I skipped last week’s All-22 post because that game was far too painful the first time I watched it. I simply couldn’t muster the courage to go back and break down every play. However, I’m going to suffer through a full game of Matt Cassel vs Jay Cutler because I think it will be interesting to see if we can figure out what went wrong in the running game. Were the Dolphins just selling out to stop Murray and Henry? How much did the drop off from Taylor Lewan to Dennis Kelly hurt? Did Ndamukong Suh just do otherworldly things on the interior of the defensive line as he is prone to do? All of the above? I also want to see if the defensive performance was actually as good as it appeared to be, or if what we were seeing was just The Cutler Effect.
Given the (late) timing of this post we now know that the Dolphins followed this game by going to Atlanta and beating the defending NFC Champions which should make everyone feel a little better about this loss. We also know that the Jaguars lost at home against the Rams while the Texans beat the Browns in Houston leaving those two tied at 3-3 atop the AFC South for the moment. The winner of Titans-Colts tonight will join them.
While you’re waiting for Monday Night Football to finally get here, check out a look back at what we can learn from Titans-Dolphins.
By the Numbers
- The Titans were in 11 personnel for 42% of snaps on offense which is right in line with their 2016 rate. The only part of the game that really forced them to go pass heavy was the last drive before halftime which accounted for 5 of their 27 snaps in 11 personnel.
- The Titans were in their base personnel on defense 42% of the time as well. This is higher than we’ve seen most weeks. I feel like the Titans are generally at their best when they get to play more heavy fronts.
- The running game wasn’t terrible, but it needed to be better for the Titans to win with Matt Cassel. The good news is that, based on my review, there is nothing systemically wrong with the running game. The Titans were primarily held back in the run game by Matt Cassel’s lack of vertical threat and lack of mobility.
- Where the offensive line struggled was in pass protection. The Titans allowed pressure on 44.7% of drop backs which was worst in the NFL in Week 5 after being among the most stingy lines in the league through the first four weeks.
Its hard to describe exactly how massive the gap between Marcus Mariota and Matt Cassel is. Watching this game was like watching an entirely different team play football than the one we had watched for the first three and a half weeks of 2017. Mariota makes the running game better, he makes the offensive line better, he makes his receivers better, and he even makes the defense better. There isn’t a part of the game that Mariota’s presence doesn’t influence on a game to game basis.
Let’s start with the running game. The Titans faced a lot of stacked boxes in Miami thanks to the lack of vertical threat from Matt Cassel. The Dolphins ran run blitzes on almost every play outside of obvious passing downs and the safeties played on their toes all game. The ends also showed zero respect for Cassel as a runner. Check out the play below and keep an eye on the two defensive ends. Both of them crash hard inside immediately at the snap. This is something that doesn’t happen when Mariota is in the game because of the fear of him keeping and breaking contain. You can see that neither Conklin or Walker are prepared for this kind of crash because its something they aren’t used to seeing. It results in a play where Murray has nowhere to go.
However, despite the lack of threat from Cassel, the Titans were still able to get a little bit of a running game going. The offensive line cleared lanes pretty consistently throughout most of the game, but a few big mistakes by the backs hurt the overall result. On the run below the line has created a huge running lane for Murray. In fact, there were a couple different ways that he could have taken this with success. I’ve highlighted the option that would have been most successful. Yes, I can see that Suh (93) has his outside shoulder free to that side, but that’s a big enough hole that he should have still been able to get past Suh. And if he did get past him, he’d be one on one with the safety for a touchdown. Instead, Murray tries to bounce it back to the weak side and ends up with just a one yard gain on a play that could have and should have gone for much much more. This is an example of a player pressing to make a big play because Mariota was out. There was a LOT of that in this game.
To add more salt in this wound, this was a 2nd and 7 play. Had Murray just taken what was blocked — even if Suh breaks free from Jones to make the stop for a 4-5 yard gain — worst case scenario is a 3rd and short play. The bounce made the next play a 3rd and 6 which resulted in a 4 yard completion followed by a punt on 4th and 2. This missed opportunity by Murray effectively ended this drive.
Murray wasn’t the only culprit in the Titans backfield. This one is slightly less egregious simply because there wasn’t a ton of room for Henry like there was for Murray in the play above, but the result is worse. You can see the run blitz here from Kiko Alonso as well as the stacked box that I was mentioning up top. The Dolphins do a nice job run filling here leaving Henry nowhere to go. As much as I love the competitiveness of Henry to try to make something out of nothing — and he has succeeded with bouncing runs in the past — his decision to bounce this one effectively killed another drive. This play was a 2nd and 10 run for -5 which created a virtually impossible 3rd and 15 with Cassel back there.
One more costly mistake by the running backs. This one is more straightforward. DeMarco Murray makes a really nice run for what would have been a gain of about 7 or 8, but he fumbles at the end and the Dolphins recover to set up an early field goal. That’s three drives that the running backs effectively ended with mistakes. When you only get fifteen drives in a game, that’s entirely too many to give away.
