The Line: Men up front will determine Titans’ fortunes this year

Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 10:05pm
072613 TitansIllo topper.jpg
(Illustration by Nick Sadek)

 

They cast large shadows. Literally.

Offensive linemen at all levels of football are the tallest or the broadest — often both — in locker rooms largely populated by those distinguished by their ability to run fast or jump high. Unlike any other position, theirs places a premium on the ability to remain stationary, to stand their ground so others may execute their responsibilities with less resistance.

Incongruous as it is, though, they also typically live in the shadows. Figuratively.

Though they tower over their peers, they get overlooked more often than not. Their performance is most notable when they do nothing that gets them noticed. If all goes well, the ball is nowhere near them once a play is finished.

The vast majority prefers it that way.

“Linemen don’t want the attention,” Mike Munchak said. “Most don’t. I’ve been around some who enjoy it, but I think for the most part guys are like, ‘Just leave me alone and let me do my job.’ … They don’t want the limelight. They know that at some point they’re going to get some attention, but it’s not going to be just because of them, it’s going to be because all five guys played well.”

Like it or not, the Tennessee Titans’ offensive linemen will be watched closely during the 2013 season. [For a breakdown of each individual lineman, click here.]

With one Hall of Fame guard (Munchak) as their head coach, another (Bruce Matthews) as their position coach, one of the offseason’s highest-paid free agents at any position (Andy Levitre) and a top 10 overall draft pick (Chance Warmack), the Titans’ blockers have been and will be part of the story — a significant part — each week, whether the team wins or loses. The team’s very identity is rooted in a group of men who are accustomed to being anonymous.

“If that group has the year we expect them to have, we’re excited — on the offensive side of the ball — about what we should be able to accomplish,” Munchak said. “I think that’s where it all starts — I always have — on both sides. If you can control the game there, you’re going to win most of those games for the most part … if you have an offensive line that is playing well together.”

The idea is for any line to be recognized as a fist rather than a collection of five fingers, yet the Titans’ transactions this offseason placed Levitre and Warmack squarely in the public eye and guaranteed they are among the most talked about and closely watched of all players with this week’s start of training camp.

The season arrives with questions about the potential of the quarterback, the consistency of the best running back and the reliability of the top wide receiver. Not only that, but it has been five years since the Titans’ last postseason appearance and 10 years since the last playoff victory. When either might happen again seems to be anybody’s guess at this point.

In a very real sense, franchise leaders looked to their offensive line for those — and other — answers. The decision to beef up their blockers through all available means was made to give Jake Locker more time to throw, running back Chris Johnson more room to run and wide receiver Kenny Britt more time to get down the field in order to maximize his big-play ability.

The responsibility placed on the five men up front over the past seven months even extends to the other side of the ball. The makeup of the offensive line was deemed critical to the desire to dramatically improve upon last year’s average time of possession, which easily was the league’s worst, so that the defense won’t have to spend so much time on the field. That defense, of course, set a franchise record last fall for points allowed in a single season.

“The first thing we talked about as an offense when we met was that we want to run the ball when we want to and need to,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “Obviously, with the commitment that [Munchak] and [general manager Ruston Webster] made in rebuilding the offensive line was a big part of that.”

It started in March, when Tennessee signed Levitre to a six-year, $46.8 million contract in the opening hours of the free agency signing period. A second-round pick by Buffalo in 2009, Levitre started every game during his four seasons with the Bills. By comparison, the St. Louis Rams signed tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in 2008, to a four-year $36 million deal.

More than a dozen free agents, including Rob Turner and Chris Spencer, two other interior offensive linemen, eventually signed on as well, but Levitre clearly was the cornerstone of the group.

“I’m excited about it,” Levitre said. “We brought in a lot of talent … and we brought in all these guys because we want to win now. We don’t want to win down the road. We don’t want it to be a thing where we develop down the road.”

The fact that a knee injury severely limited his participation in offseason drills only heightens the interest in how he performs with the start of training camp. Still, though, observers will divide their attention between him and rookie Warmack, the Titans’ first-round choice and the 10th overall pick in April’s draft.

In the previous 12 years, no guard went earlier than 17th overall in the draft, but Warmack was the second taken this year. Arizona used the seventh overall pick on Jonathon Cooper, and that unprecedented early attention on the position is only going to ramp up the national interest in Warmack and how he performs.

The result is that the two highest-profile acquisitions of the offseason were made to solidify the interior of the offensive line. Levitre entered camp as the starter at left guard and Warmack was the starter at right guard, positions that normally rate among the most anonymous on any team.

“Offensive line is all about the group and the cohesiveness of the five guys on the field and everybody who plays on the offensive line,” Warmack said. “I’ve been an offensive lineman all my life and I’m used to being with a group of guys, and we all have the same aspirations and goals.

“I’m a low-key guy. I’m not really a guy that’s into the spotlight. I’m blessed enough for my position to reflect who I am as a person.”

The absence of notoriety for linemen is due in part to the lack of statistics that measure and define performance and serve as a means of comparison.

Wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks rack up yards, touchdowns and other easily recognizable statistics. Defensive players have their sacks, their forced fumbles, their interceptions. Even kickers make it or they don’t, and punters are measured by hang time, net average, gross average and attempts downed inside the 20.

Offensive linemen are gauged by what goes wrong. A sack does not count against the quarterback, it goes against the offensive linemen. A high yards-per-carry average typically indicates the big-play ability of a running back. A low figure generally is viewed as a lack of holes through which to run, i.e. his blockers didn’t do the job for him.

