The Titans played better than most thought they would on Sunday, but it still wasn’t enough to top the Rams and Walt Anderson and his officiating crew. The overall team stats from the game are strikingly similar. The Rams finished with a slight advantage in total yards (402-366) and were better on 3rd downs, converting 6 of 14 compared to the Titans 3 of 12. Otherwise this was a very evenly matched, well-played football game. If it weren’t for the context of the previous 5 weeks, I actually think we would have felt pretty good about the performance considering the level of the opponent.
However, that context still remains and the Titans have gone from finishing close games to blowing them over the last month. This is still a team that makes the kind of mistakes that drives fans crazy — dropped passes, dumb penalties, throws in to coverage, and poor clock management — but it’s also a team with some real talent finally. A team that’s capable of running with the best in the NFL when they can avoid making those crippling mistakes.
As I wrote about earlier this week, this was the second straight game that we have seen the Titans offense featuring a higher ratio of 3-wide receiver sets and no-huddle series. That change has brought some better rhythm to the passing game and seems to have increased Mariota’s comfort level throwing to the wide receivers. The quarterback overall had an up and down day, starting with a down moment on his first pass attempt of the game.
Let’s go ahead and get that play out of the way here. I’m sure you’ve seen it more times than you wanted to already anyway. The Titans are running a play action shot play with just two men in the route and max protection (everyone’s favorite). Corey Davis is running a clear out at the top of the screen while Rishard Matthews is running a deep post from the bottom of the formation. If Mariota throws this ball as soon as Matthews exits his break he’s open and it’s probably a pretty nice completion, but instead he waits and tries to float it in over the linebacker. I have seen people saying that they don’t think he saw the linebacker, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. What he didn’t expect was the boundary corner peeling back off Davis to cut Matthews off. That didn’t end up mattering though because the throw was way short. It’s possible he saw the corner peel off at the last minute and short armed the throw because of it, but it could have just been a bad throw too.
The worst thing about this throw is that Mariota could have checked down to Murray after seeing that Matthews was running in to coverage and he would could have moonwalked to the first down sticks. I don’t know if Mariota was coached to hit Matthews on the numbers on this play or if he just missed him in his first window (when Matthews hits the hash) and tried to force it in to the second. My guess is that its the former, but that’s the hard thing about assigning blame on plays like this. You don’t really know.
OK, now that that’s out of the way let’s move on to some positives about this game. The biggest positive I took away on offense was the play of Corey Davis. One thing we’ve learned about the 5th overall pick during his debut season is that he’s very good at going up and attacking the ball with his hands in traffic. Here is the latest example of this. He isn’t the first read on this throw, but he does a good job of getting his inside release, getting vertical, and then timing his break. You would like to see a little more suddenness with his break at the top of his route, but he makes up for it with a spectacular leaping catch to convert a big 3rd down. This is also a great job by Mariota of sensing the pocket and stepping up in to it to make a big throw. We haven’t seen as much of that lately from him, but this is why you should still be excited about him.
Here is the other dynamic that Davis can bring: run after catch. This is another of those infamous two man route concepts, but this time it works. Davis is highlighted and runs a deep comeback in the middle of the field against man coverage. The route is very good despite the holding from the Rams’ corner and Davis does an excellent job of coming back to the ball in the air. What he does after the catch is pretty special too. He turns up field and fights off two Rams defenders for an additional 20 yards as he fights for every possible inch he can get. This is outstanding individual effort and the Titans should be doing all they can to put him in more positions to be able to do this.
One last Davis play. I believe this was a designed shot play for him. Mariota looks right to pull the single high safety over while Davis roasts the press man coverage from the Rams — that release is really clean for a rookie receiver — and has a step. However, Mariota’s pass is just a touch too far and it costs the Titans a big play here. This is a timing throw and you would expect these to get much better between these two the more they get to work together.
