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.
As someone who has closely followed Titans football since it was announced that the team was moving to my hometown in 1996, I have seen some pretty amazing displays of offensive ineptitude. There have been games where the team has turned it over 7 times. There was the 59-0 drubbing by the Patriots when the Titans finished — somehow — with negative-7 total passing yards. You had the 98 total yards of offense game in 2006 against the Jaguars.
It’s not exactly a franchise with a recent track record of success on offense. Matt Hasselbeck — yes, Matt Hasselbeck — holds the current mark for most passing yards in a season since the team moved to Tennessee in 1997 with just 3,571 yards. That’s a number that Drew Brees has surpassed every single season since 2005. In fact, Brees has bested that number by more than 1,000 yards in 8 of the past 10 seasons.
We’ve seen some less than inspiring offenses here in Tennessee, but I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a sadder offensive performance than the one we saw on Sunday. It was, frankly, one of the most boring and frustrating football games that I have ever watched. The Titans did nothing of interest offensively on Sunday and fans spent most of the second half in fear of Marcus Mariota’s health due to the constant barrage of Ravens sacks.
So there really isn’t anything positive to review in this article this week. Instead, I will try to diagnose what’s ailing the Titans offense, give examples of those problems, and propose some suggestions as to how they could be fixed.
Marcus Mariota doesn’t trust what he’s seeing
Let me couch this by saying that I fully understand that there are many reasons for Mariota being a little unsettled right now. New offense, inexperienced receivers, lingering grip issues, and — at least in Week 6 — a leaky offensive line. All those things are outside of Mariota’s control to some extent and I believe they are all contributing to the way he is playing quarterback right now.
That being said... Mariota is not playing very good football. Since throwing for 344 yards against the Eagles, he’s thrown for just 246 yards in the last two games combined as the Titans offense has ground to a halt against Buffalo and Baltimore. Those are two of the league’s best defenses — currently ranked 2nd and 3rd in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA — but they shut down Tennessee in a way generally reserved for the very worst of NFL offenses. Unfortunately, that’s the class that the Titans belong in right now based on virtually every metric available as well as the good old fashioned eye test.
Mariota’s part in the recent struggles have little to do with the throws he’s making. He has been mostly accurate with the ball when he’s cut it loose down the field over the last couple weeks. It has everything to do with the throws he’s not making. Here’s an example from Sunday.
Taywan Taylor is going to be wide open on his quick slant route as he passes behind the 2nd level defender, but Mariota moves off him and checks it down to Dion Lewis who ends up getting stopped for no gain. I have no idea why he doesn’t fire the ball in to Taylor as he crosses in to the open window. It’s an easy throw and it’s not like the pass rush was a factor when he looked his way. Before he gets to Lewis, he cycles to Anthony Firkser who is running up the seam — and is also wide open by NFL standards — but he doesn’t pull the trigger there either.
Here’s another example. This is the 11th and final sack of the game so it’s at a point where Mariota was fully rattled and likely just trying to get out of the game, but it’s also an entirely unnecessary hit for him to take. He has Tajae Sharpe (spotlighted) wide open — again, by NFL standards — but instead he pulls his eyes down and looks to escape with his legs, resulting in an easy sack for Za’Darius Smith.
It was a common theme from several of the sacks the Titans allowed during this game. Here’s another one. Mariota appears to be looking for Tajae Sharpe who is running a stutter-go at first, but he senses that Lewan might be getting beat around the edge and tries to escape out right. I don’t blame Mariota for bailing out here — even though Lewan eventually recovers — but I don’t understand why he doesn’t cut it loose to either Anthony Firkser or Corey Davis (spotlighted) who are both very open well before Terrell Suggs closes in for the sack.
Mariota can’t block for himself and the offensive line struggled to pick up several of the Ravens array of 3rd down blitzes, but the quarterback didn’t help his offensive line much either. Sacks allowed is often viewed as an offensive line stat, but I think that’s inaccurate. The quarterback has a ton to do with how often he is sacked. Being disciplined in your drop (not drifting off the centerline or too deep), getting the ball out on time, and — most importantly — having a plan for where you’re going with the ball if things break down or if the defense brings a blitz are just as important as the five guys up front blocking. There’s a reason that the Patriots can plug a guy like Trent Brown in at left tackle and not miss a beat offensively.
This hasn’t been an issue for Mariota through most of his career, but it was on Sunday. I think we saw a quarterback that got spooked by the pass rush and wasn’t seeing things very well. The Ravens also did an excellent job of having a plan for Mariota’s scrambling ability. Every time he stepped up to try and escape the pocket the Ravens had a spy waiting on him.
