By the time Thursday Night Football kicks off in Pittsburgh this week, the Tennessee Titans will have gone 39 days without losing a football game. Sure, there is a bye week in there and a few less than stellar opponents, but that’s still a pretty impressive feat in the NFL. After all, you can only beat the teams you are scheduled to play, and that’s exactly what this team keeps doing.
While we are still waiting for that game that puts it all together at the same time, we continue to see flashes of brilliance that seem to last just long enough to put the Titans over the top. The Bengals aren’t a great team by any means, but I felt like this performance was one of their better games this season from the ones I’ve watched. There were a few terrible mistakes that made this game much closer than it felt like it should have been and those need to be cleaned up, but its hard not to come away from this one feeling pretty good about the direction of this team heading in to the stretch run.
Here are some of my biggest takeaways on offense from Titans 24, Bengals 20.
(I am separating offense and defense in to separate posts this week because the offense notes got really long)
The Titans dominated possession, spending 40:09 on offense to the Bengals’ 19:51 and generally appeared to be in control for the vast majority of the game. Much of that dominance was thanks to a return to form for the Titans rushing attack who racked up 180 yards on the ground. Most that 180 yards was spread pretty evenly between Derrick Henry (11 carries for 52 yards), Marcus Mariota (6 carries for 51 yards), DeMarco Murray (14 carries for 42 yards), and Adoree Jackson (3 carries for 30 yards). The Titans accomplished this impressive total despite missing one of their better run blockers in Quinton Spain and facing the 7th ranked run defense in the NFL according to DVOA.
They accomplished this by using their full arsenal of deception and misdirection to keep the Bengals defense guessing. Dre Kirkpatrick said as much after the game.
"They were doing different (expletive) the whole game. I'm going to tip my hat to their coordinator (Terry Robiskie). I thought Pittsburgh was bad. Those guys (the #Titans) had a lot of plays, a lot of formations." - #Bengals CB Dre Kirkpatrick— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) November 12, 2017
I know lots of Titans fans don’t share my appreciation for Mularkey and Robiskie’s scheme, but its pretty hard not to like what they did this week. The first drive may have been their best drive all year from a rhythm and execution standpoint and their last drive of the game may end up being among their most important. Both ended in touchdowns.
Let’s start with that first drive. I strongly feel that this is exactly what the Titans staff wants this offense to be. It was multiple from all standpoints — scheme, personnel, and alignment — and it played to the strengths of their players. The additions of Corey Davis and Adoree Jackson in to the mix, combined with improved health for Mariota and Murray have changed the ceiling for this offense since the bye week. There are a ton of ways for them to hurt defenses.
After a play action pass to Matthews and two runs by Murray to open the drive, the Titans started to throw out some new wrinkles. Check out this 2nd and 8 play, the Titans 4th offensive play of the game. There is a ton going on here. The first thing to notice is that Adoree Jackson is in the game as the deep back behind Mariota before motioning out wide. This draws the eyes of the defense and widens both the cornerback and outside linebacker to that side.
The Titans then run a play that looks a lot like those Utah passes from earlier in the season, except this time Delanie Walker is lead blocking all the way. The fake to Murray holds the middle linebacker long enough for Lewan to sneak out and get enough of him to slow him from cutting off Mariota. This is well schemed and designed, but what really shines here is the execution. Watch what Davis and Walker are able to do blocking on this play. Davis is able to seal off a linebacker which is incredibly impressive, but the Walker goes and steals the show with a phenomenal lead block on the safety that effectively removes three Bengals from the play. Delanie Walker is just an unbelievable football player. We are lucky to get to watch him every Sunday.
Finally, you have Jackson being used as a long toss option. The Titans like to do this on read option plays to give Mariota another outlet, but in this case the threat of Jackson puts Pacman in no man’s land and he basically ends up being a spectator for this play. Mariota’s speed does the rest and the result is a 28 yard pick up.
After this big pick up, the Titans ran the ball with Henry for a yard, but then got called for a super soft unnecessary roughness penalty on Taylor Lewan. Here it is so you can judge for yourself.
Look, I get that Lewan has a bit of a reputation and he gets watched extra closely, but nothing about this raises to the level of a 15-yard penalty — although to be fair, Burfict got called for a reputation personal foul later in the game so we can probably call that a wash. These are usually drive killers, but the Titans bounced back and got all that yardage back on the very next play.
