The Tennessee Titans talked all offseason about the importance of winning AFC South games after a 2-4 division campaign in 2016 directly cost them a playoff berth. In their first opportunity of 2017 they made good on all that talk. The Titans started slow on offense, but the defense kept them in the game through halftime. In the second half the offense found its footing and finished with the following drive results: FG, TD, TD, TD, TD, victory formation. Their 31 second half points were the most second half points the team has scored since moving to Nashville.
I went back and reviewed all the offensive and defensive snaps from the game and here is what I learned.
By the Numbers
- The Titans had 69 snaps total on offense (not counting kneel downs, punts, or kicks). Out of those 69 snaps, only 17 of those saw the Titans come out with 11 personnel, approximately 25%. Again, this was highly driven by game script. During the first 8 drives of the game when the game was within one score, the Titans used 11 personnel on 37% of those snaps, which is pretty close to the 40% number they averaged for all of last season.
- On defense the Titans were in their base 3-4 front for 41% of the snaps on Sunday (a week after being in base for just 13% of snaps). While the game was within one score that percentage was a massive 63%. The Jaguars were the exact opposite of the Raiders in a lot of ways, and their game plan played right in to the strength of the Titans defense.
- Out of the 59% of snaps that featured the Titans defense in a nickel package, the packages were very similar to the Oakland game. About a quarter of those nickel snaps featured a stand up joker in the middle of the line. That player was always either Orakpo or Walden.
The Titans offensive line has still got it. That’s the biggest takeaway from Sunday’s game in Jacksonville for me. After struggling through most of the preseason and parts of the Raiders game — though a lot of the perceived struggles in that game had as much to do with the running backs as it did the line itself — there was a sense of worry beginning to creep in to Titans fans that maybe the line had somehow regressed from last year’s dominant unit. Maybe Kline would prove to be a liability. What if Conklin was only good because of massive amounts of help from Fasano? Well after watching the tape from the first two games, it is safe to say the Titans are in good shape up front and we can put those worries to rest.
The Titans have allowed just two sacks in the first two games of the season despite facing the best individual pass rusher in the NFL in Khalil Mack and one of the best defensive line units in the league in Jacksonville. The advanced numbers support the excellence of the Titans offensive line as well. Through two games, Marcus Mariota is the 4th least pressured quarterback in the NFL according to PFF behind just
David Derek Carr, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees. The other three in that group are all among the top 7 in the NFL in shortest time to throw while Mariota holds on to the ball significantly longer on average, coming in at just 19th. That means the Titans offensive line is, at least theoretically, holding up pass rushers longer than any group in the league to this point.
Helping that stout offensive line in pass protection is Marcus Mariota’s pocket movement. I touched on this a little bit in last week’s review, but I’ll go a little more in depth with it this week because it really stood out again to me when watching the tape. The ability to feel pressure and maneuver within the pocket to avoid it without dropping his eyes is something Mariota has flashed before, but now appears to be coming easy to him. This is one of those traits that make quarterback elite. A big factor in the longevity and success of Tom Brady’s career is due to the fact that he’s a master manipulator in the pocket.
Mariota makes this look much easier than it is. The Jaguars blitz linebacker Paul Posluszny looping him around the crashing defensive end. Josh Kline does a pretty good job of fighting through the traffic to push Posluszny by, but it is really Mariota’s quick slide up in the pocket while keeping his eyes locked on Delanie Walker that keeps this play on schedule.
In addition to protecting Mariota well, the line is also at least partially responsible for the Titans having the top ranked rushing success rate in the NFL through two games. Success rate is defined as gaining 40% of the yards to gain on first downs, 60% on second downs, and 100% on third downs. Essentially, a 4 yard rush is generally considered a “success”. The Titans have had success on 63% of their running plays in the first two weeks which is best in the league according to Sharp Football Stats.
Derrick Henry, in particular, has achieved success on a whopping 75% of his 20 carries in 2017 according to Football Outsiders, which ranks first in the NFL by a wide margin with Robert Kelley checking in at #2 at 64%. Murray ranks 18th in the NFL in success rate to this point which is pretty strong as well. These are still pretty small sample sizes so take them with a grain of salt, but it is a good indicator of the start the running game is off to at this point.
