by Ben Muth
Tennessee’s season ended this Sunday with a win over the Texans. They finished 9-7, but couldn’t get enough help from other teams to sneak into the playoffs. It’s weird to call a team that went 9-7 disappointing, especially considering low preseason expectations, but I think Tennessee fits that label. They played in a conference where T.J. Yates, Curtis Painter, and Blaine Gabbert all started multiple games. Tennessee lost games to teams starting Luke McCown and Dan Orlovsky. Really, Tennessee probably should have made the playoffs.
Any time a team narrowly misses the postseason, there are a lot of things you can point to as the one reason why they’re forced to watch in January. With Tennessee, most people point to Chris Johnson’s holdout, Kenny Britt’s injury, or Week 15’s loss to the Colts. Those are all good reasons, but at the end of the day I think the main reason they came up short is that Tennessee wasn’t great anywhere. They were solid in a lot of areas, but I can’t think of any one thing the 2011 Titans were great at (I will contradict myself shortly, but just hang with me). They don't really have any elite players, and that makes it hard to find that little extra production a team needs to put them over the top.
I’m not here to give a Total Titans (pun intended, Mr. Gower) analysis though, I’m here to talk about the offensive line. This is a unit that has been elite in the past, and was really responsible for a lot of Tennessee’s success under Jeff Fisher. As a unit, they are still pretty good, but certainly not great. Where can Tennessee improve up front to get back to their former glory? Let's look at each individual position.
Left Tackle -- Michael Roos
Roos is Tennessee’s best offensive tackle and one of the better left tackles in the NFL. He’s a tier below guys like Jason Peters, Joe Thomas, and Jake Long, but he lands somewhere just below that. Roos really epitomizes this offensive line, because he is very good at pass blocking and rarely make mental mistakes. He isn’t a top-level athlete, but he has very good technique and always plays hard. He’s not overpowering in the running game, but he does use his hands well and stays engaged throughout the play. It’s also important to note that he was very consistent this year, with very little variance from game to game.
It’s unrealistic to think Tennessee can upgrade over Roos at left tackle. There are probably only five or six guys in the entire league that are better, and those guys simply don’t become available, especially for around the $5.5 million Roos is scheduled to make next year. I imagine Michael Roos will start at left tackle for the remainder of his contract.
Left Guard -- Leroy Harris
Harris has not been very popular in Nashville this season. He and Eugene Amano have been the two offensive linemen that have seen the most criticism from fans and media for Tennessee’s disappointing running game. I think most of the criticism is unwarranted or overblown. I’m not saying he’s Randall McDaniel, but he certainly isn’t a liability. He pulls well, which is very important for a left guard, and he also moves well in pass protection.
His biggest fault is a tendency to commit penalties, some of which seem incredibly dumb. Obviously, penalties up front can kill a lot of drives, but I’d rather take a talented player with a slight discipline problem than a guy who can’t play. Harris has one year left on his deal, and I think he’ll be back next season.
Center -- Eugene Amano
The other scapegoat for the Titans, Amano’s move to center to replace Kevin Mawae hasn’t gone over great in Tennessee. I think Amano is probably slightly below-average as a blocker, but I think he deserves more credit as a director. Tennessee’s pass protection is really good. It doesn't seem to matter which quarterback is behind them or who is calling the plays in from the headset: The Titans always finish near the top of the league in adjusted sack rate. It may sound simple, but a big reason for that is that their guys up front know where they are going. They don’t let that many free rushers through, and Amano deserves a lot of credit for that. The line is always working in harmony and they don’t make many mistakes.
That being said, I can see why people want more of him physically. The main thing I notice is that he tends to set very deep in pass protection. This helps the interior line pass off games (twists or stunts) to each other, but puts Amano in bad position one-on-one a lot. Because he sets so deep initially, he’s often close enough to the quarterback to make him uncomfortable. Another thing Amano struggles with is reaching nose tackles without help. If he is in a combination block with a guard, he’s fine. But when he’s by himself, he tends to give up too much penetration.
Tennessee could upgrade this position in the offseason. Unlike left tackles, teams do let above-average centers hit the market in free agency, so Tennessee could go out and sign someone. Amano (who is under contract through 2014) has played guard in the past, so would be valuable as a reserve even if he isn’t a starter. The best option, though, may be to start developing a center while Amano is still a viable option.
Right Guard -- Jake Scott
I thought Jake Scott was the worst player on Tennessee’s offensive line, and the second-biggest reason their running game struggled so much (the biggest reason made a lot more money than Jake Scott) this year. I hadn’t seen much of Scott until this year, so I can’t speak to prior performance, but Scott didn’t look like a starting guard in 2011. He was completely ineffective as a run blocker.
The bearded behemoth got knocked back far too often by opposing three-techniques. Blocking a three technique on zone plays, inside or outside, is what guards get paid to do. Scott struggled at the point of attack in these one-on-one situations and forced Tennessee running backs to either bounce around him or cut back almost immediately. Scott was fine in pass protection -- but that’s not the most important part of playing right guard.
Scott is a free agent at the end of the year, and I can’t see Tennessee bringing him back. Unless he’s the greatest locker room guy in the world (maybe) or he’s the one making all the line calls (unlikely), I just can’t see the Titans signing up for another for another year of Scott as their starting right guard.
Right Tackle -- David Stewart
David Stewart is a good right tackle that would probably be passable on the left side. Stewart’s best asset is his size -- he’s big, strong, and moves well enough to overpower smaller defensive ends. At times he struggles with really great speed on the edge, but at right tackle that isn’t as much of a problem. He’s another sound technical player, which reminds me that I should probably point out something: Mike Munchak is likely a heck of teacher. The fact that he’s tied up for the next couple of years all but assures that Stewart and Roos will continue to be the bookends in Tennessee.
Like I said before, Tennessee’s offensive line wasn’t an issue this year -- in fact, it was probably a strength. They finished second in adjusted sack rating, but I think some of that was due to Matt Hasselbeck being smart about getting rid of it. They finished last in adjusted line yards, but a good deal of the problem there can be put on Chris Johnson. Really, if they can get a new inside guy (either a guard or center), they can shuffle some things around and get back to where they were a couple of years ago.
That wraps it up for the regular season this year. I’ll continue to cover the Saints and Texans in the playoffs until they’re eliminated. If they get knocked off in the first couple of rounds, I’ll probably do another Q&A column. So if you’re a fan of those, you may want to root for Detroit and Cincinnati. Remember to follow me on Twitter, and I’ll see you next week.