Reminder: Each week, I’ll go ahead and watch the five most recent games our opponent has played, in order to get a feel for their strengths/weaknesses, tendencies, and how well they’ve been playing leading up to their game against the Titans. I’ll break my findings down into four sections: When the Titans Run, When the Titans Pass, When the Opponents Run, and When the Opponents Pass. I’ll also list 4 players (2 offense, 2 defense) from each team that I believe could swing the final outcome based on their play.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams’ second year in LA has gone much better than their first, thanks in large part to first-year head coach Sean McVay’s offensive approach, which has sparked the energy of the entire team. Their five most recent contests have come against quality competition—the Vikings (loss), Saints (win), Cardinals (win), Eagles (close loss), and Seahawks (dominating win)—and they sit at 10-4 on the year.
You’d be hard-pressed to find two more different teams than the 2017 Titans and Rams. The Titans’ offense has been slow, deliberate, and plenty of times, contrived, while the Rams’ has been fast, multiple, and freewheeling. On defense, the Titans have generally bent but not broken, whereas the Rams have been aggressive (tied for fifth in takeaways) and somewhat boom or bust.
This is a game Mike Mularkey, Terry Robiskie, and Dick LeBeau should care a lot about, if they truly buy in to what they “sell” to the media and fans. They are the old guard, confident their schooled approach is still the right way to go about winning football games. If that theory holds any water, this is a game their team needs to be, at bare minimum, competitive in. If the Titans get embarrassed in Nissan Stadium, it should serve as a clear sign to ownership and GM Jon Robinson that the “new” NFL isn’t going away and they had best get on board.
When the Titans Run
Rams’ DC Wade Phillips’ defensive front design maintains some constants from week to week, but he likes to tailor his personnel usage to specific opponents. Though technically a 4-3 base defense, LA usually sets up in what could just as easily be labeled a 5-2 (or 4-3 Over, 4-3 Under, depending on interpretation) on running downs. One of the constants is three athletic, space eating, interior down linemen (out of a rotation of about six), including two-time All-Pro DT Aaron Donald, PFF’s top-ranked interior defender for three years running. Depending on the opponent, the rest of the defensive first level can vary quite a bit. On the edges, Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin, two halfway-converted DEs, often serve as de facto outside linebackers, sometimes down, sometimes standing up. The smaller, quicker Cory Littleton also comes down on the line when brute force is less of a need.
ILB Alec Ogletree is another constant. While he doesn’t necessarily stand out on box scores, and is only ranked 84th overall amongst LBs by PFF, to me, he “pops” on tape despite being up and down. Mark Barron (if he plays this week) and Littleton rotate in and out next to Ogletree, depending on what Wade Phillips has dialed up.
The good news for the Titans when they handoff: the Rams have been inconsistent against the run so far this year. The bad news: our interior OL’s run blocking has probably been even more inconsistent. Individually, the Titans should win on the edges with Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, but I expect mucho struggles for the rest of the group.
Aggressive running backs, especially, have had decent success this year creating extra space to work against LA, but I’d have a hard time portraying DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry as that. A theme you’ll notice throughout the rest of this preview: if you want to beat the Rams, you have to beat them, straight up. It will be on the Titans’ maligned guards and center to show up in this one, accompanied by two focused running backs.
When the Titans Pass
The Rams’ secondary is athletic and aggressive, and attempts to bully opponents who aren’t ready for their style of play. Outside CB Trumaine Johnson, slot CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, FS Lamarcus Joyner, and rookie SS John Johnson III form a fearless foursome, all of whom are unafraid to gamble on changing a game (11 combined INTs and FFs on the year). However, they’ll occasionally get themselves out of position by being too predictive or reactive. One key to beating LA’s secondary is spreading the ball around to the open man (as opposed to force-feeding a primary target). The other is being willing to take risks as a quarterback; Marcus Mariota will need to trust his receivers to come down with the ball in traffic. Former starting outside CB Kayvon Webster, who fit in aptly with the rest of LA’s secondary, is now on IR with a ruptured Achilles tendon. His replacement has been Troy Hill, but he is currently listed as questionable on the Rams’ injury report. No matter who gets the start, the Titans may be able to find a weak spot opposite Trumaine Johnson.
