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On the Titans’ Offensive Philosophy & Formations

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I have held off on writing this post for a long time. For as many good things Mike Mularkey and his coaching staff have accomplished in Tennessee, there are so often times when his offense can be really frustrating. Part of that frustration is that its based on out-dated clichés and ideas that just aren’t going to lead to consistent success in the current NFL. Today, I’m hoping to illustrate why I disagree with a few concepts that the Titans use so frequently. This is not intended to be a film breakdown, but rather I hope to foster a discussion on offensive concepts. I have broken it down into various sections.

Let’s start with the biggest and easiest complaint I have...

“You Have to Run the Ball to Win”

If you have paid any attention to the Titans the past few years, you know this is a big theme for the organization. The Titans want to run the ball early and often. They want to physically beat down opponents with the ground game. They believe that this philosophy allows them success later in the game in both the run and pass game.

So, does that belief hold true?

The short answer is no. The long answer is perhaps best summed up by Football Outsiders, who have done quite a lot of research on this topic. Below is an excerpt from Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, but an older (so slightly different) version can also be found online here.

You run when you win, not win when you run.

The first article ever written for Football Outsiders was devoted to debunking the myth of "establishing the run." There is no correlation whatsoever between giving your running backs a lot of carries early in the game and winning the game. Just running the ball is not going to help a team score; it has to run successfully.

There are two reasons why nearly every beat writer and television analyst still repeats the tired old-school mantra that "establishing the run" is the secret to winning football games. The first problem is confusing cause and effect. There are exceptions, but for the most part, winning teams have a lot of carries because their running backs are running out the clock at the end of wins, not because they are running wild early in games. ” --Football Outsiders (continued here)

Now, this should not be construed as a position against running the ball. I have no issues with Tennessee using the ground game, but I have serious concerns about their beliefs behind it. Prior to the game Thursday night, NFL Network continually reported how the team wanted to run the ball and slow the game down. The Titans have built their whole offense around an identity that hasn’t shown to be successful. Furthermore, because the offense has been built around this principle, it hurts their passing attack when unable to run early, often, and successfully.

What is most frustrating is that these offensive themes are most commonly employed by teams that don’t have a good quarterback. There is no better example of this than the Jacksonville Jaguars, featuring an outstanding defense, solid running game...and Blake Bortles at quarterback.

The Titans have Marcus Mariota at quarterback, and despite his atrocious game Thursday, one of the Titans’ biggest advantage is that they have Marcus Mariota at quarterback and other teams don’t. They need to play to that strength.

Compressed Formations - Passing Game

The Titans like to use (what I will call) “compressed formations” to disguise play calls. They align their receiving options (WR/TE) close to the tackles. Here is how they lined up against Cincinnati on two consecutive plays:

The first play went to Corey Davis for a 9 yard gain, the second fell incomplete. Some of the Titans’ tight alignments have worked well. Again, I just want to discuss the thinking behind the formations.

I have broken this issue down into two parts to demonstrate why compressed formations can negatively affect both the passing game (first part) and the run game (second part).

Last year, Paul Kuharsky asked Terry Robiskie about these formations:

Robiskie deploys a great deal of condensed formations -- far from the spread set at the snap that Marcus Mariota is most familiar with -- in the hope of creating room for route-runners to get into.

“That’s the whole process behind it,” Robiskie said. “The other side of it is, when you’ve got a guy that is tight on the left or a guy that is tight on the right, it’s a lot easier for them to crisscross when you’re in a close formation. It makes the guy in the other side of the ball from you decide, he’s got more field to defend.

This is where Terry Robiskie and I disagree. Robiskie wants his players to run to space. I want them to be in space.

Spreading out your offense has several benefits. You’re forcing the defense to cover more territory right from the start. Maybe you force the safeties to play a bit deeper. Maybe the linebackers need to spread out more. Plus, rather than two players (WR and CB) starting close together with others nearby, those same two players are isolated further away from the line of scrimmage. This matchup should favour the receiver, especially given how the rules have made playing defensive back in the NFL a ridiculously hard task.

Here’s a shot of when the Titans spread out the formation pre-snap against Pittsburgh:

The Titans have 3 receivers (Corey Davis off screen far left) on the field. Each has a matching cornerback. There are two DL and three linebackers right at the line of scrimmage, and all looking like they’ll blitz. Davis went deep and took the corner and a safety with him, while Decker took advantage of his man coverage with a corner route to the left for a big gain. I’ll reiterate here again - I’m only adding the results of the play so that they aren’t left out. The main point here is that if you compare how the initial alignments look pre-snap from the three above plays, spreading out the receivers provides more initial room.

The second concern with compressed formations is that it makes it harder to predict the defense. Marcus Mariota and the offensive line are going to have a harder time identifying rushers. So, while these formations can help hide who the Titans are sending out on routes, they also help the defense disguise their own goals.

