Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Titans started cold, but found enough plays to win by the end of the game.
That’s been the script with this team for the majority of the season at this point, but ugly wins are still infinitely better than pretty losses. There has been a lot of hand wringing over the Titans inability to blow out bad teams over the course of this season and that’s fair. They have a tendency to start slow and then work their way back in to games. There have been a couple exceptions — they started well against both the Ravens and Bengals — but for the most part this has been a slow starting team.
The stats bear that out. In the first half of games the Titans are averaging just 9.4 points per game which is 23rd in the NFL, but in the second half they jump to 12.5 points per game which is 7th in the NFL.
If you had to pick a half to perform better in you’d certainly pick the second half, but I think this is part of what is coloring the negative narrative around this Titans team. There are 12 teams in the league with a winning record heading in to Week 14. The Titans are the only team of out of that group that has spent more game time trailing than leading. Per Football Outsiders the Titans average 23:09 per game ahead on the scoreboard, 24:21 behind, and 12:30 tied.
I think this is a major reason why the Titans are perceived to be a “weak 8-4 team” by the national media and casual fans. It’s simple, but when they see the score scrolling along the bottom line on the TV the Titans are usually behind. Combine that with a weak schedule and TADA! You have an instant narrative.
Some of it has merit of course. It is certainly not a good thing to constantly be falling behind early and have to battle your way back in to the game, but we tend to look at that type of game much differently than one where a team builds a big lead, slowly lets it shrink, before holding on to win despite the end result being the same.
Right now this offense goes as the running game goes, and so far in 2017 the running game starts slowly. This graphic courtesy of Sharp Football Stats gives a good example of the disparity between the Titans rushing success in the first quarter versus the rest of the game.
(This graphic also shows that the Titans really need to lean on their off-tackle and outside zone runs, particularly behind Taylor Lewan on that left hand side of the line, but that’s a topic for another day)
The narrative we often hear as it relates to running the football is that defenses get worn down later in games and it becomes easier to run the football. The numbers suggest that isn’t true for the NFL as a whole in 2017 though. Overall, teams are averaging 4.15 yards per carry on carries 1-10 versus 3.72 yards per carry on carries 11-20. However, the Titans are — by far — the most extreme outlier of that data set. The Titans average 3.8 yards per carry on carries 1-10 which is below average, but a ridiculous 8.2 yards per carry on carries 11-20. That 8.2 yards per carry number is 2.5 yards per carry MORE than the next closest team.
What the Titans need to figure out is how to translate that late game success on the ground to the start of the game. Robiskie has proven that he is a talented counter-puncher as a playcaller. Lots of the big plays that they’ve gotten late in games — both running and passing — have come as a direct result of him figuring out a weakness in how a team is defending certain looks and exploiting it at the right time. That’s great, but there are some holes in his approach too.
My biggest problem with the Titans playcalling right now is the handling of 2nd down. On 1st & 10 the Titans are right in line with the rest of the league, they have a split of 48% passes to 52% runs — league average is 47% passes to 53% runs — and their success rate is slightly above league average as well. However, 2nd down is where the Titans start to have issues. Take a look at the 2nd down numbers in the graphic below.
The Titans treat 2nd & medium and 2nd & long situations like running downs and it leaves them with an unusually high number of 3rd & medium situations while keeping them out of 3rd & long or 3rd & extra long. That would be an OK strategy if the Titans were better at converting those 3rd & mediums in to first downs — as they were in 2016 — but they aren’t. Last year Tennessee was among the top 5 teams in the league at converting 3rd & medium. This year they are in the bottom 10. They also faced far fewer 3rd & mediums in 2016. They are already at 66 this year after seeing just 71 the whole season last year.
There are some specific things that defenses are doing to take away the Titans 3rd down success from last year. The most glaring is the treatment of Delanie Walker. The Titans Pro Bowl tight end is no secret any more and neither is Marcus Mariota’s love for him on 3rd downs. Last year Walker was targeted on 3rd & medium or long 23 times which was 7th in the NFL among all pass catchers and his success rate was 2nd best among all players with at least 20 targets in that situation. This season the success rate is still high, but the targets are down significantly as defenses have used all sorts of schemes and coverage combinations to try to take Walker away from the Titans on 3rd downs.
