It is an issue of time and space.
Matt Hasselbeck, in his first season as Tennessee Titans quarterback, had time to throw. Lots of it. The veteran took fewer hits and threw for more yards than in virtually any of his 10 seasons with Seattle.
Chris Johnson, on the other hand, had trouble getting into space. The record-setting running back seemingly had less room to run than at any other time in his professional career, and the numbers suggested as much.
The common factor in these two occurrences, of course, is the offensive line, which delivered one of the most puzzling performances of the Titans’ 2011 season.
“We ended up second in the league in sacks allowed, so they did one part of it very well,” coach Mike Munchak said. “Obviously, the running game wasn’t what we hoped it would be, so they get some blame there.”
The disparity seems incongruous.
After all, it was just two years ago that Johnson became the sixth player in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. At the same time, Tennessee tied for the league lead in fewest sacks allowed (eight).
The truth is there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the numbers are not necessarily tied to one another.
Titans quarterbacks were sacked 24 times this season, which tied them with New Orleans for second fewest in the NFL, one more than Buffalo. While Tennessee finished 31st in rushing offense and 29th in yards per carry, the Saints ranked among the top six in both.
In all, seven of the 32 teams allowed fewer than 30 sacks this fall. The only one other than New Orleans that was among the top 10 in both yards per game and yards per carry was Oakland. The New York Giants allowed 28 sacks but were the league’s worst rushing offense.
“Our goal is two sacks or less, and that’s a credit to the offensive line,” Hasselbeck said. “Those guys did a nice job. Not just them, but our tight ends blocked and our running backs blocked also. That’s where the pressure goes in those situations.”
Only twice in 16 games did opponents record more than two sacks. In both cases — Oct. 9 at Pittsburgh and Jan. 1 at Houston — that number was three.
And that was despite the fact that the Titans’ 584 passing attempts were at least 100 more than in any of the previous five seasons.
The last time they threw as often was 2005. That year they allowed 31 sacks.
“I think you have to give the offensive line a lot of credit,” first-year offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “There’s not a lot of hits on Matt, but you have to give Matt credit, too. I think it’s a combination of both. They’ve done a good job, and he’s gotten the ball out.
“I’d say they’re good numbers, but as a coach you’re always trying to go farther. I think we can be better. I really do.”
The flip side, though, is that it has been some time since the running game has been worse.
As a team, Tennessee rushed for 1,438 yards. Johnson averaged better than that through each of his first three seasons, and it was the lowest total since 1991, when the then-Houston Oilers rushed for 1,366 in the midst of their days as a run-and-shoot offense.
“We know that we need to improve our efficiency in our run game,” Munchak said. “The obvious things are there that we know we need to change, we just look at stats and how we finished in certain areas. We will definitely be addressing that, and we will look at the best way to do that whether it be scheme, personnel or a mixture to improve something.”
In this case, it is pretty clear what needs to get better.