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All-22 Review: Titans offense lets one slip away

After taking a step forward against the Eagles, the Tennessee offense took a huge step back in Buffalo.

Tennessee Titans v Buffalo Bills Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature breaking down the tape from the previous week’s Titans game. The focus will vary depending on where the action on the field takes us, but the idea is to bring insights that may have been missed on the TV broadcast.

The numbers were ugly for the Titans offense in Buffalo and the causes were pretty obvious. They turned the ball over three times and created just one play of 20 yards or more. That’s generally a surefire recipe for a loss, even against an anemic offense like Buffalo’s.

One of the big topics coming out of the game has been an outcry over the play of the wide receivers. While I understand the frustration over Nick Williams’ drop and the questioning of why he was on the field in a big spot, I think the criticism of the receivers as a whole may be overblown — at least as it applies to the top three.

When targeting Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, or Tajae Sharpe in the Buffalo game, Marcus Mariota was 10 of 15 for 109 yards, good for 7.3 yards per attempt. When targeting everyone else — a group that included Jonnu Smith, Luke Stocker, Dion Lewis, Derrick Henry, Nick Williams, and Darius Jennings — he was 4 of 10 for 20 yards, averaging a ridiculously low 2.0 yards per attempt. While wide receivers certainly should average more yards per target than backs and tight ends, it’s pretty clear that the bigger problem is the 2.0 yards per attempt, not the 7.3 yards per attempt.

With that, let’s take a look at what went wrong for the Titans offense in Week 5 (and a little bit of what went right).

Tight end blocking continues to be a major problem

I’m really tired of bringing this up — and I’m sure you’re tired of reading it/watching it — but Jonnu Smith and Luke Stocker continue to hamper this running game and I think it’s time for Matt LaFleur to consider changing his approach because of it.

Many of the running plays that have been stopped for no gain or a loss so far this season can be traced back to tight ends missing blocks. It goes all the way back to the Miami game and it continued in Buffalo on Sunday. Here, the Titans are in 13 personnel (1 back, 3 tight ends). Third tight end MyCole Pruitt is lined up tight to the right of the formation (the left as you’re looking at the clip below) while Stocker and Smith are tight to the left side (spotlighted). The Titans run right, but with Josh Kline unable to reach Kyle Williams’ (No. 95) outside shoulder, Derrick Henry looks to bend this back and get up field. This was never going to be a big gain, but Stocker and Smith fail to get a block on either Jerry Hughes (No. 55) or Lorenzo Alexander (No. 57) and they collapse the cutback lane and stuff Henry’s run.

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This next play is nearly as painful as the Nick Williams drop to me. It’s a windback run with Dion Lewis and he has a big hole to work with except for the fact that Lorenzo Alexander (No. 57) beats Smith right off the snap and makes Lewis stop his momentum and change directions in the backfield. He does an admirable job of making a couple guys miss, but it allows the rest of the defense to rally to the ball and get him on the ground.

The first problem Smith has on this play is that he’s late getting off the ball which allows Alexander to get inside right away. The second problem is that he’s looks like he’s catching Alexander instead of delivering a blow to knock him off his course. It’s just not good all the way around and it may have cost the Titans a touchdown here as Lewis had just one player to beat for the score if he doesn’t have to slow down to make Alexander miss.

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It’s not just Smith either though. Stocker hasn’t been as bad as Smith, but he hasn’t been great either. He’s spotlighted here and ends up getting put on the ground by Trent Murphy (No. 93) who ends up making the initial hit on Derrick Henry. Smith (No. 81) also fails to effectively block anybody on this run again. You can’t have two guys whiffing at the point of attack and expect to have a positive run. Henry actually does a pretty good job here of lowering the shoulder on Murphy — he really runs him over here — and then fighting for extra yards through contact. Henry really had a nice game in Buffalo and we will get to him more later.

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To this point in the season, the Titans have had at least two tight ends on the field for 64% of their runs per Sharp Football Stats. That’s the highest usage of multiple tight ends on running plays in the NFL through 5 weeks, nearly double the league average of 37%.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with running out of two tight end sets. It can be very effective and it opens up a lot of options for different things you can do with the run game. It also draws defenders in to the box which can lead to more explosive runs if you can block those extra players.

