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Ask Mike: Will Titans be a Run-First or Pass-First Offense?

Posted Aug 5, 2014


Al in Knoxville wants offensive answers: “In theory, everyone wants balance on offense. The winning formula for years at any level of football is ‘run the ball, stop the run, and protect the ball (few turnovers)’.  How close to the "winning formula" is this coaching staff?  Run first?”

MIKE KEITH: Al, what is impressive about Ken Whisenhunt is that he figures out what works and then he sticks with it.

When he had Kurt Warner in Arizona from 2007-09, Whisenhunt’s offense averaged nearly 40 passes per game each season. 

Last season in San Diego, Whisenhunt proved that he was not married to anything offensively.

Philip Rivers threw for over 400 yards in three of the Chargers’ first five games. But by December, Whisenhunt identified that the Chargers could run the football consistently.

In San Diego’s final seven games (including the playoffs), Rivers threw an average of only 27 times per game, but still posted 13 touchdown passes and had a passer rating of 105.6. The Chargers ran the football an average of 30 times for 144 yards per game in that same stretch.

San Diego turned the ball over just four times in those seven contests and won five of the seven. Their only two losses? Seven-point defeats at the hands of two very good teams, Cincinnati and Denver.

Whisenhunt wants his defense to stop the run and he wants his offense to protect the football. But when it comes to his offensive style, Whisenhunt is bound by no hardcore philosophy.  Offensive flexibility is his calling card.   


Luke in Vulcan, MI is thinking about a #20 jersey: “Do you think that Bishop Sankey will be the starting running back?”

MIKE KEITH: Luke, I’ve always wanted to say this: I’ll have to look at the tape.

Sorry, but if I had $5 for every time that a coach---at any level---said this to me, I’d be hanging out with Bill Gates.

The tape will, however, tell Sankey’s story. While we will see the cuts, the moves, the yards and the ball security for ourselves, the coaches will be watching for the reads and pass protection responsibilities on tape in practices and in the preseason games. They want to make sure that they are capable of running their entire offense with Sankey on the field and that comes from his level of understanding all of his responsibilities in the offense. 

Not only do they not want to get Jake Locker crushed if Sankey were to go the wrong way in pass protection, but they don’t want to predictable based on who is in the game. NFL teams will pick up quickly what an offense may do based on a young back’s strengths and weaknesses.

All of that said, let me say that Bishop Sankey has looked great so far running, catching and blocking. He did a nice job running against the Falcons in Flowery Branch, GA.  Sankey is smart, versatile and talented as advertised. I was a fan of his at Washington and am a fan after having gotten to know him and watching him practice.

But before we make him the “next big thing”, the coaches will have to watch the tape. And when you watch the preseason games, keep an eye on #20 when he is in the game and DOES NOT have the football.   


Dustin in Fort Myers, FL poses this one: “With all the money that’s been sunk into the offensive line, can they hold off a decent front four long enough to get the offense in a good positive rhythm?”

MIKE KEITH: Dustin, yes, they should be able to hold off a decent front four. New offensive line coach Bob Bostad likes physical groups and this one features multiple players who would be considered “road graders”. Bostad likes the way his group is coming together and getting Andy Levitre back this week (after his July 24 appendectomy) was very important to them jelling even further.

And Dustin, you are right that Tennessee has sunk a lot into this offensive line. It was much needed.  

When the 2012 season ended, general manager Ruston Webster knew that he had to totally rebuild the offensive line. In the last two off-seasons, he has signed free agents Levitre and Michael Oher, plus other free agents with NFL starting experience like Chris Spencer. Webster has drafted Chance Warmack and Taylor Lewan in the past two first rounds and took starting center Brian Schwenke in fourth round in 2013.

The team’s best lineman over the last decade, Michael Roos, is all that remains from the 2012 starting unit.  Byron Stingily is the only backup that remains.

That is rebuilding.


Kevin in Brentwood asks:  “I've always wondered why the NFL only allows a 46-man active roster on game day?  They already cap the roster to 53, so why limit it down on game day (by) 7 more?”

MIKE KEITH: Kevin, you gave me a research project. And I did the best that I could.

After talking with multiple people, here is what I came up with. I then went straight to the NFL league office for some help on roster numbers, dates and other details.   

In the modern era of the NFL (since 1970), games have been played with a relatively small number of players. It was 40 per team in 1970, 43 from 1975-77 and basically 45 through 1992. The league has always been big on keeping the number of players manageable to keep costs down and also to keep the game from becoming too specialized. 

In 1993, the NFL went to its present formula of 53 players on a roster, with 7 “Gameday Inactives” and a designated third quarterback. There was a slight change in 2011 with the new CBA, as the third quarterback designation was eliminated.  

It was that same year---1993---that players put on Injured Reserve were not allowed to return to the active roster and a Practice Squad of 5 players (expanded to 8 in 2005) was created. 

Gameday Inactives, Injured Reserve and Practice Squad all tie in together. All had existed in some form before 1993, but putting the three together in a uniform fashion was totally by design.  

Prior to 1993, some teams were famous for stashing countless players on IR. They hid players on IR for a few weeks, then practiced them in order to develop them and add depth. Because there was no salary cap until 1994, teams more willing to spend on personnel had a deeper “developmental squad” of players on IR.

And so to curb this practice, things changed.

Suddenly, players placed on IR are out for the year. Only members of the active roster can practice. And players on Injured Reserve count against the salary cap.

So instead of putting guys on IR to “stash” them, Practice Squads were created, with each team have an equal number of players. Practice Squad players do not receive full salaries or credit for service time, so their cost is very manageable, but they are able to practice and work out with the team.

And then there are Gameday Inactives.

Gameday Inactives offered the chance for teams to hold on to 7 more players legally. Those players might have an injury that doesn’t end their season or they might be players who need to be developed.  Obviously, they are full-fledged members of the team who receive full salaries and can practice.

So, each team still has 46 players for their games and 15 more players (Gameday Inactives and Practice Squad) for depth and development.

As a result of that change years ago, the issue of “roster fairness” was a positive by-product.

 For example, if the Titans had no players injured, they would have 53 players available for their game with the Colts. If Indianapolis has 8 players out for this hypothetical AFC South game, the Colts would only have 45 available players. A team having 53 players available would have a decided advantage over a team with just 45 available players.    

The current Gameday Inactive rule ensures that each game will be played with a reasonably-balanced number of players each week.   

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