Titans try to expand offensive options beyond CJ
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Justin Gage and Nate Washington feel they are earning Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's trust. How do they know? Well, he's opening up his playbook a bit wider this offseason.
"Coach Dinger has done a great job of loosening the reins on us a little bit and letting us have free will out there," Washington said.
For a 10-game stretch last season, Tennessee put up more yards and points than just about anybody in the NFL. The Titans climbed out of their 0-6 hole to an 8-8 finish by ranking fifth down the stretch with 27 points per game and seventh with 375.8 yards total offense. They allowed nine sacks in those games - stingiest in the NFL.
They also ranked second to Carolina in plays of 25 yards or longer with 59. Granted, 43 came on the ground courtesy of Chris Johnson, The Associated Press' 2009 NFL Offensive Player of the Year. But 16 came through the air as Vince Young helped the Titans post a passer rating of 86.8 that was 12th-best in the league.
Gage and Washington think that could be a preview of this season, and Heimerdinger said Tuesday he is trying to give the Titans lots of options to attack when opponents stack the line to stop Johnson.
"We'll see what those guys can do when they get in one-on-one situations. I would think we'll see a lot of eight-man fronts and people don't want him to run on them. You can't get anything better for a wide receiver. When they're one-on-one, they've got to execute," Heimerdinger said.
Johnson has stayed away from this offseason wanting a big pay hike. With his 2,006-yards rushing, the Titans also know what he can do on the field.
Heimerdinger texts Johnson before each of the Titans' organized team activities, which conclude Friday, to see if he'll be showing up and to make sure the running back is working out. But the coordinator said he's really pleased with where the rest of the offense is right now.
"The main thing is the guys are playing faster because they know what we want out of them, and they're getting into better spots. In the passing game, it all comes down to quarterback and protection anyway, but we've been able to look at some things we wanted to look at in these OTAs," Heimerdinger said.
The Titans gave some glimpses of what they might be able to do through the air to complement Johnson's speedy feet. The 6-foot-4 Gage went high in the air at San Francisco for a 49-yard catch that helped them to a second straight win. He landed hard and cracked some bones in his lower back, knocking him out of the next four games.
The highlight of the passing game was Tennessee's 99-yard drive in the final 2:37 against Arizona on Nov. 29. The Titans had to pass, and Johnson didn't touch the ball. Young completed two passes to Kenny Britt on fourth downs, including the game-winner as time expired.
Britt had a team-high 701 yards receiving, while Washington was second with 569 yards on 47 catches. The top pass catcher? Well, Johnson with 50 catches for 503 yards. But Heimerdinger sees Washington much more comfortable this offseason, allowing himself to be the speedy receiver Tennessee wanted when signing him away from Pittsburgh last year.
"Right now he's not having to think about where he's supposed to be and how we want him because he is a perfectionist and wants to do things right. We're asking him to do things differently than he did in Pittsburgh. He's playing with speed right now," Heimerdinger said.
Heimerdinger also likes how Lavelle Hawkins is playing going into his third season.
Tennessee ranked 12th in total offense at the end of the season largely thanks to the NFL's No. 2 rushing unit. Johnson has said he doesn't know yet if he'll be with the Titans when training camp opens July 31st. Heimerdinger will continue installing his offense regardless.
Teammates are confident Johnson will join them when it matters most. That's one reason why they are so confident about their offense.
"To see something going so well and still not have your main weapon here, that's something to look forward to," Washington said.