Effective run game speaks volumes in Titans' victory over Falcons

There were several times during Saturday’s 27-16 preseason victory over the Atlanta Falcons when what Tennessee Titans left tackle Michael Roos heard as he settled into his stance was music to his ears.

“[Players on Atlanta’s defense] were trying to call out the counter [run] plays and stuff as we were lining up,” Roos said. “It was good to hear because most of the time they were calling that out we had a play-action call off of it.”

After a slow start, the Titans went ahead to stay with 13 straight second-quarter points, the first 10 of which came on back-to-back possessions that featured a heavy dose of play-action passes. Coordinator Dowell Loggains called runs on six of 10 first-quarter snaps then went to run fakes that created openings in the secondary as overaggressive linebackers and safeties took at least a step or two forward before they realized what was happening.

On a night when he completed 11 of 13 passes for 133 yards overall, quarterback Jake Locker was 7-for-7 for 91 yards and his lone touchdown on throws off of play-action.

“I think throughout the preseason, if you can commend one thing on our offense it’s been our running game,” wide receiver Nate Washington said. “With that being said, I think it opened up a couple things for our receivers [Saturday] night. We kind of pride ourselves on making sure we get into the running game. … Days like [Saturday] we can take advantage of a defense like we did.”

A five-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that put Tennessee ahead 7-6 opened with back-to-back play-action passes to wide receiver Kenny Britt – actually it was the same play call twice in a row except to different sides of the field. The first was complete for 18 yards and the second went for another 16. Washington’s seven-yard touchdown catch came after Locker, lined up in the shotgun in that case, faked another handoff.

The next time the offense was on the field, Locker completed two more play-action passes, to tight end Taylor Thompson for 16 yards and to Washington for 17. He also scrambled once after another fake for three yards. That drive ended with a field goal and a 10-6 lead.

“I think we’re a lot more physical football team,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We talked about accomplishing that back in January [and] I think we’ve shown we are accomplishing that. … We’re a more physical team in a lot of areas and I think it’s showing in how we’re playing and how we’re running the football and how teams are trying to figure a way to stop us.

“I think you saw [Saturday] when teams try to stop us [from running], now we’re getting 15, 18, 20-yard completions.”

Only five NFL teams had fewer rushing attempts last season than the Titans’ 378, which was due in part to the fact that they often had to throw the ball in an attempt to come from behind. It also, however, was a product of the philosophy of former offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who was fired with five games to go in 2012.

In 2011, Palmer’s only full season, the offense ran the ball 376 times. By comparison, in the 16 full seasons under head coach Jeff Fisher and several offensive coordinators, the offense ran fewer than 400 times only once. That was 2005, when it had 397 and finished 4-12. The highwater mark was 546 in 2000, when Tennessee was a league-best 13-3 in the regular season.

Through Saturday night’s contests, the Titans were one of eight teams with an average of 30 rushes or more per game this preseason, which translates to nearly 500 carries over a 16-game regular season. In terms of yard per game, they were fifth.

“We’ve talked about it since the spring – being a run-first offense,” free agent guard Andy Levitre said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

Good enough that the Falcons were convinced they were going to run it more than they actually did.

“We made it a big emphasis and even coming into this game you could tell early on we were going to try to run it,” Roos said. “It was working really well [Saturday]. It was good to see that people are starting to honor it.”