Lets take a trip down memory lane to the end of 2015 for a touch of perspective. The Titans had won 5 of their last 32 games and were completely hopeless outside of a promising rookie quarterback in Marcus Mariota. A complete overhaul was coming for both the front office and the coaching staff. Ken Whisenhunt had been sent packing midseason and Ruston Webster followed him out the door at the end of the season. Things were bleak to say the least.
Heading in to the coaching search, some Titans fans wanted Hue Jackson, others wanted Josh McDaniels, nobody wanted interim Head Coach Mike Mularkey. Nobody. Myself included. I was ready to riot when the hire was announced.
By the start of the 2016 season I had talked myself in to giving Mularkey a chance to prove me wrong. After a 1-3 start that set off “here we go again” alarm bells all over the fan base, the team turned it around. They finished the season with an 8-4 run on the back of an explosive offense. When you add in the 4-3 start this year, the Titans have gone 12-7 over their last 19 games just over 21 months after going 5-27 in their previous two years. That is, at worst, major progress in the right direction.
That doesn’t get Mularkey off the hook though. With improved performance comes raised expectations. Just because 9-7 was largely viewed as a successful season last year, that doesn’t mean it should be this year. That’s entirely fair too. Titans fans should expect the team to improve as a young nucleus continues to develop.
And yes, the roster is in much better shape now than it was in 2015. Lewan and Mariota have developed in to outstanding players. Jon Robinson has added to that core brilliantly through the draft, trades, and free agency. This is now a roster that is quite capable of competing with any team in the NFL. Mike Mularkey should be able to win with this roster.
So let’s talk about the offensive meltdown in Cleveland and why that happened. After all, we can’t just point to the 4-3 record and say that everything is fine. As Justin often points out, context is important. A lot of the “FIRE ROBISKIE” takes are geared around the fact that we couldn’t score a touchdown against the terrible Browns. I’m not going to pretend that the Browns are good, they aren’t, but that run defense you saw stifling the Titans backs on Sunday is no joke. They ranked 3rd in the NFL in run defense DVOA coming in to this game and had allowed opponents just a 33% success rate when running which is 2nd in the league behind Denver. Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton is now in his 3rd year after being taken at #12 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. He is one of the elite anchors for a run defense in the league.
So knowing the Browns were stout up front, why didn’t the Titans pass more? That’s a valid question, however the Titans did throw the ball quite a bit. They just didn’t have much success with it. Mariota threw for 203 yards on 34 attempts for a YPA of under 6. That’s pretty poor efficiency. After watching the game back this wasn’t a bad Mariota performance though. He had two high profile mistakes in the game. I’ll highlight those below because they cost the Titans 10 points, but overall his ball placement was good despite still being very clearly uncomfortable with his injured hamstring.
The Titans moved the ball fairly effectively most drives, but their mistakes were ill-timed and the receivers failed to make enough plays down field.
- Drive 1: 3rd and 13 after Eric Decker blocked the wrong guy resulting in a 5 yard loss on the Henry carry the play before. Titans come out with an empty set and get a wide open Delanie Walker streaking down the field on a skinny post, but Mariota checks down to Taylor underneath for a short gain leading to Succop FG #1.
- Drive 2: Titans get off to a nice start with an 8 yard pass to Smith on 1st down. However, 2nd down sees Ben Jones get whipped by rookie defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi to make the tackle on Henry for no gain. On 3rd and 2, the Titans run a tunnel screen to Matthews, but Decker whiffs on a block and Matthews doesn’t even get a chance to make the catch, much less run for a 1st down. Punt.
- Drive 3: Titans take a deep shot to Walker on 1st down, but he mistimes his jump and the safety breaks up the pass. 2nd down Henry picks up 4 on the ground. On 3rd down, the Titans hit Walker for 12 yards, but he fumbles and Cleveland recovers. Turnover.
- Drive 4: Nice long drive featuring 5 1st downs. Titans lose a couple on 1st and goal from the 9, then Mariota throws a little late to Taylor who can’t make the contested catch. On 3rd and goal from the 11, Mariota throws underneath outside to Murray who can’t break the tackle on the edge. Succop FG #2.
- Drive 5: Two pass attempts at the end of the first half.
- Drive 6: After Kevin Byard pick #2, the Titans attack and quickly work the ball from the Browns 32 down to 1st and goal from the 1. Titans come out heavy and give to Murray up the middle. He very nearly gets in. Titans come out heavy again on 2nd and goal from the 1. This time they play action fake to Murray and have a wide open Walker in the corner of the end zone, but Mariota for some reason rushes his throw and undershoots him. Titans line up heavy again, give to Murray off tackle with a pulling Josh Kline for some reason, but he’s stopped just short again. 4th and 1, the Titans come out with 11 personnel with a tight bunch featuring Smith, Decker, and Matthews to the right side and Taywan Taylor split out wide left. They give to Henry off right guard and the hole is there, but Henry trips over Ben Jones’ legs as he’s trying to get through. Turnover on downs.
- Drive 7: Titans pick up three quick 1st downs, but then Henry (again) tries to bounce a run outside that should have gone for a nice gain inside and loses 5 yards on first down. Mariota comes back and hits Henry out of the backfield on a designed swing pass with lead blockers for a nice 8 yard gain. 3rd and 7, the Titans get Walker one-on-one against a linebacker and manage to hold the safety with a deep crosser from Matthews. Mariota puts it up for Walker, but he can’t come down with the catch. Succop FG #3.