This was easily Davis’ best game since Week 1 and you have to hope that he’s beginning to earn the trust of Mariota and the coaching staff with a performance like this. The next step is to expand the number of plays where Davis is the first read and put a real emphasis in the gameplan to get him in one-on-one situations and let him beat the man across from him. The Titans haven’t had someone who can do that consistently since Kenny Britt’s extremely brief prime.
I’ll get in to this further once the offseason gets here, but I firmly believe that Mularkey and Robiskie’s heavily schemed and packaged offense was a good design for a Titans team that lacked weapons in 2016. When your players can’t win one-on-one matchups you have to use some misdirection to put them in position to make plays. However, as the weapons evolve, the offense needs to follow. The Titans offense moving forward should be less scheme-based and more matchup-based, finding and creating mismatches to allow their superior athletes to make plays. The question about the coaching staff to me revolves around whether or not the current staff is willing to make that paradigm shift.
The other offensive standout for the Titans in this game was the interior offensive line. Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, and Josh Kline have received plenty of criticism this season — and it has been warranted — but they combined to hold Rams’ superstar Aaron Donald to his lowest PFF game grade of the year and shut him out in sacks a week after he tormented the Seahawks’ interior line for 3 sacks. They managed to virtually shut him out without giving up a ton of pressure to LA’s other great defensive linemen too. They allowed just one sack and Mariota was only pressured on 30.2% of his snaps which was 19th highest in the league in Week 16 per PFF.
How did the Titans control the league’s best defensive lineman? They did a few things scheme-wise to make sure Donald was accounted for on each snap. Here is an example of that in the passing game. Spain does a good job setting anchor against Donald at first and then Jones comes over to help clean him out. When possible, Jones was always looking to help on Donald.
The Rams do a lot schematically to try to get Donald in one-on-one situations though. Here is an example of that. They line up a man on Jones’ left shoulder while Donald is a 3-tech between Kline and Conklin with a defensive end coming off the edge beside him. The nose tackle lined up on Jones keeps him from being able to help on Donald, but Kline does a nice job here keeping him at bay long enough for Mariota to get the deep shot out.
Here is a similar look from the Rams, except this time they are bringing an A gap blitz which DeMarco Murray expertly picks up. That leaves Quinton Spain on Donald Island this time and he does an excellent job. Spain was really good for the majority of this game.
Most of the time Donald was matched up with the guards based on alignment, but Jones got a couple reps against him including this one where does a really nice job. However, the low snaps continue to be an issue as it was on this play.
While Donald was mostly held quiet, he didn’t quite get completely shut out. Here he bullies Josh Kline back in to Mariota’s lap and eventually tips the ball out as he went to throw the check down. Kline is far from the only guy to get beat like this by Donald though.
The other approach the Titans used to control Donald was to run right at him with power. They often pounded the lighter Donald with double teams at the point of attack. That helps wear down a pass rusher over the course of the game. Here is an example. Kline and Conklin combine to completely wash Donald down out of the play and it opens up a huge hole for Derrick Henry to run through. Also, check out Eric Decker and Luke Stocker sealing the other side of this lane. The more I see Decker work, the more I want him back next year. Stocker has also proven to be an instant upgrade over Phillip Supernaw.
Here is another example. This time it is Lewan and Spain who completely overpower Donald and Lewan is able to peel off and pick up the Mike linebacker as well. Combine that with more good work from Decker and key blocks from Matthews and Smith and you have a great run for DeMarco Murray.
There were a lot of positives to take away from this game on offense despite the team being limited to just one offensive touchdown. Similar to the early part of the season, they struggle on 3rd down and in the red zone. Those key details must be cleaned up, but they moved the ball more consistently, saw Corey Davis’ best game as a pro, and got a really nice game from their maligned interior line. The offense still has problems — we all know what those are and we don’t need to belabor that point here again — but there are some signs of life that should give you some hope as they head in to a win and in game against the Jaguars.