Injuries Derail Titans, Locker's Development

For all of Green Bay's injuries, nothing can compare to the problems Tennessee is enduring this year. The Titans enter Sunday's game at Lambeau Field with four of their starting offensive linemen and a key backup on injured reserve. Not surprisingly, Jake Locker and the offense have suffered.

For Mike Munchak, the starting point to the Tennessee Titans' problems is painfully obvious.

The Tennessee Titans' head coach was selected eighth overall in the 1982 draft by the Houston Oilers. The nine-time Pro Bowl guard and member of the NFL's all-1980s team was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. So, he knows a little bit about successful offensive line play.

Unfortunately for the team's second-year coach and his team's fortunes, most of his top blockers are listed under "injured reserve" rather than the top of his depth chart.

"Having coached for such a long period time, I've never had five of the guys on injured reserve during the season and just kind of piecing it together as we've gone, so that's made it hard, especially when you're transitioning to a new quarterback with Jake Locker having four different starting centers," Munchak said in a conference call previewing Sunday's game at the Green Bay Packers. "It's made it more interesting, no doubt."

Center Eugene Amano tore his triceps in training camp. Veteran left guard Steve Hutchinson started the first 12 games before a season-ending knee injury. Right tackle David Stewart also started the first 12 games before a broken leg ended his season. Right guard Leroy Harris started the first eight games before a season-ending knee injury.

Fernando Velasco stepped in at center before shifting to left guard to take over for Hutchinson, with Kevin Matthews jumping in at center. Now Matthews – the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman and Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and a cousin of the Packers' Clay Matthews – is out for the year with a high ankle sprain.

The only stalwart up front has been Michael Roos, the Titans' standout left tackle. Kyle DeVan, who played arena football in Boise, Idaho, before starting 25 games for the Colts and Eagles the previous three seasons, figures to be starter No. 4 at center. Velasco will make his third start at left guard. Veteran Deuce Lutui will make his seventh start at right guard. Mike Otto, a seventh-round pick in 2007 who had started only two games in his pro career and is a former cemetery groundskeeper, will be making his third start at right tackle.

"We do have the name plates on the back of the jerseys," Locker, in his conference call, said when asked if he's got the offensive linemen wearing name tags this week. "No, most of the guys that we're getting in here are guys – some of them we had during camp and maybe let go when we cut the roster down and now they're coming back, (and) had a few new guys. I'm getting comfortable with the new guys really quick. They've done a great job of picking up what we're doing, picking up our system and having confidence in it."

Because of the injuries, it's little wonder why the Titans have sputtered. They've been held to 14 points or less in seven of 14 games.

"Everyone goes through similar situations but when you have a run on one spot, it just makes it a lot harder," Munchak said. "That's made it more difficult for the offense to get in gear the way we thought we'd play. We've just been inconsistent and I think that's been a big factor."

The Titans went from 6-10 to 9-7 last season under Munchak, but the injuries have derailed any chance of taking that next step forward. The Titans are 5-9, having snapped a three-game losing streak with an ugly 14-10 win on Monday night.

Jake Locker, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2011, beat out veteran Matt Hasselbeck but started only the first four games because of a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder. Locker returned on Nov. 11 and beat the Dolphins 37-3 before the Titans went on the skids. Locker came out of Washington known for his strong but inaccurate arm and outstanding athleticism, and he has played to that scouting report. In his nine starts, Locker has completed 57.6 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 76.5 passer rating. He's averaging 8.0 yards on his 32 runs.

"Very athletic, no doubt about it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He can make all the throws. Tough guy, you have to keep him in the pocket. You look at the touchdown run he had in the Jets game, (that) was a big play in the game. Their ability to use formation variations to utilize his running ability, he's definitely someone (with) his skill-set (that) you have to watch a lot of film and make sure we're on top of our things as far as gap control, lane integrity and keeping him in the pocket."

Adding to Sunday's challenge, Locker might be without both of his top pass-catching targets. Kendall Wright, who leads the team and all rookie receivers with 62 receptions, cracked a rib during the fourth quarter against the Jets. Athletic tight end Jared Cook, with 44 catches and four touchdowns, is on injured reserve.

Of the five top quarterbacks selected in 2011, Locker's passer rating is at the bottom of the list in passer rating, with Colin Kaepernick at 101.4, followed by Andy Dalton (89.4), Cam Newton (88.9), Christian Ponder (78.6) and Blaine Gabbert (77.4). Moreover, rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are having big years. Of those nine quarterbacks, only Newton and Gabbert are out of the playoff race.

Locker says he doesn't feel added pressure because of those young passers' success.

"There's a lot of guys that are doing very well for themselves," he said. "Like you said, you've got to focus on what you're doing and how you can improve week in and week out, and not try to compare yourself to other guys. Just try to be the best player that you can be and grow each week."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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