Titans banking on power running game to lift them from AFC South cellar



Last Season: 3-13

Fourth in AFC South

Preseason power ranking: 30

They mash people. The Titans get a beyond-belief rushing effort from a new offensive line and new running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Playing off that, quarterback Marcus Mariota is super efficient and productive in his second season. "He has a very good command of what's going on, and we're doing a lot of things with moving parts, a lot of shifts, a lot of motions," coach Mike Mularkey said of his quarterback. Meanwhile, in this scenario, the Titans' pass-rushers in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's scheme hit the quarterback frequently, force turnovers and set up the secondary for success. A renowned blitzer in LeBeau takes over for Ray Horton, who led a far too passive a defense last season. Mularkey has said he wants tighter coverage from defensive backs at the snap. LeBeau, a Hall of Fame defensive back, brings out a more assertive personality in the corners once the games count.

The pass rush can't do enough to offset a secondary that doesn't make many plays or have much depth outside, so opposing offenses hit the Titans for a lot of big chunks. In 2015 the Titans gave up 7.33 net yards per pass attempt, the seventh-highest mark in the league. In the first half of three preseason games, the Titans gave up pass plays of 61, 44, 41, 29, 36 and 20 yards. Tennessee could prove ill-equipped to play catch-up because it is built on ground-and-pound. Mularkey’s team sticks to the form of his past two unproductive stints plus last year's interim gig with the Titans, building on the wrong side of his 19-39 record. Meanwhile, the rest of the division improves. The Colts rebound from a down year; the Texans find stability with quarterback Brock Osweiler; and the Jaguars take off thanks to all the additions, particularly on defense, where they are faster and have more playmakers.

Titans' percentage chance to win each game

Sept. 11 vs. Minnesota: 47.6

Sept. 18 @ Detroit: 37.4

Sept. 25 vs. Oakland: 45.5

Oct. 2 @ Houston: 25.5

Oct. 9 @ Miami: 32.5

Oct. 16 vs. Cleveland: 66.3

Oct. 23 vs. Indianapolis: 41.8

Oct. 27 vs. Jacksonville: 51.1

Nov. 6 @ San Diego: 34.1

Nov. 13 vs. Green Bay: 36.3

Nov. 20 @ Indianapolis: 22.3

Nov. 27 @ Chicago: 35.8

Dec. 11 vs. Denver: 44.0

Dec. 18 @ Kansas City: 19.5

Dec. 24 @ Jacksonville: 33.1

Jan. 1 vs. Houston: 45.2

Paul Kuharsky’s game-by-game predictions

The entire league feels confident that Mariota will be great, but the Titans seem so far away in all other areas that you wonder how he’ll hold up. Tennessee could move quickly up this list if some questions around Mariota—at WR and OL—get answered early. -- Dan Graziano

In the preseason, Murray looked like the running back who led the NFL in rushing yards with Dallas in 2014. Through three games he churned out 153 yards on 19 carries. In 2015 with the Eagles, just 10 percent of his 193 runs went for 10 or more yards. In the preseason with the Titans, 26 percent of his 19 runs were for 10 or more. Murray is motivated to prove last season's debacle in Philadelphia was an aberration. He's the best back the Titans have had since Chris Johnson in his prime. And with Henry behind him likely pressing for carries, the veteran could be very productive if the line is better.

Fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe moved into a starting receiver role during OTAs and has not looked back. Mariota trusts him because he quickly learned that Sharpe is exceptionally precise on his routes. Sharpe caught nine of 12 targets for 163 yards through the first three preseason games, leading the team in catches, yards and average. He also didn't appear to miss a day -- staying after practices and catching passes from throwing machines. "He makes it easy," Mariota said of Sharpe. "He is a very versatile athlete. He has done a lot for us already and he gets great separation in and out of his routes. We are going to continue to expect these things out of him." The Titans are going to run the ball plenty, but Sharpe is going to get targets, and he doesn't drop passes.

There are so many questions for a team that won five games over the past two seasons. The top one is whether Mularkey, with a staff that includes a 78-year-old defensive coordinator in LeBeau, a 63-year-old special teams coordinator in Bobby April and a 61-year-old offensive coordinator in Terry Robiskie can thrive in the NFL of 2016. The group brings a lot of experience and wisdom. But as the Titans look to be a throwback, smash-mouth team built around a run game, it adds to the question of whether their core philosophies can work in today's NFL. Can the Titans make a giant emphasis on the run sexy again? Or will they look like dinosaurs?