Titans preview: Predictions for the 2013 season

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans open the season Sunday at Pittsburgh trying to stem the tide that has come with not making the playoffs since 2008.
After the Titans went 9-7 and barely missed the playoffs two seasons ago in head coach Mike Munchak’s promising debut, there was guarded optimism for last season. But with injuries and underachievement taking their toll, the Titans limped to a 6-10 record, putting Munchak squarely on the hot seat being stoked by team owner Bud Adams.
With unprecedented activity in free agency to the tune of $100 million-plus spent, the hiring of former assistant Gregg Williams upon his NFL reinstatement and an influx of immediate impact draft picks, the Titans are seemingly all in for a season that could well be a crossroad in franchise history.
With all that in mind, here are some things to pay attention to in 2013.
Three Things To Know
1. The fact the Titans had an injury-plagued and fairly pitiful offensive line last year didn’t reflect well on Munchak and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, both Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive linemen from the franchise’s days in Houston. With veteran tackles Michael Roos on the left and David Stewart on the right, the Titans have one of the more underrated tackle tandems in the league. 
Through free agency, the Titans signed left guard Andy Levitre, considered best at the position on the open market, and new starting center Rob Turner, who started 16 games at guard or center last season for the Rams. The interior of the line became complete with the drafting of Alabama right guard Chance Warmack with the No. 10 overall pick. All of a sudden, the Titans appear to have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
2. This time last year, Chris Palmer was offensive coordinator and Dowell Loggains was quarterbacks coach. But Palmer was fired in late November and Loggains had time to audition for the job he eventually got to become a coordinator for the first time. Loggains has streamlined the offense and vows to play to players’ strengths, including third-year quarterback Jake Locker.
While Loggains has said the Titans will be run first behind lead back Chris Johnson and power change Shonn Greene, there are weapons on the outside with receivers Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Kendall Wright, plus the addition of tight end Delanie Walker from the 49ers. The offensive energy in training camp and preseason games when the regulars played was tangible.
3. The Titans defense set a franchise record for scoring futility last season by allowing a franchise-worst 461 points. So, there was no doubt change was going to come on that side of the ball, especially through free agency.
Immediately, former Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard delivered a nasty voice for accountability and, in doing so, became the automatic unit leader. Other new additions starting Sunday include middle linebacker Moise Fokou, tackle Sammie Hill and end Ropati Pitoitui. 
But the most important change doesn’t wear a uniform. Williams, the former Buffalo Bills head coach and multi-team defensive coordinator, was hired by the team that gave him his pro coaching first chance soon after being reinstated from the year’s suspension because of his involvement with the Saints “Bounty-Gate” case. His schemes just might make the difference for a unit that still doesn’t demand much confidence.
Star Tracker
After being taken late in the first round of the 2008 draft out of East Carolina, running back Chris Johnson exploded onto the NFL scene with his gumbo of world-class speed, long-play ability and durability. After rushing for more than 1,200 yards as a rookie, he shocked the NFL by going for 2,006 yards in 2009 to become just the sixth back in NFL history at the time to eclipse 2K in a season.
That’s been a big cross to bear ever since. Oh, sure, he’s never rushed for less than 1,000 yards in a season, and his 6,888 rushing yards during his first five NFL seasons rank second in the league during that stretch and sixth overall for a player’s first five campaigns. 
But after a training camp holdout in 2011 and an ultimate big payday, the past two seasons haven’t been exactly what the Titans paid for. But Johnson seems invigorated running behind the revamped offensive line, not to mention getting pushed from behind by Greene, who rushed for 1,000 yards each of the last two season for the Jets.
There are those pundits who are predicting Johnson can return to elite running back status, even have the kind of re-breakout season that puts him into the MVP conversation again. Those who watch him on a regular basis say he looks as good now as he ever has.
Breakout Player
If there were ever a time for Jake Locker to prove he is an established NFL quarterback, this season is it. After being taken No. 8 overall in the 2011 draft, he was ordained the heir apparent, but sat behind veteran Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie and earned the starting job last season. But he then missed five games with a shoulder injury and never got on track with either his arm or legs.
All the while, fellow NFL quarterbacks taken in his draft or even last season were not only thrust into starting roles, but excelled at them. Certainly, the jury is still out on Locker, who looked in complete command of the offense while playing sparingly in preseason games. 
It is generally accepted that how far the Titans go this season will depend upon how far Locker can take them. Will Locker take that next step forward and prove he is the quarterback for the franchise going forward? If not, then there is a good chance neither Locker nor Munchak will be around next season to still wonder the very same thing.
Stat Watch
If the Titans defense is still the great unknown, then it will be imperative for the Titans to maintain ball control, move the chains and keep opposing offenses off the field. Then again, this has become a league built on offense, so first downs and time of possession also need to translate to points on the board, especially of the touchdown variety.
Last season, the opposition maintained the ball 33 minutes per game compared to the Titans’ 27. They also had 358 first downs compared to Tennessee’s 260. You do the math. Six more minutes of offense per game against a pitiful defense only translated to teams scoring more than 30 points on the Titans in half the games, including a season-worst 51 points yielded to Chicago.
Three Predictions
1. He may not duplicate Adrian Peterson of a year ago or his own outburst in 2008, but running back Chris Johnson will have his best season as a Titan. And that’s saying something, although many of those yards in the 2,000-plus season came late when the Titans were out of playoff contention and feeding him the ball. 
Look for Johnson to rush for more than five yards per carry for only the second time in his career and have his second-best rushing output somewhere in the 1,800 yards range. If that happens, the play-action for Locker will be there, and the Titans will have a formidable offense.
2. The title of special assistant/defense might be nebulous, but make no mistake that Gregg Williams is running the Titans defense. The reason he can is because of his longstanding relationship between Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray.
That could only happen because Gray is no shrinking violet. His help coaching the secondary during spring drills and training camp have been huge. Whether the Titans did enough to bolster a lackluster pass rush is yet to be seen, but the multiple defensive sets and blitz packages implemented by Williams will surely have an impact.
3. Although the schedule starts dauntingly with visits to Pittsburgh and two-time AFC South champion Houston, the Titans get a break after that with three-straight winnable home games against San Diego, the New York Jets and Kansas City. Back-to-back games against NFC favorites San Francisco at home and on the road at Seattle won’t be fun, either.
But the Texans’ window of opportunity might be starting to close, and it would be hard to figure the Colts can repeat the magic of quarterback Andrew Luck’s rookie season and playoff berth. If things fall right — and here’s saying they will — the Titans will go 9-7 and try to figure out that last weekend of the season whether they did enough to make the playoffs.
And that will be good enough for Munchak to keep his job.