While Mariota is rightly getting most of the attention from the Week 1 blowout of the Buccaneers, it's always important to be able to run the football. And while I was pleasantly surprised at how much shotgun we gave Mariota and how many packaged plays were called, Whisenhunt has made it abundantly clear that he's going to continue running the football from under Center out of big, TE heavy packages. Let's look at a few of those plays.
Play 1: 1st quarter, 14:50, 1st and 10
This is the 2nd play of the game, following an incompletion to Sankey, but a personal foul on TB. As you can see from the all 22 below, we have 1 running back, 2 TEs in upright stances in a balanced formation (12 personnel), and 2 WRs, but Wright, at the top of the screen, is aligned very close to the box. Suffice to say, this is a crowded formation inviting 9 players at least near the box to help defend against the run.
Below is a better look at the box from behind the defense. This view shows 7 men in the box, but there is an upright OLB just off screen, making 8, and Wright has a man covering him.
The Titans motion Wright into the backfield. The Bucs defense shifts strength to their right, and the off screen edge player walks into the box, creating a true 8 man box. However, the Titans have 8 blockers, so we should be in good shape.
After the snap, it looks like the Titans are running an outside zone. Poutasi and Warmack are attempting to double McCoy (though he gets out of Poutasi's reach), and Schwenke and Bell (highlighted) are double teaming TB's #98, Clinton McDonald. Wright is racing to the backside of the play, presumably to pick up anything that washes into the backfield, but TB's #54 actually seems to be biting on Wright's motion as a play fake.
It should be noted that in zone running schemes, down linemen are usually double teamed to get good movement off the line of scrimmage, then one lineman has to release to the 2nd level to block linebackers. In the screenshot below, we have what looks like a nice outside zone setting up, assuming Bell or Schwenke can make it to #58.
In the next still below, you can see that #58 has diagnosed the play and is attacking A-gap. Schwenke has to release McDonald to Bell to block the linebacker.
What happens next is an example of how quickly a rushing play can go downhill. In the still below, Schwenke has engaged the linebacker, but Bell did not engage McDonald, and in fact looks like he's trying to release to the 2nd level himself.
In the next split second, Bell has also released McDonald and is standing alone in a big hole blocking no one, while McDonald stuffs Sankey for no gain.
If Byron Bell had just stayed on McDonald and turned him back inside, there's a big hole between Bell and Lewan, with only McCoy pursuing from the back side to make the play. Worst case scenario is gaining a few yards. Best case scenario is Sankey outracing McCoy to the secondary. Instead, the play gets stuffed for zero on a mental error by Byron Bell.
Play 2: 2nd quarter, 12:38, 3rd and long after Mariota sack
In this play, the Titans are backed up against the goalline, it's 3rd and long, and we've just given up a sack. All Coach Whisenhunt wanted from this play was enough room to get a punt off.
Once again, we run the ball out of a jumbo package. We have 3, that's right THREE, TEs lined up to Poutasi's right. This is 13 personnel with 5 blockers lined up to the right of the C. It's hard to find formations that are more imbalanced than this.
TB seems to only have 7 men in the box against 8 blockers, with a corner just outside the box to the right and a safety at the top of the screen who could also help in run support. The Titans have a numbers advantage here, perhaps because the TB defenders weren't sure how to line up against the formation, or perhaps because it's 3rd and long, and they're more concerned about a long pass play than giving up a few extra yards on the ground.
Still, the Titans should be able to run the ball against this front.
The ball is snapped, and the play looks like an inside zone. Characteristic of the last zone play, all the down linemen are double teamed, and linemen are starting to peel off to linebackers. On the still below, the play looks very well blocked. I've highlighted in green and yellow circles the pairs of linemen responsible for the pairs of defenders.
The yellow circle highlights the combo of particular importance. Loading up the box with extra TEs is only helpful if those TEs are better run blockers than the opponents are run defenders. If that's not true, you are better off running the ball out of spread where you can get those defenders out of the box entirely.
From Sankey's perspective, everything looks good. Schwenke and Bell have gotten excellent push. Warmack and Poutasi have stalemated their man, and Warmack is already moving on to the linebacker. Stevens and Fasano (in yellow, engaged, Stevens is releasing on the linebacker, Fasano appears to have inside position on the defensive player, though he does have poor leverage. If Poutasi and Fasano can maintain their blocks, this play should hit between them.
Then the downside of running plays with multiple blocking TEs becomes apparent. The DE flat out whips Fasano. He gets inside Fasano, closes the hole, and stops Sankey for a 3 yard gain. Sankey perhaps could have bounced to his left, but Gerald McCoy seems to have shut down the gap to the left, and Poutasi is doing all he can to stay engaged on one of the league's best DTs. If Fasano had demonstrated better pad leverage, given his initial position, this play could have gone for big yards. Instead, Sankey gets what he can, and we punt with a little breathing room.
However, it's not all bad...
Play 3: 2nd quarter, 8:00, 1st and 10 on the TB 40 yard line
In this play, Terrance West is in the game substituting for Bishop Sankey.
Another jumbo package. There are 2 TEs, both to the left of Lewan, and a fullback in front of West (22 personnel), with 1 WR out wide to the right of the screenshot. The Bucs have a cornerback covering the single WR, a deep safety, and 9 men in the box to account for the Titans' 8 blockers. Unlike the last play, the Titans are at a numbers disadvantage.
However, note that the Bucs have committed 6 defenders to the 2 TE side, and left only 3 defenders to the right of the Center.
With a leading fullback, that means the Titans can run to the right of the formation. Schwenke and Warmack double team the DT (I assume that's McCoy). Poutasi kicks out the DE. The full back (Fowler), is leading through the hole to pick up the ROLB.
Fowler secures his block on the OLB. Poutasi is getting driven back, but is still in good enough position. Warmack has slipped off to the linebacker, Bell has slipped off to the backside pursuing linebacker. The unblocked backside player is out of the play.
This is fairly typical of a well blocked play with a loaded box. There's a lineman on every important defender, but because we've invited so many players into the box, there's still not a lot of room to operate.
Poutasi runs his guy into the backfield, out of the play, Warmack kicks the linebacker, and West does an excellent job of cutting back inside Warmack to find green grass to the safety.
West ends up running over the safety for a 12 yard gain.
I think this is exactly the type of running game Whisenhunt wants to see from heavy packages, and I think this kind of play is exactly why they traded for West. He does a good job of staying patient behind his blocking in traffic, and he makes a great cut into the secondary to pick up big yards.
This article showcased 2 bad plays when Sankey was in and 1 good play when West was in, but that is not representative of Sankey's day. In my opinion, Sankey did an excellent job of making something out of nothing.
In general, I think we're run blocking better than last year (one game sample size caveat), but Byron Bell does not yet look like a long term solution at left guard.
While I am a little frustrated that we seem set on running out of big packages, I think we will start to see some runs out of shotgun. Several of Mariota's passes came on "packaged plays", and if TB hadn't given Mariota the read that led to him throwing the ball, we'd have seen Sankey get several carries out of shotgun with emptier boxes, where I think he can thrive.