One common thing over the past two weeks now is Mariota passing up throws to open receivers. We saw him skip Jonnu Smith a couple times in Buffalo and then he missed several open receivers against the Ravens. However, we’re also not seeing him make many “trust throws” this season. It’s something that came to me as I watched Aaron Rodgers marching the Packers offense up and down the field despite having 5th and 6th round rookies starting at two of his three wide receiver spots. Rodgers is obviously one of the best to ever play the game, but part of what makes him so good is his willingness to throw to receivers that are covered. Here’s an example from Monday night. It’s 3rd and 4, Jimmy Graham is absolutely not “open”, but Rodgers is able to put the ball on him in a spot where he can make a play. It results in a 21-yard gain.
I understand that Mariota is not Rodgers and the Titans receiving corps is currently devoid of wily veterans like Graham, but these are the throws that you have to be willing to make at the NFL level. The defensive backs and linebackers are just too good to expect guys to be running wide open all the time. Right now it seems that Mariota isn’t willing to make throws in to tight windows. It’s something that, again, we’ve seen him do before so I’m not sure if the lack of these types of throws is a symptom of the grip issue, the young receivers, or a comfort level in the new scheme, but this is something that he has to get back to if the Titans offense is going to get on track.
The offensive line was not good
Captain Obvious, I know. Any time you give up 11 sacks, it hasn’t been a good day for the big guys up front regardless of quarterback play. The struggles weren’t isolated to just one lineman — each guy had issues throughout the game — but if I had to rank the linemen in terms of effectiveness I’d go Jack Conklin, Quinton Spain, Josh Kline, Taylor Lewan, Ben Jones from best to worst.
This is another play where Mariota probably could have gotten rid of the ball, but Tajae Sharpe’s route wasn’t great and Ravens safety Tony Jefferson did a good job of scaring him off the throw. Josh Kline cannot give up an inside win to Za’Darius Smith here though. If Smith wins outside, Kline at least has a chance to push him past and allow Mariota a chance to escape.
This next sack is a disaster from a pre-snap preparation standpoint. The Ravens have three defenders on the line of scrimmage to the right of center and four to the left of center. Sharpe (No. 19) and Firkser (No. 86) are both eligible receivers so theoretically, the Ravens can’t bring all three from the right or all four from the left unless they want to leave someone completely uncovered. Complicating matters, the Ravens are mugging both A gaps on either side of Ben Jones which causes Dion Lewis to have to step up in to a spot where he can pick up one if both come. However, the Titans — at least in theory — have enough blockers to pick everyone up. Jones is sliding left all the way to give them four on four to that side while the right side is covered with four blockers for just three defenders.
However, things go awry because the Titans are using Tajae Sharpe to chip Ravens edge rusher Tim Williams (No. 56, standing up between Sharpe and Lewan). First, this is telling about Lewan’s health because I don’t think there is any way the Titans are asking a receiver to chip on his man if that right foot isn’t hampering him. Second, if the Titans know Sharpe is chipping (they should), they also have to know that they’re in trouble from a numbers standpoint. They just barely have enough to matchup to that side to begin with so effectively doubling one guy isn’t really an option, especially when Sharpe has to come so far inside to do it.
Lewan, to his credit, does a good job of picking up the corner blitz, but passing off Williams inside creates a chain reaction. Spain sees Williams coming and passes Za’Darius Smith off as if he thinks he has inside help, but he doesn’t and Smith gets an easy strip sack of Mariota. Dion Lewis isn’t helping matters. He’s the guy that I assume Spain thought could help, but when Anthony Levine (No. 41) bails out of the A gap, he just kind of stands there instead of sliding left where the Titans had a numbers problem.
This was a bad play for the Titans on multiple levels, but it all started with Sharpe being asked to chip Lewan’s man. If the Ravens bring that same blitz with him releasing up field immediately, Mariota likely throws right over the blitz to a wide open receiver.
The reason that Sharpe was being asked to chip like this is because Taylor Lewan was getting beat like a drum on speed rushes all day. Here’s an example as Matthew Judon gets a great edge rush on him. I’ve watched Lewan for four plus years now and he rarely gets beat off the edge like this. I have to think the right foot injury that he suffered during the Bills game was a factor in his performance Sunday. Not to take anything away from the Ravens edge rushers — Judon, Smith, Suggs, and Williams were all very good Sunday — but Lewan just doesn’t get beat like this.
Here’s another play where Lewan gets beat with speed. This time its Suggs who blazes right by him. You can really see that he’s not really getting a full kick step from that right foot when you look at this play from the endzone angle.
Now compare how he was moving there to how he typically looks coming off the line. The difference is dramatic.
We really don’t know much about this foot injury. Lewan has been practicing in full and obviously played last week so I would assume that rest isn’t part of the recovery process. The Titans have to hope that he’ll recover to something closer to 100% this week, because he was nowhere near his normal, dominant self against the Ravens and it really hurt the offense on multiple levels.