In terms of pass rushers, Wade Phillips typically oscillates between sending four and five per down. Football Outsiders has the Rams’ ranked third in adjusted sack rate on the year (they’re actually second in total sacks, behind only Sacksonville). Aaron Donald is a serious handful, even for double teams, and creates chaos in the pocket that the rest of LA’s rushers take advantage of. Carson Wentz avoided the Rams’ pressure better than any of the other five quarterbacks I watched by forcefully stepping up in the pocket in order to buy himself extra split seconds. Mariota must be decisive with his footwork, but for that to be an option, the Titans’ interior OL will have to not get curb stomped. We’ll see how that goes.
No matter what Terry Robiskie thinks or says, this is a week for heavy no-huddle usage. The Titans’ best bet on offense is going to be keeping the Rams’ aggressive secondary on its heels, and tiring out their pass rush by preventing it from rotating in fresh legs. I’m highlighting Corey Davis as an X-factor this week. He’s been the Titans’ primary receiver for drag routes and, along with Eric Decker, outside hitches, two routes that have produced success against the Rams’ coverage.
When the Rams Run
Todd Gurley should be an MVP contender, if you ask me. He’s 3rd in rushing yardage, 1st in rushing TDs (and total rushing and receiving TDs), 2nd in yards per reception amongst RBs, 3rd in receiving TDs amongst RBs, and 1st in total yards from scrimmage. His career revitalization has happened in part thanks to a vastly improved OL, but he himself is showing renewed vision and purpose when toting the rock. His primary “move” is a jump cut, so as a defense, your goal is to get him jumping backwards, with reinforcements closing in. It’s also critical each defender remain in their run fit, as Gurley is excellent at pressing the hole, then bouncing outside once an edge defender overcommits.
When you watch the Rams’ OL have success, they remind you almost of synchronized swimmers. All five guys start moving in the same direction, with the intent to push their man as far off the ball as possible. You’ll see very little pulling or chipping; little wasted movement. This mindset matches up with their typical run calls: dives and powers. With such a “simple” approach, the only way to win against them is to have enough individual defenders beat their blocker and get to the ballcarrier.
Jurrell Casey will be a major factor in this matchup, but the Titans will also need Austin Johnson, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard, and (hopefully) Derrick Morgan to make plays in order to contain Gurley. While, overall, I think our secondary tackles well, if he makes it to their level, something bad is happening and it’s likely to get worse.
I should note that former first-round WR Tavon Austin actually functions as a gadget RB now, at times lining up in place of Gurley. He’ll likely get around five touches on Sunday. It will be important for the Titans’ defense to get to the edge quickly, but prevent full-field cutback opportunities.
When the Rams Pass
To spare us all fits of jealousy, I’m not going to belabor the narrative of Sean McVay’s offense completely transforming Jared Goff. Goff has arm talent, no doubt, but the Rams’ offense is ultimately succeeding because of Gurley, and a reliable bevy of receivers who give Goff a chance on almost every throw.
Each of their receivers has a highly defined role within the offense. Former Bills’ first-round pick, Sammy Watkins, is the “X” and gets targeted on ten-yard outs as well as intermediate-to-deep fly and post routes. Rookie Cooper Kupp attacks the intermediate middle with extended crossers, and is also given plenty of chances to catch and run in space on shallow, quick outs and ins; he’s been stellar. Robert Woods, the speed demon of the group, runs quick slants designed to get him the ball in stride and is a weapon on WR screens. Todd Gurley serves as a dual-threat out of the backfield, well used on HB screens and a variety of LB-pressuring routes. They are all capable of doing damage with the ball in their hands if the defense doesn’t tackle well or take proper pursuit angles.
Especially given LeShaun Sims’ and Logan Ryan’s injuries, I’m not going to even pretend the Titans’ secondary and coverage linebackers have a tangible chance at slowing down the Rams’ passing attack. The only way any team has consistently slowed it down has been by putting pressure on Goff, consequently forcing sacks, off-target throws, and throwaways. Football Outsiders ranks the Rams’ OL 9th in pass blocking, so it’s not a cakewalk getting “home”, but from what I’ve watched, Goff is able to be flustered and doesn’t always show great awareness of his surroundings in the pocket. With the Titans’ season somewhat on the line, I say we let em’ have it, Dick!
8 Players to Watch
WR Corey Davis, WR Eric Decker, DL Jurrell Casey, S Kevin Byard
RB Todd Gurley, WR Robert Woods, DT Aaron Donald, S Lamarcus Joyner