It has worked, and now the Titans need to develop a strategy to combat that extra attention on 82. Rishard Matthew’s return will help, but the Titans also need to get more out of Corey Davis. The rookie is still learning on the fly and it shows. Here is an example.
Davis is lined up in the slot to the left of the formation — getting Davis some reps in the slot is something I really like despite the result on this play — and is either the 3rd or 4th option for Mariota. This is a 3rd and 8 and you can see the Texans are defending the sticks so there is no one really around Davis who is supposed to act as a check down option if Mariota doesn’t like what he sees down field. This doesn’t have to be a crisp, precise route but I have no idea what Davis is doing here. He starts out OK, but then starts drifting back to the line of scrimmage for some reason despite no defenders being even remotely close to him. If he stays parallel to the line of scrimmage or even drifts up field a little bit he could have had a chance to beat the Texans defense to the first down marker. He then compounds the mistake by dropping the pass — it was a little behind him, but still catchable. Not good.
However, he also has plays where he looks like a top level NFL receiver. Here is the first offensive snap of the game for the Titans and this is what they are looking for from Davis. Simple 5 yard stop route, but Davis runs it with precision, burst, and timing. Mariota delivers an accurate ball which allows Davis to break a tackle and get up field for some extra yardage.
Let’s stick with Davis a while longer here. This was one of his better routes of the day. Kevin Johnson is in press man coverage against him, but Davis beats his jam and then forces him to grab and hold to slow him down as he starts to break in on the dig route. This drew a penalty.
The Texans corners are extremely physical (read: they grab and hold all game and dare the refs to throw a million flags) and have been for the last couple years. They’re top 7 in the NFL in both defensive holding and DPI calls this year and led the league in DPI last year. That type of coverage always seems to bother the Titans receivers and it’s something they’re going to have to get used to because I don’t think the Texans are going to stop doing it any time soon.
Here’s an example of that as Corey Davis is trying to run a deep comeback at the bottom of the screen. This is where I’d like to see more from Davis. He’s significantly bigger and stronger than Kevin Johnson and needs to learn to use that size and physicality to create separation even when a guy is mugging him. It’s what makes DeAndre Hopkins so great. I get annoyed at the constant barrage of OPI that is Hopkins’ game just like anyone else, but if that’s how the game is going to be officiated then Davis needs to learn to start taking advantage.
This is one of Davis’ better routes of the day. It is a deep square in similar to the one that he caught in Indianapolis to extend the Titans game winning drive, but this time the route is crisper. Rather than “drifting” at the top of the route like Mike Mularkey talked about last week, he squares it off and comes out of his break parallel to the line of scrimmage. Mariota throws a nice ball to Delanie Walker (his first read) for a first down on this one, but Davis was open if needed.
Sidenote: You can see Delanie getting open despite being bracketed by two defenders here. He’s outstanding.
Here is Davis’ second and final catch of the game. I love the call. Getting the ball in Davis’ hands in space should be a goal of this offense, but the execution fails them here. Mariota’s throw is both low and a little behind Davis which costs him any chance to make the corner miss. The corner makes a nice play to close quickly, but if this is a good throw it may be a totally different story.
Davis probably had his best day as a blocker on Sunday. He seems to be getting the message from the coaching staff in that aspect of his game. Check out his block on a safety on Derrick Henry’s first long run. Jonnu Smith did a nice job on this one as well and obviously Henry is outstanding when he’s in space — some of the missed tackles he forces here are just downright disrespectful. He almost certainly scores here if the Texans don’t poke that ball out from behind. Murray had his best game of the year on Sunday, but Henry still needs more touches.
One last Davis play. This is a really nice play design and should have gone for a touchdown. The Titans are in their Jumbo 13 package with Dennis Kelly and Phillip Supernaw lined up tight to the left of Taylor Lewan and Jonnu Smith tight to the right of Jack Conklin. Walker isn’t on the field and Corey Davis is split out right. By formation and personnel this looks like a run call, but the Titans go play action instead. The defense overcommits to covering Davis on the post which leaves Jonnu Smith WIDE open for an easy touchdown on the wheel route behind him.
