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Titans have done outstanding job building an offense, but injuries could limit them Sunday

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Building a franchise typically begins with finding a franchise quarterback, which the Tennessee Titans did in 2015 with second overall pick Marcus Mariota. However, Mariota was drafted by GM Ruston Webster (formerly of the Seahawks organization) and head coach Ken Whisenhunt (formerly a Super Bowl coach-turned-dude with a 3-20 record in Tennessee) and the direction of the organization had already begun to change courses seven games into Mariota’s rookie season.

That’s when Whisenhunt was fired and replaced by interim (formerly interim, now as permanent as any head coach can be considered permanent) coach Mike Mularkey. At the end of the season, Webster’s contract expired and the Titans hired Jon Robinson, a longtime scout of the New England Patriots, to be their next GM. That’s when the organization went from “a franchise with a QB” (which we’ve seen fail many times before) to a franchise with a plan to, if nothing else, build an extremely potent offense.

And 18 games into Robinson’s career as a GM, it seems like that plan is working out splendidly.

Last season, Tennessee improved from 28th in scoring, 30th in yards, and 32nd in offensive DVOA, to 14th, 11th, and 9th. With much of the congratulations going to two key factors: Robinson’s commitment to building an offense through the draft and free agency that can both pass and run, plus Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” game plan.

(For more on exotic smashmouth, take a trip down memory lane with former Field Gulls managing editor Danny Kelly.)

An example of a GM and a head coach not being on the same page would be DeMarco Murray when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. An example of a GM and a head coach working together would be DeMarco Murray on the Tennessee Titans.

(Yeah, I’m gonna say that example works even if Chip Kelly made the final call on Murray, because Kelly clearly wasn’t even on the same page with himself during his stint with the Eagles.)

Robinson’s first draft as a GM kept building towards giving Mularkey the pieces he and Mariota needed for an exotic smashmouth offense, taking tackle Jack Conklin eighth overall and then running back Derrick Henry at 45. Tennessee was also heavily aided by their awful 3-13 record from 2015 and teams desperate for a franchise QB, which allowed them to trade down from their power position at one, and pick up the selections used on Henry, 2017 first round receiver Corey Davis, and 2017 third round tight end Jonnu Smith, as well as a few other moves.

Conklin was immediately one of the top two or three right tackles in the NFL. Henry had a great opportunity to contribute but chill as a rookie behind Murray, and has since taken over this season as the bigger threat in 2017, averaging 5.9 yards per carry in 20 attempts. Smith, a 6’3, 250-lb tight end with incredible athleticism (a broad and vertical jump that is off the charts for a person carrying that much weight), drew a pre-draft comparison to Delanie Walker, the current star tight end for the Titans. He caught his first touchdown as a pro in last week’s 37-16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

I feel like I’ve been talking about Tennessee’s offense forever already, and yet I also feel like I’ve barely even started.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan made his first Pro Bowl last season at age 25. For more on how the Titans built an elite o-line (yes, they do exist), read John Gilbert’s piece from Thursday. Basically, they maybe have one weakness, maybe. It’s almost like the bizarro Seahawks offensive line; four good and one bad vs four bad and one good. Sort of like Backstreet Boys vs N’Sync.

Walker has caught 11 of 13 targets this season for 137 yards. A player who had 1,465 yards with eight touchdowns in seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Walker has put up 3,486 yards and 23 touchdowns in 4+ seasons with the Titans. He’s made the Pro Bowl in both of his seasons with Mariota.

Robinson’s top free agent receiver pickup of 2016, Rishard Matthews, was an advanced stats darling but didn’t jump out of box scores during his years with the Miami Dolphins. He had 945 yards and nine touchdowns with Tennessee last season and opened this year with very similar numbers, though he’s looking for his first score. Davis, the fifth overall pick out of Western Michigan, has phenomenal size and was incredibly productive in college, with the ability to make catches that most could never make, even if he also has his issues with drops. His NFL comparison was Eric Decker, and he opened his rookie year with six catches for 69 yards against the Oakland Raiders.