Robiskie and Company also tried a few reverses of different kinds to try to stretch the defense horizontally early in the game. The very first play from scrimmage was a jet sweep to Taylor for 5 yards, and then they tried this reverse to Matthews later on in the 1st quarter. I’m not sure what tipped the Dolphins off to this play, but they weren’t buying the toss sweep action whatsoever. You can see Alonso head left immediately at the snap which leaves Jonnu Smith (highlighted) out-leveraged when trying to pin him inside. The Dolphins defense was very disciplined on Sunday.
The running game was slowed by the lack of threat both through the air and on the ground from the quarterback position throughout this game. The passing game was obviously also impacted by Cassel playing in place of Mariota.
Somehow Marcus Mariota has gotten a reputation among national media as a “game manager” type QB despite piles of data and tape that indicate otherwise. Mariota is not afraid to attack down the field and regularly throws players open with anticipation and timing. Matt Cassel, on the other hand, is a Checkdown Charlie in the worst possible way. He consistently looked off open targets down field in favor of shorter throws, even on third downs. Here are a few examples. I know a lot has been made about the staff not getting Taywan Taylor involved enough in this game, but here are three plays where he is wide open, but Cassel doesn’t throw it to him.
Here he is lined up in the slot towards to the top of the screen. He’s going to run a dig between the linebacker and the safety and he’s as open as an NFL receiver is going to be on a 3rd down when he comes out of his break. Cassel, however, checks down to Jonnu Smith who is running a shallow crosser and he gets tackled short of the sticks, forcing a punt.
Here is another 3rd down. Taylor is lined up just outside the hash marks in the slot again. This is a counter off a look the Titans used against the Seahawks where they threw the quick screen to Murray. Taylor, again, is wide open for a first down, but Cassel checks down to the tight end who has zero hope of getting anywhere near the first down.
This last example has two critiques of Cassel. First, the Dolphins get quick pressure in his face because they showed a double A gap blitz and the Titans didn’t have enough blockers up front to handle it. The two middle linebackers ended up dropping back in to coverage, but them showing in the A gaps pre-snap made Conklin stay inside just long enough to allow the ageless Cameron Wake a free rush right at Cassel. Because of the free rush, Cassel has to hit his hot read, which is Murray, but there was no hope of Murray getting the first down here.
When you look at the overhead look of that same play you can see the utter lack of respect for Matt Cassel. The Dolphins backed out of their blitz look so there was no guarantee they would get pressure, but watch the entire defense sit right at the line to gain. Had Cassel changed the protection to ask Murray to chip on the way out or even stay in to block altogether, he would have had a wide open Taylor breaking free over the middle (highlighted below). Instead, we end up with him throwing hot to Murray out of the backfield with a host of Dolphins waiting for him at the first down marker.
Here is one last example of check down Matt at work. Again, this is a 3rd down (this is the one directly after the failed Murray bounce above. Both Walker and Decker are as open as you can expect NFL receivers to be, but Cassel takes the check down and Murray is tackled short of the first down. Sound familiar?
Lastly, let’s take a quick look at the touchdown that was stolen from the Titans and how it came up again later in the game. Here is the touchdown play to Walker. It is a very nice design out of a run formation. The Titans caught the Dolphins stacking the box here with 10 of 11 defenders starting the snap within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Matthews’ 9 route holds the safety just long enough to keep him from being able to get back to Walker’s post in time. Cassel actually throws a really nice ball, but as we all know, it all comes back due to a completely unrelated OPI call against Jonnu Smith. You can see him to the bottom of the screen. Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins do worse than this on every snap. Ugh.
Well, since it worked so well the first time, Terry Robiskie came back to that same play a second time later in the game. Its the exact same look, but this time the safety doesn’t drift as far towards Matthews. He stays on top of Walker, but Delanie is still open when he exits his break. If this is Mariota at QB, he drills this ball in there to Walker as he’s breaking open, or takes the deep shot to Matthews who is one on one at this point with the corner. Cassel takes a sack instead and the Titans punt two plays later.
Here is the last deep shot the Titans took against Miami. Its a play action fake, but the Dolphins don’t bite. Its worth pointing out that Mariota sells these fakes much more convincingly than Cassel does. Before we get in to the throw, take a look at Taywan Taylor trying to run the post route to pull the safety over. He’s shoved pretty good at about 10 yards which slows him down and throws off the timing of the entire route combination. This should be a penalty, but its shockingly not called!111 Matthews has a step on the corner, but with the safety coming over it would have taken a near perfect throw to get this in there. Cassel misses the mark by at least 15 yards. If you’re going to miss with that ball, you at least want to miss away from the safety. Just a terrible throw here.
That’s enough looking at this performance. I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about the playcalling, but the Titans left gobs of yardage and points on the field due to missed running lanes and missed open receivers.
The defense bounced back from one of the worst performances in team history with a solid performance against the Dolphins. Jay Cutler isn’t playing very good football so I don’t think we need to take this performance as a sign that everything is fixed now, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
Three guys that really stood out to me on Sunday were Kevin Byard, DaQuan Jones, and Adoree Jackson. Let’s take a look at some of what those guys did.
