By Christopher DiMarino
This is another entry in a set of early looks at the teams the Pittsburgh Steelers will play in the 2012-13 season. The goal is to acclimate the average Steelers fan to the offseason changes each team has made. This will make the in-depth analysis in the week before the game more familiar and understandable.
Who: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans
What: Week 6 Regular Season Matchup
Where: LP Field
When: 8:20 EST Thursday October 11th, 2012
How: NFL Network
Key Free Agent Additions and Losses:
|Key Free Agent Additions and Losses|
|Position||Name||2011 Team||2012 Team||Role|
|G||Steve Hutchinson||Minnesota Vikings||Tennessee Titans||Starter|
|G||Kyle DeVan||Philadelphia Eagles||Tennessee Titans||1st String Backup|
|C||Jon Cooper||Minnesota Vikings||Tennessee Titans||1st String Backup|
|DE||Leger Douzable||Jacksonville Jaguars||Tennessee Titans||1st String Backup|
|LB||Zac Diles||Indianapolis Colts||Tennessee Titans||1st String Backup|
|OLB||Kamerion Wimbly||Oakland Raiders||Tennessee Titans||Starter|
|WR||Donnie Avery||Tennessee Titans||Indianapolis Colts||1st String Backup|
|DE||William Hayes||Tennessee Titans||St Louis Rams||1st String Backup|
|DE||Jason Jones||Tennessee Titans||Seattle Seahawks||Starter|
|MLB||Barrett Ruud||Tennessee Titans||Seattle Seahawks||Starter|
|CB||Cortland Finnegan||Tennessee Titans||St Louis Rams||Starter|
|S||Chris Hope||Tennessee Titans||Atlanta Falcons||Starter|
|FB||Ahmard Hall||Tennessee Titans||UFA||Starter|
|FB||Will Ta\'ufo\'ou||Tennessee Titans||Released||Futures|
|TE||Daniel Graham||Tennessee Titans||Released||2nd String Backup|
|G||Jake Scott||Tennessee Titans||UFA||Starter|
|G||Duke Robinson||Tennessee Titans||CUT||Futures|
|SS||Anthony Smith||Tennessee Titans||UFA||1st string backup|
|LS||Ken Amato||Tennessee Titans||UFA||Starter|
The Titans had a rough free agency period. While they didn\'t lose too many players, many of the exported players contributed a lot to the team. In total they lost 6 starters and only signed two players capable of being starters. Some of the players who are no longer on their roster are big names like Barrett Ruud, Chris Hope and Cortland Finnegan. As much as this seems like a salary cap related move, the Titans are actually in a great cap situation as they are currently at about 20 million or so under the cap. Part of that might have been involved in the chase for Mario Williams (they eventually signed Kamerion Wimbley). I can understand Ruud and Hope nope being retained because they both are near the end of their careers, but Finnegan is still in the prime of his. This didn\'t appear to be a contract dispute issue either and it is rumored that Tennessee just did not want him back. The rationale of that decision could lie in his on the field behavior.
On offense, the Titans will not have fullback Ahmard Hall, long snapper Ken Amato and guard Jake Scott back this season. Hall has been with the Titans for the past six years and has been a steady secondary type contributor. He was used often as a receiving option out of the backfield, but the NFL seems to be trending away from fullbacks. Scott had started for the Indianapolis Colts 3 of his 4 years and started for Tennessee all 4 years. He did not have a great season in 2011 and is likely a scapegoat for the poor season that running back Chris Johnson had. Steve Hutchinson and Kyle DeVan were brought in to start or at least push hard at their positions.
The once incredibly talented defensive line of the Titans has fallen quite far. After losing defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to the Detroit Lions in 2009, the Titans defensive line has slowly lost several good players. Albert Haynesworth, Jason Babin and Kyle Vanden Bosch all made the Pro Bowl as Titans and are now on other teams. Tennessee followed the trend of losing talent along their defensive line by losing two long time contributors at defensive end in William Hayes and Jason Jones. Hayes has been a key backup for the past four season and contributed as a starter in 2009. Jones has started for the last two seasons and contributed over 15 sacks in his four years. Leger Douzable, who started 6 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, was signed as a depth replacement.
