The Titans got a major statement win at home over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The Seahawks are a team with a Super Bowl pedigree and were largely thought of as the best team in the NFC coming in to the 2017 season, and the Titans thoroughly dominated them. Yes, the final score ended up being just 33-27, but this game could have been much more one-sided. The Titans had two touchdowns called back on ridiculous penalties, and gave up the last two touchdowns while playing a prevent defense. It was clear who the better team was this week.
The Titans offense started slowly, but erupted in the 3rd quarter for the second straight week on the back of some beautifully designed plays from the coaching staff and excellent execution from the players. After three weeks the offense is 5th in the NFL in total yards and 6th in the NFL in points scored. This is being accomplished in spite of playing two defenses in Seattle and Jacksonville that both rank in the top 10 in points allowed through three weeks. Oh, and Corey Davis hasn’t even gotten on track yet.
So let’s get in to the All-22 review for Week 3. This week’s edition is heavy on the Jonnu Smith love.
By the Numbers
- Similar to the Raiders plan in Week 1, Seattle came in looking to spread the Titans out and hit them with a quick passing attack. This week the Titans lined up in their base 3-4 front TWICE out of 73 snaps. That’s it. The rest of the snaps featured 4 man fronts with a nickel package behind them. Most of the time this was comprised of 3 corners, 2 safeties, and 2 linebackers, but we did see some instances of the 3 safety sets that we saw towards the end of last year for the first time on Sunday as the Titans really treated Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham like a wide receiver for most of the game.
- On offense, this was another game that suggested the Titans would like to continue to use heavy packages more often than 3 wide receiver sets. I had the Titans down for 11 personnel on just 30% of their offensive snaps on Sunday which is even lower than the 40% rate that we saw last year. That wasn’t just a game flow result either as the Titans were at 30% both before and after they took the 30-14 lead in the 3rd quarter. The Titans love their tight ends (with good reason too).
- DVOA can be tricky early in the season because it is a data driven metric and there just isn’t that much data out there right now. However, its worth noting how highly some of the Titans offensive stars are rated in DVOA at their respective positions through Week 3: Marcus Mariota (QB7), Derrick Henry (RB2), DeMarco Murray (RB9), Jonnu Smith (TE8), Delanie Walker (TE11). Two top 15 backs and two top 15 tight ends is something out of a Mike Mularkey fever dream.
If you’ve been reading these the last couple weeks, you already know that I’m in love with this offense. This week just added to that feeling as the Titans continued to have one of the most deceptive and effective offenses in the NFL in Week 3. This time they were taking on one of the most talented defenses in the league, a team that has an absurd 8 former Pro Bowlers starting on defense. And its not like these guys are washed up former greats either. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are the only two over 30 years old and they both made the Pro Bowl last year. This defense won’t have many days like this.
So how were the Titans able to succeed against such a talented foe? Well, as it always does with the Titans, it starts up front. I thought it would be tough for the offensive line to improve on their domination of #Sacksonville from Week 2, but they did.
Facing a front that features Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, and Frank Clark on passing downs, Marcus Mariota dropped back to pass 37 times. He was pressured on 2 of those 37 attempts per PFF. TWO. That made his pressure percentage a ridiculously low 5.7% for the week. The next closest QB to that number was Eli Manning at 14.9% and that was almost exclusively due to his league low 1.84 second average time to throw in Week 3 as the Giants tried to hide their terrible offensive line by throwing short, quick passes. Mariota was almost a full second slower to throw at 2.65 seconds on average, landing him right around the middle of the pack among QBs. That’s not a slight at Mariota, he has a quick release when he needs it, but he simply didn’t need it in Week 3.
As I pointed out last week, the line does get an assist from the offensive scheme and Mariota’s pocket movement, but that shouldn’t take away from their accomplishment this week. These guys truly dominated one of the most talented fronts in the NFL for 4 quarters.
Here is an example of their work. This is a 3rd and long play where the Seahawks’ pass rushers are pinning their ears back and coming after Mariota from the snap. You can see where playing together for over a year now helps here. The Seahawks try to play some stunt games up front, but the Titans line is having none of it. Nobody panics or overreacts. They all just stay in their lane and stay between Mariota and the defenders, and Spain absolutely buries Frank Clark. Mariota has plenty of time and is able to wait for Decker to complete a slow developing deep comeback along the sidelines and then step in to the throw cleanly and drop a dime for the big third down conversion.