The problem is that the Titans can’t block those extra players right now. Smith and Stocker are simply attracting defenders to the line of scrimmage without being able to eliminate them with blocks and the numbers show it. Against the Bills, the Titans ran the ball 12 times out of 12 personnel and gained 35 yards for an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Out of 11 personnel, they ran 10 times for 54 yards for an avearge of 5.4 yards per carry.

That trend extends to the season as a whole as well. Here are the Titans running stats by personnel package for the year:

11 Personnel: 49 attempts, 4.9 yards per carry, 51% success rate

12 Personnel: 73 attempts, 3.2 yards per carry, 38% success rate

13 Personnel: 20 attempts, 2.7 yards per carry, 40% success rate

It’s fairly obvious looking at both the numbers and the tape that the Titans need to consider taking some tight ends off the field and spreading out the defense to run the ball. To their credit, they’ve certainly upped the amount of runs from 11 personnel over the last two weeks. In Weeks 1-3 about two-thirds of their runs came out of 12 personnel. In Weeks 4 and 5 that mix has gone to 50-50. I think it should continue to head in the direction of 11 personnel until the Titans have more than one tight end that proves to be capable of consistently winning as a run blocker.

Here’s an example of a run from 11 personnel. The Titans run outside zone to the right side it’s blocked exactly how you want it to look. Quinton Spain’s cut block on the backside — something I wish the Titans would do more of — helps open a massive cutback lane for Dion Lewis who gets up field for a big gain.

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This play isn’t as well-blocked, but look at what happens with the slot corner defending Nick Williams (No. 14) on the right side of the line. Williams takes off like he’s running a route and the corner follows, taking him completely out of the play and leaving the Titans with a numbers advantage to that side. Isn’t that a whole lot better than asking Jonnu Smith to block another linebacker?

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Here’s another nice run from 11 personnel. The Titans use Darius Jennings (No. 15) in jet motion to pull the linebackers away from where the play is going. They do a little pin-pull combo with Corey Davis (No. 84) blocking down on Jerry Hughes (No. 55) while Tyler Marz (No. 69) pulls around and lead blocks for Henry. This is a play where the injury to Taylor Lewan really hurts. Marz kinda gets a piece of the safety here to help Henry get up field, but Lewan is outstanding in space could have possibly given his back more room to work.

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It’s not as simple as just running 11 personnel all the time for the Titans. Teams can still stack the box against 3-wide sets if they don’t respect your passing attack and the Titans have struggled throwing the ball from that personnel grouping. On 109 pass attempts from 11 personnel, Tennessee is averaging a terrible 5.0 yards per attempt and have a success rate of just 37%.

They’ve been much more successful throwing from 12 personnel despite the lack of contribution from the tight ends in the passing game. I suspect that this is largely due to the fact that many of their play action attempts come from 12 personnel looks designed to get the defense thinking run.

Moving to more runs from 11 personnel is by no means a magic fix for the running game either. There are other issues with blocking along the offensive line at times and running backs missing opportunities for big plays, but I do think that removing a poor blocking tight end from the equation and attacking lighter defenses could help move this ground game in the right direction.

Marcus Mariota was too hesitant against the Bills

Mariota’s play against the Bills was up and down. When he threw he was pretty accurate with his ball placement and made some nice tight window throws. He also had a couple nice plays with his legs. Let’s start with the good.

This was a big 3rd down conversion on 3rd and 8 near midfield. Tajae Sharpe (spotlighted) is just running a basic 10-yard stop route, but he does a nice job of feeling the zone and sliding to the soft spot for Mariota to squeeze a tight pass in to. The throw is strong and accurate.

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Here’s another nice completion. This is an interesting wrinkle for LaFleur off of the yankee concept that he loves to use. That concept often features Corey Davis running a deep post to one side as he does on this play and then Taywan Taylor running a deep crosser from the opposite side. However, this time Taylor (spotlighted) sits the crosser down in the middle of the field, leaving him wide open for Mariota to hit for a nice pick up on 1st down. It’s good design from LaFleur, and the throw, catch, and run after the catch are all very nice as well.