Unfortunately for the Titans the pass protection was a mess on this play. Dennis Kelly completely whiffs on Clowney which forces Henry to pick him up immediately and Henry does a nice job with that, but it also leaves Spain without any help when his man starts to get by which flushes Mariota. Even still, I feel like Mariota lingers on Davis a beat too long and never gets to his second read in Smith.
Davis is still a work in progress. There are still things that are likely driving the coaches nuts (like drifting back to the line of scrimmage on that drag route), but you also see some routes that are starting to look clean and crisp. There has been some chatter about him looking lackadaisical or disinterested at times. I don’t really think that’s the case. I think he’s still thinking more than playing right now. The jump from the MAC to the NFL is enormous and if you throw in the missed time due to hamstring issues you’ve got a recipe for a slow start. I still believe in the talent and I really hope we start to see the chemistry and trust start to form with him and Mariota over these last 4 weeks.
Let’s take a quick detour in to Delanie Walker Appreciation Station here. This guy is THE best tight end in Titans history (I love Frank Wycheck, but I think he would even tell you that at this point). He’s also only 7th in the NFL in Pro Bowl votes for tight ends right now, so please click here and fix that. Walker was the key cog in the Titans game winning touchdown drive Sunday. This is a 3rd and long situation and Mariota is looking for Walker all the way. He catches the pass on a quick out, but instead of running out of bounds and settling for a field goal he stays in bounds, breaks a tackle, and very nearly gets the first down. This is great individual effort.
The Titans went for it on 4th and 1 and picked up the first on a Derrick Henry run (more of this please Mularkey), and then came back and rewarded the man that made it all possible the next play with this strike to Walker for a touchdown. It’s a nice bit of route running from Walker and Smith who are running side by side for 10 yards before crossing right by each other which actually leaves them both open coming out of their breaks. Mariota throws with timing and accuracy for an easy touchdown.
I actually think the offense had a better day than the numbers might suggest. The Titans just never had the ball. The Texans finished with 75 offensive snaps versus the Titans 50. From an efficiency standpoint the Titans were much more effective than the Texans were gaining 6.9 yards per play compared to the Texans 5.1. For some context, the top team in the NFL in yards per play is currently the Saints with 6.4 over the course of the season (the Titans are ranked 15th at 5.4).
They rushed for 198 yards on just 25 carries which is outstanding (even if you remove the long Henry run, those are good numbers) and they threw for 150 yards on just 23 attempts. That comes out to 6.52 YPA which is only the 4th time all year that Mariota has finished below 7 YPA and I think part of that was gameplan. I think the Titans felt like the only way they were losing to the Texans was if they gave them turnovers or let DeAndre Hopkins go wild and they schemed — successfully — to mitigate those risks.
The running game has really seemed to find something over the last 5 quarters and that’s a really good development. They still need to find a way to translate that success in to easier chunk plays in the passing game, but there are some signs of this offense starting to wake up.
This game on defense was all about stopping DeAndre Hopkins and the Titans were fairly successful in that endeavor. Hopkins got his fair share with 8 catches for 80 yards, but most of them were extremely high level of difficulty and that’s all you can ask of a defense against a receiver of his caliber.
Dick LeBeau used Logan Ryan to shadow Hopkins this time around and it worked. Before leaving the game with a concussion, Ryan was targeted in coverage 9 times and allowed just 5 catches for 44 yards per PFF which is 4.88 yards per attempt. Those are fantastic numbers regardless of opponent, it is especially impressive when it comes against Hopkins.
I’m going to focus on that matchup this week and I’m going to score it like a boxing match.
Round 1 - Ryan Wins
This is straight man-to-man Cover 1 for the Titans on a 3rd and 5. This play is designed to go to Hopkins the whole way. The Texans motion him behind the slot receiver to keep him from getting jammed and then throw the quick out to him. Hopkins is able to make the catch, but Ryan is tight enough that he’s able to push him out of bounds short of the marker.
Round 2 - Ryan Wins
Once again, Ryan is on an island against Hopkins. The Texans run the fade and Hopkins seems to have made a great catch, but Ryan was able to compete all the way through the catch and keeps him from getting his second foot down in bounds.
Round 3 - Ryan Wins
Two plays later the Texans flip to the other side and run the same play. This time the throw isn’t as good and Hopkins tries to flop and draw a cheap DPI to no avail. Good coverage again by Ryan who probably breaks this up even if the throw is in bounds. The Texans are held to a field goal thanks in large part to Ryan’s excellent play.
