Midseason grades: Lowly Titans struggling across the board
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With their bye week falling directly at the midway point of the NFL season, the Tennessee Titans limp into their break following two straight losses and a prolonged misery of six defeats in seven games.
Two weeks ago, first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt actually dangled the carrot of giving his Titans the entire bye week off, if the club had knocked off the Redskins (Week 7) and Texans (Week 8). But the club lost both, meaning Tennessee practiced Tuesday and Wednesday before getting away for the weekend.
Here’s a less-than-flattering midseason report card for the Titans (2-6):
With Jake Locker missing three starts with two separate injuries, that pushed his total of missed starts to 17 of a possible 39 since being named starter in 2012. Veteran backup Charlie Whitehurst didn’t lose any games for the Titans, but couldn’t win any, either.
With the team apparently out of the playoffs again, Whisenhunt turned to rookie Zach Mettenberger against the Texans last week — and for the remainder of the season.
After struggling in the first half, Mettenberger (299 yards passing, two TDs) padded his final numbers in the latter half.
With the Locker era for the Titans ending, Whisenhunt needs to learn if Mettenberger (Round 6 pick last May) can be the team’s quarterback going forward.
At 6-foot-5 and 224 pounds, Mettenberger, a prototypical pocket passer, seemingly fits Whisenhunt’s profile as a system quarterback. But only time will tell.
It’s hard to figure out the Titans’ rushing scheme. However, it’s safe to say the three-pronged attack of veteran Shonn Greene, rookie Bishop Sankey and versatile Dexter McCluster isn’t exactly feared by opponents.
At a combined 101 yards per game, the Titans rank 22nd in team rushing.
As the first tailback taken in the draft, Sankey (Round 2, 54th overall) has struggled in the limited role of every-down back, suggesting he’s more suited for a committee backfield.
Sankey leads the team with 302 rushing yards, even though he’s averaging only 9.4 carries per game.
Given his recent arrest (multiple violations stemming from illegally parking in a handicapped spot and leaving the scene), Greene carried the ball only once last week against the Texans. Greene (191 rushing yards) holds averages of 4.2 yards per carry, but has been slowed by a hamstring injury.
The Titans had hoped to use McCluster the same way the Chargers used running back Danny Woodhead last year (with Whisenhunt as San Diego’s offensive coordinator). But McCluster has carried the ball only 24 times for 76 yards and caught just 16 passes for 136 yards.
The best offensive lineman, thus far, has been rookie Taylor Lewan.
When left tackle Michael Roos was lost for the season with a knee injury, Lewan (No. 11 overall pick last May) moved into the spot he was destined to assume. Certainly, his future is bright, and the Titans have apparently found a long-term answer at a key position.
For everyone else, it’s difficult to give any passing grades. Second-year right guard Chance Warmack, the club’s first-round pick from 2013, has struggled. But not as much as left guard Andy Levitre, once a highly coveted free agent.
Brian Schwenke, the second center taken in the 2013 draft, has struggled, as well. Regarding right tackle Michael Oher, former Ravens tackle, there’s a good reason why Baltimore let him go in free agency.
On paper, the offensive line should be a team strength. On the field, penalties and inadequate play make for an underachieving and disappointing unit.
During the summer, former first-rounder Kendall Wright, veteran Nate Washington and second-year Justin Hunter appeared to be a formidable grouping at receiver. But for a variety of reasons, including the quarterback carousel and a porous offensive line, this group hasn’t yet hit their stride.
Wright (94 catches, 1,079 yards last year) has only 35 catches for 350 yards at the midpoint mark. His yards-per-catch average has dwindled to about 10 yards per reception.
The Titans hoped the athletic and gifted Hunter, who added 15 pounds during the offseason, would take that next step and be the team’s big-play threat. But faulty route-running, compounded by lack of intensity, has many wondering if he’ll ever really get it.
Hunter has only 20 catches for 351 yards … although his 17.6 YPC leads the club.
