The Tennessee Titans 2011 season ended on a positive note, though it didn’t result in a playoff berth. But the club ended the year 9-7,and were only a game away from returning to postseason competition. However a tougher schedule means the Titans must correct problem areas, and improve on both sides of the ball to ensure they are a legitimate contender rather than just another middle-of-the-pack entry.
Here are five key issues that will determine the Titans’ fortunes in 2012:
1. Quarterback battle
Matt Hasselbeck dispelled any rumors that he was at the end of the line last year, proving an efficient and effective passer. But he’s also in his 14th season, and there are many both on the inside and outside of the Titans organization that feel last year’s first round draft selection Jake Locker should inherit the job sooner rather than later. Coach Mike Munchak declared that camp would be an “open competition,” so all eyes are on this battle as the team prepares for their fi rst joint practice with the Atlanta Falcons Aug. 6 and the preseason opener in Seattle Aug. 11. Hasselbeck’s prime advantage comes from 13 seasons of NFL experience. While Locker is obviously the QB of the future, unless he has a disastrous camp and/or preseason, look for Hasselbeck to open the season against the Patriots at LP Field Sept. 9.
2. Offensive line improvement
It was the proverbial case of good and bad news for the Titans’ offensive line. They were superb on pass protection, keeping Hasselbeck and Locker from being sacked at a rate that put them among the top fi ve in the NFL. They were also among the leaders in fewest penalties. But they were equally bad at run blocking, so much so that major changes have been made. Multiple Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson was brought in to be the new left guard. No one knows whether Eugene Amano or Kevin Matthews will start at center. Leroy Harris is coming off injuries and a below average year at right guard. Tackles Michael Roos (left) and David Stewart (right) were both outstanding, especially Roos, but guard and center play must be significantly better in 2012.
3. Defense back shifts
Management opted to let Cortland Finegan leave. The hope is that rookie Coty Sensabaugh can eventually replace him as the slot corner, but Alterraun Verner will no doubt get fi rst crack at that position. Michael Griffin is expected to make it back to the Pro Bowl this season at safety. Jason McCourty and Jordan Babineaux are solid veterans, but not exactly stars.
4. Defensive line help
The Titans finished second to last among NFL teams in sacks, a stat that often proved disastrous in the current pass-happy league. They are counting on big things from former Raider Kamerion Wimbley, who has 42.5 sacks over his six-year career, including 16 the last two years. They also hope Derrick Morgan has overcome injuries and is ready to be a fulltime starter at defensive end. The club even added a new pass rushing coach, former All-Pro Keith Millard. Millard will be in charge of both the defensive line and linebackers, and the Titans hope he can impart the wisdom and expertise that enabled him to set a single season sack for defensive tackles in 1989 (18).
5. Wide receiver question marks
The fi rst and biggest concerns Kenny Britt, who seemed headed for a big season before injuries prematurely ended his year. Unfortunately, Britt recently was arrested yet again, and both his physical and playing status are in jeopardy. First-round draft choice Kendall Wright had a spectacular senior season, catching 108 passes for 1,663 yards and 14 touchdowns. He certainly helped Robert Griffin III post Heisman Trophy numbers. Nate Washington had a strong season as well, and there’s talk Marc Mariani will get more time on the field as a receiver.
The Titans begin preseason play at Seattle Aug. 11, followed by another road game against Tampa Bay Aug. 17. Their fi rst home preseason game comes against Arizona Aug. 23. They conclude the preseason at LP Field against New Orleans Aug. 30.
Photo by Associated Press