Round 4 - Hopkins Wins
This time the Titans are showing Cover 1 pre-snap, but drop back in to a Cover 3 zone. They actually fool Savage here and Orakpo nearly has a pick, but instead Hopkins makes an incredible catch and breaks free from Ryan to get some extra yardage.
Round 5 - Hopkins Wins
The Titans have the same coverage scheme here (show Cover 1, drop to Cover 3), this time it is a designed back shoulder fade to Hopkins which is borderline impossible to stop when it is timed up well like it is on this one. Hopkins gives Ryan a little shove on the shoulder as he spins back, but it was honestly more tame than much of what he usually gets away with. This is really just a great play by a great player.
Round 6 - Ryan Wins
This wasn’t technically a target, but it was a play designed to go to Hopkins. He is running a stutter-go at the top of the screen and Ryan is having no part of it. Savage is forced to go to his second read which allows DaQuan Jones to get there for the sack.
(Get well soon DaQuan)
Round 7 - Ryan Wins
Once again the Titans are in Cover 3 here. Hopkins runs a sluggo, but Ryan doesn’t bite on the slant and stays in position to break up the pass at the goal line.
Round 8 - Hopkins Wins
This one is almost more of a draw, but Hopkins gets 6 yards on a 2nd and 7 so I’ll give him the W. However, he also gets away with his patented two-handed push off at the top of his stem. He leads the league in OPI calls with 4, but it still feels like he gets away with this more than any receiver in the NFL.
Round 9 - Hopkins Wins
Hopkins wins this one as he makes the catch and then does a good job picking up a few extra yards afterwards with a nice spin move. I do like Ryan going for the strip at the end of this with Byard coming over to help though. He does a great job of constantly attacking the ball.
Round 10 - Hopkins Wins
This is Hopkins’ last win of the day. It’s really probably about a draw though. The Titans come on the blitz and Hopkins catches the quick out, but Ryan forces him out of bounds immediately for a modest 5 yard gain.
Round 11 - Ryan Wins
This is one of the best plays of the day from Ryan, he’s one-on-one with Hopkins and does a great job of staying on top and then getting his hands on the ball to make a play.
I’ve got Ryan winning 6-5 in this matchup and that’s a huge deal for the Titans defense. He has been worth the free agent money that he got so far and seems to be continuing to improve as he gets more comfortable in this scheme and with his new teammates. Adoree Jackson’s simultaneous development leaves the Titans with the best pair of cornerbacks they’ve had in a long time.
Even more encouraging is the fact that when Logan Ryan went down with a concussion, the coaching staff felt confident enough in LeShaun Sims to allow him to step in to the role of playing Hopkins’ shadow. I am hopeful that Ryan is going to be able to play in Arizona, but if he doesn’t, I wonder if Sims’ strong showing against Hopkins might make the coaching staff consider having him shadow Larry Fitzgerald. I’d feel much more comfortable with that than I would anything involving Brice McCain covering Fitz.
The Texans went after him pretty quickly after entering the game as you would expect, but Sims was up to the challenge. Here he is matched up with Hopkins in the slot in his first target on Hopkins on a 3rd and 2 play. This is about as well as you can defend as a cornerback. He’s physical without grabbing and disrupts the timing of the pass which eventually leads to the incompletion.
Sims actually nearly pitched a shutout on Hopkins down the stretch. Here is the only catch Hopkins got him and it took a heck of a push off for him to get it. Good coverage again from Sims.
And saving the best for last, here is the play that effectively sealed it for the Titans (with a big assist from Derrick Henry of course). The Titans are in a Cover 3 zone this time and Tom Savage picks a great time to make his worst throw of the game. This throw is actually so terrible that Sims had to make an incredible catch to pick it off.
The Titans defense wasn’t dominant Sunday. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see more from the pass rush given that the Texans were starting a bad right guard at left tackle, but part of that was the Texans’ game planning to protect that line. Tom Savage ranked 5th in the NFL in shortest time to throw per PFF for Week 13. They were mostly content with taking short passes and nickel-and-diming their way down the field. The Titans bent but didn’t break and ultimately held the Texans to just 13 points. The secondary’s performance was a big part of that success.