Thursday Night Football exposed the Titans in a lot of ways. While I don’t think it’s always a good idea to take too much away from a road game played on 4 days rest — Thursday night games tend to massively favor the home team — I do feel like much of what went wrong for the Titans in this game had been bubbling under the surface for weeks. The rookie receivers making rookie mistakes, left guard being a problem, DeMarco Murray running indecisively... those were all things that have shown up in small quantities all year. Up until Thursday night the Titans had been able to mask those issues by excelling elsewhere or making a big play at the right time, but in Pittsburgh they all showed up at the same time and the result was just as ugly as you’d think.
DeMarco Murray’s Indecisive Running
First, let me just say that I’m a big fan of Murray and what he’s brought to the Titans over the past two years. He’s a consummate professional and a guy who does all the little things to help a team win football games. All of that was on display as recently as Week 10 when he was a major contributor to the Titans 24-20 win over the Bengals. However, he’s really struggling as a runner right now. SkyCam helped make it more apparent in real time, but it is something I’ve noticed going all the way back to Week 1 as I noted in my All-22 that week.
Murray is at his best when he’s a one-cut downhill runner. Here is an example from last year. You can see him put his foot in the ground and explode up field running through an arm tackle along the way.
2017 Murray hasn’t shown that kind of burst. That is likely due, in part at least, to a lingering set of injuries that have dogged him all year. He’s looked healthier these last couple weeks, but healthy is only part of the problem. The other issue — the one that reared its ugly head again Thursday — is his vision.
The offensive line is catching a lot of the heat for the struggles of the run game — and to be sure, they aren’t blameless here — but its hard to open a hole any wider than this one in the NFL. At the point where I pause the gif, Murray has plenty of room to run. This is the kind of scenario running backs dream about. He’s effectively in the open field as soon as he crosses the line of scrimmage, but instead of running towards open space, he cuts right back in to Bud Dupree who makes a good tackle. Murray got the fewest possible yards available here.
Here is another example of Murray not maximizing his blocking. Again the play is well-blocked up front. At the point where I paused it the Titans have a hat on a hat for every defender besides the two safeties and he’s even got a lead blocker in Walker if he follows him around the corner. I don’t mind Murray cutting it up here — I won’t ever fault a back for getting north and south quickly — but he runs right in to the back of Kline and ends up just getting 2 yards out of a well-blocked play. That’s not good enough.
Here is another example. I showed this from both angles so you can see everything that’s happening. Murray cuts left at first, but when the defender shows on the outside shoulder of Lewan he tries to go back right — even though that defender was still engaged with Lewan and down on one knee — and just runs right in to his blocker. I get that it’s easy for me to sit here and second guess when I can watch it multiple times in slow motion. I appreciate the difficulty level of making the right cut when things are moving a million miles an hour on the field, but Murray is consistently appearing to be indecisive with his cuts coming out of the backfield and its stopping too many running plays before they get started.
The last one here may be the worst of the bunch to me. Again, the blocking is outstanding on this run and if Murray runs through the large hole between Decker and Supernaw he’s one on one with Coty Sensabaugh in the open field. That’s a matchup that Murray should win regularly, but instead of taking the run right, he again runs in to the back of his line for a minimal gain.
I feel like Murray’s vision and ability to make one cut and get up field has been a strength for him his whole career, which is what makes this all the more confusing to me. I’m not sure if he doesn’t trust his ability to win matchups in the open field or if he’s just not seeing things well, but whatever it is the Titans need to seriously consider giving Henry a larger workload on the ground. Henry isn’t perfect when it comes to picking holes either, but he’s far more elusive and can create something out of nothing as he did on the run below.
For an even starker contrast, look at the difference between how Murray looks right now and how Mark Ingram looks running for the Saints. Both guys have similar running styles and the Saints running game mirrors a lot of what the Titans do from a scheme standpoint. Ingram is playing at a very high level right now. You can see in the plays below how he makes one cut and then runs full speed through arm tackles.
Murray’s ability to break tackles hasn’t changed drastically from his 2016 stats. In fact, his Elusiveness Rating on PFF and his Broken Tackle Percentage on Football Outsiders are nearly identical to last year — both were well below average for a running back and significantly below Derrick Henry’s numbers in those same categories. He’s not likely to suddenly become a big tackle breaker, so if he’s going to be effective, he has to have great vision and be decisive with his cuts. That hasn’t happened this year.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying “bench Murray” altogether. He’s an asset in the passing game, both receiving and blocking, and the Titans ultimately need two strong running backs in this offense. However if I’m Mularkey I’m moving the carry split heavily in favor of Henry, particularly on 1st and 2nd down and using Murray as a 3rd down back primarily. If you aren’t “getting the yards that are blocked” from a guy who is supposed to do just that, you might as well be using the guy who can create yards for himself.