There are six guys up on the line of scrimmage (four DL, two DBs) in the picture above. The corners ended up playing man coverage, while the four DL rushed. This play ended in a sack of Mariota, though I’m not trying to say the sack was a result of the formation - simply that the alignment can make it more difficult on the offense pre-snap. One of the most important tasks for a QB pre-snap is to identify where the pass rush will come from, and so obviously the defense tries hard to hide this until the last moment. This is particularly important for blitzes by safeties and corners. By spreading defenses out you can force the opponent to either declare their intentions (players creep closer to the LOS) or operate from a position of weakness (stay in their initial positions until the snap, have to cover more ground to get to the QB). If those corners were set to blitz in the image above, they are already closer to the LOS and it’ll be later in the process before Mariota is aware they’re blitzing.

Compressed Formations - Running Game

Quite often spread formations are associated with passing while more ‘traditional’ sets are associated with the run game. Still, compressed formations can negatively impact running plays.

The Titans aren’t afraid to load up with heavy sets in the run game. Sometimes, they will avoid heavy sets but bring their receivers in tight as well, as we’ve seen above already. Below are two pre-snap pictures of the Titans in a compressed set. This is one from the Bengals game, which was a DeMarco Murray run up the middle for 1 yard:

The next shot is also before another inside run, this time against Pittsburgh:

The Titans are confident their run blockers will “put a hat on a hat” and pave the way for Murray and Derrick Henry. Sometimes it works beautifully. The above play went for four yards up the middle, and likely would have gone for more had Murray hit the hole hard (he stopped and juked a defender). There are quite a lot of things to love about the run game Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie have installed. I really appreciate several of the run concepts they’ve built into the offense. Sometimes in articles like these, discussion on the negatives makes it seem like there are no positives. That certainly isn’t the case for the Titans’ running offense.

Still, there are often times when the ground game feels like it isn’t reaching its potential. So many runs feel like an uphill battle this year. That the Titans are working so hard yet receiving only minimal gains.

One of the problems is that condensed offensive formations invite more defenders into the box. Your offense has more players to account for and block. Even if you trust your blockers as much as Tennessee does, this can allow the defense to muddy up the running lanes.

This is especially relevant for Derrick Henry. He is never going to be a running back that excels in tight spaces and slow speeds. I looked at Henry’s weaknesses when we drafted him last year, and this still holds true:

The best way to describe Derrick Henry's running style is to think of him like a train. He is at his best when he can pick up speed moving in a straight line. Once at top velocity, Henry is more fluid and agile than when trying to make tight cuts earlier on in his runs. As well, Henry's weight, strength and power are magnified when at his fastest, allowing him to crash through or drag defenders for additional yards.

Derrick Henry needs space to get up to full speed, especially given his build (6’3”, 247 lbs). Drawing defenders away from the line of scrimmage is one way to accomplish that goal.

Where is the No-Huddle Offense?

Many of you have already heard this from me before but I want to raise the issue again here since the Titans have very rarely used a no-huddle offense this year. One of the main benefits to a no-huddle offense is that it can prevent the defense from substituting. This has become a big factor in today’s NFL. Think of how focused offensive and defensive coordinators are at creating favourable matchups. This is particularly relevant to the Titans because they have two very versatile tight ends in Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith. Both can operate at the LOS or be split out wide as receivers, a luxury many teams do not have. These tight ends provide them not only the freedom to use multiple formations but also the ability to attack slow linebackers or small defensive backs.

Way back in 2013 we had this very same discussion, so many of you will be familiar this quote again from SmartFootball illustrating another benefit to the offense:

The defense doesn’t have time to substitute, and it’s also forced to show its hand: It can’t disguise or shift because the quarterback can snap the ball and take advantage of some obvious, structural weakness. And when the defense is forced to reveal itself, Tom Brady can change into a better play. The upshot of this tactic: Brady, of all people, sees defenses that are simpler than those most other NFL quarterbacks go up against.

Additionally, for as much as the Titans talk about winning the physical battles in the game, this would only serve to accomplish that goal. Imagine handing the ball off to Derrick Henry while a defense is exhausted.

This Titans offense is one that looks a whole lot different than four years ago, only further supporting why they should incorporate the no-huddle into their offense. Their personnel allows “formation freedom,” they can still physically beat teams, and they have a quarterback that has thrived with the offense before.

This is certainly something to keep an eye on. Paul Kuharsky was asked why the Titans haven’t used a no-huddle more frequently, and had this to say:

Of all the complaints about what Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie are, and are not, doing, this one is the most reasonable. Marcus Mariota absolutely thrives in no-huddle and we saw a bit of it, finally, outside of 2-minute or game-desperation situations against Baltimore. I don’t understand their reluctance, and they have not articulated it well. I think on some level, it’s a stubborn reluctance to relinquish control, as Mariota is calling plays when they hurry up.

It should be noted here that the last line may not hold true - it is certainly possible to run the no-huddle with the coaching staff still calling plays.

It is always very easy to criticize a head coach and offensive coordinator. I will point out again that both Mularkey and Robiskie have made some really nice improvements to the offense. They use pre-snap motion really well, they’ve incorporated some run-pass option plays into the offense, and I like some of their “escorted run” plays with Mariota. These would be my changes to the offense, because with a few tweaks it could really become something special.