The 2017 Tennessee Titans are a tough team to figure out.
On one hand, they’re 7-4 overall, 3-1 in the division, and currently occupying the 3 seed in the AFC. They’ve won 5 of their last 6 and haven’t lost a home game since September 10th. They have also pulled all that off despite missing Marcus Mariota for a game and a half and having him play injured for two games after that.
On the other hand, they currently carry a negative 27 point differential and have been blown out twice by 23 points or more. Football Outsiders’ DVOA has them ranked as the 22nd best team in the league and they have only had two wins by more than 6 points, including several close wins against some of the league’s worst teams.
So who are the real Titans? Are they a good team who hasn’t put it all together for a full 60 minutes yet, but has the mental toughness to make the big play when it counts? Or are they a bad team who’s gotten by on a weak schedule?
I tend to lean more towards the former. The Titans have not have consistently shown the offensive fireworks we were all hoping for when they added Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, Jonnu Smith, and Eric Decker to an offense that finished 9th in DVOA last year, but they’ve been there in flashes. This is still a team that has put up 37, 33, and 23 against defenses ranked 2nd, 8th, and 1st in DVOA this year. The defense has improved incrementally over last year’s group, especially in the secondary.
Most probably saw the Colts game as a step backwards, but I think there were some things that this team can build off of on both sides of the ball. Here is what I saw.
Derrick Henry needs to be the lead back
Gunnels wrote a nice piece on the DeMarco Murray/Derrick Henry situation already which you can check out here, but I’ll illustrate a few points that I saw during my review of the Colts game as well.
A few stats first. I’m going to use a wide array of stats because I don’t see any of these as a “magic bullet”. Each one is just a small data point in the overall picture.
Yards Per Carry
Murray: 3.5 (37th out of 45)
Henry: 4.6 (11th out of 45)
Murray: -6.0% (23rd out of 35)
Henry: +17.9% (3rd out of 35)
Situation Rushing Success Rate
Murray: 38% (29th out of 33)
Henry: 49% (5th out of 33)
PFF Elusiveness Rating
Murray: 35.5 (35th out of 51)
Henry: 71 (5th out of 51)
Yards After Contact Per Carry (per PFF)
Murray: 2.03 (49th out of 51)
Henry: 3.58 (3rd out of 51)
I didn’t cherry pick those stats to try to make Henry look better than Murray. Those are the five stats I trust the most when looking for data on how well a running back is performing and they tell a pretty clear story. Derrick Henry is just a better running back right now. In fact, he might be one of the best running backs in the NFL if you buy what those stats are saying.
Mike Mularkey made some comments about Murray getting better blocking than Henry in the Colts game and that making a difference in their stat line. That is objectively true and I’ll show some examples of that below. The Titans blocking in the first half, when Murray was the primary ball carrier, was atrocious. In the second half, especially the 4th quarter, they started to get some traction and that’s when Henry really took off.
However, that statement being true for that game should not mean to the coaching staff that Murray would have gotten the same results that Henry did with better blocking. I don’t think he would have. It also doesn’t excuse the fact that those stats above are season long stats. This isn’t a one game phenomena. This is a trend that actually goes all the way back to the last few games of 2016 when the run game started to get Henry involved more often.
Here are some examples from Sunday’s game against Indy. Let’s start with the problems in the running game from the first half. This next play is pretty indicative of what we’ve seen a lot from the Titans running game and Murray. The Colts defense is looking for the run to go strong side here as you can see the entire defensive line slanting that direction at the snap and both inside linebackers filling the hole. With all that attention flowing to the strong side, you’d expect a cutback lane to open up and Murray is looking for it. You can see him start to cut it back before seeing #32 and deciding against it, choosing instead to plow in to the line. DeMarco Murray should be excited when he gets to be one-on-one with a defensive back in open field, but he just doesn’t trust his ability to make people miss right now and it is being reflected in his decision making.
I highlighted Corey Davis pre-snap because he’s supposed to block #32 which would have made that cutback lane wide open. I can’t really fault Davis here for not getting the block on this one though. It would have been almost impossible for him to reach him based on alignment of the defense.
