The offseason is a dark, seemingly never ending place. It's filled with hype, and rhetoric. Training camp and pre season flashes. Especially with a new staff, we're left reconciling the previous year, with these glimpses, and trying to put together the pieces. But, a new day has dawned, and I can tell you that I've seen the light. I've seen the truth. The hype is real.
I won't pretend to know how all this plays out over the course of the season given all the variables. I can tell you that this team is different than what we've become accustomed to as Titans fans. Schemes matter. Coaches matter. Beyond these things, there's an intensity here that's been missing for years. This team is playing with an edge and they're doing so by putting players in positions to highlight their skills.
I pride myself in staying somewhat level headed in analyzing the Titans. I wish I could just calmly dial back my optimism from this one game performance. Yet, I'm brimming with excitement. The tape is just so comparatively different. Special. Beautiful. My heart pours over with football joy.
This all may come across as a little over the top, but I'm not ashamed. I'm an obsessive, compulsive, over analytic football fan that's spent tireless hours pouring over plays over the past few years. Looking for answers to questions of hopeless mediocrity. And, finally, a complete game has arrived. It's the first time since, well, so long that I can't really remember. Domination in all phases. A soul crushing defeat handed down by our Tennessee Titans.
Offense - The Passing Game
Welcome to the 21st Century. That's what I kept thinking as I watched the passing plays from Sunday. Ken Whisenhunt isn't reinventing the wheel, but there were small details that made the plays hum. Motion to help Locker diagnose coverages. Overloaded formations to attack the weakside of a defense. Players were used not just as guys used to interchangeably run routes within a playbook, but asked to do things that highlighted skillset. McCluster was put in space. Wright worked the underneath zones, and was also allowed to get the ball with room to run on the perimeter. The Veteran, Nate Washington, was put in spots to do the little things right. Solid intermediate routes that acted as consistent chain movers. Finally, Justin Hunter was targeted deep often - leading the team in targets. More often than not, when they isolated him and got a single high look, they took a shot. He's going to be a difference maker this year. This upcoming matchup presents an opportunity for him to put up huge numbers. When it was all said and done, 8 receivers caught a pass on Sunday.
Despite all this gushing, it wasn't all rosy. The primary concern I took from this game was pass protection. Specifically, Andy Levitire. The problem wasn't consistent, but it only takes a few serious breakdowns in pass protection to have a meaningful impact on a game - especially close ones.
Not a lot of analysis to be had here. Levitre starts with poor leverage, and the defender takes advantage. This was a 2nd and 9 play early that ended up killing a drive. Obviously, it didn't matter this game, but at some point this season it will if this continues. Here's what Levitre had to say after the game:
"It's inexcusable because there are things we should have had picked up and just didn't," guard Andy Levitre said. "I know I got beat a couple of times and that's unacceptable on my part.
It just comes down to making sure you know what's going on mentally and also the physical part of it - technique and things like that. In my case, that broke down and it showed."
I trust that Levitre is a true professional. If it's technique or mental, he'll get it cleaned up. But, after having offseason surgery - which, at the time I interpreted as minor - part of me wonders if the issue may be physical. As the season rolls on, we'll learn more.
With that out of the way, on to the good stuff. Let's take a look at both passing touchdowns.
We'll start with the first TD of the game.
Right side of the screen has a basic "triangle" read. Puts a vertical and horizontal stress on a defense. There's a TD throw to that side too, if Jake wanted to go that way pre snap.
Locker elects to go to the other side. Pre-snap, McCluster motions from a tight receiver position to the backfield as a running back. When he does this, the corner (Smith) stays outside. This, combined with his leverage, suggests a zone defense. Not that it really matters, the read doesn't change.
Delanie is going to run a post route. He'll sell the corner route to keep the corner outside, and then cut to the post. At the same time, McCluster will work underneath. He's basically running a route to the flat, but there's a nuance dialed in here before he does so. He runs a pivot route where he fakes inside, and then cuts outside. This small little detail gives a hi-lo read for Locker against Eric Berry. If Berry sits down against the pivot, then you throw the post. If he sinks against the post, you throw the pivot and let McCluster win against the linebacker in the flat.
The whole team executes the play perfectly. Well placed ball that eliminates any risk of an underneath defender making a play.
Now on to the next TD. Formation look familiar? Very similar play. Defense looks different, though. Note that there's no outside corner on the left side of the play. This suggests man. It also suggests a potential blitz.
Again, both sides of the play present touchdown options. McCluster breaks open to the boundary.
To the field (bottom of screen), they run a triangle combination - snag play - again. Nate runs the snag, and in the process acts as a pick for Wright. Locker gets Kendall the ball in space and lets him do the rest.
Ken Whisenhunt isn't doing anything groundbreaking in the passing game. But, he's putting playmakers in positions to make plays. That sounds obvious, but sometimes it's more difficult in execution.
All in all, this passing game looks better than it ever has with Locker under center. He's a big part of that too. He is doing the little things better. Reads are cycled more often, and he's more comfortable throwing into clutter. While there's still room for improvement, I think there's reason for optimism.
Offense - The Running Game
This is a true running back by committee approach. While potentially maddening for fantasy football participants, it proved effective on Sunday. Each back has his own unique skillset, which is used in different ways. Still, they all have a common trait - a willingness to get North and South. As a result, we may have missed some explosives, but that was far outweighed by the consistency.
