The Titans offense has seen a notable shift over the past two weeks. Through 13 weeks Tennessee was last in the NFL when it came to usage of 3-wide receiver sets at just 42% per Greg Cosell.
.@gregcosell on @Midday180: Fewer people on routes means more in protection. If D rushes four and you send two out, they've got seven defending. Difficult to consistently throw. Feature lowest percentage of three WR -- 42 percent. #Titans— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) December 13, 2017
For some context, the average usage of 11-personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR) in 2016 was 60.4% per Football Outsiders.
Against the 49ers and Rams these past two weeks the Titans’ ratio has flipped with the team lining up in 3-wide sets over 60% of the time both weeks. Along with that change in personnel packages, they have also finally rolled out some no-huddle packages for select series throughout the game. These changes in San Francisco were largely dictated by game flow as the Titans got behind early and had to play catch up, but it appears those changes may have stuck. They were within one score of the Rams for every minute of Sunday’s game and we still saw plenty of 3-wide and no-huddle on offense. That tells me that this change may be more than just a temporary adjustment.
Those changes haven’t exactly led to an avalanche of production — 23 points is just a hair better than their season long average of 21.3 — but the passing game suddenly feels like it has a pulse. Corey Davis had his best game of the season against the Rams, Rishard Matthews had his 2nd best game of the season against the Niners, and Eric Decker has had his 2nd and 3rd best games of the year the past two weeks.
The other apparent change — which goes hand in hand with the no-huddle — is the additional level of control being given to Marcus Mariota. The third year quarterback has been seen making and changing calls at the line of scrimmage far more often over the last two weeks than he had been over the first 13 games.
All of these things are steps in the right direction for an offense that hasn’t been able to get things going consistently enough on the ground to stick with their preferred plan of attack. There are still issues — 2nd and long run calls, lack of RPO/read option calls, and the Murray-Henry snap splits are the biggest in my mind — but this is at least proof that the staff is willing to try something different.
I suspect the lack of read option calls is directly attributable to the accumulation of injuries for Mariota over the course of the year. Paul Kuharsky’s report from a couple weeks ago about the lingering effects of the hamstring and ankle injuries explains a lot on that front. Frankly, this rushing attack will never be as effective without those calls because they were among the most productive plays in the playbook for the Titans. Without the read option in their arsenal the Titans have had to rely strictly on the power run game. That just isn’t enough to sustain a consistent ground attack.
The Murray-Henry split is still probably the single most baffling thing about this season to me. Murray has been banged up and/or ineffective all season, but Henry still remains the Ferrari idling in the garage, only coming out for a spin every now and then. Murray’s knee injury may finally give the Titans no choice but to unleash Henry. The idea of getting El Tractorcito 20+ carries against a defense he’s had a ton of success against is pretty tantalizing. Don’t get me wrong, the Titans are a better team with a healthy Murray available, but the staff clearly needs something to push Henry in to the top spot and as unfortunate as it is, this could be it.
I know most Titans fans are fed up with this staff, particularly on offense. That’s warranted based on the season we’ve seen, but they do appear to be trying to finally adjust. The apparent change in philosophy over the past two weeks, combined with the potential of seeing Henry take over lead back duties is enough to give me hope heading in to Week 17 and beyond. This team proved they were dangerous against a red-hot playoff team on Sunday. If they can build on that, maybe, just maybe they could make some noise in the playoffs.