2012 Draft Analysis:
|2012 Draft Recap|
|WR||Kendall Wright||1.20 (20th)||Baylor||5\'10||196|
|OLB||Zach Brown||2.20 (52nd)||North Carolina||6\'1||244|
|DT||Mike Martin||3.19 (82nd)||Michigan||6\'1||306|
|CB||Coty Sensabaugh||4.20 (115th)||Clemson||5\'11||189|
|TE||Taylor Thompson||5.10 (145th)||SMU||6\'6||259|
|FS||Markelle Martin||6.20 (190th)||Oklahoma St.||6\'1||207|
|DE||Scott Solomon||7.4 (211th)||Rice||6\'3||262|
Tennessee had a pretty tame draft and wasn\'t super busy trading like all the other teams I\'ve covered. The Titans only made two trades and they only affected from Round 5 and on. They were the 19th pick in the 3rd round (versus 20th in the others) because the Oakland Raiders sacrificed their 3rd round selection to draft quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the 2011 supplemental draft.
The Titans made an interesting choice in the first round by drafting a wide receiver. Though Kenny Britt was injured most of last year, he is the star of a capable young group. Kendall Wright has undeniable talent, but wasn\'t a steal at #20 and the Titans had other needs. This was one of the many deciding picks that resulted in the Pittsburgh Steelers getting guard David DeCastro to drop to them. They were also rumored to go after a cornerback in the draft, but the Cincinnati Bengals chose Dre Kirkpatrick three spots earlier. There were options at defensive end, but the Titans focused on offense instead.
Zach Brown was chosen in the 2nd round and is an interesting prospect. He\'s very athletic, but will need to develop more into a hardnosed linebacker. He should be able to compliment the pass defense early on though. In the 3rd round the Titans took Mike Martin, whose name was thrown around on this site a lot before the draft. This is a solid pick for a team looking to shore up their defensive line. They will need to work with him on his technique, but Martin has a consistent motor and is hard worker.
A very intriguing selection is tight end Taylor Thompson who the Titans traded up in the 5th round to grab. He was a tight end in high school before being converted to a defensive end in college because his school used a spread offense. He was considered an able defensive end, but the Titans chose him to go back to move back to tight end. This level of talent depth will make him valuable on special teams in a pinch, but this transition has always interested me. Tight ends need size and speed, among several other important skills, which are also keys to success at defensive end. I think that this will begin happening much more often now at the college level.
Hearing the name of Jeff Fisher in connection with a team other that the Titans has been odd. Fisher was at the helm of the Titans for a 16 season span, so any replacement would have big shoes to fill. Mike Munchak was the man named as his replacement and is now entering his second season. Munchak has been a part of both the Titans and Oilers organizations since 1982. He was selected to the Pro Bowl 9 out of his 12 seasons in the NFL as a guard. He was the offensive line coach for 14 years before being promoted to the head coaching job. With such a deep history within the organization, it wouldn\'t surprise me to see Munchak last as long as Fisher did.
Chris Palmer returns for his second season as the offensive coordinator. Palmer had multiple stints around the league as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. You might recognize the name as he was the head coach of the reinstated Cleveland Browns from 1999-2000. Last season he had to help two new quarterbacks adjust to a new system. The Titans drafted quarterback Jake Locker in the 2011 draft and he has looked adequate in an injury relief role thus far. Palmer also has been the front seat passenger in the Johnson roller coaster ride at running back in addition. After posting almost 1400 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010, Johnson\'s productivity dropped in Palmer\'s first year to just over 1000 yards and 4 scores.
Jerry Gray is also returning for his second season as the Titans defensive coordinator. Gray had previously coached the defensive backs for the Titans from 1999-2000. He was then promoted to defensive coordinator for five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. He has spent the rest of his time prior to his rehire as a the defensive backs coach with various teams. Gray has been tasked with revamping the once exemplary Titans defense. They are in the middle of a changeover to a new younger core and their success will be based on his guidance.
When Fisher left in 2011, there was a big overhaul of the staff and almost every coach was replaced. The quarterback and tight end coaches remained on the staff as did special teams coach Alan Lowry. This is a team that performs well in all facets of special teams. Lowry\'s 30 years of experience in the NFL as a special teams coach is one of the largest reasons for their success.
Last Year\'s Stats:
|2011 Team Stats|
|Fumbles Lost (2011)||8||10||13||26||10|
|Sacks Allowed (2011)||24||2||42||23||37|
|Avg Time of Possession||27:54:00||31||32:33:00||2||30:00:00|
|Fumbles Recovered (2011)||12||4||4||30||10|
|Punt Return Avg For||10.4||14||10.5||13||9.9|
|Punt Return Avg Against||6.1||4||8.4||12||9.9|
|Kick Return Avg For||26||5||25.1||8||23.8|
|Kick Return Avg Against||22.7||8||23.7||16||23.8|
|Field Goals Made||90.63%||4||74.19%||31||82.89%|
|3rd Down % Offense||36.70%||17||45.92%||4||38.00%|
|3rd Down % Defense||40.68%||23||38.91%||19||38.00%|
|4th Down % Offense||71.43%||1||37.50%||19||43.26%|
|4th Down % Defense||40.00%||10||61.54%||28||43.26%|
|Red Zone % Offense||59.46%||5||50.94%||18||52.18%|
|Red Zone % Defense||47.92%||10||54.84%||17||52.18%|
Tennessee had a very interesting set of stats in 2011. Both their offense and defense overall did not perform very well but each had one excellent stat. Their special teams unit was one of the best in the league though. The Titans had above average efficiency and were particularly good in clutch situations.
