NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans offensive line is not getting nearly enough credit for the team’s turnaround and the playoff run they’re currently on.
Deservingly so, much of that credit has gone to QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Derrick Henry, who have both been stellar this season.
But the big guys up front deserve more love from fans.
“I don’t think they get enough credit,” RB Derrick Henry said a few weeks ago. “They’ve been finishing, dominating the line of scrimmage and it’s been good for us, good for me.”
The Titans’ offensive line did not start the 2019 campaign with the same level of dominance that they’ve shown as of late, though. The unit bordered on dysfunction halfway through the season and has since risen to the top.
A TERRIBLE START
For the first six games of the season, much like the offense as a whole, the unit often looked completely inept.
Part of the problem was simply a lack of available personnel.
Star left tackle Taylor Lewan had to sit out the first four games due to a suspension resulting from a failed drug test. Rookie guard Nate Davis wasn’t ready for the first few games because he missed most of Training Camp with an injury and hadn’t gotten a chance to get his feet wet in practice.
However, those absences don’t fully explain why the Titans’ preferred starters who were available—LG Rodger Saffold, C Ben Jones and RT Jack Conklin—weren’t doing their individual jobs at even a passing level.
The unit put up its worst performance of the year in Week Three against the Jaguars, when their inability to block Jacksonville’s pass rushers led to QB Marcus Mariota being sacked nine times.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE? NOT SO FAST…
Lewan’s return in Week Five provided some hope that the o-line would be able to get things fixed, but the hope proved to be false.
For around a month after he returned, Lewan brutally struggled with penalties. Holding, facemask, false starts—name the penalty, and Lewan was probably called for it.
On top of that, Saffold, the Titans’ priciest free agent acquisition from the offseason, continued to struggle. He looked like a shell of the version of himself that earned an All-Pro nod in 2018, often failing to pick up even simple pass rush stunts.
His struggles were so visible and frequent that fans took to social media to, sometimes rather brutally, criticize Saffold. It went to such a level that he addressed the issue following the Titans’ Week 10 win over the Chiefs.
I think I’m the most hated guy on the @Titans Win lose or draw it’s just nothing but negativity and insults. Mistakes happen in this game we all know that but without knowing scheme or the way we play to judge instantly is just unfair. I mean we just beat a top AFC team enjoy it.
— Rodger Saffold (@Rodger_Saffold) November 10, 2019
“I think I’m the most hated guy on the Titans,” Saffold posted to Twitter in early November. “Win lose or draw, it’s just nothing but negativity and insults.
“Mistakes happen in this game—we all know that—but without knowing scheme or the way we play, to judge instantly is just unfair.”
The same day Saffold posted that Tweet, Lewan teed off on himself for his penalty problems during a postgame media availability.
“My penalties are a [expletive] problem,” he exclaimed. “I am 100% an issue with that.
“And it is killing the team. I am completely screwing the team with the amount of penalties I have had.”
A COMPLETE 180
Call that day the breaking or tipping point, if you’d like, because ever since then, the Titans’ offensive line has steadily become a somewhat dominant unit.
Out of the ashes of dysfunction and ineptitude, the unit has become one of the primary driving forces of the Titans offense.
“It all starts up front with those guys blocking and then creating that space,” Tannehill said. “They’ve done a great job. I think they’ve gotten better as the year has gone on.”
In the wildcard round of the playoffs against the Patriots, the unit was so dominant in the run game that Henry was often getting five or six yards before even being contacted.
Large holes for Henry, the NFL’s 2019 rushing leader, were a common theme over the Titans’ final six games of the season. The number of sacks they gave up also decreased drastically.
“When you’re able to run the football and protect the quarterback, and he doesn’t get a whole lot of hits, usually the guys up front are working well together,” head coach Mike Vrabel said.
WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
So, what exactly led to the transformation? Why is an offensive line that once made defensive linemen salivate now able to totally road grade a defense?
According to the Titans, the biggest keys were understanding and communication.
“I think it’s coming from understanding how it works for this team, in particular,” Saffold said.
“A lot of the things that we were doing before, we weren’t quite sure how to do it fundamentally. We were having things slip through the cracks. Whereas, this time, we’re doing a better job at that.”
“It’s like any relationship—the more you’re around someone, the more familiar you are with them,” offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said. “The communication is better.”
Without the drastic improvement of the offensive line, the Titans’ season would have been over a long time ago.
But because the unit proverbially rose from the dead, the Titans are still very much alive in round two of the postseason.
Cover image: David Butler II/USA Today