Of course these guys are also paving the way for the 2nd best running game in the NFL right now behind Kansas City. You’ll have to watch it a couple times to see all of it — I used the overhead view because I want you to keep an eye on this specific twins-I look as we look at some other plays — but watch Kline help Jones and then get to the second level. Watch Spain effectively block both the backside defensive tackle and the middle linebacker on the same play. Watch Jones push the play side defensive tackle all the way out to the numbers. This is borderline NSFW offensive line play.
This next play is from late in the game when the Titans were trying to run out the clock. Everyone in the building knows they are running the ball here, but watch the execution with the blocking up front, and while they aren’t technically a part of the offensive line, watch what the Titans three tight ends get done on the edge here. Delanie Walker helps Jonnu Smith pin the edge defender down and then completely eliminates K.J. Wright from the action. Walker is not just a pass catcher, he’s among the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. Also, check out the inverted guards on this play. The Titans love to pull with Kline because he’s so good in space, so on this play, rather than run a wide play toward the boundary, they just flipped Kline and Spain so they could pull Kline across from left guard. He gets a great lead block on Richard Sherman to really spring this thing for a big gain.
While we are discussing tight end play, we need to talk about what Jonnu Smith is doing. He has been far better than I expected him to be thus far. Most rookie tight ends struggle to get on the field in the NFL because they can’t hold up when asked to block. That’s not the case with Jonnu. He has graded out as the 10th best run blocking tight end in the NFL through 3 weeks per PFF — Delanie Walker is 2nd — and the tape absolutely backs that up. Smith’s excellence has replaced what the Titans lost when Anthony Fasano took his talents back to South Beach this offseason. Not only that, but the Titans already trust him enough to use him in all kinds of ways to create mismatches. On Sunday, Smith lined up as an inline tight end, an H-back, a slot receiver, a wide receiver, and a fullback.
Let’s start with his run blocking because that is the single most impressive thing he is doing right now. On this play, the Titans have him lined up wide as a receiver, but then motion him back across the formation to more of an H-back position. This is a nice variation on an inside split zone run and Smith’s job is to kick out the end — Seattle’s Marcus Smith on this play — and he absolutely crushes his guy while Derrick Henry runs right behind him for a nice gain.
Here Smith is lined up as the inline tight end to the right of Jack Conklin at the top of the screen. He stonewalls the outside linebacker from the snap and takes him completely out of this play for its entirety. Also, notice this is the same exact play as the one I asked you to remember three plays ago. The Titans motion a wide receiver across to create a twins set I-formation. We are going to come back to this in a minute.
But first more Jonnu. This play shows exactly how much the coaching staff and his teammates already trust him. He is tasked with blocking Cliff Avril one-on-one in a 3rd and long situation here. That’s a tough task for most offensive tackles, much less a rookie tight end playing in the third game of his career, but he takes care of it. He does a nice job of sliding with Avril and then pushing him wide around the pocket.
Lastly, here is the Jonnu touchdown. There really wasn’t a ton for him to do here, but you can see his speed as he turns to get up field. This guy is a special athlete at his size. It really is crazy how much he looks and moves like Delanie Walker. I’m glad they got him this touchdown catch, because he had earned it with all the other hard work he did in the trenches during this game. At this point I want to turn your attention to the Titans play design. This one is absolutely gorgeous. First, the Titans are in a heavy set with Dennis Kelly on the field at tight end which makes the defense think run right away. Second, this is pretty similar to that twins-I set that I keep pointing out that the Titans were running out of all day so the Titans sold this as a run pre-snap.
Then the Titans put Taywan Taylor in motion and give him an orbit reverse action look. They have given Taylor the ball on similar plays and the Seahawks would have seen that on tape, and the Titans know that. Watch how the defense reacts to Taylor’s motion and movement. All-World safety Earl Thomas is originally lined up over Rishard Matthews in the slot, but as the motion comes across he tracks Taylor all the way across the field. The Titans freeze both Wilhoite and Wagner, the outside linebacker and middle linebacker, with the play action fake to Henry, and then clear Sherman out with a deep post from Matthews. All that leaves Smith running in to an open zone with no Seahawks defender within 5 yards of him and sets up an easy pitch and catch for the score. None of this works if the Titans hadn’t laid the ground work with Taylor getting reverses and a commitment to running the football. This is just fantastic play design.
