Many NFL offensive lines are struggling mightily in both the running and passing game. But the Titans’ offensive line is excelling in both departments.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans are flying in the face of a troublesome NFL trend.Many league observers believe the NFL’s offensive linemen as a whole aren’t the group they once were, in part due to an overall decline in personnel and in part because so many colleges utilize pass-oriented spread offenses.
“We are seeing a dearth of quality offensive lines,” CBS Sports analyst Amy Trask – and former Oakland Raiders CEO – said over the weekend.
“The fact is that these teams have to address their offensive lines if they’re going to win. If they’re not going to (better the offensive line), then leave a tight end in. Bring another tight end in. Have everybody block.”But the Titans’ high priority on building a quality offensive line has allowed them to avoid the poor-front perils many teams are facing.
Tennessee’s front five – Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Josh Klineand Jack Conklin from left to right – has for the most part picked up where it left off in 2016, when the Titans ranked 3rd in rushing yards and seventh in quarterback sacks allowed.
Through the first two weeks of 2017, the Titans have the NFL’s sixth-best rushing offense and have allowed just two sacks of quarterback Marcus Mariota – tied for first in the league. They’re the only team in the league in the top six in both of those categories.
In last Sunday’s win over the Jaguars, Tennessee tamed a Jacksonville defense that had piled up 10 sacks in Week 1, limiting the Jags to just one. The Titans started slowly in the running game, but were pounding away by the end of the contest, finishing with 36 carries for 179 yards on the ground.
“You have to just look at all the rosters around the league to see how important the offensive line is to different teams,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “I know it’s important here. If you watched, (general manager Jon Robinson) and I addressed that immediately. We knew we’d better shore up there.”
STRUGGLING FOR PRODUCTION
A snapshot of the league’s rushing attack in the first two weeks of the season shows a general decline in production over the past decade.
NFL teams combined for more than 7,000 rushing yards in the first two weeks of 2008 and 2009, but only once since then (2014) has that plateau been eclipsed. This year’s two-week total in the run game – 6,290 yards – is the lowest in at least the last decade.One could argue NFL teams choose to throw the ball now more than they did a decade ago, but it’s also likely the league’s offensive linemen as a whole don’t run-block as well as they used to.
In the first two weeks of this season, teams have suffered more tackles for loss (304) than any other time in the past decade.
In last Monday night’s game, for instance, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was sacked five times and hit on three more occasions.
“So many of those college teams like the spread and the run-and-shoot so much,” said Titans offensive line coach Russ Grimm, a Hall of Fame former offensive lineman. “You start looking at the tape in the spring of draft-eligible guys, and sometimes you have to watch two or three games just to see them in a three-point stance.
“I think the quality of guys is still there. It’s just the stuff they learn. There are some of the guys that you have to take for a year or two and put them on the practice squad, just to get them back into the three-point stance and the run game.”
It would be easy to believe the offensive linemen coming out of college would be better pass protectors than they used to be, but that theory doesn’t seem to hold. Quarterbacks have been sacked 162 times in the first two weeks of this season, the highest number in the past decade.
“Yeah, I think for a long time now that the (overall) depth at O-line has been a concern,” Mularkey said. “I think a lot of it has been where college has gone with the spread offense. It depends on your team, but the majority of teams in this league still run the ball and put their hand in the dirt. You just don’t see that in college, so good quality depth is tough.”BUCKING THE TREND
So how is it the Titans have steered clear of the offensive line issues plaguing so many of teams around the league?
Priority and pedigree are two primary reasons.
The Titans used the 11th overall pick to select left tackle Taylor Lewan in the 2014 draft, despite the fact they already had a starting left tackle (Michael Roos) on the roster. Tennessee used the eighth overall pick to select tackle Jack Conklin last year, knowing he’d have to move from the left to right side.
They made center Ben Jones a priority free agent, signing him to a four-year deal; used the first overall waiver claim to nab starting guard Josh Kline; and scouted Spain well enough that they signed the undrafted free agent to a contract.
“After being with (Mularkey) in Pittsburgh, I knew offensive line would be a priority here when I took this job,” Grimm said. “I knew what type of offense he wanted.”
It’s also worth pointing out that four of the Titans’ top six offensive lineman – Lewan (Michigan), Jones (Georgia), Conklin (Michigan St.) and third tackle Dennis Kelly(Purdue) – played in either the Big 10 or SEC, two conferences that use more pro-style offenses than spread attacks.That makes the Titans’ draft evaluation process easier for the offensive line, and it reduces teaching time on the pro level as well.
“Some of those schools will change a little bit from time to time,” Grimm said. “But you look at your Michigans, your Ohio States, Alabamas, Iowas, Wisconsins – Stanford is another one. Every year those are the schools that are putting more and more (linemen) out because of the style they’re already in.”
The bottom line is this: Tennessee has one of the top offensive lines in the game, and it’s a group that could be together for a while. The average age for the top six linemen is 26 years old.
Jones, who was a part of some pretty good offensive lines in four years at Houston, likes what the Titans have assembled even more.
“Even with my years in Houston, I wouldn’t trade this group here for anything,” Jones said. “Everybody here knows what they’re doing and that helps me as a center making the calls. I never have to worry about anyone not knowing what’s going on.
“We enjoy being around one another, too. We work hard together, and we’re just a bunch of guys who set the same goals and aspirations.”
— Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.