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VOL. 36 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 14, 2012

Two Hall of Fame offensive linemen can’t get run game going?

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Everybody has a theory, but I’m not sure anybody really has an answer for the Tennessee Titans ailing running game.

There are those who will tell you that Chris Johnson hasn’t been the same running back since he held out and received a $53 million extension last year. Point taken.

Johnson and the Titans’ running game hit rock bottom in the season opener against the New England Patriots. Tennessee had just 20 yards as a team on 16 carries. But that was downright Earl Campbell-like when compared to Johnson’s individual exploits – 11 of those carries for four yards. Yes, four yards.

The only thing shorter than Johnson’s runs was his Sunday press conference, which consisted of two questions. Either reporters were tired of hearing the same old excuses, so they didn’t bother to ask, or the situation has gotten so bad that it pretty much defies explanation.

There were plenty of others who blamed the offensive line for last year’s running problems, pointing to guards Leroy Harris and Jake Scott and center Eugene Amano, as the problem on the interior.

There are others who simply say the line hasn’t been the same since Kevin Mawae left after 2009, which also happens to be the year Johnson became CJ2K.

But the line has been overhauled. Amano is injured and out for the year. Fernando Velasco, a bigger, stronger player, has been moved to the middle. Holes seemed to open during his cameo appearances last year, prompting some to call for him to be named a starter.

Seven-time Pro Bowl pick Steve Hutchinson was brought in to man the left guard spot and bring some of that nastiness that many said had been missing since Mawae departed three years ago.

Harris was moved to right guard, but didn’t finish Sunday’s game because of a knee problem. Now, he could get a challenge from Deuce Lutui, signed Monday. Lutui brings some size to the line, checking in officially at 6-4, 338.

As for who’s to blame, there is plenty to go around. But this much is certain: It is something that weighs heavily on coach Mike Munchak.

Yes, the NFL has become a passing league, and the Titans are finally heading in that direction. But Munchak has much more of a vested interest in seeing the run game break free than your average head coach.

Remember his pedigree. He is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and was regarded by his peers as one of the best offensive line coaches in the business before being elevated to the head coach role last year.

His successor is none other than Bruce Matthews, also a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, as well as Munchak’s best friend and confidant.

Munchak wants Matthews to succeed, as much as he wants it for himself and for the organization that has been both their home for so long.

If two Hall of Famers can’t figure out what’s wrong and fix it, can it be fixed?

Munchak won’t rush to judgment to condemn CJ or his offensive line, even after opening with such a horrible effort.

“For me, no matter how it went, I probably won’t evaluate it on one game. I’m not happy with where it started. You don’t want to rush for 20 yards or whatever we did,” Munchak says. “But I’m not going to overdo it on one game to decide where we’re at.

“For 11 carries, I not going to get into breaking down every run he made or didn’t make, or whose fault it was or why it went the way it went.

“To me, we need to have a few more weeks into this first quarter of the season to really see where we are in that phase and other phases on offense and defense,” he adds.

Fair enough, but something is amiss. Whether Johnson has lost that extra gear he once possessed or the offensive line has lost what it had, a nasty streak and a sense of knowing there is someone in the group who will take charge and not let such breakdowns keep happening.

“Just overall, between the o-line, tight end and the fullback, we just can’t take turns making mistakes,” Velasco says. “One guy misses a block, one guy misses an assignment. We can’t do that. We’ve got to be on the same page together. We knew it was going to be a challenge to get the running game going in. But we didn’t make it happen.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s one game. We’ve got 15 more. We know we’ve got to work on that. We knew New England was going to be strong today against the run, and we didn’t make it happen today.”

Munchak says there are no plans to make Johnson share carries with a bigger back like Jamie Harper or a scatback like Darius Reynaud.

So the status quo remains. But the result has to improve soon because the same old struggles and same old excuses are wearing thin. Change might soon be unavoidable.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.

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