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All-22 Review: Titans defense continues to play at a very high level

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Taking a look at who stood out from a strong defensive performance in Buffalo.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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.

When your defense holds an opposing offense just 3.5 yards per play, you’re supposed to win the game. That’s not to say the Titans defense played a perfect game. They only forced one turnover and while the run defense wasn’t terrible overall, they allowed just enough on the ground that the Bills were able to keep the offense on schedule and keep 3rd downs manageable.

But still, when a team only gives up 13 points despite the offensive turning the ball over three times in their own half of the field, it’s hard to place a lot of blame on the defense. There is a lot of good stuff that showed up on tape for the Titans defense, but let’s start with first round rookie Rashaan Evans.

Rashaan Evans continues to be up and down

The talk this week has been extremely negative surrounding the Titans rookie linebacker. Part of that is due to his post-game tweet about inside linebacker “not even being his primary position”. He’s since clarified that he meant that he’s a versatile player who can pass rush as well and is not just an inside linebacker, but it’s worth noting a couple pieces of context surrounding what we’re seeing from Evans right now.

First, is the fact that Evans really isn’t very experienced as an inside linebacker. Going back to his high school career he had been a full time edge rusher until the spring before his junior season at Alabama. For most of his two seasons as a starter for the Crimson Tide, Evans played the Will linebacker position. He is now being asked to be a Mike linebacker most of the time in the Titans defense. Two seasons and change is not a lot of time to have played at a position that relies heavily on reaction and honed instincts to be effective.

Second — and this has been mentioned plenty, mostly because it’s true — Evans missed most of training camp, all of preseason, and didn’t get his first defensive snap until Week 3 against the Jaguars. That’s a lot of missed install time, especially for a rookie who isn’t very experienced at his position coming in.

All that being said, I thought Evans was better than he got credit for against the Bills. There were some rookie mistakes and we’ll start with those, but there were also flashes of a dynamic 3-down linebacker that were exciting to see from him.

Let’s start with the bad though. On the 2nd play of the game, Evans bites on the RPO action and vacates the hole that LeSean McCoy hits. In his defense, the Titans appear to be in man coverage and Logan Thomas (No. 82) is his man. This may actually be an RPO or it could be an offense taking advantage of the rules defenses use to defend RPO calls. Either way, Evans starts downhill to defend the run and then is way late buzzing out to defend the RPO if it had, in fact, been a pass which left him effectively in no man’s land on this play.

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Let’s hit on the Josh Allen bootleg touchdown run that was a big part of the story surrounding Evans this week. Many have criticized his effort level on this play and I would agree with that. The level of urgency with which he peeled off of his coverage was less than what you’d like to see. The bad part is that it spoils what was otherwise an excellent play from him. He does a great job of recognizing the scrape route coming across from the fullback and is in great position in coverage — part of the reason that Allen had no choice but to pull it down and run along with Logan Ryan.

The majority of the blame for this play, however, should rest with Kamalei Correa who is responsible for containing the bootleg. He gets sucked in too far by the outside zone action and allows Allen to get the edge. That can’t happen, especially against mobile quarterbacks.

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Possibly the most frustrating play that I saw from Evans during the game was this toss crack run from the Bills on the final drive of the game. Evans (spotlighted) simply cannot get blocked by a receiver like this. He’s a beat late to react — likely anticipating a dive from that formation — which doesn’t help matters here either.

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This is the play that Vrabel referenced when talking about how Evans can’t try to “kill” McCoy in the hole. He’s in great position, but rather than patiently breaking down and staying square, he lunges at McCoy and Shady makes him miss (as he’s done to hundreds of linebackers during his outstanding career).

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However, he did some good work as well. Here he does a nice job of working through trash, slipping a block and making the tackle for no gain.

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Here’s another good play from Evans. He quickly reads the counter, slips another block and makes the tackle. The ability to get off blocks is apparent on tape and that bodes well for his long term prospects.

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Evans almost had a big tackle for loss on this 2nd and 1 play, but the Bills left guard (No. 62) gets away with a blatant hold. I know that holding can be called on nearly every play, but I’ve got to say that after watching this tape, I’m pretty shocked that Buffalo was only whistled for one offensive holding call during this game. I’ll show more examples later on, but it was pretty rampant in this game. You can see Evans’ athleticism here though as he shoots the gap and starts to bend around the corner.

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Evans also looked athletic in coverage during this game — I’ll show an example later on — which was really my biggest concern with him when the Titans drafted him. Obviously, Evans isn’t anywhere near a finished product, but I think he has all the tools physically to become a really good player in this defense eventually. With Will Compton nursing a hamstring injury, Evans will likely get a good bit of work against the Ravens this week even if Wesley Woodyard makes his return. More live game reps should help expedite his development.

What happened to the pass rush?

The Bills have a terrible offensive line and the Titans pass rushers had been getting good pressure prior to this game, but they got just one sack and two quarterback hits on Josh Allen in Buffalo. So what gives?

Well, first, the Bills only threw the ball 19 times and out of those 19 attempts, only 8 were what I would consider a rushable throw. The other 11 were catch and throw smoke routes, screens, sprint outs, or play action bootlegs. Those are all plays designed to move the quarterback or get the ball out quickly with no risk of a pass rush. It’s obvious that the Bills game planned to take Tennessee’s pass rush out of the game and they did. Out of those 8 true pocket throws, Allen was 1 of 8 for 12 yards and an interception by the way, so the lack of pressure didn’t necessarily hurt the Titans.