Given this information, there wasn't a lot of flash to include here. Just good, fundamental downhill running. Worth noting, too, that the run blocking appears to have taken a step forward as well.
Certainly not a perfectly blocked play here. Poe, their best defender, comes free virtually untouched. That's why it's included here. We run zone, and it's not an ideal situation. Still, Greene gets vertical when he needs to. In previous years, this might have gone for a loss. Instead, we get a nice gain, which helps sustain a drive that eventually results in a touchdown.
Of course, I had to include something from our young rookie running back. Another zone play here. A well blocked play. Not the cleanest read here once Sankey gets to the second level. Sankey shows shiftiness and decisiveness - traits which don't always go hand in hand - and gets vertical when the hole presents itself. The young rookie looks good. I think eventually, his talent will lead to him receiving the majority of carries as the season goes on.
Defense - The Passing Game
I'm married. As with any marriage, there are trade offs. One of these is relenting to watch the occasional romantic comedy as a trade off for 16+ hours of football every fall weekend. It's not an exchange I'm proud of, but it's something I've made peace with.
Through all these viewings, the common theme, at least in a good number of them, is love at first sight (at least, until they get to know each other, hate each other, go through hijinks, and realize in the end that they've loved each other all along). I've always thought this notion was silly. Men especially aren't capable of love at first sight. If they were, strippers would be a marital commodity.
Now I know I was wrong. Ray Horton put his defense on tape, and I'm in love.
Horton applied pressure. He moved Casey and Morgan around like chess pieces. Above all, he did these things with mostly gap sound principles. The window dressing may have changed from play to play, but the underpinnings remained in tact. Not only did we bottle up arguably the best back in the NFL (more on that later), we also managed to keep the QB on his heels for most of the game.
The first play we'll look at is one that showed up on tape last year from Ray Horton. When a team brings a bunch, close formation, Horton is not afraid to bring the corner on a blitz. It's a great adaptation to these situations because you can easily roll coverage to account for the blitzer, and the offense is formationally giving a near box defender, so they don't necessarily account for them as a rusher pre-snap.
We bring the blitz, and we're attacking the protection. Casey and Hill slant left to keep us somewhat gap sound. Woodyard blitzes the A gap. Phillips rushes the C gap. Sensabaugh blitzes the B gap. At first glance, this looks easily picked up. It is only a 5 man rush after all. But, when Hill crosses the center's face, and he sticks with him, we now have a 3 on 2 matchup on the right side. The center would ideally pass this defender off, but all this happens in a fraction of a second, and the pressure is coming from a well disguised corner.
Additionally, Horton is robbing hots here too. A lot of offenses will have the receiver convert "hot" when their defender crosses their face. This usually involves breaking off the route into a shorter route, like a slant. Horton accounts for this by dropping Wilson into zone where that ball would usually be thrown. Many times this will result in an interception.
The next play we'll review is McCourty's second interception. Titans appear to be in Cover 3, which eventually converts McCourty's route to man. He's covering former Tennessee Titan Donnie Avery. Avery stems inside at beginning of route, gets vertical up the seam, and then runs a post. The ball is underthrown a little bit, but it's still a great individual effort. After Smith cuts the ball loose, McCourty tracks the ball, closes on Avery, improves leverage, and makes a play.
In addition to these plays, the pass defense just showed up differently than in the past. Plays were made by the offense, but there was price for the receiver to pay on seemingly every play. The team played fast, downhill, and delivered shots all game. If one player was missed a tackle, another was there right behind him. That's one thing that I think it universal among good defenses. They swarm. By knowing your teammate is right behind you, and trusting the scheme, it allows players to attack with intensity. This oversimplifies things, but this intensity has been missing - for the most part - from this team for years now.
Defense - The Run Game
Fundamentally sound run defense. After all these years, I had almost forgotten about you. Like the run game on offense, there's not a lot of flash in review. It was just unrelenting, and gap sound.
The first play we'll look at is, well, I'm not really sure what the Chiefs are trying to accomplish here. I think it's a designed cutback, but it's so blown up from the beginning that I'm not positive. Pitoitua and Phillips make this play be beating their defenders and making the backfield tackles for a 2 yard loss. But, at the end of the play, there are 4 defenders in the backfield, suffocating Charles should he find a way to break the initial tackle.
Of course, I couldn't get through this entire post and not highlight Casey. He played on a different level than his opponent all game. Consistently blowing up plays in the backfield.
On this play, the Chiefs run outside zone. Casey shows textbook defense. From the snap he has leverage on his defender, getting into his pads early. As Charles gets to reading him, he correctly cuts back. Casey, after all, has the B gap covered. Well, he also has the A gap taken care of too. Shedding his defender with ease, Casey makes a tackle before Charles has a chance to do anything.
There's a lot of hyperbole in this post. It really was a great performance by this team in all phases, though. There's only so much I can capture in these posts. But, for this game, there was so much more I wanted to include. From moving Casey to a 7 tech. To playing Morgan at inside linebacker. To putting Kendall Wright in the backfield. At the end of the day, players have to win. But, this staff has shown willingness to put players in creative spots that give them the best chance to excel. It's only one game, but that's reason enough to be excited.