Once again, Adoree Jackson is in the backfield and this time he’s lined up to the right of Mariota with Murray mirroring him on the other side. This is the exact same look and formation that the Titans used on Jackson’s 20 yard run against Baltimore. They know that Cincinnati is going to be looking for that play, and take advantage of it. Watch the reaction of the slot corner and the middle linebacker to the play fake to Adoree. Keep in mind that this is a 2nd and 24 play. There is no reason for them to bite that hard on the run besides the fact that they are looking for Jackson. Both come flying up field which leaves a huge hole for Mariota to hit Taywan Taylor on a quick slant for a 20 yard pick up. This is great work by the Titans to take advantage of what they’ve put on tape the week before.
After picking up most of the penalty yardage with that play, the Titans still had some work to do to pick up 3rd and 4 and keep the drive alive. They come out with a trips bunch to the right which is a relatively rare look for this team, and Delanie Walker is isolated to the opposite side of the field. Mariota sees the Bengals are blitzing and slides his protection. The formation gives the Titans a mismatch for Walker as he’s lined up one-on-one against CB/S Josh Shaw. Delanie beats him on a quick out and Mariota hits him perfectly for a big first down.
The next play is another relatively rare set for the Titans. I don’t know that we’ve seen more than a couple 4 wide receiver sets from them all year. They bring Taylor in motion and fake the speed sweep to him that they’ve run a few times this year. The fake to Taylor keeps Pacman in the flat while the hi-lo crossers from Walker and Decker have the Bengals linebackers occupied which leaves Matthews with a nice hole in front of the safety for an easy pitch and catch.
One play later, the Titans are back to the misdirection game on the ground. This time they’ve got Murray lined up as an offset fullback and Derrick Henry behind him as a tailback. This is a call back to a play that the Titans ran against the Colts earlier in the year, except this time they actually give it to Murray on the fullback counter instead of pitching to Henry wide right. The weak side linebacker actually moves to the right spot as he has backside contain here, but he’s surprised when he sees Murray screaming around the corner with the ball and can’t get him. This was the play that made me feel like we might be seeing healthy DeMarco Murray finally this season. While his stats weren’t too impressive, I thought he played his best game of 2017 against Cincinnati.
The very next play he scores on one of the more impressive 2 yard runs you’ll see. Something went horribly wrong up front for the Titans on this play. I’m not sure if Ben Jones was supposed to reach block #99 or if Fowler was supposed to crack him coming through, but I’m fairly certain the design wasn’t to leave an unblocked man at the point of attack. No worries though, Murray runs right through not one, but two unblocked Bengals and gets in the endzone. Again, he played outstanding on Sunday and this is a prime example of why box score scouting doesn’t work.
While we are talking about Murray’s game, let’s take a look at a play from the Titans 3rd drive of the game. This is the same look as the run for Jackson from the Ravens game and this is a similar play, except this time the Titans design it to go wide. You can see both linebackers looking for the play to come up the middle and they are way out of position when Jackson takes it around the edge. But what really makes this play go are great blocks downfield from Murray and Davis. I highlighted Davis below since he comes in to the screen late, but Murray’s block is probably even more impressive. He completely eliminates the safety from this play.
Just a couple plays later the Titans get a big gain from Derrick Henry on a pretty straightforward inside zone run. Here you get really nice blocks from Lewan and Schwenke, but a great cut on the linebacker from Jones. Henry does a nice job of hitting the hole decisively instead of trying to cut back or bounce and he’s rewarded with a big gain.
The very next play is one of my favorite play designs of the year so far. The Titans have a 4 wide set again (if you consider Jackson a WR on this play) with all 4 receivers to the right and Delanie Walker isolated to the left. The Bengals appear confused from the start. At first they only have 2 guys lined up over the 4 receivers, and then they finally run another guy out late. The Titans fake the handoff to Taylor and then set for what appears to be a WR screen to Jackson, but once the defense comes up, Mariota throws a strike up the seam to Matthews who unfortunately drops a surefire touchdown. The Titans know that #25 is going to attract extra attention when he’s on the field and they are using that against defenses. The more success Jackson has on offense, the more lethal these counter plays become. I’m sure Matthews would like to have this one back.
Fun side note: check out the slot corner for the Bengals who is coming on a corner blitz when he sees Conklin turn and square to him. He wanted no part of Big Jack. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an intimidation pancake block before, but I have now.
The following play was a 6 yard Henry run that appeared to get the Titans back on schedule, but DeMarco Murray was called for a silly personal foul that included a fair amount of theatrics from Dre Kirkpatrick. That put them in 3rd and 19 and they ended up settling for a 48 yard field goal attempt that Succop missed. What should have been a 99 yard touchdown drive ended with zero points here. They deserved more from this.