The Titans did not have a good year offensively. This shouldn\'t surprise anyone, as it was well documented Johnson, their star running back, had a statistically poor year. When you look deeper into Hasselbeck\'s numbers, you can note that while he was fairly efficient, he failed to consistently make big plays. The Titans were below average in combined stats (total yards, points, etc), above average in passing stats, and their rushing yards were the second fewest in the NFL. Accordingly, their time of possession was terrible. The shining spot for this offense was its low amount of sacks and turnovers.
The Titans defense mirrored its offenses\' performance, but in some ways, was the opposite. Tennessee was below average in allowing yards, but top 10 in points allowed. Their defense was better against the pass than the run. While the offense didn\'t turn the ball over that much and didn\'t get sacked, their defense didn\'t generate very many turnovers and failed to sack the opposing quarterback enough. Tennessee was near the bottom of the league in interceptions and sacks, but recovered the 4th most fumbles.
I\'ve noted that the Titans have a great special teams coordinator, and accordingly, their stats in this category were great. Tennessee was top 10 in every special teams category except punt returning and top 5 in several other categories. Kicker Rob Bironas had another fantastic year, only missing three field goals. In a stroke of bad luck, opponents missed only one field goal against the Titans (96.4%). Tennessee was good on 4th downs and inside the red zone, but struggled on 3rd downs. Their turnover differential was just out of the red and that ranked them in the top half of the NFL as a result.
The Titans were one my least favorite teams in the NFL because of their rich history against the Steelers in the early 2000s. From 2002-2003, the Titans beat the Steelers three times in a row and one of those wins was in the playoffs. I particularly did not think much of Steve McNair or Eddie George at the time and was frustrated that they were able to beat Pittsburgh. To say the least, this is a very different team now in 2012. Instead of a power back like George, they have a scat back in Johnson. Instead of McNair, they have a young up and comer waiting in the wings. I find Tennessee interesting at this point, but I think their focus should be more on defense. If they can gain some stability there, and get back to pressuring the quarterback, they may be able to relive those moments.
You can read a lot into the Titans 2011 stats. While the team may make drastic changes to kick start the offense, this team is fairly similar to last year. The Titans finished 9-7 and just missed the playoffs. If you would\'ve guessed their record from their stats, you probably would\'ve guessed they were much worse. Their efficiency was their enemy as well as their saving grace. Their amount of 1st downs was low and this can be linked to their poor 3rd down performance. As much as I want to target the 36 year old Hasselbeck, their running game was the main culprit. Conversely, they were great on 4th downs and in the red zone. They had a reliable kicker and didn\'t turn the ball over often.
I don\'t want to read too far ahead, but you have to look at their division. This was one of the worst divisions in football last year because of the decline of Jacksonville and Indianapolis. However, the Titans record wasn\'t inflated as a result of this. In fact, they lost to both the Jaguars and the Colts last season. They had a pretty easy schedule in retrospect, but also pulled out a few big victories, one of which was against the Baltimore Ravens way back in week two.
I get the feeling that this team is on the edge of both a collapse, and gelling. There are a few pieces that aren\'t fully put together yet and regardless of the outcome, we will see how it all shakes out this year. The Titans have always been competitors, but they are currently in the downturn as a team in the midst of a wide reformation. The scary thing is that from their drafts and free agency moves you can somewhat see it all coming together. I think the Titans have the potential to be a good team, but they will need Johnson to forget about 2011, and Locker to come in and excel.
Who is the face of the franchise? Locker, who was selected 8th overall in the 2011 draft seems to be a great candidate. However, the veteran Hasselbeck was the starter in 2011 and appears to have the upper hand going into this season. This isn\'t too surprising though as traditional wisdom is still to groom your franchise quarterback when you can. What is surprising is the disparity in their stats. Hasselbeck didn\'t have a terrible year, but his average pass was low (6.9 yards) and he threw 14 interceptions to go along with only 18 touchdowns. How much longer will he own the starting job? If he comes out strong, will the Titans be content to leave him in, or will they eventually push to get Locker inserted? The answers to those questions will have a huge impact on their game against the Steelers.
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