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Notebook: Titans Success on Runs Enabling Play-Action Passes

Posted Aug 28, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said Tennessee’s success in the play-action passing game against Atlanta Saturday had “everything” to do with its success at running the football in its first two preseason games.

The Titans rushed 25 times for 126 yards against Washington and 30 times for 143 yards at Cincinnati. Tennessee committed to running the ball throughout each of those games as replacements across the roster entered the game.

Titans coach Mike Munchak has spoken frequently since 2012 ended about his desire for a more physical team that can run the ball when it wants and needs to do so. The Titans showed against the Falcons that there’s an added benefit to making defenses respect the run with several pass plays that started with faked handoffs.

“When you can run the football, then you can control the line of scrimmage and control the play,” Loggains said. “That’s when the play-action pass starts to help you and show up more. The reason I think it was effective against Atlanta was because of the way we ran the ball in the first two weeks. There were certain things we wanted to hold until we sat down and game planned, and there’s definitely things we did hold against Atlanta that we might have started practicing (for the Sept. 8 season opener at Pittsburgh).”

Play action passes helped Jake Locker connect with Kenny Britt for a 16-yard gain and with Nate Washington for a 7-yard touchdown on Tennessee’s first scoring drive, and Ryan Fitzpatrick faked handoffs to Jackie Battle before hitting Michael Preston for a 56-yard gain and Justin Hunter for a 3-yard score a play later in the third quarter.

“Anytime play action is working, you’ve got to have a good running game,” running back Chris Johnson said. “If they know you’re not good at running the ball, they’re not going to step up and they don’t have that many guys in the box, so anytime you can kill them on the ground game, it’s going to help the pass open in the play-action game.”

Tennessee is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, with Chris Johnson totaling 155 yards on 20 carries (7.8 average), Shonn Greene adding 78 yards on 16 carries (4.9) and Jackie Battle pounding the ball and usually defenders 28 times for 107 yards (3.9 per carry). Jalen Parmele has added 38 yards on nine carries (4.2), Locker’s had 33 yards on six scrambles and Fitzpatrick has 29 yards on three scrambles (9.7).

“Since I’ve been here, it’s always been expected that you’re going to run the ball well,” said Locker, adding that he’s seen confidence grow on run plays and positive effects in the passing game.

“I think it plays off itself naturally,” Locker said. “When you’re running the ball well, those guys have to respect it and they’re going to suck up and if you have opportunities to throw off play action, you’re going to have bigger holes in the defense.”

Aside from building on a run game that’s been established, a believable fake, solid pass protection and accurate delivery are important to making the plays work.

“I think (the fake is) something you’ve got to work on and can always get better at but you try and make it marry to when you’re actually handing it off as close as possible,” Locker said.

Tennessee finished the game against Atlanta with a balanced 171 net rushing yards and 190 net passing yards, and Locker and Fitzpatrick were a combined 17-for-22 passing with three TDs and one interception for a rating of 126.7.

Locker has gone 30-for-44 passing (68.2 percent) for 307 yards for a passer rating of 95.5 this preseason. He and most starters are not expected to play long in Thursday’s preseason finale at Minnesota, but they do want to continue the momentum from last week as they prepare for the regular season.

“We’ve been a run-first team, running the ball and hopefully trying to get some of those guys up in the box and help Jake Locker throw the ball over their head,” Johnson said. “He’s been very accurate throughout camp and putting the ball where it needs to be.”

RBS COMPLIMENT THEIR COMPLEMENTS: Greene has spoken highly of Johnson since the day he signed as a free agent to complement Johnson with a different style of running. The Titans added Battle before training camp began and the three backs have added unique elements to Tennessee’s rush attack.  

At 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, Johnson is using his elite speed and quickness, and the 5-11, 233-pound Greene has shown he’s more than just a power back. Battle (6-2, 240 pounds) seems to fall forward in spite of contact and has turned hits in the backfield into gains multiple times this season and shown the ability to pick up the blitz, increasing his likelihood of earning a roster spot.

“He’s a big guy. He runs tough, gets downhill,” Johnson said. “I’ve been watching Jackie even before he came here. I played him in college and know the type of guy he is and what type of player he is.”

Battle entered last week’s game in the third quarter and immediately found a pile. It could have been a loss or led to no gain, but offensive linemen jumped in and moved the pile forward for a 5-yard gain. Fitpatrick connected with Preston on the deep ball on the next play. After not receiving the handoff, Battle threw a huge block on Sean Weatherspoon that allowed Fitzpatrick to step into the deep throw.

“The main thing is my legs don’t stop pumping until I hit the ground, so as long as I was up, I’m pumping and I had a lot of help from the o-line pushing and pulling, so it wasn’t just me,” Battle said. “I’m just under there and it’s a pile of bodies and I hear people pushing and pulling and screaming and everything else. I was actually hit in the backfield for like a two-yard loss, and to come out with a five-yard gain, you have to be excited about that. I think it was a big momentum changer.”

Battle said he’s been impressed by the speed of Johnson and power of Greene.

“CJ is probably the quickest back in the league, and I’m nothing fancy,” Battle said. “I’m just downhill, one cut and lower my shoulder.

“I didn’t follow (Greene) that much but he’s a lot more powerful than I thought because I’ve seen him knock some guys out since I’ve been here,” Battle added.

SHOWDOWN UNLIKELY: Johnson and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson are the only two active players who have rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a season, but the nature of the fourth preseason game is such that the backs won’t play much if at all.

Johnson said he likes watching Peterson play when he has the opportunity to do so and that “he’s a power guy (who) can hit the home run.”

“You could say it’s a good rivalry,” Johnson said. “I would say every year I want to add a rushing title, and that’s somebody I have to go through to get it, so at the end of the day, if you want to call it a rivalry you could call it a rivalry.”

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