This next play is from the first drive of the second half and it was the worst run of the game and among the worst runs you can imagine. It’s hard to lose 9 yards on a straightforward outside zone run. Those results are usually reserved for double reverses or other trick plays gone wrong. This clearly isn’t all on Murray either. Jonnu Smith absolutely whiffs, not once, but twice on the same run. Jabaal Sheard is a really good player, but Smith has to at least slow him down. This is where the Titans offense really misses Fasano. I think Smith is going to turn in to a really good player, but he’s still highly inconsistent and plays like this are drive killers. This was a 2nd and 7 play which, if blocked well, should have left the Titans with a manageable 3rd and medium to work with. Instead, you end up with 3rd and 16. While this definitely isn’t primarily Murray’s fault, I can’t help but wonder if Henry wouldn’t have been able to use that stiff arm to keep the play alive and at least make it back to the line of scrimmage.
While he could have possibly done more with each of the previous runs, I don’t think either of those bad plays is “on Murray”. However, this one is and it is the most frustrating Murray snap of the game for me. I simply have no clue what he’s doing here. He has a HUGE lane between Walker and Decker, but he hesistates, runs in to Walker’s back and then runs right back in to the teeth of the defense. Both Walker and Decker get good blocks, and the left side of the offensive line is able to get to the second level and cut off both linebackers which means there is only a safety (20 yards off the ball) between Murray and the endzone if he just takes the ball around Walker. I’m sorry, but this is awful running back play.
Henry isn’t perfect by any means. Here is an example from that first half. It’s a read play and it looks like Henry had some room if he takes this run outside of Josh Kline’s block, but he tries to bend it back to the left and goes nowhere.
But here’s an example of why I think Henry needs to be “THE guy”. Phillip Supernaw allows quick penetration in to the backfield, but Henry is quick and strong enough to go right by the Colts defender and get outside for a nice gain. Henry can create yards when the Titans blocking fails them.
Another example. This time the blocking is much better. Josh Kline pulls and does a great job of kicking Jabaal Sheard out of position while Taylor Lewan rides the run blitzing linebacker down inside. The only guy who isn’t blocked in the box is #44 linebacker Antonio Morrison (Jonnu Smith was trying to get there but got caught in the line), but that’s not an issue for Henry here. He shows great lateral agility and just runs right by Morrison for a big gain. NFL running backs simply have to be able to win one-on-one matchups in tight spaces against linebackers. Henry can do this, I’m no longer convinced that Murray can.
Here is one that fully shows why you want to run on teams deep in to football games. We’ve seen #93 Jabaal Sheard pop up a couple times already. On that 9 yard loss I showed with Murray earlier he was the guy who got quick penetration and then made a play. Keep you eye on him on this play. He’s the stand up edge at the start of the play lined up between Jack Conklin and Eric Decker. Phillip Supernaw comes across on the counter to kick him out and gets a pretty good lick on him, but Sheard looks like he’s gassed here. You can also see Decker doing a great job coming down and pinning the linebacker inside which leaves no one home but the cornerback when Henry hits the edge. Henry then goes on to pick up an extra 6-7 yards after contact. Really good team play here.
I saved my favorite Henry run for last. First, we’ve seen Bad Jonnu, but here is Good Jonnu. He does a great job on Bostic here while Supernaw and Decker get a great seal on the outside as well to open this hole.
This next run is my favorite run of the game. Just at the foot speed and agility on these jump cuts and then the power finish at the end. This is also a smart run. He presses the hole inside first which holds the middle linebacker and allows Kline to get to him on the second level before jumping like he’s headed outside which lures the safety outside and gives him more room to cut it up field. He’s helping his blockers here. This is the run of a decisive running back who’s confident in what he’s seeing. Some guys need carries to get a feel for the game. The more I watch Henry, the more I feel like he’s one of those guys.
This doesn’t mean I want Murray kicked to the curb though. If the Titans want to be a dominant running team — and they do — they’ll need multiple backs to get them through. I just think Henry needs to be the priority on early downs moving forward. They also could use Murray’s outstanding skills in the passing game to complement Henry’s ground game.
Here’s an example of that work. This is a big 3rd down towards the end of the game when the Titans were trying to run out the clock. I showed some of the pre-play movement here because I think its interesting. The Titans use a lot of pre-snap motion to diagnose coverages and here it shows them that the Colts are in man as #44 is following Murray all over. I don’t know if this was a situation where the Titans had two play calls coming out of the huddle — one if they showed man, another if they showed zone — but they ended up with the perfect call here as the Titans get Murray sneaking out of the backfield and running his defender through a double rub from Walker and Decker. The Colts had no shot at stopping this.
If I were Mularkey and Robiskie, I’d be going out of my way to make sure Henry got at least 15-20 carries a game from here on.
What’s wrong with the passing game?
I think the run game is in better shape than most believe right now, particularly if they do move towards more work for Henry. If you really look at the numbers and the tape over the last 4 games since the bye, the passing game hasn’t been quite as bad as it has looked at times either.
