Now we’re talking. These are my favorite guys. The kind of everyday Joes who do the grunt work so their teammates at the so-called “skill positions” can get the glory. They’re usually unsung and unnoticed.
They deserve to be noticed for the work they did last year. The Titans’ offensive line paved the way for 2,214 rushing yards in 2006, fifth best in the league, with 1,211 by Travis Henry. It was a much-needed upgrade over 2005, when the Titans rushed for only 1,525 yards, without a 1,000-yard rusher or a 100-yard game rusher.
There were some big differences between the 2005 and 2006 lines. Kevin Mawae replaced Justin Hartwig at center. Michael Roos moved from right to left tackle. Jacob Bell stepped in at left guard and David Stewart at right tackle. The only constant in the two years was right guard Benji Olson.
The new line, consisting of (L to R) Roos, Bell, Mawae, Olson, and Stewart, began to gel in a narrow 14-13 loss at Indianapolis as Travis Henry became the first Titan to rush for over 100 yards since 2004. It wasn’t a fluke; Henry did the same five more times before the season ended, a key part of the Titans’ turnaround.
Here’s a look at the members of the O-line:
Kevin Mawae – A six-time Pro Bowl selection, he solidified and anchored the line that was in large part responsible for turning the Titans’ season around. Mawae makes all the line calls and executes at a high level. The lightest member of the line, weighing less than 300 pounds, he uses technique and experience to get the job done blocking. Elements of his game which upgraded the center play of a year ago are his agility, speed, ability to pull, and his downfield blocking. Mawae is an excellent all-round athlete whose veteran leadership is a big asset to the team. Watching him play, it’s hard to believe he’s been in the league for 13 years. He still looks good for a few more.
Benji Olson – The nine-year veteran may be getting near the end of his career, but he’s still a solid, dependable player who’s missed only two starts in the last eight years. For three years in a row, he’s played next to a different right tackle, plus several games with Jacob Bell at right tackle. Olson’s reliability has stabilized the right side of the line during the changes on either side of him. Olson’s strength is his main asset, which is a good fit with the new right tackle, David Stewart. He’s also a tough guy, who has played with some painful injuries. Olson has a $4.1 million cap number, with a $650,000 option, that might be an issue this year.
Jacob Bell – Twice in three years, he’s been the replacement at left guard when Zach Piller went down with injuries. A versatile lineman, he’s also seen time at right tackle, with three starts and several game substitutions there. He’s not as powerful as Olson or Piller, but is quicker, with better pulling ability. Of course, you’d expect better feet out of a guy who can play tackle instead of being strictly a guard. Titans fans remember him well for hustling downfield to block and then recovering a fumble 30 yards from the line of scrimmage in his mote noteworthy play of the year, in a key play against the Redskins. Bell will be a restricted free agent this year, and one the Titans definitely need to tender or sign to a long-term deal.
Michael Roos – Drafted as the Titans’ left tackle of the future, Roos spent his rookie season at right tackle, as the replacement for cap casualty Fred Miller. In his first full season at left tackle last year, Roos quickly made fans forget about Brad Hopkins, the longtime fixture there. Despite his size (he’s listed at 6′ 7″ and 315 pounds, but looks bigger), he’s not an overpowering blocker but uses his feet and long arms well, both in pass protection and run blocking. O-line coach Mike Munchak has had a lot of praise for Roos, who may become a longtime fixture at the position himself.
David Stewart – Leading rusher Travis Henry did most of his damage running to the right last year, gaining 6.8 yards per carry to that side, which says something about Stewart’s blocking. He was my prediction to be the starter at right tackle on Opening Day last year, but I was off by a week. I’ve liked Stewart since I first saw him in camp as a rookie two years ago. A much better run-blocker than pass-blocker, it’s easy to see why he’s called a mauler and has drawn comparisons to Jon Runyan. The comparisons extend to his aggressive play, which at times have bordered on being overly aggressive.
Zach Piller – The starter at left guard at the beginning of the season, Piller was lost for the year with an ankle injury, the second time in three years he finished the season on Injured Reserve. It may not be kind to say so, but the line improved after Piller went out and the line was reshuffled. Last summer, offensive coordinator Norm Chow asked Piller and Olson to lose weight in order to increase their mobility. In fairness, that’s not Piller’s game, nor Olson’s. Piller is perhaps the strongest man on the team, and the kind of guy you wanted to pair with Olson when playing Jacksonville’s Stroud and Henderson twice a year. It seems as though Chow may have wanted more flexibility in the line with guards who could pull more often, and if so, Piller may not be with the Titans that much longer. Piller carries a $3M base salary and is due a $250k roster bonus this year, a pretty high cap number for a guy who probably won’t be the starter.
Eugene Amano – The backup at center and guard, I thought he might get a shot at center when Hartwig left in free agency last year. And he might have, had the Titans not been able to sign Mawae. Amano will also be a restricted free agent this year and I fully expect the Titans to tender him.
Daniel Loper – The third of three tackles drafted in 2005, Loper hasn’t seen much playing time. When he did finally see some action, he suffered a lacerated spleen, putting him on IR last year. A valuable swing man who can backup both tackle positions and also fill in at guard, Loper will be back this year. Between them, Amano and Loper backup all five O-line positions. Every line needs an Amano and a Loper.
The only change I see in store for this year is the possible loss of Piller. I doubt if the Titans go the free agent route in filling the roster spot, since bringing in a veteran starter would mean benching Bell or Olson. Instead, they’ll probably draft a guard to be groomed as Olson’s eventual replacement in another year or two. Then again, Olson’s cap number might also make him expendable sooner than later.
Here are the O-line stats from last year:
FS=False Starts, FR=Fumble Recoveries
Waiver wire pickups T Seth Wand and C/G Justin Geisinger were added after Piller and Loper went to IR. They each saw limited action on special teams.