Quinton Spain looked less than 100%
Spain’s foot injury has slowed him down for the better part of the season now, and despite getting a couple weeks to rest it leading up to this game, he sure didn’t look healthy out there. When Huggy Bear is right, he’s a mauler in the run game and a great yin to Kline’s yang on power runs. But when he’s wrong, you get what happened in Pittsburgh.
He was a major liability in pass protection throughout the night, with the plays below being the most devastating examples.
Sometimes I watch plays back and almost get physically ill at the missed opportunities due to one mistake. I felt that way about this play. The Titans spread the Steelers out and flood the left side of their zone coverage with 4 receivers. This is designed to be a shot play to Matthews, but they also have a hot to Walker (my first spotlight) if the Steelers blitz. However, the Steelers don’t bring pressure, so Mariota is looking for Matthews (my second spotlight) on the wheel route all the way here. Taywan Taylor is clearing out the deep safety with a go route while Murray and Walker’s presence holds the flat defender shallow. Matthews was going to be wide open if Mariota had time to throw this ball, but Quinton Spain gets whipped from the start by Cam Heyward and Ben Jones gets pushed back far enough that Mariota has nowhere to step up which leads to the sack. This is likely either a touchdown or 1st and goal if the line holds up on this play.
That wasn’t the only time Heyward got Spain either. Here is another, very similar situation on the very next drive. This time its 3rd and 3 and the Titans need to pick it up to keep the drive alive. This one was designed to be a quick throw, but Mariota’s first read (Walker) isn’t there. There are some possible avenues to pick up the first if Mariota had more time — Murray is leaking out uncovered and Decker appears to have some space to the right — but this wasn’t going to be a chunk play like the last one we saw. However, what makes this one so bad to me is that the Titans adjusted their protection to make sure Spain had help here. You can see Ben Jones look left immediately after the snap and go over to help on Heyward. Knowing that he has help inside, Spain absolutely can’t get beat on his outside shoulder, but that’s exactly what happens here. Conklin’s man (who was passed off from Kline on a twist) ends up getting credit for the sack here, but this one should really go on Spain.
Hopefully this performance was the result of missing several weeks of practice and games and we see a better version of Spain moving forward. Cam Heyward and the Steelers defensive line is very talented and that wasn’t an easy team to make a return against, but if the Titans want to become the offense they expected to be, Spain needs to play better.
Rookie wide receivers made rookie mistakes
Former Marquette basketball coach, Al McGuire, once said “the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores” and that’s kind of how I feel about the Titans rookies on offense right now. Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor have shown flashes of brilliance so far, but they’re still making those rookie mistakes that can destroy drives. Davis’ mistakes on Thursday were particularly noticeable because they led directly to turnovers.
This was a 1st and 10 play at midfield late in the first half. There are a couple theories on what happened on this play. In my opinion, two things went terribly wrong. First, Mariota stares Davis down the whole time which is obviously a no-no, especially against zone coverage, and then compounds it by throwing the ball late. Part 2, is what caused him to throw late: Corey Davis running the wrong route. The more I’ve looked at this, the more it looks like Davis is caught in between thinking he should run a curl or a square in and kind of does neither. At the top of his stem you can see him hesitate, and then as he starts to break in he stops again which leads to the interception. My guess is that this is an option route based on how the corner plays him and he was expecting one thing and got another. Either way, once you make a decision on a route, you have to commit to it and run it full speed. He will learn from this, but this is part of what you get from rookie receivers. We all want to see them play because of their special talent, but there is a reason that a lot of coaches hate playing them and this is it.
Davis wasn’t the only culprit on Thursday night. Taylor also had a miscue with Mariota. He’s lined up in the slot and is completely uncovered at the snap as the Steelers are showing a blitz. Typically for NFL teams this is an automatic sight adjustment where the receiver just turns and looks for the ball immediately rather than running their full route as Taylor does here. Mariota expected Taylor to make the adjustment and he didn’t which costs the Titans a nice gain here. Again, this is something I’m sure Taylor will pick up moving forward, but it’s tough right now.