Outside of about 7 throws over the last two games Mariota has been outstanding. The problem is that out of those 7 bad throws, 6 of them have been interceptions. However, outside of those 6 and a pass that he one hopped to Delanie Walker in the 4th quarter of the Steelers game, he hasn’t really made very many mistakes. When he makes a bad throw, defenses are consistently punishing him for it.
So let’s start by looking at the two interceptions that Mariota threw in Indianapolis. The first was just simply a bad throw. He has Douglas open on a deep crossing route — and nothing but green grass ahead of him too — but he throws is behind him and the corner is able to undercut it and make the pick. A good throw here is a 15-20 yard gain, possibly more.
The second pick was the one that has been talked about quite a bit. Some thought this was simply due to Taylor falling down, but I don’t think that’s the case and from Mariota and Mularkey’s comments they don’t think so either. It’s a good read from Mariota. Taylor is open almost immediately as he makes the defender whiff on his attempted jam at the line of scrimmage (really good job by Taylor there). But the real problem here was Taylor Lewan getting pushed back in to Mariota by Sheard. He’s not really able to step in to the throw or follow through which leads to the ball sailing on him. If he’s able to step in to that throw and really get something on it, that’s probably a completion. To be fair, there is a good chance that Taylor at least breaks this up for an incompletion if he keeps his feet.
These two misses were really too bad too because I have been wanting the Titans offense to try to get more opportunities for the receivers to catch the ball in space in the middle of the field. These were two chances to do just that and bad execution cost negated them.
One other play that got wiped out by bad execution is this next one. Jabaal Sheard was a real problem for the Titans in this game and here he pops up again. This time he beats Dennis Kelly like a drum. I’m not even sure that Kelly touched Sheard on this play. Mariota is able to escape and throw it away, but it cost him a chance to hit a wide open Jonnu Smith running up the seam.
Here’s another blown play, but this time I’d say this is a scheme problem. It’s fair to expect Dennis Kelly to block Jabaal Sheard in pass pro, but it’s not fair to expect Harry Douglas to block a blitzing safety. The Titans get away with this one because Rashaan Melvin absolutely mugged Eric Decker and got called for defensive holding, but if you’re going to have Douglas in the game don’t ask him to play tight end.
The passing game wasn’t all bad on Sunday though. Mariota dropped one of the best passes you’ll ever see in to Delanie Walker on this play. The crazy thing about this play is the way that the Colts cover Walker. He’s drawing bracket coverage from the linebackers with safety help over the top. That’s pretty rare to see and he still beats it. The Colts pay a crazy amount of attention to Walker every time they play the Titans.
This was another great throw from Mariota. This time it’s Decker on a crossing route and he doesn’t have much separation, but the perfect throw beats perfect coverage every time.
Despite a few miscues as a blocker, I though Corey Davis looked more explosive in this game than he has in his short Titans career so far. This next play shows some development from the rookie wide receiver. It’s a beautiful route, followed by him coming back to meet the football, and then getting up field and making a man miss for a few extra yards.
The most memorable catch of Davis’ day was on the Titans crucial 4th quarter drive. This was a big 3rd down and Davis was the last read, but Mariota worked his way back to him and then put the ball where his receiver could make a play on it. Davis’ route wasn’t exactly as crisp as how Mularkey likes to see it. You can see he really kind of rounds off his break at the top. Mularkey said as much in one of his press conferences this week, talking about Davis’ habit of “drifting“ at the top of his routes. However, on this play he makes up for it by doing what made him the 5th overall pick: going and attacking the ball in the air. Davis could be a dominant receiver once he gets some of these little issues ironed out.
Here’s a better look at the route and the catch.
I am hoping the Titans found something on offense late in this game with Derrick Henry as the primary back. He did get on the field much earlier in this game than he has in the past. He was out there for the first series after Murray got the first couple plays and was mixed in pretty frequently before taking over the 4th quarter. The Titans need him to take over more quarters though and I hope that starts this week with Houston.
The passing game could be boosted with a few more play action shots and the return of Rishard Matthews. Most of all, they just need Mariota to avoid the catastrophic mistakes that have plagued him these last couple weeks.
This feels weird to say after a game where the Titans had just one truly complete drive, but I feel like this offense is close. Of course I’ve felt like they were close all year. It has all the parts, but it seems to lose focus from time to time and has a penchant for back-breaking mistakes. If they are going to figure it out in 2017 they need to do it soon. The 7-4 record has bought them more time than most teams get.