Chris Johnson is not the only thing that has been missing from the Tennessee Titans’ offense thus far in the preseason.
Touchdowns have been almost as scarce as the record-setting running back.
Tennessee’s offense got to the end zone once in Saturday’s 14-13 victory over the Chicago Bears at LP Field.
In three games that unit has scored just four touchdowns — and only one of those was on a drive that covered more than 45 yards. Jamie Harper’s nine-yard run in the final minute of the first half against the Bears capped a 10-play, 80-yard possession.
“The 80-yard [drive] before half was definitely a big boost,” coach Mike Munchak said following the game. “Probably the best thing we did all day on offense was to take it 80 and punch it in on a nice run and get on the board that way.”
Things certainly have been worse through the first three weeks of the preseason, particularly against the Bears, who outgained the Titans 416-220 and had more than twice as many first downs (27-12).
For just the third time in 30 years, the Titans have failed to score at least 17 points in any of their first three tries. As they did against Chicago, they won with 14 in the opener against Minnesota and in between fell 17-16 to the St. Louis Rams.
While Johnson’s absence and the hamstring injury that has kept wide receiver Kenny Britt on the sidelines look like obvious reasons for the struggles, they more likely have to do with someone who has played in every game — quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
The last time the franchise started in this fashion was 2006, also the last time it made a significant change at quarterback. Following the offseason trade of Steve McNair to Baltimore, the Titans managed just 16, 10 and six points, respectively, before they blew up for 35 in the finale at Green Bay.
A similar thing happened in 1997, McNair’s first year as a starter. Then the Tennessee Oilers started with 12, 12 and seven points, respectively. Two years earlier, when veteran Chris Chandler was signed to ease the transition to McNair, the Oilers opened with 13, 13 and zero points.
That history suggests that the chemistry needed between a quarterback and his skill position players to execute in a short field takes a little longer to develop.
“Obviously, you want to come away with touchdowns, but sometimes … [the] defense is saying, ‘We’re going to give you the field goal but we’re not going to give you the touchdown.’ So sometimes teams play a good bend-don’t-break philosophy. So you come away with three [points] sometimes.”
The Titans did get three field goals and one touchdown in their first five possessions at St. Louis, and all of their points on offense have come in the first half, with mostly starters or valuable role players on the field.
“Until you do it — until you stand in the huddle and call it and the 25-second play clock is running — you can’t feel that pressure,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “[Hasselbeck] is doing a very nice job.”
Against the Bears, though, Hasselbeck and the rest of the starters on offense did not get a first down until the second quarter. Prior to the touchdown drive, they failed to capitalize on an early interception, went three-and-out once and failed to convert a fourth down another time.
Then when Tommie Campbell returned an interception 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown, the defense equaled the offense for the number of touchdowns scored on passing plays this preseason.
“I just think [the Bears] had some good defense,” Munchak said. “I mean, this league sometimes, offense, defense, you play against teams that are pretty good and we give them some credit too but, yeah, we think we could definitely play better. We could definitely make plays.
“They executed better than we did during parts of the game but we eventually made enough plays to win the game.”