Washington (17 catches, 237 yards) has essentially disappeared from the NFL limelight. As the deadline approached Tuesday, his name had been bantered about, but his annual salary of $4.8 million made him untradeable. He’s likely playing out the string with the Titans.
Delanie Walker (club-high 475 yards), who shares the team lead with 35 catches (with Wright), represents one of the Titans’ few bright spots.
Walker’s 61-yard touchdown catch against the Cowboys (Week 2), out-sprinting two defensive backs to the end zone, showed a burst of speed heretofore unseen. His production: A career-best efforts of 10 catches, 142 yards and one TD.
Backups Craig Stevens (season-ending quad injury) and Taylor Thompson (knee, missed last five games) can’t get on the field, bringing the overall position grade down a notch.
Fourth-year tackle Jurrell Casey is a star in the making, even while adjusting to the new 3-4 defensive alignment. He broke through last year with 10 1/2 sacks (No. 2 among NFL defensive linemen).
Once again, Casey (15 QB pressures) leads the Titans with four sacks and was recently named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Before the season started, he signed a four-year contract extension worth $36 million ($20.5M guaranteed).
The rotation, on the whole, has been nondescript. Starters Ropati Pitoitua (defensive end) and Sammie Hill at nose tackle have played just OK, while the depth at the position really hasn’t been much of a factor.
Consider this a twofold grade: Rookie inside linebacker Avery Williamson, the fifth-round draft pick out of Kentucky, has arguably been the defense’s MVP. He ranks third on the team with 49 tackles, including a team-high 11 against the Texans.
Of equal importance, Williamson has already become a defensive leader.
The rest of the group has been a huge disappointment, especially after Zach Brown was lost for the season (pectoral muscle) in Week 1. Free agent Wesley Woodyard and backup Zaviar Gooden appear lost, while the Titans traded Akeem Ayers (a former 100-tackle linebacker) to the Patriots.
Outside linebacking has been spotty with veterans Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley, who moved from their end slots in the new 3-4. Morgan leads the club with 17 QB pressures, but has only one sack. Wimbley (24 tackles) has four pressures and two sacks.
Veteran strong safety and dependable tackler Bernard Pollard played in only five games before being lost for the season (Achilles). Veteran George Wilson and Daimion Stafford have struggled filling the slot.
Free safety Michael Griffin is having another inconsistent and frustrating season, which seems to occur every other year.
Six-year veteran Jason McCourty (nine pass deflections) remains a legitimate NFL cornerback. He’s tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Rookie Marqueston Huff, a fourth-round pick out of Wyoming, has shown promise.
With veteran Coty Sensabaugh finally being placed on injured reserve with a foot injury, second-year Blidi Wreh-Wilson has emerged at corner opposite McCourty. Although he has been picked on and struggled, it appears the growing pains this year might pay off in the long run.
Until the last game, McCluster on punt returns had been huge disappointments. But a 48-yard return set up an early field goal last Sunday. Washington is averaging 22.2 yards on kickoff returns, the worst of his career since his rookie season in 2006 with the Jets.
Punter Brett Kern has boomed 15 punts of 50 yards or more and is averaging a net of 39.5 yards per punt. His overall numbers rank eighth in the NFL. Kicker Ryan Succup, a late roster addition, is 11 of 13 on field goals (84.6 percent), while 58.3 percent of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.
With a new 3-4 defense, Whisenhunt and coordinator Ray Horton have tried to push square pegs through round holes. Then again, they probably underestimated the number of true playmakers on that side of the ball.
Offensively, Whisenhunt finally decided to move on from Locker, who likely wasn’t his style of quarterback anyway. The Titans rank dead-last in third-down conversions, meaning the offense can’t stay on the field.
To wit, nine of the last 22 offensive drives have been hampered by at least one costly penalty.
Whisenhunt has refused every chance to call this a rebuilding year for the Titans — who haven’t been to the playoff since 2008 — but there’s already a wait-till-next-year feel to a franchise that hasn’t won a postseason in 11 seasons.