The refs helped kill two big Titans plays
Let’s take a quick break from the blame game to curse at the clouds about things outside of the Titans control. For example, this is the softest unnecessary roughness penalty I’ve ever seen called in a football game. They literally threw a flag on Jack Conklin for blocking which turned a 1st down conversion in to a 3rd and 18, effectively killing a drive.
I’ve watched this play a million times trying to figure out if Taywan Taylor actually slowed down or changed his path to avoid the back judge who was running right in front of him, but I can’t honestly tell. I lean slightly towards the thought that this is just a slight overthrow, but either way its a huge missed opportunity and the ref being in the way is just another example of how snake bit this team is.
Assigning the blame
All offseason the buzz around this team was how much better this offense was going to be now that it was unshackled from Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie’s “Exotic Smashmouth”. The Titans went out and hired the hot, young offensive coordinator that we’d all been clamoring for. He came from the league’s hottest offensive coaching tree and had been a part of the NFL’s top scoring offense for two straight years.
That obviously hasn’t translated as smoothly as anyone would have liked to this point. The Titans offense currently ranks 29th in Offensive DVOA — 29th in Passing and 23rd in Rushing — through six weeks. Those statistics fail to take in to context the adversity that the Titans have been facing — losing Delanie Walker to an injury, having Rishard Matthews suddenly quit, getting down to the 5th tackle on the depth chart during the Houston game, Blaine Gabbert appearing in three different games, and a starting quarterback wearing a special glove to help with grip because he doesn’t have full feeling in two fingers of his throwing hand — but things aren’t going great on offense.
The running game continues to struggle. This week LaFleur took a lot of flack for only getting 12 carries for the running backs compared to 28 drop backs for Mariota, but part of that is really game flow. The Titans came out looking to get Mariota in a rhythm early and by the time they realized that wasn’t really working, it was 14-0 and they were suddenly chasing the game. I think LaFleur would admit that he probably should have done more to get the ground game going, but when you have a gimpy Taylor Lewan and a bunch of tight ends that really struggle to block, it’s hard to see how they would have had a ton of success running either.
However, when you look at the offense from a 30,000 feet level, it’s clear that something is off and it can’t all be pinned on the injuries. We still saw too much 12 and 13 personnel on the field against the Ravens in my opinion and the tight ends aren’t good enough to justify it. It’s simple to say that the Titans have to find a way to get their best 11 offensive players on the field at the same time as much as possible, but it’s also true. MyCole Pruitt is not one of the best 11 offensive players on this team and you could certainly argue that Jonnu Smith and Luke Stocker aren’t either. However, against the Ravens, the Titans were in 12 or 13 personnel for 38% of plays despite the fact that they trailed by two touchdowns or more for the vast majority of the contest.
Lining up with multiple tight ends is problematic in a few ways for Tennessee. For one, it’s fine to invite defenders into the box as long as the blockers that you’re adding are better than the defenders they’re bringing with them. Right now, that’s not the case for the Titans tight end group. The second problem — and the one that reared it’s ugly head against Baltimore — is that tight formations, regardless of personnel package, are much easier to blitz for a defense. The Titans are being blitzed a lot right now and they’re struggling to deal with it.
These offenses are getting BLITZED the most in the #NFL this season.— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 16, 2018
Of note: Teams really don't want to blitz Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers...#Browns #GoNiners #DUUUVAL #TitanUp #GoBills #InBrotherhood #DallasCowboys #GoPats #GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/vOKS5uwefs
Getting blitzed a lot can be an opportunity for big plays if your offense is equipped to handle those extra rushers and the quarterback is able to recognize it and attack the areas that those blitzers are coming from, but the Titans didn’t do a good enough job with that against the Ravens.
Ultimately, I think blame for the “Titans 0” part of the scoreline should be split between LaFleur, Mariota, and the offensive line. People have complained about the receivers not getting open, but I thought they looked open enough on tape for the most part and sometimes their quarterback is going to have to throw them open. Mariota has to play with a more aggressive, attacking mindset. That can be a thin line between “aggressive” and “reckless”, but right now he’s far too conservative with the ball. He also needs to take — or be given — more control of the offense and become the quarterback that sees defenses showing blitz and makes them pay for it.
The offensive line and running game have to do their part as well though. That could happen this week as the ground game takes on the Chargers who rank 20th in Rush Defense DVOA. This is the first time all season Tennessee has faced a rush defense ranked outside of the top 12 in that metric. Getting Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis going would make a big difference in keeping the offense on schedule and out of 3rd and long situations.
So that’s the review of the worst offensive performance I’ve ever seen in person. The good news is that outside of blocking, running, passing, and coaching, the Titans offense has been great the past two weeks. Now if you want to cheer up after reading this, go check out our podcasts from this week (seriously, they’re 100% less depressing than you would think after this game).