“Let’s face it, how many days is an offensive lineman going to get a lot of attention?” Munchak said. “Maybe the day he’s drafted and after that maybe the first day of his training camp. Then the reporters go away and they’re talking to the other guys — the quarterbacks and the receivers — until maybe he gets called for holding.”

It’s not a coincidence that in 2008, when the Titans allowed a league-low 12 sacks, two members of the offensive line, left tackle Michael Roos and center Kevin Mawae, made the Pro Bowl, and those two, plus right tackle David Stewart all earned some measure of All-Pro recognition. That also was the last season Tennessee made the playoffs.

Munchak and Matthews were part of an offensive line with the Houston Oilers in the mid-1980s that included three straight first-round picks — all in the top 10. Munchak was eighth overall in 1982, Matthews went ninth overall in 1983, and tackle Dean Steinkuhler was the No. 2 pick in 1984.

The three started together for six seasons. Munchak and Matthews ultimately ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So did one running back (Earl Campbell) and one quarterback (Warren Moon) who played behind them.

Warmack is the lone first-rounder among the current group. Roos, like Levitre, was a second-round pick. Stewart was a fourth-round choice, and the options at center are Fernando Velasco, an undrafted free agent, or rookie Brian Schwenke, a fourth-round pick.

“There’s no doubt that [Warmack] has to deal with the pressure,” Munchak said. “You’re going to feel that some, because obviously, the expectations are high for someone like that and someone like Levitre.”

Immediately, the pressure will be on him and the other four starters to learn to play together. In addition to Levitre, Stewart did little in offseason drills because of a lingering injury, and Roos was regularly held out to limit wear and tear as he enters his ninth season.

“You mesh no matter what, on the field, off the field, little activities like we’ve been doing, asking questions among ourselves, just talking about life in general,” Warmack said. “All of that has an effect on how you do on the field. Whether they’re practicing or not we’re all starting to come together as one and within a group.

“… Me and my teammates on the offensive line are kind of the spoon that makes the pot of whatever you want to call it. We’re not noticed for what we do, but everybody in the team knows what we’re doing.”

Soon enough the challenge will be to perform on the field, because the first ones everyone’s looking at to make this season a success are the last guys most typically would expect.

“If we come out here and don’t play well as an offensive line, then … [people] are going to start second-guessing and wondering if these are the right guys,” Munchak said. “There’s some pressure that goes with it, but that’s for anybody.

“… We’re trying to get back to by being physical and by being bigger and stronger with the guys we brought in here. That’s our expectations, and we feel we have the guys behind them that can make that happen. That’s the excitement we have. We have to go out and see if that’s what we have. We’ll find that out in Pittsburgh in September.”

 

 

 

OPEN WORKOUTS

The schedule of Tennessee Titans 2013 training camp workouts that are open to the public:

Friday: 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Saturday: 3-5 p.m.

Sunday: 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Tuesday: 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Wednesday: 3-5 p.m.

Thursday: 3-5:00 p.m.

Aug. 2: 3-5 p.m.

Aug. 5: 3:45-5:45 p.m.

Aug. 10: 3-5 p.m.

Aug. 11: 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Aug. 12: 3-5 p.m.

Aug. 13: 3:15-5:15 p.m.

 

2013 SCHEDULE

PRESEASON

Aug. 8: vs. Washington, 7 p.m. (WKRN-TV, Ch. 2)

Aug. 15-19: at Cincinnati, 7 p.m. (WKRN-TV, Ch. 2)

Aug. 22-26: vs. Atlanta, 7 p.m. (WKRN-TV, Ch. 2)

Aug. 28-30: at Minnesota, 7 p.m. (WKRN-TV, Ch. 2)

 

REGULAR SEASON

Sept. 8: at Pittsburgh, noon (CBS)

Sept. 15: at Houston, noon (CBS)

Sept. 22: vs. San Diego, noon (CBS)

Sept. 29: vs. N.Y. Jets, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)

Oct. 6: vs. Kansas City, noon (CBS)

Oct. 13: at Seattle, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)

Oct. 20: vs. San Francisco, 3:05 p.m. (Fox)

Oct. 27: Bye

Nov. 3: at St. Louis, noon (CBS)

Nov. 10: vs. Jacksonville, noon (CBS)

Nov. 14: vs. Indianapolis, 7:25 p.m. (NFL Network)

Nov. 24: at Oakland, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)

Dec. 1: at Indianapolis, noon (CBS)

Dec. 8: at Denver, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)

Dec. 15: vs. Arizona, noon (Fox)

Dec. 22: at Jacksonville, noon (CBS)

Dec. 29: vs. Houston, noon (CBS)

3 Comments on this post:

By: courier37027 on 7/26/13 at 5:59

I recall two years ago Zone's Mark Howard beating his gums on the air, critical about Chris Johnson's holdout. One taunt he used was the Titans O-line "This offensive line works well together. They are telling Chris Johnson to come back. See what we can do for you." That sound since Johnson's return has been a resounding thud.

By: jwk6179 on 7/26/13 at 1:27

I see where all the Titans Pre-Season games will be carried and produced by our friends at WKRN Channel. Without a doubt, I think the Titans have the WORST television production for their pre-season games in the entire NFL. I've seen high schools games with better announcing and production crews than I've ever seen with the Titans. I think that with Channel 2 producing and the Announcing crew is an embarassment to the NFL.

By: courier37027 on 7/27/13 at 5:16

The last time the Titans were implored in print, to perform as a cohesive unit, was the "Playing for Pride" article in this NCP publication. Result was a 55-7 beatdown at Green Bay.