounds, Pitoitua was signed to be a run stuffer, but he’s turned into an every-down end on the right side. His four sacks tie tackle Jurrell Casey for the team lead; plus, he had nine tackles against the 49ers.
Speaking of Casey, he stars up front defensively and constantly attracts double-team blocking. His 24 tackles lead Titans defensive linemen, and he’s second with five quarterback pressures. The tackle rotation of Casey, Hill, Mike Martin and Antonio Johnson has been a bright spot.
Fourth-year left end Derrick Morgan, the oft-injured former first-round draft pick in 2010, leads the club with six quarterback pressures.
He didn’t play against the 49ers because of a shoulder injury, but is expected to play Sunday. Backup Karl Klug has played valuable snaps, while veteran Kamerion Wimbley has had little impact. Grade: B+
When the Titans signed former Colts middle linebacker Moise Fokou, they did so as insurance for two-year starter Colin McCarthy, who was productive when not often injured.
Fokou won the job, and he hasn’t disappointed by ranking fourth on the team with 45 tackles, despite missing the last game with a knee injury. His status for Sunday remains up in the air.
Filling in for Fokou against the 49ers, McCarthy posted a team-high nine tackles (tie). He also leads with 10 tackles on special teams.
Outside linebackers Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers are athletic playmakers who can rush the quarterback or defend nicely on passing downs. The speedy Brown is second on the team with 50 tackles with three sacks, while Ayers has been slowed by injury and has 26 tackles after leading the team in stops last season. Grade: B+
Part of the Titans’ culture change was to sign experienced players with strong leadership skills, and strong safety Bernard Pollard — fresh off helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl — fit the bill.
Immediately emerging as a team leader, Pollard has also produced on the field, leading the team with 61 tackles, second with two interceptions and third with four passes defensed.
Pollard’s presence — along with that of George Wilson, another veteran and former Bill — allowed free safety Michael Griffin to move back into his more natural position. He has played well this season with 49 tackles, third on the team.
The Titans were confident fifth-year left cornerback Jason McCourty would continue to emerge as one of the league’s best cover corners. He is second on the team with six passes defensed. But they were concerned what to do opposite McCourty at right corner.
After beating out Tommie Campbell for the starting job out of training camp, fourth-year Alterraun Verner is having a Pro Bowl-caliber year. He is tied for the NFL lead and tops the team with four interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Grade: A-
Veteran placekicker Rob Bironas has made 11-of-14 field goal attempts and converted a franchise record 260 consecutive extra-point kicks, a streak dating back to his rookie season in 2005. Punter Brett Kern has been solid while ranking third in the AFC with a net average of 41.5 yards.
The return game has been another story. After recording a safety on the first kickoff of the season and then muffing a punt in the loss to the 49ers that led to a touchdown, returner Darius Reynaud was released last week. Receiver Damian Williams will take over return duties. Grade: C+