One wouldn't expect last year's 21st-ranked running team in the NFL to suddenly rebound to the top of the league in just one season, but the Tennessee Titans have certainly put themselves on that path this offseason.
A team in transition over the last several years, Tennessee has now recommitted to becoming the same kind of smash-mouth, run-first offense that fueled their run of 23 wins in two seasons from 2007-08. The results could be chart-topping for Tennessee.
All the pieces seem to be in place for a top running game.
Franchise running back Chris Johnson returns from his best season (1,243 yards, 4.5 yards per carry) since 2010, but it's the building blocks put around him that should re-energize the Titans' ground attack.
With the inside of their offensive line in flux for the better part of the 2012 season, the Titans got aggressive this offseason, signing top guard Andy Levitre in free agency for almost $50 million before using the No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 draft on Alabama guard Chance Warmack.
If Warmack is as good as advertised—and many had him as the best offensive guard in the 2013 class—the Titans should now possess one of the better guard tandems in the NFL. And their speciality? Running the football down defense's throats, of course.
Levitre helped anchor an offensive line that averaged five yards a carry in 2012, and he's coming off a season in which Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him as the ninth best guard in football. He'll be a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate at left guard.
Warmack, at 6'2" and almost 320 pounds, is a road grader in the run game, capable of stepping in at right guard and immediately being a mover at the point of attack. He made 40 starts in the SEC and was named a consensus All-American in 2012 for Alabama's all-world rushing attack.
Levitre and Warmack will now join a group that simply needed help on the interior to become a dominant run-blocking unit.
The three offensive linemen who should return in 2013—Michael Roos at left tackle, Fernando Velasco at center and David Stewart at right tackle—each finished last season with positive run-blocking grades, per PFF. Overall, Roos was a top-three left tackle, and Velasco finished an encouraging 11th among centers.
Even Johnson got some help in the backfield.
Instead of force-feeding the still undersized Johnson in less favorable situations (such as on the goal line), the Titans signed another 1,000-yard rusher in Shonn Greene, formerly of the New York Jets, to handle the dirty work.
While Greene won't be rushing for 1,000 yards as Johnson's backup, he'll provide a LenDale White-type option to help keep Johnson fresh and healthy. He can also be the chain-moving short-yardage option for the Titans offense.
Back in 2008—when the Titans won 13 games—Johnson and White split 551 carries (Johnson 251, White 201) and produced over 2,000 total rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Such an even split might not be coming in 2013 with Greene, but his signing does give the Titans a reliable option to help replicate some of what Tennessee created five seasons ago.
But as important as the personnel changes were in Tennessee, a refocus of offensive philosophy will prove just as vital to the Titans re-claiming their position as one of the game's best running teams.
According to Teresa Walker of the Associated Press, Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has re-wrote his playbook to accommodate the vast changes made to his run game this offseason.
"We want to be able to run the ball when we want to and when we need to," Loggains told Walker.
Gone are the days when the Titans are attempting to be a passing-orientated team, which resulted in just 15 wins over the last two seasons. The run game will fuel any rebound in 2013.
"I can say that because last year ... we basically were trying to turn into like a passing team," Johnson said, also via Walker. "Coming in this year, it's going to be a run-first offense."
A rise to the top of the league's rushing ledger isn't out of the question.
Last season, the Titans ran 378 times for 1,687 yards (4.5 yards a carry), while the NFL-leading Washington Redskins ran 519 times for 2,709 yards (5.2).
Back in 2008, with the rushing attack winning games for the offense, Tennessee produced 508 carries for 2,199 yards (4.3).
Making up the difference could come down to the man under center.
Jake Locker already possesses a running threat as a pocket passer (241 rushing yards in 11 games in 2012), and Loggains might be ready to spring him loose in a similar way as the Redskins and 49ers do with Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick.
Terry McCormick of Titans Insider reported earlier this offseason that the Titans offense will take a long look at the read-option and pistol this spring. Locker, a mobile quarterback capable of running such formations, could represent a bigger part of the run game next season, although the Titans will likely never be as quarterback-centric as the Redskins for fear of jeopardizing the injury-prone Locker.
Yet it's still conceivable to think Locker—given 16 games under center—could rush for upwards of 500 yards in 2013. Such a contribution would put the Titans in the conversation for the NFL's best running team.
Either way, they have certainly blazed a likely path up the rushing charts for 2013.
The combination of vast personnel improvements, scheme refocusing and the development of Locker in the offense has provided the opportunity for the Titans to vault their running game near the top of the NFL.
The hope now is such a likely rebound running the football will also result in a return to previous totals in the win column.