NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Titans center Kevin Mawae retired after the 2009 season, he took a team tradition with him.
Every Thursday during game week at Mawae’s request, Titans offensive linemen would meet with the running backs to go over upcoming strategy, blocking goals for certain plays and just a general interaction between the groups that affect the running game the most.
Ironically, Titans running back Chris Johnson rushed for a career-high 2,007 yards that season, becoming just the sixth NFL back to accomplish the feat then. It was a gold standard by which the former first-round draft pick would soon be unfairly judged for future success, although he has amassed at least 1,000 rushing yards every season since.
But with the Titans (4-4) struggling to run the ball the last four games — three that ended in consecutive losses for a team that started 3-1 — Johnson felt it was time to renew the Thursday meeting tradition and called one last week among the backs and O-linemen.
“Nobody picked it up,” said Johnson, when asked about the meetings tradition that went away for four years. In Sunday’s win at St. Louis, he rushed for a season-high 150 yards, his first 100-plus effort in 10 games, dating back to last season.
“Yeah, we’ll do it every week,” Johnson said of the meetings, including this week in advance of Tennessee’s home clash with 0-8 Jacksonville. “Every Thursday, we’ll do it once a week.”
Earlier in the season, injuries to the offensive line and change-of-pace back Shonn Greene — not to mention playing some of the NFL’s best defenses in Kansas City, Seattle and San Francisco — had stymied a running game that was viewed as a team strength during the offseason.
“I hope it was all that it took,” said Titans head coach Mike Munchak said of the backs/linemen meetings. “… Over the years, we used to get together, different groups would get together, obviously the (offensive) line, the tight ends, and the backs, and done that in the past.
“(Johnson) mentioned to me last week about doing some of that again, and I said, ‘That’s great. Just talk to (offensive tackle Michael) Roos and those guys.'”
Johnson said the meeting was pretty simple, but also productive.
“We really just go over the plays and all the running plays that we are going to run,” Johnson said. “I let them know what I am thinking on the play; and they let me know what they’re thinking. So, we’re all on the same page.”
Finding the right spot
Titans offensive tackle David Stewart has been a stalwart as a nine-year starter along the right side. But a broken leg from last season (missing four games) and a variety of leg and shoulder injuries from this season has cut into precious practice time.
On Sunday against the Rams, Stewart was held out of the starting lineup for the first time this season, replaced by by seventh-year veteran Mike Otto.
“We were concerned more about the shoulder,” Munchak said of holding Stewart out. “His strength wasn’t what we hoped it would be by the end of the week. He’s kind of been able to overcome the ankle and the leg soreness, even though, in our opinion, it’s been hard for him to play at the level that he wants to play at, needs to play at for us to be successful.”
It’s also important for Stewart to get practice reps with rookie guard Chance Warmack, Tennessee’s first-round pick in April. Their time together in practice, though, has been limited by Stewart’s absences.
Also, rookie Brian Schwenke made his second start of the season at center after being slowed by a hamstring injury.
But it was Otto who impressed Munchak with his impromptu performance against the Rams.
“He was solid, again, I think for the first time playing in quite some time,” Munchak said of Otto, a seventh-round draftee from 2007 who’s played in 55 games. But he has started only six career games, including his first start of the season last week.
“He’s smart, he’s been around the game a lot, and it was good to have him next to Chance (Warmack) for that reason on the road,” Munchak added. “I think he came in like he usually does and was pretty solid.”
Finnegan wanted it badly
Last week, players and coaches from the Titans and Rams downplayed the significance of the ties connecting the two clubs, starting with Jeff Fisher — the Oilers/Titans head coach for 17 seasons (1994-2000).
But Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan (drafted by Tennessee in 2006) didn’t temper the meaning of the game, declaring it to be one of the most important of his career. After playing six seasons for the Titans under Fisher, he joined his former coach in St. Louis by signing a free-agent deal worth $50 million in 2012 (five years).
“I think so. That’s the obvious answer,” Finnegan said of the game meaning more than others. “If you can get any closer to a Super Bowl without it being a Super Bowl, that’s what it was for me.
“It was staying up late and watching extra film and doing everything I could to prepare myself. In fact, I normally do, but just doing a little more because this team is who they were.”
Honoring the soldiers
Sunday will represent the Titans’ annual “Salute To Service” game, a long-standing franchise tradition that honors America’s armed forces. Among those being honored at LP Field will be soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division from nearby Fort Campbell.
Making appearances will be country-rock star Charlie Daniels, country singer Lee Greenwood and the Tennessee Army National Guard Band.
Fans attending Sunday’s game are encouraged to bring old cell phones for donation at sites situated outside LP Field.
The drive is to benefit Cell Phones for Soldiers, a nonprofit organization that collects old cell phones, sells them for recycling, and then uses income to purchase prepaid calling cards for U.S. servicemen and women stationed around the world.