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This wasn’t exactly a banner day for the offense, so let’s look at some of the opportunities that were left on the field for one reason or another. I’ll start with the interception so we can get that out of the way up front. First, Nick Williams absolutely has to cross the face of the slot corner here on this route, but it also looks like Mariota is late with this ball. If he’s going to throw this route to Williams, it needs to come out super quick. Maybe he expected the corner to play softer considering this was a 2nd and 21, but he didn’t and even if Williams does maintain inside leverage as he should have, it’s at best a 3rd and 12.

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Mariota had several puzzling decisions throughout this game. Here, the Titans are selling the play action pass as hard as possible. They have 13 personnel on the field with Davis as the only wide receiver (spotlighted). Tennessee fakes the handoff and sends Davis as the sole receiving option downfield. Before the snap, it’s clear that the Bills are in man-to-man coverage with a very deep single high safety.

Davis is running a deep comeback (likely an automatic adjustment off a deep post if they see a single high safety look like this) and he gets open, but Mariota looks off of him before he even sinks his hips to break back. Davis ends up getting open and there is no pressure coming that forces him to check it down to Stocker (who is tightly covered and can’t make the catch). Unless, this was supposed to be a 15-yard comeback and Davis ran it 20, I think Mariota should have been more patient here and hit his number one option when he came open.

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This was among the more frustrating plays of the game for me when I watched it back. It’s 3rd and long deep in the Titans own territory. Tennessee is in a 3x1 set with three receivers to the bottom of the screen and Jonnu Smith lined up with a tight split to the top. The Bills are running a Cover 2 zone, but the Titans have a Cover 2 beater dialed up. Smith is running a corner route while the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers on the trips side run vertical routes. Both Smith and Davis (highlighted with arrows) are able to hit their breaks with leverage and plenty of room for a pass to be fit in, but instead Mariota pulls it down and throws a swing pass at Dion Lewis’ feet, bringing up 4th down.

In Mariota’s defense, both corners are playing soft which adds some risk to these options. He would need to fit a ball over the retreating corner and under the safety, but those are throws that he can make. We’ve seen him do it before.

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It was a similar route from Smith that Mariota passed up leading to the now-infamous Williams drop. You can see that he’s reading Smith first all the way here and Smith is open. Again, the corner to that side is playing soft and that’s what Mariota has said scared him off the throw. Similar to the previous play, he could have likely fit this ball in, but considering the down, distance, and game situation I don’t mind him looking for a safer option here. After all, he does end up finding one and delivers a perfect pass that drops right through William’s hands.

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Here’s another near miss that could have been a game changing touchdown, but this one isn’t Mariota’s fault. The Titans catch the Bills secondary sleeping on Taywan Taylor’s speed and he runs right by the nearside corner. He also has inside leverage with no safety near enough to threaten him. This should have been a relatively easy touchdown pass for Mariota, but Tyler Marz gets absolutely destroyed by Jerry Hughes and Mariota is forced to throw this thing up while getting hit. The throw sails outside, forcing Taylor to try to flip around while tracking the ball over his head and fighting off the defender. If Mariota is clean for just another moment, he likely throws this ball inside and allows Taylor to use his leverage to go make the play. Instead, it’s just another incomplete pass and “what if” moment from a game full of them.

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The errors from the offense came from all over on Sunday. This is another one. It’s 3rd and short with the Titans on the 7-yard line. Mariota wants to hit Dion Lewis on the quick flat route, but the coverage is tight. Instead, he goes to look backside where he’s got three receivers working, but Taywan Taylor and Corey Davis both run to the exact same spot and nearly run in to each other. Mariota is forced to chuck it out of bounds (he barely gets it there) as he’s being hit.

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As the last couple plays show, the struggles on Sunday certainly weren’t all on Mariota. Far from it, in fact. However, he could stand to be a bit more aggressive at times. It feels like some of his best work comes when he’s forced to be aggressive in game winning drive type scenarios, but there’s nothing wrong with having that sort of urgency when the stakes aren’t as high.

We all knew the offense was going to take some time to click this season. Everyone who has played in this type of offense has reiterated that time and time again and the compounding injury issues with Mariota, Lewan, Conklin, Kelly, and Walker have all taken their toll as well. However, they really need to start putting some things together soon if they want to return to the playoffs in 2018. The offensive performance we saw in Buffalo won’t cut it.