- Drive 8: Titans pick up a big 3rd and 14 with a pass to Taylor and then follow that up with a 6 yard run for Henry on 1st down. However, Henry then inexplicably runs right in to the back of his line despite holes on either side on 2nd and 4. Titans spread it out with an empty set again on 3rd and 4, try to run a rub between Decker and Murray on the right side, but the corner recognizes it early and jams Decker to keep him from getting in the path of the linebacker covering Murray. Succop missed FG.
- Drive 9: Following Byard pick #3, the Titans run for 1 on 1st down, then try the Utah shovel pass with Decker on 2nd and 9. Josh Kline isn’t able to keep Danny Shelton out of the backfield which disrupts this play. Also, Derrick Henry has to do a better job of carrying out the play fake on his end. Mariota eats a sack rather than shoveling it right to Shelton. 3rd and 16 looks like a misread between Mariota and Matthews on where he was supposed to be. Punt.
- Drive 10: 1st down shot play to Decker and Mariota drops it in where it has to be, but Decker can’t hold on to the catch. 2nd and 10 they hit Walker over the middle for 8. They spread it out and throw a comeback to Matthews who is open, but Mariota throws too early and it goes incomplete. Not sure why he rushed it here. Punt.
- Drive 11 (OT): Titans pick up quick 1st down on first play of drive, but then Smith gets whistled for holding on the next play which puts them off schedule. 1st and 20 Henry somehow drops an easy pass. 2nd and 20 they get Smith on a short pass, but he does a nice job running after the catch for a gain of 14. 3rd and 6, Decker can’t make a contested catch. Punt.
- Drive 12 (OT): Titans pick up a 3rd and 3 with a short pass to Matthews to get in field goal range and then run it three straight times to set up the game winning field goal from Succop.
Are there plays in that list that I don’t love? Yes, of course. Pulling a guard at the 1 yard line will never make sense to me. I also have no idea why every team in the NFL can execute a rub route except for the Titans.
The Utah pass specifically (shovel off a read option) is getting a lot of hate this week. I actually like the play in general, but I don’t like its usage with an immobile Mariota. Taywan Taylor’s 17 yard run in Jacksonville was off a Utah pass look, however a lot of what makes that play effective is that it makes the defense credibly defend 4 potential ball carriers: the Mariota keep, the hand off to the running back, the shovel pass to a receiver or tight end, and (usually) a smoke screen to a receiver. The threat of the Mariota keep is crucial to that formula and it just wasn’t there this week due to the hamstring injury. I’d also point out that Derrick Henry needs to put more effort in to selling play fakes on stuff like this. Defenders can read body language a lot quicker than they can read where the ball actually is in a lot of cases and Henry’s body language screamed that he wasn’t getting the ball on this play against Cleveland.
However, the primary issues holding the Titans back against Cleveland were execution related in my opinion, not symptoms of bad playcalling or a broken scheme. If you fix two execution errors — Mariota checking down instead of hitting a wide open Walker in Drive 1 and Mariota underthrowing a wide open Walker on Drive 6 — you get 10 additional points. Not that this is all on Mariota, he actually played well with the exception of those two glaring errors. Other players need to be accountable as well. Eric Decker needs to make blocks, he’s too good a blocker to have these mistakes. Decker and Taywan Taylor need to help their QB out and make some contested catches. Derrick Henry needs to stop having 5 yard losses due to him trying to bounce everything. Those are basically sacks.
Calling for Robiskie or Mularkey to be fired is ridiculous at this point. The team has scored 16, 37, 33, 36, and 12 points in the 5 games that Mariota has played from start to finish. That would be good for 8th in the NFL in points per game despite the fact that the starting quarterback has been far less than 100% for two of those and the fact that the most talented wide receiver on the team has played just one full game. I agree that the consistency has to be better and they have to find a way to jumpstart the first half offense, but they are far from a bad offense. Even with the game and a half of horrendous Matt Cassel included, they rank 13th in the league in scoring average without the benefit any return touchdowns from their defense and special teams.
Mariota getting back to full strength will be huge. His mobility makes EVERY part of this offense better. DeMarco Murray hasn’t been right physically all year. The extra rest could give him some of the juice that he’s lacked early. Getting Corey Davis at long last will be a major boost as well. The Browns game highlighted the need for a receiver who can create separation AND make a contested catch in a big spot when needed. His presence on 3rd down and in the red zone could go a long way to fixing those issues. I’ll be diving in to a breakdown on the red zone issues specifically over the bye week, but some positive regression should help the Titans in the 2nd half of the season (they can’t remain this bad).
I fully expect Mularkey and Robiskie to tinker with the offense over the break. Some of the wrinkles they added and used early are now on tape and teams are preparing for them — the Utah pass is a great example. They’ll need to change and adapt those to keep opposing defenses off balance. I’m hoping they find ways to get Davis and Taylor the ball in space. I think calling for heads on the coaching staff is entirely premature at this point. I still believe that we have yet to see the peak of this offense, but the flashes have been there. Good teams put it together as the season goes on. How many times have we seen New England or Green Bay or Seattle start slow and then roar to life in November and December? We are about to find out if the Titans are a good team or not.