Jonnu Smith isn’t a wide receiver, but he’s also been up and down over the course of the season. We’ve seen him be really good as a blocker (see the Seattle game), but he’s also had some bad misses, particularly over the last few games. Here is an example. The Titans have a hat on a hat again all over the right side, but Smith isn’t able to get a hand on the corner who blows up the play for a loss. If Smith is able to kick him out here, the Titans likely have a nice gain.
All these guys are talented and should be big pieces of the offense for years to come, but right now we are seeing their growing pains. One thing to think about with Davis is that this was really his 4th full NFL game after missing almost all of camp, all of preseason, and then the first half of the year. He’s probably getting to the point where he’s had about as many practice reps as a guy would around the 3rd or 4th preseason game normally so its not surprising to see him out of step with Mariota. I certainly expect it to improve and Davis to be a big factor as we finish out the year.
Some stuff that worked
This game wasn’t all bad though despite the final score. The Titans did some nice things too. For example, this shot play to Matthews which opened the 2nd half was a thing of beauty and it demonstrated the attention that Delanie Walker and Corey Davis can attract from a defense. The majority of the Steelers defense appears to be playing Cover 3, but the strong safety (spotlighted) sticks on Walker all the way rather than dropping in to the deep middle third. That leaves Matthews one on one with Sensabaugh and Mariota takes advantage. Defenses continue to pay a ton of attention to Walker which should allow for more opportunities like this for the receivers.
The Titans also gave the Steelers some good reasons to fear Walker during the game. Here is one example. This is one of the Titans favorite plays. It is a tight set with 13 personnel which typically tells the defense to key on the run, but they instead attack the seams with Walker and Smith. This time the Steelers are in Cover 2 on the back end, which would typically be the ideal coverage for this route combination, but Walker’s elite route running shows up here. Watch him bend his seam route outside just enough to get the safety to flip his hips and then immediately snap back inside. He then does some nice work after the catch to pick up some extra yardage. Its hard to believe this guy is 33 years old. He doesn’t appear to be slowing down at all.
The Titans came back to this same play again later. This time they get the Cover 3 look they want with this route combo and as a result, Walker is wide open. Of course this is the touchdown that he dropped in a rare mistake for him. But the play design is very good and once again Walker’s route is excellent.
The defense was excellent in the first half besides the opening drive, but then fell flat in the second half. The turnovers from the offense put the defense in a bad spot all night, but the back breaker was the back-to-back 10+ play, 75 yard drives they allowed to open the 2nd half. Those two drives were dominant by Pittsburgh. They only saw one third down on each drive. They converted a 3rd and 11 inside the red zone on the first drive when Juju Smith-Schuster went up and made a fantastic catch despite good coverage from Jayon Brown and a big hit from Johnathan Cyprien.
The following drive they had an early 3rd and 10 that Pittsburgh picked up on a 20 yard pass to Martavis Bryant. That play was the product of a zone blitz that didn’t get home. You can see Orakpo and Casey both drop in to coverage on this play, which is something that should never ever ever happen. This is the definition of “getting too cute”. The Steelers’ well-coached offensive line gives Roethlisberger plenty of time and that leaves Brice McCain stuck between covering Bell in the flat or Bryant on the corner route. He sneaks up towards Bell since Casey has no hope of covering him and it leaves an easy throw to Bryant for the first down.
This play really sums up what went wrong in the 2nd half. The Titans struggled to get pressure when rushing 4 — as they have all season — which led to more and more blitzing from LeBeau. That approach worked great against the Colts a few weeks ago, but the Steelers offensive line was more than capable of picking up the blitzes and that left the Titans corners in a lot of one-on-one matchups against some of the best receivers in the game. Jackson and Ryan really played pretty well for most of the game, but you can cover Antonio Brown well and still have him make plays as Logan Ryan found out on the ridiculous helmet catch.
This is likely to continue to be an issue when the Titans come across teams with good offensive lines, but only the Rams really fit that description on the remaining schedule.
This was a bad game on both sides of the ball at the end of the day. It will be interesting to see how the team responds after 10 days off. I think it’s entirely premature to write this team off based on a bad outing, but there are clearly some things they need to clean up and address. The last four defenses they’ve faced rank 12th, 1st, 13th, and 3rd in DVOA so seeing the offense be inconsistent over this time frame isn’t entirely surprising, but they’ll need to be better down the stretch for the Titans to have any hope of making noise in the playoffs.