OK, I’m going to show you this look one more time. This is the third time we’ve seen this exact play, and every time it has been successful. Its that same motion to a twins-I look with a simple tailback dive towards the twins. This is also the third time we’ve seen this play be successful. I’m getting to something else here, but while we’re here check out the great block on the backside linebacker again by Jonnu Smith and the great lead block by Jalston Fowler. Also, notice the way the Seahawks linebackers are cheating already before the snap. They’ve seen this look and they know what’s coming.
OK, so now that we’ve seen all those plays lets take a look at the Murray touchdown run. The Titans added a little extra window dressing pre-snap here with Kelly motioning across and then Matthews motioning back across, but we still end up in that same familiar twins-I look at the time of the snap.
So the Seahawks are thinking “OK, here we go again, tailback dive behind right guard”, right? Well, this time the Titans counter and run a power off tackle left with a pin and pull action between Kelly and Lewan. Watch the Seahawks defensive line at the snap, they all crash down towards the right side of the formation which effectively takes them all out of the play immediately. The linebackers were already cheating towards the twins side pre-snap, so they were a step or two out of position. Bobby Wagner is looking for that dive play immediately and never had a chance. So now the Titans have 3-on-3 in the open field: Lewan-Fowler-Murray vs Wright-Chancellor-Lane. Lewan — who is just a tremendous athlete — takes Chancellor out, Fowler pushes Lane all the way out of bounds, and then Murray outruns Wright to the corner. After that this play is all effort blocking down field and great vision from Murray. Watch Fowler, Taylor, and Matthews all hustling down field to clear Murray’s final path to the endzone. When Jon Robinson says he wants tough, team-first players, this is why.
Here is another example of the Titans offense using deception. This is a play from the very end of the first half when they were driving in to field goal range to try to take the lead back heading in to halftime. They have trips right, but those three are Matthews, Walker, and Smith (again, right in the middle of everything they’re doing). They motion Murray out of the backfield and throw the quick swing pass to him. Matthews, Walker, and Smith all get excellent blocks on the Seahawks defenders and this play could have gone for more if Murray didn’t need to get out of bounds to stop the clock.
Now we go to the 2nd half and the Titans are driving. They show a similar look, except this time they fake the swing pass to Henry and Mariota keeps it. It almost looks like a screen pass set up on the backside with Mariota carrying the ball. Really interesting stuff. You can also see that if Bennett doesn’t force Mariota up field here, this is an easy touchdown. I’m guessing we will see this play again soon.
Here is another Mariota keeper. This time it is a read option look with Murray as a lead blocker. The Titans feature two of the best blocking receivers in the NFL in Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker, and here you get to see Decker pinning the outside linebacker with an outstanding block. I’m hoping the Decker hate from Week 1 is starting to die down because the guy is a really good football player. Murray does a nice job on Wagner as the lead blocker as well.
It would be wrong of me to do a review of the Titans offense and not include the Rishard Matthews touchdown as well. This play, again, is built off a foundation of success running the football. The Titans give a hard play action look right while sneaking Lewan, Jones, and Kline out the back side to serve as lead blockers for Matthews. Again, check out Lewan’s athleticism as he gets out to the edge to block Earl Thomas. Kline also gets a nice hit out there. And you also get the effort play from Supernaw at the end knocking two defenders to the ground to allow Matthews to walk in.
This offense is wearing teams down both physically and mentally over the course of a game and it is a beautiful thing to watch. The Titans offensive line makes all this possible, but the offense as a whole is operating at such a high level right now. I can’t wait to see what they do once they have a fully healthy Corey Davis on the field along with the rest of these weapons.
The Titans defense deserves a lot of credit for keeping them in this game early while the offense got on track. As I mentioned at the top, the Seahawks game plan was to spread the defense out and keep them out of their base personnel similar to the way the Raiders attacked in Week 1. The Titans only being in base twice in an entire game is absolutely crazy. I expect teams to continue to try to this strategy because lining up and running it at Tennessee’s base defense just doesn’t work out very well most of the time.
Part of the reason the Titans run defense has been so good this year is the play of Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard has been the Titans best linebacker this year, and it is showing up in the snap counts. Against the Seahawks, Woodyard was on the field for 60 snaps versus 44 for Jayon Brown and 34 for Avery Williamson. It is plays like these next two that are keeping him on the field more often than not. He is just reading and reacting with incredible speed right now. Watch how quick he shoots the gaps on these plays. He is playing at a very very high level right now.
