NASHVILLE — Spend even a little time around the Titans and it seems like you’re watching the Jets circa 2009. Even Shonn Greene is running the ball in jersey number 23.
A ground attack that could be used 60% of the time? Check.
An aggressive defense that will throw a few kitchen sink blitzes? Check.
An unproven quarterback who holds the ultimate key to success? Double check.
Listen closely enough and you’d swear you could hear echoes of Rex Ryan bellowing about his ground-and-pound philosophy. The Titans don’t have a catchy slogan for it just yet, but it’s the same idea, only it’s coach Mike Munchak’s baby.
“When you’re a young team like we are, I think you’re better off running the football and controlling the clock a little bit, cut down on the turnovers some,” general manager Ruston Webster said Thursday night. “I think when the Titans have been successful, they’ve been a physical football team. When Mike was here [as a Hall of Fame right guard], when the Titans were successful, they were a physical football team that played good defense. And we want to get back to that. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be three yards and a cloud of dust, but that will be a big part of what we want to do and that’s what we want to get to. That’s the goal.”
Despite their 22-21 loss to the Redskins at LP Field in the exhibition opener, the new-look Titans rushed for 126 yards on 25 carries (more than five yards per carry) and had bust-out scoring runs of 58 and 19 yards by Chris Johnson and Greene, respectively.
“It’s exactly the way I envisioned it,” said first-year offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who looks even younger than his 33 years. “My goal was to get through this game healthy and to control the line of scrimmage, and I thought we did that. That’s a huge credit to those guys up front, and a huge credit to Shonn Greene and Chris Johnson.”
The Titans are built very similar to the Jets teams that went to back-to-back AFC championship games in Ryan’s first two seasons. It starts on the line; the Titans signed former Bills left guard Andy Levitre and drafted right guard Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick. Tennessee already had standout bookend tackles in Michael Roos (left) and David Stewart (who did not play Thursday). And there’s a three-way battle for center.
The Titans are better in the backfield with Johnson and Greene, who is now in his fifth year. The Jets had veterans Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson to go along with Greene during his ’09 rookie season and his sophomore season.
“I think we just want to be able to control the clock, keep the defense on the sideline and just get first downs and convert third downs when we have to,” Greene said. “Just win games like that.”
So, is this Ground and Pound II?
“Nah, I think our nickname is going to be Score Points,” Greene said. “We just want to score as many touchdowns as we can.”
Johnson’s 58-yard TD in the first quarter came on an explosive zone running play—and there was no dancing in the hole like last season. Now under the tutelage of well-respected running backs coach Sylvester Croom, Johnson made one decisive cut and was gone.
“Last year he was trying to make too many big plays, bouncing it [outside],” Loggains said. “When he got into the open field, he got vertical, put his foot in the ground and just outran everyone. That’s the CJ we know. That’s the speed that he showed, that he still has. As long as he does that and continues to take coaching, he’s going to have a big year.”
Tennessee has big-play threats on the outside in Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Nate Washington and imported versatile tight end Delanie Walker from the 49ers. The Jets’ best group during the ’09 and ’10 seasons was Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and tight end Dustin Keller.
With Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and David Harris leading the way, the Jets had a better defense than these Titans, but the brain trust of Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams will ratchet up the pressure.
Those first two years under Ryan, the Jets had the perfect combination of a ball control offense and a stout defense to make things easier on quarterback Mark Sanchez. Jake Locker, 25 and entering his third season, is in almost precisely the same situation.
“For us, I think it’s having Jake take control of the offense, play with decisiveness, and protect ball,” Webster said. “If he does those things we’re going to be OK.”
Although he was sacked twice, Locker was a decent 7 of 11 for 58 yards with a 77.1 rating on Thursday. In 16 career games (just 11 starts) his rating is 78.4. Sanchez’s career rating is 71.7.
“I think he’ll continue to get better—he has gotten better,” Webster said of Locker. “This is a different year for him because he’s not in a competition. So he’s taking every rep, pretty much. That will help him improve. The scheme will be a little bit more Jake friendly, so we should see strides.”
The formula the Jets used was old-school, but it provided results. They ran 59% of the time in ’09 but dropped to 51% in ’10 because they thought Sanchez would grow into the job. He didn’t, and that kept a well-rounded team from reaching its full potential.
The Titans better hope they don’t follow the Jets’ plan on that front.
Read More: Andy Benoit’s Deep Dive on the Titans.