The Titans got the sack-fumble by Orakpo on the next series though which put them back in business and they scored a touchdown a few plays later. The last drive of the first half was a two-minute drill that resulted in a field goal. There has been some criticism of the time management on that drive and I agree somewhat. I thought Murray probably should have given up a couple extra yards to get out of bounds on the screen pass and felt like Delanie Walker DID get out of bounds on the next play, but the refs ruled him down in bounds. Those two plays ended up taking 42 seconds combined. They probably could have saved 30 of those seconds by getting out of bounds or using a timeout earlier.
The 3rd quarter started off pretty rough for the offense. Missed deep shots to Corey Davis early in the drives set back the first two series, but the Titans started to get it going again on the next drive with this play. Its the same look as the long Mariota run before, but instead of getting caught in limbo, this time Pacman goes after Mariota — and hurts himself while trying to take a low cheap shot, peak Pacman here — which leaves Jackson alone on the sideline for an easy 13 yard gain. I’d prefer Mariota to get rid of the ball just a little earlier here, but this play is extremely tough to defend.
A couple plays later the Titans almost strike deep again, but this time it is a smart holding penalty by the Bengals that keeps them out of the endzone. Corey Davis puts together a nice stutter-go and the corner has no choice but to grab him. The Corey Davis breakout game is coming. Mariota clearly trusts him and there were a ton of designed shot plays to try to get him one-on-one down field in this game.
This drive stalled out after this as back to back Bengals sacks put the Titans in 3rd and 18. The first sack was a double corner blitz that didn’t get picked up and then the next play Mariota got caught from behind trying to escape a clean pocket. Mariota almost never does this, but here he tries to take off too soon. I’m guessing he didn’t see the coverage he was expecting to see here and decided to bail out. Either way, this is one of those sacks that isn’t on the offensive line.
On the next drive the Titans strung together some nice plays and tried to mix in another of my favorites from earlier in the season, but this time it didn’t come off as well. This is the Jonnu Smith wheel route from the fullback position that went for a touchdown against the Seahawks back in Week 3, only this time the Bengals linebacker catches Smith as he’s leaving the backfield and runs with him down the field. I also think Matthew’s route on this play likely should have been run inside the numbers to leave more space over the top for Smith to work. I still like the play design here, but this time the Bengals were wise to it. I’d look for them to add a counter to this design at some point in the near future.
After picking up a first down the next play thanks to defensive holding again, the Titans had a couple short gains setting up another of the biggest plays of the game. It was 3rd and 4 and the TITANS SUCCESSFULLY RAN A RUB ROUTE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FRANCHISE HISTORY!!! In all seriousness, I do love the idea of getting Davis the ball in space. Hopefully next time he puts the ball away and powers in to the endzone.
Side note: the turnover/touchback rule when a team fumbles through the opponent’s endzone is the dumbest rule in football. It makes zero logical sense relative to any of football’s other rules. The ball should go back to the spot where it was fumbled and the fumbling team should retain possession. Please fix this for 2018, NFL.
After the teams traded a few 3-and-outs, the Bengals got the slant to A.J. Green for a 70 yard TD and suddenly the Titans had to have points with just 5 minutes left. They proceeded to put together a clutch game winning drive that may end up being among the most important drives of their season.
This was a peak Mariota drive too. Check out this throw to Walker for 20 yards that officially put them in field goal range. That’s a special level of timing and accuracy.
It was pretty clear from the playcalling that the Titans were playing to win, not force overtime on this drive. They took multiple shots at the endzone once they got in to field goal range, including this one on 3rd and 5 that resulted in another defensive holding call as Eric Decker was about to be wide open for a touchdown at the top of the screen below.
The Titans picked up one more first down and then had first and goal from the 7 with a chance to win the game. They took a shot to Walker and a shot to Decker which were both well defended on 1st and 2nd down before this last play. Mariota appears to be looking for Matthews initially, but he quickly checks down to Murray in the flat who makes a great individual effort to get the ball in the endzone.
This wasn’t a perfect offensive game by any means, but considering the quality of the opposing defense and the fact that self-inflicted errors cost them 14 points directly, it may have been the best game the Titans offense has put together all year. You can start to see all the weapons coming together and getting healthy at the right time. The red zone offense has gone 6-for-6 on touchdowns since the bye week and things generally seem to be clicking much better. I’m excited to see what they can do against a stout Pittsburgh defense this week.