As the Rams prepare to face off at home against the Tennessee Titans, even in their weakened state, I believe many fans have this game tentatively circled as a win. However, Jeff Fisher's former team is showing surprising signs of life, coming off the bye week with a 3-4 record and only giving up a single point more on defense than they've scored on offense.
Is the franchise finally headed in the right direction in the post-Fisher years? And is this Titans team more formidable than we think? To get the answers, we talk to Tom Gower, longtime writer for both Football Outsiders and Total Titans.
RamsHerd: I imagine when many people think “Titans offense,” or perhaps just “Titans” period, Chris Johnson is the first and perhaps only name that comes to mind. Are players like Jake Locker and Kendall Wright poised to make a new name for the themselves and the team?
Gower: The Titans the past couple seasons ran a very pass-reliant offense. The offseason plan was to build an offense around a sustaining run game to put less of the burden on a developing Locker. That hasn't gone so well, as Chris Johnson is not the sort of back you can build a sustaining run game around. The good news is Locker has looked very comfortable in the new offense. He's making much better decisions and throwing the ball accurately.
Editor's Note: Locker has a very nice 8 TD / 1 INT ratio in his starts this season.
Wright, who dropped 15 pounds he had to lose in the offseason, looks much quicker and is able to separate in short areas. He's not the deep threat he was at Baylor with RG3 throwing him the ball — he doesn't have a catch from Locker more than 10 yards downfield this year — but otherwise he's probably been the sort of player Rams fans thought Tavon Austin would be. He'll line up a lot in the slot and the Titans will get him the ball with jerk routes, crossing routes, wide receiver screens, and the like to let him run away from defenders.
RamsHerd: Tennessee went offense-heavy in the offseason, drafting Chance Warmack and Justin Hunter and signing Andy Levitre. How would you weigh the impact of these moves so far?
Gower: Not just Warmack, Levitre, and Hunter, but also tight end Delanie Walker and Shonn Greene as a complement to CJ, and those were the big money moves. (One of the small money moves was former Ram Rob Turner, who started the first six games at center, was benched, and then went to injured reserve.)
Greene, who gives them the sustaining element CJ does not, has played in 6 snaps due to injury but is now healthy and could get 40% of the carries in what's likely to be a backfield by committee. He may still get 3.6 yards per carry, but he gets them in a way that's more useful than CJ. Walker has been okay. He's certainly a better blocker than Jared Cook was, but he talked in the offseason about getting 70 catches and won't end up anywhere near that unless there's a drastic change in the offense.
It's been a struggle to find playing time for Justin Hunter, and he hasn't played more than 18 snaps in any game. Thus far his highest and best use as been as a jump ball threat in the red zone. He's won two of those, one against the Jets and the other in the final half-minute against the Chargers for a come-from-behind win, but has lost others. With Kenny Britt likely to remain in disfavor and Damian Williams moving to return man, Hunter may see more snaps on Sunday, but I wouldn't expect much from him.
Levitre has been about what I expected. He's an outstanding technical pass-blocker but has only average strength for an NFL guard, and that shows up at times in pass protection when matched up against a bigger man and particularly in the run game, where he has good mobility but is on the whole fairly average. I think most people had more like "healthy Carl Nicks"-level expectations of dominance in the run game and the pass game and are less high on Levitre than I am.
Warmack has been solid at the things he did well in Alabama, namely on the move and physically dominating smaller players. The transition from left to right guard and from the SEC to the NFL has otherwise been a challenge for him. He's struggled in pass protection and is ineffective on the backside of run plays in addition to showing some strength/leverage limitations playing against grown men (e.g., Red Bryant in the Seattle game).
RamsHerd: Titans coach Mike Munchak and Lions coach Jim Schwartz are the two most notable branches of Jeff Fisher’s coaching tree, and both have had a difficult time finding sustained success. What is the general feeling around Munchak? Is he the man for the job there?
It's clearly a make-or-break season for Munchak and probably general manager Ruston Webster as well after some initial success in a 9-7 first season turned into a team that probably overachieved a bit to finish 6-10 last year.
My initial feeling was that Munchak was a line coach overpromoted after the messy way Jeff Fisher's termination went down more than a month after the season ended, and his initial hires (former UFL coach Chris Palmer! University of Texas DBs coach Jerry Gray! both with Houston Oilers ties!) spoke of desperation and perhaps a smaller rolodex than most coaches, who've taken paychecks from more than one team. He tries to preach toughness and "do your job." I'm not sure how involved he is in specifically managing the team, but I suspect he's in the bottom quarter of NFL head coaches when it comes to depth and scope of responsibilities.
RamsHerd: Gregg Williams’ arrival appears to have been a big spark for this team, which is currently allowing ten points fewer per game than last year. How has he turned this defense around?
Gower: Jerry Gray is still nominally the defensive coordinator, but this is a Gregg Williams defense. They bring pressure a fair amount, including with either or both defensive backs and linebackers.
The biggest difference from the past couple seasons is the defense seems to be much more intelligently coordinated. Gray wasn't quite Chuck Bresnahan post-Al Davis running whatever he felt like regardless of sense, but it felt close at times. Particularly aggravating was smash routes in front of a cornerback in off coverage playing the deep outside zone in cover-3: "Hey, offense, you want 7 free yards every play? Take it." Opposing teams said, "Sure." Nickel run defense was also a huge issue last year as teams would spread the box against the Titans and run between the tackles with great success.
Williams' more creative and less static fronts and pressure packages have changed that mix a lot and made the holes a lot less predictable there. There's been some internal improvement from players, too, most notably cornerback Alterraun Verner. The Titans kept trying to shove him to the sidelines for Tommie Campbell, who's bigger, faster, and more of a fit for Williams' press-man looks in terms of physical talent, but Verner's a smart player who plays with great technique on a consistent basis.
RamsHerd: There was a sad note earlier in the year for the team and the NFL as a whole with the passing of Bud Adams. Many times, though, the death of a long-time owner can create a time of rebirth for a franchise, as happened in St Louis. What does his passing mean to the team, and what happens next?
Gower: Bud left a complicated legacy; he's reviled in Houston and if not beloved, at least appreciated, in Tennessee. I tried to sum that up in this post ("RIP Bud Adams").
Editor's Note: This is a highly-recommended read.
In contrast to his earlier days, he was mostly a hands-off owner after the move to Nashville, only notably sticking his nose in on a couple occasions (drafting Vince Young in 2006, vigorously pursuing Peyton Manning in 2012 after the front office's initial efforts in that direction were more half-hearted). His family takes over, and we don't have a great feel for what their long-term vision of the team is and how interested they are in continuing to own it. The "good" news is the Titans were already in a high-pressure season where insufficient success could cost them their jobs, so impressing new ownership isn't adding a particular burden that wasn't there already.
In the short and intermediate term, there's no question the future of the team is in Nashville. There are no issues with either the stadium or the team's deal for it (the big drivers of franchise relocations), and they became the sort of regional draw they needed to become for a team in a smaller (by NFL standards) city like Nashville to be successful. Beyond that, we just have to wait and see how the new ownership group (split among the families of Bud's three offspring) handles things.
Our thanks to Tom for his insights. You can read my answers to his questions here: "RamsHerd Answers Total Titans' Questions About the Rams." Also, you can and should follow Tom on Twitter here: Follow @thomasgower