Here is an example of what the offensive line was able to accomplish on the ground against a stout Jacksonville front. There is a ton going on here. Check out Delanie Walker blocking Calais Campbell one-on-one on the edge, there aren’t many tight ends in the NFL that can do that, but Delanie is superhuman, so he can. Kline and Conklin combine for a picture perfect combo block as Conklin helps Kline get leverage quickly before peeling off to kick out the linebacker. Spain pulls around from the left and creams safety Barry Church in the hole. On top of all that good blocking, you have Mariota carrying out a read option fake which holds Posluszny just long enough to get Murray through the hole. This is beautiful football.
Derrick Henry ended up having his best game as a pro against the Jaguars rushing for 92 yards on just 14 carries. Terry and Justin both wrote really good pieces on Henry’s effectiveness this week so I’ll talk more about the design of the run game here. I know that not everybody loves #ExoticSmashmouth and Terry Robiskie’s playcalling, and I get it to some extent. There are times — like Eric Decker bubble screens — when I want to pull my hair out too, but you also have to give credit where it is due. Mularkey and Robiskie have designed the league’s most creative and diverse running game and it is the backbone of everything they do on offense.
That creativity was on full display in Jacksonville. One of the major tools they use to accentuate the running game is Marcus Mariota’s legs. You saw the threat of Mariota running hold the linebacker in the play above which is something that the Titans take advantage of constantly. Here is another example of it. Watch the highlighted linebacker move outside to take away the Mariota run threat which leaves a hole for Derrick Henry to exploit in the middle of the defense.
Of course, the Titans have to use Mariota to run from time to time in order to give teeth to the threat of him running. Mariota is an expert at reading the end and carrying out the ball fake. He fools everyone, including the cameraman, on this one.
The Titans love to add extra attachments to these read option type plays as well. Here they have a beautiful design as they line up Taywan Taylor in the backfield to run the read option with, but notice Delanie Walker is also available for a little shovel pass depending on how the defense reacts. Mariota’s run threat holds both the unblocked end and the linebacker enough to give Taylor the edge and then he uses his speed from there. Walker also had a big lane on this play. Mariota’s intelligence and speed make all this possible.
Mularkey talked a little bit this week about the design of the play that resulted in Derrick Henry’s 17 yard touchdown run and I thought it was interesting. That was a play that the Titans installed on Saturday walk-thru’s prior to the game. Mularkey said he had been watching tape of the Titans and Jaguars 2016 meeting and noticed they hit the Jaguars several times for big runs using the play shown below. Here are three examples of the exact same play hurting the Jaguars over and over again. The first two are actually on back-to-back snaps in the game.
In watching the tape Mularkey anticipated that the Jaguars would be watching for that same look so he installed a counter to that play. The change was pretty simple, but you can see how effective it was. As Mularkey said this week, designing the run game is all about creating angles. Having a linebacker one step out of position pre-snap can make the difference between a 3 yard gain and a big touchdown run. Watch Posluszny take a step to his left before the snap anticipating the power off tackle run to the strong side that the Titans used last year, but the Titans instead stop Supernaw on the weak side of the formation and run behind him. Posluszny has no chance as he is looking for Henry in the wrong place.
Stuff like this is outstanding from Mularkey and crew. However, as a coach you can only execute this type of change on the fly if you have smart football players, and Jon Robinson has provided him with just that. I love what the Titans do on offense and I believe they have to be one of the toughest teams in the league to prepare for considering all they have to throw at you. This will only get worse for opposing defenses as the young receivers get further developed.
This was the best all-around performance by a Titans defense in a long time. The Titans bottled up Leonard Fournette consistently, holding him to just 2.9 yards per carry on the day. That wasn’t terribly surprising since the Titans were very strong against the run last year, but their performance against the pass was the most encouraging part of this game on defense to me.
