Why the Titans are struggling so

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
10:26
AM ET
Chris JohnsonBrace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireChris Johnson hasn't been the playmaker he advertised himself as when he signed his big extension.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Only the insanely optimistic with an up-close view tabbed these Titans to make the playoffs.

And it hardly took a giant cynic to foresee a bad start given their schedule.

But with a 1-4 record, giving up 36 points, 424 yards and 35 minutes, 10 seconds of possession time per game while ranking 30th in rushing offense after an offseason promising major gains for Chris Johnson?

The struggling Titans are on display Thursday night as Tennessee hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Barring a sudden turnaround, a national audience is about to learn what the Nashville area and Titans opponents have come to know well: This is a team with serious issues.

Let’s look at some …

Mixed messages: Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said last week his guys had been playing too timidly and he wanted to see more aggression.

How, exactly, are the defensive backs to feel charged up and aggressive when Gray’s scheme is one of the very things helping produce tentative play? You’re not exactly telling your guys you have a great deal of confidence in them when everything is about not getting beaten by big plays, and when so many plays start with corners well off receivers and safeties a mile deep.

Yeah, Coach, I’ll go make a big hit -- so long as I can make it to the ball before the offense is back in the huddle.

Nowhere near the same page: With a heavy dose of option routes in the passing offense, the Titans are very reactive on offense. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer believes unless you’ve got absolute premium weapons, you have to be that way.

But it sure seems like he should be able to steer things to certain people more often if he thinks they might ignite the offense, which has been flat outside of a monstrous afternoon in a Week 3 victory over Detroit.

Here’s the example that sticks out right now.

Backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, playing for the injured Jake Locker last Sunday in Minnesota, said after a 30-7 loss that Jared Cook needs to be more involved early on. The tight end could barely find words in a radio interview when asked about the communication lines with coaches about getting more involved. Palmer said there were times early against the Vikings when the Titans could have gotten Cook the ball and they didn’t, and that going forward they need to.

Seems like a giant circle there. Everyone wants him to get the ball, but he’s not getting it.

Why not? Sit down and solve it. Script plays that make it happen, and call them.

An inability to generate pass pressure: The pass rush was insufficient last year, and it needed to be the primary focus during the offseason.

The Titans addressed it at two levels, signing pricey veteran Kamerion Wimbley when he was released by Oakland in a cost-cutting move and hiring Keith Millard as a pass-rushing coach who would work with players on the defensive line and beyond.

The early results have been terrible.

The Titans have seven sacks. Only three teams have fewer.

The only player with more than one sack is rookie defensive tackle Mike Martin.

Fearing the big play and knowing he lacks talented players in coverage, Gray is reluctant to add people to the rush. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Titans have blitzed on just 32 plays this year, less often than all but four teams.

[+] EnlargeMike Munchak
Troy Taormina/US PresswireWill closing practices to the media help Mike Munchak and the Titans improve on last season's 6-10 mark?
Too much belief: After yet another blowout dropped them to 1-4, coach Mike Munchak was adamant about making no changes to his staff or his lineup.

Look, it’s admirable to say you want to stick with the plan. It’s more admirable to show a willingness to change the plan. Munchak is coming across as stubborn.

Even if he doesn’t entirely mean it, wouldn’t it be better received by those both inside and outside the team’s facility if Munchak said he will leave no stone unturned in an effort to fix things, that he will tinker as a result of any suggestion if he thinks it might enhance the team’s chance to win?

Munchak seems to be expecting the same buy-in he had as a rookie head coach who didn’t have an offseason with his team because of a lockout.

Counting the preseason, Munchak’s been at the helm for 29 games now. The personnel he signed off on is certainly lacking. Are the Titans' struggles all his fault? No, but the longer the team slides, the more Munchak's methods will come under question.

Knowing your job: Munchak’s main message at the start of his tenure in 2011 was that everyone in the organization needed to know his job and do it.

I feel certain Titans defenders know they are supposed to tackle, yet they don’t do it. And while I don’t advocate public flogging, there are no consequences we can see. Certainly none that have produced better tackling.

That’s a player failure first. But once it becomes an issue, coaches have to get it fixed, and they’ve failed to do so. Same with the lousy run game -- which should be right in Munchak’s wheelhouse.

During Jeff Fisher’s lengthy tenure as a players’ coach, it was virtually impossible for a veteran starter to lose a job.

Munchak is a players’ coach, too. While he enforces discipline more universally than Fisher did, he’s proving as unwilling as Fisher to send a message to a player through reduced playing time.

That ties directly into the next two points as well.

Absent leadership: Johnson is a good player when things are going well. Safety Michael Griffin can be, too.

Recent long-term contracts for both made them centerpieces of this team, but did not change their stripes.

Johnson believes the line has to play well for him to influence games. Griffin has proved he’s at his best when he’s surrounded by talent and when there is a big pass rush in front of him. With or without that environment he’s a follower, not a leader. But he’s been put in a leadership position.

Were they wise signings by Mike Reinfeldt and the man he promoted to succeed him as general manager, Ruston Webster? It’s easy now to say no. Another big piece of Johnson’s giant salary gets guaranteed in the spring. The Titans will have to bail before that.

A lack of accountability: Johnson says over and over he’s only as good as his offensive line, but there are backs of much lesser stature showing a much better feel for how to get a yard when the line blocks for none, or how to get 2 when the line blocks for 1.

He sold himself as not just a running back, but a playmaker, when he got a contract extension after a lengthy camp holdout in the summer of 2011. He easily ranked as one of the league’s most underpaid players in his first three seasons. He easily ranks as one of the most overrated in his fourth and so far in his fifth.

But this “playmaker” won’t admit he’s fallen into bad habits, might have gotten carried away with the stardom that came with great success or let the money change him. It’s become easier to read him as more upset about his lack of yards than the Titans’ lack of wins.

It’s OK for a guy who sees a lot of the ball to have some selfishness in him. It’s actually one of the qualities that can help make a guy good. When he’s not good, however, he needs to make some adjustments to his game, and his mindset.

What do you say, CJ?

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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