The Titans used Jayon Brown a lot during this game due to the Seahawks spread looks. Brown is their best linebacker in space so this makes a lot of sense. He was often tasked with spying on Russell Wilson and he did a nice job there as Wilson largely didn’t pick up big chunks of yardage when he scrambled out of the pocket. When he wasn’t spying on Wilson he was often used to cover C.J. Prosise one-on-one. He had mixed results there.
The Seahawks clearly wanted to test the rookie early in coverage against Prosise who played wide receiver most of his college career at Notre Dame before converting to a running back so he is a tougher cover than most NFL running backs, especially on the outside. Here Prosise is split out wide to the bottom of the screen with Brown on him. The Seahawks were looking to isolate Brown and see if they could test him deep, but Brown was up to the challenge. This is excellent coverage as he runs step for step with Prosise down the field.
However, it wasn’t all gold stars for Brown this week as he showed his inexperience a little bit too. Here he is isolated out wide against Prosise again, and Prosise hits him with a nasty slant and go. Brown bites hard on the slant and it leads to a big play downfield for the Seahawks. At least he makes the effort to chase him down and prevent the touchdown.
As I mentioned at the top, the Titans treated Jimmy Graham like a wide receiver most of this game and tasked Kevin Byard as Graham’s shadow when they were in man coverage and he did a great job in this role throughout the day. This is a little rub play that the Seahawks love to run, but Byard is able to slip underneath the rub and break up the slant to Graham. You really can’t play it much better than that.
Here he is isolated against Graham in the red zone. The Seahawks figure this is a mismatch and try to throw the fade. This isn’t a very good throw from Russell Wilson, but Byard is in great position nonetheless.
I mentioned earlier this week that Brian Orakpo and the Titans pass rush got after Wilson early and often as we suspected they might against a poor Seahawks offensive line. Here is an example of that. Watch how quickly Orakpo beats the left tackle and forces Wilson to start moving off his spot. Then Morgan loops in from the other side and flushes him before Byard cleans up off a delayed rush. You can see Byard’s excellent closing speed again here. This is a sack against almost every other quarterback in the league.
Here is another play with good pressure from the edge rushers. This time it is Morgan getting a hand on Wilson and forcing him to escape and take the quick check down option on 3rd down. This is also a really nice hit by Jayon Brown to keep Prosise short of the marker after Brown had been spying on Wilson earlier in the play.
The corner rotation was a little different in this game than what we would normally expect to see. Brice McCain ended up outsnapping LeShaun Sims 42 to 34, however I wouldn’t read that as a change in the pecking order. The Seahawks simply feature a lot of smaller, faster wide receivers who McCain is more geared to cover than the bigger, more physical Sims. The top two corners are absolutely locked in though as Logan Ryan played all 73 snaps and Adoree Jackson played 71.
Jackson was pretty good in this game and seems to be getting better and better with more snaps as you would expect from a rookie. His speed is really something special that this defense hasn’t had in quite a while. Watch him on this play. This is a nice little bit of scheme work from Seattle as they sell a hard play action fake, but leak Doug Baldwin back across underneath the line. Jackson’s closing speed and sure tackling turns this play in to a win for the defense though.
This next play is a touchdown for the Seahawks, but Jackson’s coverage can’t get much better than this. He’s all alone one-on-one against one of the shiftiest receivers in the game in Baldwin, but he stays right in his hip pocket to force Wilson to make a perfect throw. I still don’t think he caught this ball across the goal line, but either way, it’s hard not to be impressed with Jackson’s work here regardless of result.
Odds and End
- I love the Titans offense and all the wrinkles they throw at a defensive coordinator, but one that I wish they would get rid of is the wildcat look that they ran on Sunday with DeMarco Murray taking the snap and either giving or faking to Derrick Henry. There is nothing wrong with the wildcat itself, but when you have a dangerous running quarterback like Marcus Mariota I just don’t see the point of taking the threat of a pass off the table. Maybe they are setting something up where Murray throws one (we’ve seen that before after all) for later in the year, but Mariota’s run threat is real and defenses know that.
- With Corey Davis out, the Titans have opted to double down on the multiple tight end sets. I wonder if that continues when he comes back, or if we see a surge in three wide receiver sets.
- The Titans will likely be favored in every game between now and their Week 11 trip to Pittsburgh. They need to make this run count.
- I thought the atmosphere inside Nissan Stadium was better, but it still wasn’t quite as raucous as it used to be. That place needs to be going nuts when the Colts get here in a couple weeks for Monday Night Football.