NASHVILLE, Tenn. – One of the fixes that had to happen this season for the Titans to be successful was to rebuild its offensive line.
The grouping was beset by combination of injuries and poor play to have a large part in last season’s 6-10 debacle. That had to particularly stick in the craw of Titans head coach Mike Munchak and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, a pair of Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive linemen from their playing days for the franchise.
Set at tackle with ninth-year veterans Michael Roos on the left and David Stewart on the right, the Titans completely retooled the interior. They signed free agents Andy Levitre for left guard and Rob Turner to eventually play center while drafting Alabama’s Chance Warmack in the first round to man right guard.
Yes, the fix was in. But through six games, let’s just say the offensive line isn’t nearly fixed.
The Titans have struggled running the ball the past three games, including in losses to visiting Kansas City and at Seattle the past two Sundays.
“It’s just inconsistent,” said Levitre, the former Buffalo Bill and top free agent at his position who signed a six-year deal worth $46.8 million with the Titans.
“There’s different guys screwing up at the wrong times. We’re not very consistent right now. You just focus on little things and finish our blocks. I know the effort is there. It’s just the little things that we are not doing right that are costing us.”
With starting quarterback Jake Locker missing the last two games with hip and knee sprains and a possible return not expected for a few more weeks, the Titans needed to rely upon the run game to take pressure off backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was sacked three times by Seattle. He struggled in both games, posting paltry ratings of 57.7 and 46.8, respectively
And running back Chris Johnson, who gained 258 yards the first three games to lead the AFC in rushing at the time, has gained only 71 yards on 37 carries the past three games for an average of only 1.9 yards per carry.
He bottomed out with only 17 yards on 10 carries against the Jets.
“You can’t single out one person,” said Munchak, whose Titans (3-3) host San Francisco (4-2) on Sunday. “If you can single out one person, it’s easy. You fix it. It’s easy to do that. I wish it was that. I wish we could say, ‘Well, it’s this guy. Let’s get rid of him; let’s change him.’ It’s a combination of things.”
After starting 16 games last season for St. Louis, Turner beat out returning starter Fernando Velasco, who was cut at end of training to the surprise of some. He was then signed by Pittsburgh, which lost starter Maurkice Pouncey for the season after being injured in the season opener against the Titans. Velasco has started all four games at center since joining the Steelers.
According to Levitre, the offensive line has yet to gel. Compounding that on the right side is that Stewart has missed several practices the past few weeks while nursing a strained calf muscle.
“Maybe we’re one block away from springing (a run) five yards, 20 yards, so we’ve got to get back to those basic things and really focus in during the week,” Levitre said.
Granted, the Titans have played tough defenses the last three games, including the win Sept. 29 over the Jets, the game in which Locker was injured. And the ground game could get a boost Sunday with the return of change-of-pace back Shonn Greene, who has not played since the opener because of a knee injury. He has been cleared to practice this week.
“We have to continue to find other things to call, maybe it’s when it’s called,” Munchak said of the play calling helping assist the run game. “It’s also executing (with) the running back and all of us. It’s not an easy answer. I know people want an easy answer. I wish I had an easy answer. This is a tough one, because then it’s figuring out how do you fix it.”
Locker not ruled out
Since suffering a sprained knee and hip two weeks ago Sunday, Locker has progressed in rehab to the point that he has been cleared this week to participate in “football drills” that mostly includes throwing and running on an individual basis.
While it is highly unlikely Locker would be available Sunday against the 49ers and appears to be targeting a return Nov. 3 at St. Louis following next week’s bye, Munchak did not rule out anything at his weekly conference on Monday.
“I mean, he’s got a lot to prove before he could come out and be our quarterback,” he said of what it would take for Locker to play Sunday. “He’d have to come out here and … practice Wednesday, Thursday, and he’d have to be out there.”
With Locker as the starter, the team opened the season 3-1, but has since lost both games during his absence.
“Again, we knew coming in when you lose a quarterback, you lose your leader, you lose your best player,” Munchak said. “Other guys got to step up, and we thought we’d run the ball better.”
Walker eyes former team
After seven seasons as tight end with San Francisco and playing mostly in the shadows of star Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker signed a four-year deal worth $17.5 million to become the Titans’ lead tight end. And he admits playing his former team this coming Sunday will be a bit different.
“You know what? I am juiced for every game,” said Walker, who caught 123 passes for 1,475 yards and eight touchdowns during his time with the 49ers. “It’s just the team that I did play for seven years. I am excited to play them and go out there and have a good game against them.”
Slowed early in the season while recovering from off-season knee surgery, Walker continues to evolve as a key target for the Titans, especially with Locker throwing the passes. Thus far, he has 20 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns, but the Titans would like to see that production doubled.
“I want to expand my role some more,” Walker said. “I think that’s why they brought me here, to make plays. I have made a couple, but I think I got more inside of me that I can make.”
— The Titans are waiting to hear about the status of middle linebacker Moise Fokou for Sunday’s game. He sprained a knee against Seattle after forcing two fumbles earlier in the game. If he can’t play, former starting middle linebacker Colin McCarthy will get the nod.
— Sunday’s game against the 49ers at LP Field has been designated as the sixth annual Code Blue game where fans are invited to wear Titans blue to school and work as well as to the game. All fans in attendance will receive a free Code Blue T-shirt.
— The Titans are asking fans in attendance Sunday to participate in the annual coat drive by donating new and/or used coats at collection bins situated around the stadium starting at 1 p.m. Last season, the drive netted approximately 2,500 coats that were distributed to more than a dozen local charitable organizations.