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Notebook: Commitment to Run Game Yields Results, but Titans will be Flexible

Posted Sep 11, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans’ yards per carry wasn’t strong, but their commitment to running the ball Sunday against the Steelers remained steadfast in their season opener.

Tennessee’s determination eventually resulted in wearing down Pittsburgh defenders, which was helpful in an old rivalry game between former members of the AFC Central that the Titans won 16-9.

The Titans' persistent approach to running the football paid off with a touchdown by Jackie Battle and an advantage of more than eight minutes in time of possession.

The Titans finished with 42 rushes for 112 yards (those totals include two kneel-downs for a combined loss of four yards by Jake Locker to run out the clock). It was the first time Tennessee had at least 40 rush attempts since Sept. 26, 2010 (41 for 161 yards) against the New York Giants.

Titans coach Mike Munchak said the initial plan was to stay balanced, but the team recognized an opportunity after Alterraun Verner’s interception to move the ball, protect it and score the team’s first touchdown. Eleven of the 12 plays during the drive were rushes by Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle, who relieved Greene after a knee injury.

“I think when we got the ball back at that time after the turnover we know that we had to finish this drive and we needed to get to the run,” Munchak said. “Once we started, we started to get some momentum. We saw that, so we stuck with it. We converted the fourth-and-1 and we converted the third-and-3 running the football. So, I think that was what kept us in that mode thinking we had them on their heels a little bit. Those were hard-earned yards.”

Johnson carried the ball 25 times for 70 yards (2.8 per carry) with a long of 11, Greene had four carries for 18 yards and Battle rushed eight times for 21 yards but converted a fourth-and-1 and scored a 3-yard TD. The 25 carries by Johnson were the second-most in a season opener in his career.

“The way that game went, it was good to kind of wear them down and impose our will,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “Obviously you want to break long ones, too, for morale, for us and everything, but those will come and it’s always tough against Pittsburgh to break those. You usually have to take a lot of shorter ones or no gains and you eventually break one. We didn’t get any long ones but the plan worked, we wore them down and got the victory.”

Last season the Titans didn’t reach 42 rush attempts until near the end of their third game, which was the same game when Johnson reached 25 carries on the season.

Tennessee went 4-2 in games when the team had more than 25 carries in 2012 and 2-8 when it had 25 or less, and a slightly different but even stronger line of demarcation occurred in 2011: the Titans won all nine games in which they rushed more than 20 times and lost all seven in which they ran 20 times or fewer.

Roos said the Titans showed “probably a little bit” more of a commitment to continuing to run the football and trust that they would eventually yield results than in the past couple of seasons.

“I think since we’ve been working on it and emphasizing it so much it was good to have that faith on both sides, for them to call plays and us to run them and execute them and giving Dowell more faith to call them again,” Roos said. “I think it works both ways and it’s what won.”

As the Titans prepare to visit the AFC South rival Texans in Houston at noon (CT) Sunday and beyond, Munchak, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and players have said if throwing more than running is the best way to get a win, then they are prepared to do that. In six games since Loggains’ promotion to offensive coordinator, the Titans have averaged 28.2 run plays and 31.3 pass plays (these averages are not adjusted for original pass plays that resulted in scrambles by Locker).

The fact that the Titans have shown the commitment to running the football should open opportunities in the passing game, and Tennessee wants to be known as a team that can run when it wants to run.

“I think we showed we’re a physical team, a downhill team, we’re going to run the ball and we made good plays when we needed to,” rookie Chance Warmack said. “I think we’re a resilient team and we just want to keep pounding it and keep working hard to achieve what we have to achieve, whatever it takes.

“I think no one on this team is selfish and wants to have a glamorous position,” Warmack added. “I think everybody wants to chip in and keep driving and keep chopping the wood, as I say.”

Texans coach Gary Kubiak said “the first thing that jumps at me” about the Titans “is just how physical they are right now.”

“You go play in Pittsburgh on the road especially opening game and they got in a physical slugfest from that standpoint,” Kubiak said. “They stay committed to the run and the way they’re built. Defensively, they’re excellent holding somebody under 200 yards. You see the physical play of the football team.”

Warmack said it’s important to keep that aspect going.

“You’ve just got to keep pounding and you never know when that run will actually happen,” Warmack said. “Sometimes you’ll keep pounding and it will be a 10-play drive, and sometimes you’ll run five plays and it won’t work and that sixth play, you gash it for a big run. You just have to have that mindset that any play could be that one play.”

GOODEN RETURNS TO ACTION: Rookie linebacker Zaviar Gooden practiced fully on Wednesday for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain on Aug. 1 that cost him the entire preseason and last week.

“It was good, a blessing to be back out there,” Gooden said. “I’m glad to be back out with the guys, running around and having fun.

The amount of rest required for the type of sprained ankle Gooden suffered can take a toll on physical conditioning, but the third-round pick completed fast-paced workouts.

“You’ve got to find other ways to condition besides running during the first few weeks so I did a lot of different stuff,” Gooden said. “I tried to lift at a very fast pace and get some cardio that way. I did a lot of ropes and the other type of ways to condition. I did a lot of good work to come back ready.”

INJURY UPDATES: Greene, right tackle David Stewart (calf), punter Brett Kern (calf), Damian Williams (hamstring) did not practice. Munchak said the Titans will wait until later in the week to assess Greene, he thinks Stewart, who didn’t practice until Saturday but played the entire game Sunday, will be able to return later this week, and the issues that Kern and Williams dealt with are not expected to be too serious.

RED EYE: Kubiak said the Texans returned to Houston about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday after its late game in San Diego, a 31-28 win against the Chargers that involved coming back from a 21-point deficit in the third quarter and a 41-yard field goal by Randy Bullock as time expired.

Kubiak said he’s likely to reduce the physical load he’d normally put on players this week to counteract the shortened time between games.

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