Titans still looking for running game spark from veteran lineman

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 10:05pm

Maybe the Minnesota Vikings felt that Steve Hutchinson no longer could do the job. Or maybe they just felt the veteran guard’s work was done.

Minnesota was firmly established as one of the National Football League’s top running teams, an identity it maintained through its first few games without him. So like a match that had not completely burned away, he was passed on so he might try to light a fire for another.

“Every time I join a team, they’re talking about wanting to improve the running game,” he said this past offseason, shortly after he signed with his third different franchise.

All it takes is a spark, but sometimes flames smolder before they ignite in earnest.

That’s the best the Tennessee Titans can hope for at this point as they, with Hutchinson as their starting left guard, travel to Minnesota this week to face the Vikings, who released the 12-year veteran in March. The seven-time Pro Bowler ultimately might be the answer, but at the start of the season questions about the ability of the Titans and running back Chris Johnson to be productive on a week-to-week basis not only lingered, they intensified.

Three weeks into the season, Johnson’s statistics were so puny that fantasy football owners everywhere put him on the bench, even if Titans coach Mike Munchak was unwilling to do the same. Johnson only added to the debate when he deflected criticism toward the offensive line.

“I wouldn’t sit here and say I’m to blame,” the fifth-year running back said following a Week 2 loss to San Diego. “It’s just a situation where I’m going to be only as good as my line is going to be.”

The current line certainly is different from the one Johnson ran behind in 2011, when he set career lows with 1,047 yards, a 4.0 yards-per-carry average and four rushing touchdowns. The tackles are the same, but the interior was completely overhauled when Leroy Harris switched from left guard to right guard, Fernando Velasco replaced the injured Eugene Amano at center, and Hutchinson, with his history of running
success, was added to the mix.

Whether that unit is any good remains to be seen. It couldn’t be much worse than it was in the first three weeks when Johnson carried 33 times for 45 yards and the Titans were one of two teams (the St. Louis Rams were the other) that had not scored a rushing touchdown.

“I’d be lying if I said it’s not frustrating,” Velasco said. “It’s something that … as an offensive line, you want to run the ball. Unfortunately we haven’t been doing that these first few weeks of the season.”

In their first victory, a 44-41 overtime triumph over Detroit, the Titans looked like a team ready to give up on the run game. The first seven plays were called throws, and 42 of their 61 plays throughout the contest were passes.

“We’re going to start a game out with what we think is best to help us win,” Munchak said. “We thought against that defense with the size of the guys and the front seven, where their strength was, that the smartest thing to do is to do exactly what we did — throw the ball a little bit, spread it around, tire them out, discourage them a little bit, hard count them, do some screens, just kind of mix it up, and then get to the run, which we did.”

Besides that, Hutchinson was not brought in simply to protect the passer.

Five times in the previous six seasons Minnesota ranked among the NFL’s top 10 in rushing offense and had a league-best 164.6-yards per game average in 2007, his second season with that franchise. The Vikings released him in March after having finished fourth in that regard, despite the fact that perennial Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson played just three games before he sustained a season-ending knee injury.

Even in their worst season running the ball with Hutchinson as a member of their offensive line, they averaged more than 20 yards per game above 2005, the year before he signed with them.

The Vikings coveted his services so much that they signed him as a transition tag free agent, which gave his original team, the Seattle Seahawks, an opportunity to match the offer. The Seahawks did not, apparently comfortable in the state of their running game at that point.

Seattle selected him with the 17th pick in the 2001 draft after being the league’s 22nd best rushing team in 2000. Four times in the five years he played there, the Seahawks were among the top 10 in rushing, capped by a third overall at 153.6 yards per game in 2005.

They fell to 14th in rushing offense their first year without him and dropped even further, to 20th, the next season.

“It doesn’t necessarily happen quickly,” Hutchinson said. “In our case, we got too far behind in the first two games, and we didn’t have the opportunity to run. Sometimes you just need to stick with it, and we’ll help ourselves a lot if we can keep the score closer and keep trying to run the ball.”

While Tennessee easily was the league’s worst running team through the first three weeks — all but three teams averaged more than twice as many yards per game — Minnesota, minus Hutchinson, held a spot among the top 10.

“[Johnson] is right, any running back is only going to be as good as the offensive line,” Velasco said. “Those are the guys blocking for you. Those are the guys that open holes for you. We know as an offensive line we have to do a better job in the run game.”