The Titans throttled the Jaguars passing game for the entire time that this game was reasonably close. Through 3 quarters Bortles had a stat line of 11 for 25 for 89 yards, 2 interceptions, and 1 fumble on a strip sack. That’s dominant stuff for a defense playing on the road. Yes, I know we are talking about Blake Bortles here, but that is the same Bortles that shredded the Titans secondary in Week 16 last year. The Titans new look secondary was highly competent in its first game featuring the top 3 corner combination of Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson, and LeShaun Sims. As expected we saw Ryan and Jackson as the primary starters in base defense, with Sims coming on the field as an outside corner and Ryan bumping down inside to cover the slot. This group did a good job on Sunday.
Bortles wasn’t great in this game, but it also wasn’t one of those Bortles games where he just throws it right to the other team. The Titans forced all three turnovers they got.
The first one was a strip sack by Brian Orakpo which was particularly good to see for Titans fans. Last season the Titans only had one strip sack resulting in a turnover — in the meaningless Week 17 game no less — despite recording 40 sacks on the season. League wide stats indicate that sacks result in fumbles 18% of the time and those fumbles are recovered by the defense 47% of the time. That means that a team should expect a sack to result in a turnover roughly 9% of the time. If the Titans had hit that 9% number in 2016, that would have been 3 additional turnovers spread over the course of the season and there is a good chance that difference alone would have been enough to get them the one additional win they needed to make the playoffs.
Orakpo largely overwhelmed rookie left tackle Cam Robinson for the majority of the game including this play. Watch him time the punch of Robinson and then swipe his hands away and get to Bortles. Orakpo is off to a really nice start to the season and he will get another questionable left tackle matchup this week with the Seahawks guard-turned-left-tackle Rees Odhiambo who is replacing injured starter George Fant. More strip sacks please.
DaQuan Jones and Sylvester Williams played an outstanding game up front for the Titans for the second straight week. Jones often gets overshadowed by his counterpart Casey, but he’s turned in to a really good football player during his time in Tennessee. Williams has been much better than what I expected after an underwhelming preseason.
Here is an example of what Jones has been doing in the run game. This play ends up with a facemask penalty against Jacksonville, but Jones’ quick penetration forces the play wide almost immediately and allows for the Titans defense to rally to the ball. Getting guys like Fournette and Ivory running sideways is key to having success in stopping them. Same goes for the Seahawks’ Chris Carson who we will see this week.
This is a play that Sly Williams won’t get credit for in the box score, but he is the reason that the Titans got the stop for no gain. Watch him hold up the double team at the point of attack to the point that Fournette actually runs right in to the guy trying to block Williams. That not only forces Fournette out of the hole and gets him moving sideways, but it allows the linebackers to flow freely to the ball and make the play.
I mentioned in my Titans-Jaguars matchups preview that the Jaguars were likely to try to get the screen game going like they did in Week 16 last season. Well, they did try, but the Titans were ready for it. I had the Jags down for 5 attempted screen passes during the game and none of them were successful. Here is an example. Woodyard is spotlighted. Watch him read the screen early and then knife through before the blockers are turned down field to make the tackle for a loss. The Titans were keeping a close eye on the Jaguars running backs in the passing game all day.
The one negative thing that still needs to be improved on defense is the tackling. The Jaguars forced too many missed tackles on Sunday. Their has been a lot of talk about how the lack of practice time during the offseason is affecting the play early in the year — and I think that plays a role here — but it just simply has to get better. On this play alone, Chris Ivory breaks somewhere around 4 or 5 Titans tackles.
Odds and End
- Phillip Supernaw played an outstanding game for the Titans on Sunday. He didn’t catch a pass, but he was instrumental as a blocker in the running game. His blocking helped spring several of the Titans biggest plays.
- Curtis Riley was a pleasant surprise Sunday. He rotated with Searcy a little bit as the second safety opposite Byard and came up with a pick on the tipped ball by Williamson. He seemed to be comfortable back there and gives the Titans more of a coverage type player back there to pair with Byard while Cyprien is out. He played well against Jacksonville.
- Adoree’ Jackson feels like he’s on the verge of breaking a punt or kick return for a touchdown. His ability to flip field position is a massive difference between this season and last season for the Titans. And if he gets his hands on an interception, look out.