With less than two minutes left in the first half against the San Francisco 49ers this past Sunday, the Titans offense finally changed. Perhaps most noticeably, this change was made and then continued through most of the second half.
What we witnessed should give a small glimmer of hope as the Titans head into the last two weeks of the regular season against extremely strong opponents.
The first change was that they went to a no-huddle offense. This wasn’t shocking at first. With 1:37 left on the game clock and down 16-3, it was a necessity. The Titans promptly went 79 yards in 68 seconds to score a touchdown. This offensive trend continued after the half and the no-huddle provided several benefits. Getting up to the line of scrimmage allowed Marcus Mariota to spend more time reading the defense - and this gave him the chance to audible. Too often this year we have seen the Titans break the huddle with 10 or 15 seconds left on the play clock. Instead, Mariota had 20+ seconds left on the clock frequently. It was a huge advantage for Mariota, who proved again he can read and dissect a defense like one of the best. Perhaps the most noticeable change was that Mariota seemed so much more comfortable. In fact, the best way to describe it was that he was completely in control. This was not a QB just following the script. This was a quarterback calling, changing, and executing the script.
The second change was that the Titans finally provided Mariota with more 3WR sets. Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, and Corey Davis all played >80% of the offensive snaps. Consider that the week before against the Arizona Cardinals not a single WR hit that mark (they did at least all fall into the 70s - snap counts available at FO). Add in Delanie Walker (88%) and you suddenly have an offense that is providing several receiving options for its quarterback.
Having so many choices on the field also allows you to spread out the offense. Condensed formations have been a pretty frequent criticism. The Titans still struggled with this against San Francisco, but it wasn’t nearly as bad.
In the example below, the Titans have 5 (five!!!) receiving options with Mariota in an empty set. From the bottom to the top of the screen, they have lined up Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, Delanie Walker, Derrick Henry, and Rishard Matthews. They’ve also made full use of the field. This team so rarely has players spread from out from both sides of the field’s numbers. Here’s the best part. Not only does this result in an easy catch for Delanie Walker, but you’ve got both Walker and Corey Davis open.
The play is set up well and Mariota reads it perfectly. Below you can see the QB’s view. Eyes move from the left (Matthews goes deep, Henry out left) to the right of the field (Walker is the third read, Davis fourth).
Next is another empty set. The Titans want to vertically stretch the defense on this play (at least on the right side). Matthews goes up the field while Decker runs an out, giving an easy high/low read for Mariota. Ideally, the defense either gets caught up with Matthews deep or Decker short, and Mariota just has to make the right call. San Fran looks like they’re in a zone defense here. The corner initially lined up against Matthews let’s him go to prevent space for Decker, and Mariota finds him for an easy completion.
The Titans offense has a lot of work to do still. Quite honestly, they are in the midst of an identity crisis. Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie seem intent to continue to ground and pound. Their offense functions far better when they make Mariota the focal point, not the run game.
This all sounded very familiar, and looking back on Mularkey’s tenure as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator it should. Here is a quote from 2010 on Mularkey:
Unless forced to, Smith and Mularkey have been hesitant to run the no-huddle offense on a full-time basis, which is a crime when you consider how successful Matt Ryan has been calling the shots at the line of scrimmage. But over the past few weeks, the Falcons have almost exclusively gone with the no-huddle attack and now they may have found their true identity offensively.
And on WR spacing:
For years the Atlanta wideouts have failed to generate yards after catch because they’re constantly stopping and sitting on routes in Mularkey’s scheme. But now we’re starting to see Jones and Roddy White make more plays downfield because Mularkey is finally getting them in space.
The big question for the Titans now is whether this offensive change is permanent. The offense needs to make this next step if the Titans are going to have any shot against the Rams and Jaguars.