When the Bills did trust Allen to throw from the pocket, they still took measures to make sure that their leaky offensive line didn’t yield a sack. Here’s an example on one of the more memorable plays of the game. This is the Correa unnecessary roughness penalty play (which absolutely should have been called and was a ridiculously bad penalty from Correa).

Check out this 8-man protection. The Bills have three blocking Landry, two blocking Casey, and two blocking Kilgo. Only Austin Johnson truly gets a one on one opportunity and he actually gets pressure after initially holding up reading the run fake.

This is also the snap that I wanted to show where Evans shows his coverage chops. He steps up with the run fake, but quickly recognizes play action and retreats, quickly locating and picking up the crosser to take Allen’s passing option away from him. This is nice work from him.

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Here’s another of Allen’s true drops. This one isn’t max protect, but they do keep 6 in and chip with the tight end. Harold Landry is working against Dion Dawkins (No. 73) and can’t use his typical speed rush here because Jayon Brown is rushing outside of him so he goes with a bull rush and walks Dawkins back in to Allen, pushing him off his spot. He’s also getting blatantly held, especially obvious when he tries to disengage. This is the one holding call that the refs actually flagged against the Bills, but of course, it came on a 3rd down stop so the Titans declined anyway.

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I wouldn’t read anything in to the pass rush results from this game. There were very few opportunities given to Tennessee to get after Allen. I would expect to see them get back to their disruptive ways when faced with a more conventional NFL game plan.

The corners were outstanding, especially Adoree’ Jackson

This wasn’t a game where the corners were tested particularly often, but they performed admirably nonetheless. Adoree’ Jackson, in particular, continues to blow me away with his easy athleticism and ability to stick in coverage. This play is designed to give Allen a shot to find either Kelvin Benjamin or Zay Jones as he boots out right. Jackson (spotlighted) is on Jones and the amazing thing for me here is the ease with which he flips his hips when Jones breaks his route towards the pylon. He completely changes directions without allowing an inch of separation from the receiver.

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Here’s the big play from Jackson. He gets a little help from Harold Landry who pressures Allen, but the coverage is phenomenal. He’s able to break on the deep comeback and then elevate up over receiver Andre Holmes to bat the ball up in the air to himself. He’s really coming in to his own as a cover corner.

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Malcolm Butler also had a good day with the exception of one missed tackle on the crack toss to Chris Ivory that I highlighted above. Here, he shows what makes him so tough. He get a great jam on Kelvin Benjamin at the line of scrimmage and then continues to be physical with him throughout the route. That disruption messes with the timing of Benjamin’s route and he’s late getting turned around to catch the pass. Butler has been very up and down in 2018, but the Bills game was an “up” for him.

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Logan Ryan is sometimes the forgotten man in the Titans secondary. Butler has gotten attention for bad reasons and Jackson has gotten attention for good reasons, but Ryan has quietly been excellent this year. I say quietly because teams have essentially decided to avoid throwing in to his coverage at all. He’s been targeted just 15 times all season — compare that to 32 for Butler and 31 for Jackson on similar amounts of snaps — largely because his man hasn’t been open.

Here’s a sequence of plays that shows exactly what makes Ryan more valuable than his height/weight/speed measurements would indicate. This is a play early in the Bills first drive of the game. It’s a pick play as Buffalo sends Zay Jones in motion to keep Butler from getting a press on him and then run him under a slant from the No. 2 receiver on that side. Ryan sees what’s happening and jumps out on Jones to force him out just short of the marker on 3rd down (the Bills would go for it and get it on the next snap).

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Later in the game, the Bills show the same look again on another 3rd down in the same area of the field, except this time it’s flipped. Ryan recognizes it all the way and you can see him calling out the switch to Butler before the snap. He jumps Jones’ route and forces Allen to pull the ball down. Jayon Brown then makes a great play to attack out of coverage and gets the sack for a 3 yard loss. Great play by Brown, but it all started with a heads up play from Logan Ryan.

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The Bills run offense was really creative

Buffalo emptied the chamber with regards to it’s creative run calls on Sunday. It wasn’t a situation where they just bullied a Titans front. They kept them off balance all game with a series of different run calls. One call that teams have used over the past couple weeks against Tennessee has been a wham play. Shown below here, the wham leaves the playside defensive tackle unblocked and then cracks him from the outside with a H-back or tight end crashing down. It’s designed to take advantage of defenders who want to attack upfield and it works to perfection here. Just a really well-designed and executed run from the Bills here.

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Here’s a really fun one. This play design has a few different names, but the way it’s run here it essentially functions as a dressed up version of wham. The two guards pull to the weak side of the formation which triggers the defense to flow in that direction, but they’re really running wham to the strong side. The tight end cracks Casey, the tackle kicks out on Orakpo and the Bills are in business. It’s a good play from Orakpo to peel of his blocker and grab McCoy on the way through or this could have been a much bigger run.

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Here’s some more info on this interesting play design from Jim Harbaugh.

Jurrell Casey Appreciation Corner™

Last, I just want to do what it feels like I do every week in this space: gawk at the awesomeness that is Jurrell Casey. There’s not much I need to say to accompany these plays. Casey’s raw power, quickness, and hand usage are making him borderline unblockable in 2018.

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Watch him make the left guard completely whiff despite being lined up just a couple feet away from him at a stand still and he does it in the space of a phone booth. He’s simply incredible and Titans fans should be enjoying the show he’s putting on in the middle of this defense each week.

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