Oh, and the Titans also went out and signed Decker after he was released by the New York Jets. Yet to make a huge impact in Tennessee, Decker is only two years removed from a 1,027-yard, 12-TD season while catching passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick. If you’re tired of me mentioning the Titans’ interesting offensive weapons too bad, because they also used a third round pick on receiver Taywan Taylor (a 42-yard reception last week) and even fullback Jalston Fowler already has a touchdown this year.

It’s hard for any team to not be jealous of the weapons and offensive line that Tennessee has built in just a few years, let alone a Seattle fan. And while Seahawks fans need not get QB envy because of Russell Wilson, I didn’t even really get into Mariota. Needless to say, he’s clearly not a bust. He posted a rating of 95.6 last season, with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions, plus an ability to move the ball on the ground in the way that the best quarterbacks of today are able to do, especially in an offense like the Titans’ offense.

Tennessee is now third in offensive DVOA through two weeks, including 11th in passing and first in rushing, with a significant gap between them (52%) and third-place Atlanta (19.7%). (The Kansas City Chiefs have also done extremely well in the run game thanks to rookie Kareem Hunt.)

So what hope do the Seattle Seahawks have of stopping Mariota and smashmouth on Sunday in Tennessee? Well, I think there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful, even if it does come at the response to unfortunate news for the Titans.

Davis has already been ruled out with a hamstring injury. That leaves the Titans even thinner at receiver after they placed Tajae Sharpe and Harry Douglas on injured reserve before the season began. It’s expected that Decker will move from slot to outside, with Taylor filling in the slot, but he did leave the game last week with an ankle injury, so while he’s not going to be out, it is something to watch for.

Additionally, Murray missed practice on Thursday (hamstring) and forgetting the injury report definition of the term, seems doubtful to play Sunday. Maybe that’s not terrible news for Tennessee:

But just because Henry could be the better player at this point, we don’t know how much of Henry’s success comes off the back of Murray’s setups. We know them as a combo, not as a one-man show for either, and Murray was a Pro Bowler last season with 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns. The only running back left on the depth chart then is David Fluellen, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo.

If Henry is out, that’s a significant adjustment for Mularkey and smashmouth, and it changes the gameplan a bit. Knowing that Davis is out, it’s a scary threat that Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas don’t have to worry about and with an offense that has this many weapons to monitor, every player that you don’t have to worry about is a major free moment for consideration of guys like Walker, Matthews, Decker, and Henry.

The Seahawks had key struggles to contain Carlos Hyde on two huge runs last weekend, but with Sheldon Richardson added to the fold of a top-ranked run defense of a year ago, we can expect to at least see a marquee matchup between the front-seven and the offensive line/Henry of Tennessee. Seattle should give them more trouble than almost any other defense in the league. Expecting that the Seahawks pass defense will be able to do their typical job of limiting big plays through the air, and I think it’s fair to assume that Seattle has an above-average chance of holding the Titans to 20 or fewer points.

Tennessee is 3-6 when being held to 20 or less since the start of 2016. Obviously with how things are going for the Seahawks, they probably need to hold every opponent under 20 to have a chance to win.

The reason I haven’t mentioned the Titans defense once in this article is that it’s still a work in progress, which gives Wilson and the offensive line hope that they can find a few gaps with which to score their second, maybe even their third, touchdown of the season. Tennessee is 21st in DVOA against both the pass and the run, having allowed Derek Carr to have a really good game in their own house (262 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) and then shutting down (whooptie-doo) Blake Bortles in Week 2. The front-seven has some good players (Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan) and some weaknesses, while the secondary is still mostly weaknesses, if not at least still looking for their version of a Sherman and a Thomas. First rounder Adoree’ Jackson could get there one day, but is only going into his third career game.

The Titans are favored by 2.5 points in this one and probably for good reason. Seattle struggled offensively against the Packers in Green Bay (excusable) but then repeated their ineptitude at home against the Niners (less excusable). On the bright side, they did probably come to the realization that the offense may need to go through Chris Carson right now, and we could see a lot of him on Sunday. Then we’ll find out how much of an answer that could be, and if Wilson could find his rhythm a month or two earlier this year than in season’s past.

Tennessee was my pick to win the AFC South and I have no reason to change that at this point. They’re headed in a great direction, but if the Seahawks are lucky and can take advantage of exotic smashmouth being un-whole, it won’t look that way on Sunday.