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VOL. 40 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 27, 2016

Mularkey bets on running game in passing league

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Hall of Famer Russ Grimm, a former Arizona Cardinals offensive line coach, will be expected to improve a Titans offensive line that has been the team’s biggest weakness in recent years.

-- Ap File Photo/Kevin Terrell

With only five victories in the last two seasons, the Titans have fallen out of step with most of the rest of the NFL.

Maybe that’s why they’ve decided to reverse field.

While the bulk of the league continues to put more and more emphasis on the passing game, the Titans plan to buck the trend. The new regime says the best way to escape the NFL cellar is to run out of it.

Coach Mike Mularkey calls his emphasis on the running game “exotic smashmouth” football. He’s going old school in an attempt to establish a mentality and identity that has been sorely lacking for the last several seasons.

“They are going to know we are going to be very hard to defend, and it is going to be a physical football game,” Mularkey says. “When it is all said and done, they are going to know they have been in a fight.”

He has assembled his coaching staff accordingly.

The hiring of Hall of Famer Russ Grimm as offensive line coach is especially interesting.

It is no secret that some of the Titans offensive linemen had issues with their former position coach, Bob Bostad, in the last two seasons. Because of his playing career and his coaching body of work, Grimm should have the offensive line’s undivided attention.

“I hired guys who like to win and they like to win by beating the hell out of people,” Mularkey points out.

Sounds like a plan. But is it a good plan or just another shot in the dark?

Considering the current state of the franchise, why not try something different? The Titans hired Ken Whisenhunt in 2014 because he was supposed to be some kind of quarterback whisperer who could get the offense up to speed in the pass-happy NFL. How did that work out?

Based on what we’ve seen thus far, it’s not idle talk. After studying video of last season, first-year general manager Jon Robinson recognized the Titans needed a makeover at running back. He got DeMarco Murray from Philadelphia for pennies on the dollar. Then he drafted Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in the second round.

Robinson also addressed the offensive line, which has grossly underachieved for the last few years in both run blocking and pass protection. He signed Ben Jones to play center. He drafted offensive tackle Jack Conklin in the first round.

And by adding Arkansas guard Sebastian Tretola, an unpolished pass blocker but a mauler in the running game, in the sixth round, Robinson put some veteran interior linemen on alert.

As for Mularkey, he served as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator in 2001-2003. That’s where he came up with the term “exotic smashmouth,” which translates into a power running game that is launched from multiple formations and a variety of personnel groupings.

In ’01, Mularkey’s offense finished third in the league in yards and seventh in scoring while leading the NFL in rushing with an average of 173.4 yards per game. The following year, the Steelers were fifth in yards and eighth in scoring.

It should be noted that a key component of that ’01 Steelers offense was quarterback Kordell Stewart. He ran the ball 96 times for 537 yards and five touchdowns. By comparison, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota ran only 34 times for 252 yards in his rookie season.

With so much emphasis on protecting Mariota, do you really want him carrying the ball on designed running plays a half-dozen times a game?

The approach of Mularkey and Robinson is intriguing. These days, NFL defenses are structured to cope with pass-heavy offenses. That means speed over size.

Teams like Denver, Seattle and Carolina have prospered in no small part because of their running games, where they often found mismatches at the point of attack.

Another way of looking at it: Of the 12 NFL teams that threw the most passes last season, only three made the playoffs.

Last season, the Titans ran the ball on 38.4 percent of their offensive snaps – just over 23 rushes per game. Compare that to Carolina’s run-heavy offense, which averaged 31.8 rushes per game.

Of course, you can’t continue to pound away with the run if you’re down by a couple of touchdowns. And when you go 2-14, you’re playing catch-up football most of the time.

It’s about time the Titans developed an offensive identity.

For any of his failings, at least you knew what Jeff Fisher wanted out of his offense. Mike Munchak? Not so much. Under Whisenhunt, it was a little of this, a little of that.

Last season, Whisenhunt emphasized the running game a bit more – to little avail. The Titans wound up ranked 25th in rushing. They were 26th the previous season.

With an inconsistent offense for the last several years, the Titans defense has been under siege. Too often, the defense has worn down due to the heavy workload. If the Titans offense can control the ball for longer stretches of time, the defense will get a break.

And that sounds appealing to outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who clearly understands what kind of toll a strong, relentless running game can take on a defense.

“It demoralizes you. It really keeps you honest,” Orakpo recently told reporters. “They can really pound. And that’s what opens the passing game.”

Let’s be clear here: It’s not like the Titans are committing to the Wishbone. Mariota is the face of the franchise, and he wasn’t drafted No. 2 overall in 2015 to hand the ball off. But if the Titans are able to run the ball more effectively, it should open up things in the passing game that will hasten Mariota’s development.

Mularkey and Robinson are on the same page.

From Robinson’s point of view, he wants to follow the New England Patriots blueprint. It makes sense because he spent 12 years there, working his way up from an area scout in 2002 to director of college scouting in 2011. Obviously, Bill Belichick saw something he liked.

The Patriots’ offense is built around quarterback Tom Brady, but the team’s approach is to open passing lanes by controlling the clock with strong running. Last season, Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount provided a one-two punch at running back for the Patriots.

If the Titans can make this work, it will help them close the gap with AFC South nemesis Indianapolis. The Titans haven’t beaten the Colts since 2011. Meanwhile, New England has dominated the Colts by employing offensive game plans that featured two tight ends and an emphasis on the run.

Even after all those off-season moves, nobody’s saying the Titans’ roster matches New England’s talent pool. Just the same, Robinson understands the blueprint that has been so successful against Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis hasn’t done much to address its shortcomings in the front seven on defense. The Colts didn’t draft any defensive linemen until the 116th pick.

Of course, the Titans probably should focus on catching Jacksonville before worrying about the Colts. The Jaguars have finished ahead of the Titans in each of the last two seasons.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer

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