The Tennessee Titans have assembled an offensive line strong enough to be a platform for success. But any potential to suddenly become a powerhouse attack will depend on how well a revitalized running game supports a young quarterback.
Jake Locker has been handed the reins and the Titans have made every effort to ensure he is surrounded by ample talent. Those efforts begin with getting star running back Chris Johnson back to his best. That will be the primary job of a revamped O-line.
Tennesse could boast the strongest interior line in its division this season. The Titans spent big to lure left guard Andy Levitre from the Buffalo Bills.
He was a key part of the Bills' sixth-ranked rushing offense in 2012. A play from Week 1 against the New York Jets shows the kind of impact Levitre can have on the running game.
Speedy rusher C.J. Spiller will attack the Jets defense behind the left guard.
Levitre will create the crease for Spiller to exploit. He will block two defenders, forcing them into the middle.
Levitre begins the play by double-teaming defensive tackle Mike DeVito.
He then slides off to pin middle linebacker David Harris to the inside. That gives Spiller a lane through the left and to the outside to complete a 56-yard scoring run.
Levitre showcases movement skills on this play. This is the kind of athleticism and technique the Titans need to free Johnson for his once trademark breakaway runs.
Johnson still offers a similar breakaway threat to Spiller; he will thrive running behind Levitre. The veteran guard is also strong enough to act as a true power blocker.
This play from Week 15 against the Seattle Seahawks showcases Levitre's power inside. The Seahawks have shifted three hulking defensive tackles to his side of the formation.
At the snap, Levitre stands up 325-pounder Alan Branch (99).
As the play develops, he drives Branch off the line and out of the play.
Spiller is left with a clear lane to the inside. He would complete an 18-yard gain.
It is not only Levitre's arrival that Johnson should welcome. He should also be delighted the Titans used their first-round pick on dominant interior lineman Chance Warmack.
The ex-Crimson Tide standout was a mainstay on some powerful lines that paved the way for several successful running backs. Warmack played a key part in the production of Alabama tailbacks Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.
The Titans know how vital their line will be to their offense in 2013. According to The Tennessean, head coach Mike Munchak is spending more time working with the front five.
Warmack and Levitre will create holes at the line for Johnson. Tight end Delanie Walker can complement their efforts. He is a mobile and capable blocker who can be used anywhere along the formation and in space.
An example of how useful the former San Francisco 49er is in the running game comes from Week 4 against the New York Jets.
Walker is positioned off the line, in the backfield as a H-Back. He will be used to seal the edge with a kick-out block.
Once the ball is snapped, Walker quickly moves to the edge and takes the outside linebacker out of the play. His block gives Kendall Hunter a free lane off tackle to the outside, creating an 11-yard gain.
The 49ers boasted the fourth-best ground game in 2012 and Walker was a big part of that success. He is currently missing practice after an MRI on his knee, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. The Titans need Walker healthy to give their run-blocking schemes greater versatility.
Since ranking second in the rushing charts in 2009, the Titans have finished 17th, 31st and 21st. They now have the power and versatility up front to let the ground game be the focal point of this offense.
Signing Shonn Greene from the Jets has only increased that versatility. The 226-pounder is a natural, thick-bodied power-back. His bruising style perfectly complements Johnson's quickness and grace.
Johnson has spoken of his delight at the Titans' plans to operate a "run-first" scheme, according to The Nashville City Paper. That is also great news for Locker and eases the pressure on the young passer.
A prolific ground attack will be a major boon to Locker in a make-or-break season. He adds his own good mobility skills to the mix, but must improve his proficiency throwing on the run.
With the new blocking and two 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield, Tennessee's play-action passing game should be lethal.
A play from Week 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars is a great example of how the Titans can use their weapons in the backfield to create big plays off play action.
The Titans line up three players in the backfield. This run-heavy look brings a safety down into the box to create an eight-man front. That isolates the free safety, shown in white, in deep coverage.
The Titans will use two of their backs to supplement the blocking scheme.
One backfield blocker helps out on a defensive end. The other takes a linebacker out of the play. The play fake to running back Darius Reynaud (25) freezes middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (51).
With every underneath defender drawn toward the line, the Titans have created two one-on-one matchups on the outside. This puts the free safety in a bind. He is over the top of one receiver, but too far away from the other.
That makes Locker's decision easy. He throws away from the safety help and hits Nate Washington for a simple 21-yard gain.
The Titans can use overloaded backfield looks like this to split coverage and create a clean pocket for Locker. In this example the three backfield players were tight end Craig Stevens, fullback Quinn Johnson and Reynaud.
Substitute that trio for Chris Johnson, Greene and Walker. That is a look that will pose nightmares for defenses on any down. Using the threat of the run to aid the pass must be the foundation of this offense.
Of course, the Titans will not have to manufacture all of their gains through the air. That is because Locker now has better and more varied targets to aim for.
The Titans have assembled a deep and versatile group of pass-catchers led by crafty veteran Washington. His precision route running and deceptive vertical speed combine well with the big-play potential of Kendall Wright from the slot.
Washington and Wright are fleet-footed, but slight. The Titans smartly added some real size at the position when they snatched Kevin Walter from AFC South rivals the Houston Texans.
The 6'3", 218-pounder gives Locker an experienced and resourceful pass-catcher who can work the middle and the outside. The return to full health of 6'3", 215-pounder Kenny Britt gives the Titans another physical receiver and Locker's most obvious big-play target.
With this kind of blend, the Titans passing game should feature plenty of intricate route combinations to create positive yardage. An example comes from Week 13 against the Texans.
The Titans position Britt and Washington on the same side of the formation. This naturally attracts the strength of Houston's coverage.
Just before the snap, Britt and Washington bunch closer together. As the outside receiver, Britt will initially attack the inside before turning out. His first move to the inside will take away the safety and create a free seam for Washington to attack deep.
The veteran will have leverage on the cornerback and aim for the gap between the corner and the deep safety. That leaves him wide open to complete an easy 19-yard pass play.
With such a diverse group of wideouts, the route combinations for the Titans are endless. Now it is up to Locker to consistently exploit these kinds of matchups.
Some feel the third-year passer is primed for a breakout season. He is under pressure to deliver. After making his former position coach, Dowell Loggains, his offensive coordinator, the Titans are taking away the excuses for Locker not to succeed.
But the the truth is he may not have to deliver a breakout year. The "run-first" offense takes a lot of pressure off Locker.
If the run is as dominant as the Titans expect, their youthful quarterback can be a complementary piece instead of a game-winner. Think of the 49ers and Texans as prime examples of two productive offenses, based largely on their ability to run the ball.
A prolific ground game helped Alex Smith take the 49ers to the NFC Championship in 2011. It also helped the team shift to untested Colin Kaepernick and go one game further last season.
Tennessee's fortified line will be the key to its offensive success in 2013. Powerful front fives have helped average quarterbacks thrive in the past.
Smith revived his career behind perhaps football's finest O-line in San Francisco. Matt Schaub has led one of the NFL's best attacks in Houston behind a highly skilled group up front. Locker should flourish in the same way.
There are also serious question marks about key players. For instance, how long will Johnson welcome sharing the load with Greene?
This won't be the NFL's next great offense, but it can be a highly effective, functional one. If the line and the running game click and Loggains expands the play-action schemes, the Titans will rank in the top half offensively.
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