Byard continues to improve week after week and once his recognition matches his physical ability and aggressiveness he will be a real force in games. He picked up a fumble recovery in this game (forced by Adoree Jackson) and will be looking to extend his streak of games with a turnover to three tonight against the Colts.
This was probably my favorite Byard play from Sunday though. I like the late movement after Cutler makes his check at the line. He then follows up with a clinic on shedding a blocker and making an open field tackle. It doesn’t get much better than that.
This next play features both Byard and Jones. I have highlighted Jones who gets great push in to the backfield at the point of attack which forces Ajayi to take this play wide. It also allows for Byard to shoot the gap and make the tackle for a loss. Byard’s play near the line of scrimmage is outstanding.
Let’s take a look at a couple more DaQuan Jones plays here. There were a lot of them in this game, but this is probably my favorite. He immediately beats right tackle Ja’Waun James with a sick swim move and makes the tackle. That’s Aaron Donald type stuff right there.
Here is one more. Watch him scrape down the line as he’s supposed to against the zone blocking look, but when Ajayi goes to cut back behind him, he tosses the guard aside and wraps him up for no gain. This was easily the best game I’ve seen from DaQuan Jones as a Titan. Hopefully he can keep it up.
Adoree Jackson also probably played his best overall game as a Titan on Sunday. While much attention was paid to him getting steamrolled by Julius Thomas after a blown assignment by either Jayon Brown or Kevin Byard (more on that later), he was otherwise outstanding in coverage against the Dolphins. He was targeted 5 times and allowed just 2 catches for 15 yards on those targets. Here is a play where he wasn’t targeted, but he was part of a coverage effort that led to a Titans sack. Watch him manned up against Leonte Carroo at the bottom of the screen. This doesn’t look like much, but it is picture perfect technique. He looks like he is getting more comfortable in press man which is something he struggled with coming out of USC. That’s very good news for the Titans who love to run press man.
One of the disadvantages to keeping Adoree pinned to the right side of the field is that it allows offenses to try to isolate physical mismatches against him. Here the Dolphins do just that by setting trips left with 6’-5” 262 lbs tight end Julius Thomas split out right by himself against Jackson. Adoree does a great job of playing physical against the bigger Thomas and forces the incompletion.
It wasn’t all perfect from the defense though. I mentioned the play above where either Byard or Brown blew an assignment. This is that play. It is 3rd and 10 and the Titans have a chance to get off the field with just a field goal and keep the score at a more manageable 13-10, but either Brown or Byard were supposed to sit in the hole where Thomas ends up catching this pass. Instead, they both blitz and leave a massive gap in the middle of the field.
Also, a lot of discussion has been had about the run that essentially sealed the game for the Dolphins. It was 3rd and 7 with 2:39 left. If the Titans make the stop, they get the ball back with at least a chance to make it interesting. The Titans line up with their typical 3rd and long defensive package featuring Orakpo, Walden, Casey, and Morgan as pass rushers. There is some confusion before the snap about where guys are supposed to be aligned, but that doesn’t really matter. The Dolphins run right at the light front and pick up the critical first down. Hindsight is always 20-20, but I would have preferred to see DaQuan Jones out there in this type of situation. He doesn’t give you the pass rush juice that Walden does, but the Dolphins also aren’t likely to run a play that gives the pass rush a chance to get home. The benefit of Jones against a potential running play far exceeds the benefit of Walden in a pass rush here.
And yes, the Titans absolutely should have challenged the spot of the ball. That’s my single biggest gripe with the coaching staff for this game.
Odds and End
- I put this loss on Jon Robinson. I love J-Rob and he’s done a fantastic job turning this team around in such a short period of time, but his decision to bring Cassel back and not bring in a viable 3rd quarterback is his biggest mistake to date. I agree with Gunnel’s train of thought regarding what likely led them to this point with Cassel, but even that doesn’t excuse the fact that Tyler Ferguson was kept on the practice squad instead of using that opportunity to go get a 3rd QB on the roster who could contribute if needed. Signing or drafting a backup QB next offseason is among the top 2-3 priorities for this team. And yes, it needs to be a mobile guy in my opinion. Losing the threat of quarterback runs exactly when you most want to rely on the running game is not a good combination.
- This was a terrible game to get bit by the penalty bug. On the season the Titans are right in the middle of the pack in penalties called against them at 6.8 per game for an average of 65.8 yards per game. On Sunday they racked up 11 penalties for 77 yards including the one that took a game changing touchdown off the board. That’s before we even talk about that ridiculous play where the refs gifted the Dolphins 7 points. Let’s move on before I get angry all over again.
- This is a big game tonight for many reasons. Monday Night Football. Chance to end the streak against the Colts. Division game. Chance to take back first place in the AFC South. Let’s hope the only Matt Cassel snaps we see tonight are handoffs at the end of a blowout win as a smiling Mariota rests in a ball cap on the sidelines. Let’s get loud in that stadium and get this season back on track. TITAN UP!!!