THE RUN GAME
Last season, the Titans offense rolled out one of the league’s best rushing attacks, finishing 3rd in yards and 4th in both total carries and yards per attempt. Lead back DeMarco Murray led all AFC rushers with 1,287 yards, while rookie Derrick Henry was impressive in relief of Murray. Together, they jump-started what had been an anemic running game for years. With all five starting offensive linemen (from Week 3 on) and both feature backs returning, this dominant run game should only improve in 2017.
What the Titans’ passing game lacked in volume, it made up for in efficiency, as quarterback Marcus Mariota posted an average of 7.6 yards per attempt, 9th best in the NFL, with a 61.2% completion percentage and a QB rating of 95.6, 10th best, despite the team ranking 25th in the NFL in total passing yards.
The passing game is expected to be much more explosive with the additions of veteran Eric Decker and rookies Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Jonnu Smith. Even without these new pass-catchers, another year playing with Rishard Matthews in head coach Mike Mularkey’s system should allow the passing game to evolve after getting off to a slow start in 2016. The new aerial threats should open up even more space for the ground attack.
FORMATIONS AND PERSONNEL PACKAGES
According to Football Outsiders, in 2016, the Titans had at least two tight ends on the field on 39% of plays, the highest percentage in the NFL. Both Delanie Walker and the recently-departed Anthony Fasano played more than half the snaps for Tennessee. Only three other teams fielded two tight ends on over half their plays last year. The Titans also led the league in percentage of plays run from 22 personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends).
As our Terry Lambert wrote about last week, the Titans could be setting up for a scheme change this year. With the heavy investments in wide receivers added this offseason, plus the loss of Anthony Fasano to his home town Miami Dolphins in free agency, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team start to lean more towards three wide receiver sets.
I noticed that Eric Decker occasionally played the H-back role for the Jets offense when reviewing his 2015 film, so I could see scenarios where Decker motions in or out of the backfield, adding multiple options for the Titans to run or pass out of three-wide sets. Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie love misdirection and versatility in play design, and have been known to use unheard of amounts of motions pre-snap to confuse the defense.
A 3-WR personnel base with Eric Decker wearing many hats as both a blocker and a receiver could become a frequent sighting in 2017.
That doesn’t spell the end of the 2-TE formation either, as the competition between rookie Jonnu Smith, Phillip Supernaw, and Jace Amaro for the second tight end spot behind Delanie Walker will be an interesting one to watch in training camp. With a diverse skillset as a blocker and pass-catcher, Jonnu Smith would offer more of the multiplicity that Mularkey and Robiskie love, this time with 2-TE packages.
And don’t forget about Jalston Fowler. The Titans occasionally used packages featuring Murray, Henry, and Fowler on the field at the same time last season. I wouldn’t expect those to go away entirely, either, as misdirection creates open opportunities when the defense doesn’t know who will get the ball.
Howie the Titan (@IBleedTitanBlue on Twitter), a Tennessee Titans blogger (recommend checking out his stuff), recently compared the success rates for the Titans offense last season among the different personnel groupings, and he found that the Titans offense was generally most successful when in shotgun (vs under center) or with two tight ends on the field. Could this mean more shotgun spread for the offense in 2017?
WORST CASE EXPECTATIONS
2016 got off to a rocky start largely because Mariota was rarely on the same page with his new wide receivers, Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, and mid-season-retiree Andre Johnson. If Eric Decker cannot return to pre-injury form, forcing the Titans to rely on rookies early on, there could be similar struggles out of the gate.
The worst-case scenario (barring injury) would see the Titans passing game have similar early season troubles, but even then, the rushing attack should be at least as effective as it was last season. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the Titans are outside the top ten in total offense after finishing 11th in that regard in 2016, unless there is a massive unforeseen regression from multiple players on offense.
As long as Mariota himself can avoid injury, the Titans have added depth at every position on offense to be able to survive the inevitable missed games that may pop up here and there. Jace Amaro performed admirably in the one game that Delanie Walker missed last season, and the Titans offensive line didn’t skip a beat when Taylor Lewan was ejected in the first quarter against Green Bay nor when left guard Quinton Spain was injured and forced to miss time in three games last year (never mind that preseason starter Chance Warmack missed nearly the whole season after a finger injury sidelined him in Week 2).
The wide receiver position went from a paper-thin group last season (with a 5th-round rookie initially in the starting lineup) to an overcrowded room in 2017. Depending on how many receivers the Titans plan to keep, it’s likely that someone who played significant snaps last season (Harry Douglas, Tajae Sharpe) could be on the outside looking in this year. An injury to this group wouldn’t be devastating as it would in years past. And with two dynamic running backs, it wouldn’t be a total disaster if one of them were to miss time.
Obviously, you hope the team can play through the season relatively unscathed. But even in the worst-case scenario, the Titans should still field a potent offensive attack.
BEST CASE EXPECTATIONS
If the rookie receivers play as well as many think they can, the sky is the limit for this Titans offense. For a stretch last season, between Weeks 5 and 12, the Titans averaged over 30 points per game (with zero defensive or special teams touchdowns during that span). That average would’ve been good enough for 2nd in the NFL for the 2016 season, ahead of the Patriots (29.3) and just behind the Falcons (33.8).
Sustaining that type of output for an entire season is no small task, but with the potential evolution from last season (and the expected development of star quarterback Marcus Mariota), it is a realistic expectation for the 2017 iteration of the Titans offense.
Mariota is already getting some publicity as a potential MVP-candidate in 2017 (“Why Marcus Mariota will be a legitimate MVP candidate in 2017” from Fox Sports; Peter King: "Marcus Mariota will be a strong MVP candidate" from USA Today’s Titans Wire; “Under-the-Radar 2017 NFL MVP Candidates” from Bleacher Report), which would require the Titans to be winning games, but would also require a certain statistical threshold for Mariota to be seriously considered. The thing is, for the first time in nearly a decade, these are rational possibilities to expect from the Titans’ offense this year.
Fanragsports.com recently published a piece titled “Marcus Mariota primed to lead Titans to breakout season in 2017,” in which Peter Bukowski wrote:
From Week 5 through Week 12, Mariota had a passer rating over 100 in six out of eight games and completed at least 70 percent of his throws (!) three times. A whopping 21 of his 26 touchdowns came in this span, compared to just three interceptions. That means for a half-season, Mariota put up MVP-type numbers: 67.2 percent completions, 8.5 YPA (second on the season if extended to 16 games, ahead of Tom Brady’s 12-game numbers), and a 117.6 quarterback rating which would have led the league had he done it the entire season.
Given the new receiving weapons at his disposal and another year of NFL experience (and since we are talking best-case scenario), it’s entirely possible that we see an MVP-caliber season from our 3rd-year quarterback.
A team offense ranking in the top five, or even top three overall, could be in the cards if things go as planned this season.
So, what are you expecting from the Titans offense this year?