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All-22 Review: Marcus Mariota and Corey Davis breakout game edition

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So this is what it feels like to have a WR1.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans The Tennessean-USA TODAY NETWORK

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.

Matt LaFleur finally unleashed

Matt LaFleur has gotten a ton of credit for his work patching together a passable offense while dealing with a crazy number of injuries over his first three weeks as a playcaller and deservedly so. None of the numbers were pretty, but the Titans got the job done and came out of a hellish stretch as a 2-1 football team, 2-0 in the division. LaFleur was creative in those games out of necessity, throwing in a wildcat package here and a slew of bootlegs and WR screens there. Finally, against Philadelphia, we got to see LaFleur be creative out of opportunity.

With bookend tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin back in action and Marcus Mariota clearly much healthier, the handcuffs came off and we got to see something that looks a lot more like the offense we all expected to see coming in to this season. After running the ball on over 60% of snaps against the Texans and Jaguars, the Titans gave Mariota 43 passing attempts compared to just 22 rush attempts. Tennessee’s passing game was a lot more vertical against the Eagles as well. After attempting just 1 throw of more than 20 yards over the past two weeks combined, the Titans attempted 5 deep throws in Week 4 and Mariota was near perfect with all of them. If there are any lingering effects of the nerve injury, they sure didn’t show up on Sunday.

I would imagine that LaFleur would prefer to be more balanced in an ideal world, but the Eagles had the top-rated run defense in the NFL coming in to this game and the Titans struggled to get a lot going on the ground early. Rather than continuing to slam Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis in to the line, he leaned heavier on the play action passing game. The Titans used play action on 14 of Mariota’s 49 dropbacks, the 7th highest rate in the NFL this week. He attempted passes on 11 of those dropbacks, completing 9 of them for 146 yards for a yards per attempt of 13.3.

How was the play action so effective despite the lack of success in the running game? Well, for one, this excellent study by Ben Baldwin shows that success running the football really has nothing to do with success of play action passing. Second, the run fake is only the first layer of misdirection when the Titans go play action. They have several concepts that have the same play action roots. Here’s an example.

This is a play action bootleg flood concept and it’s a staple play in this offense. The idea is simple, get the linebackers flowing one way to stop the outside zone run, and then stretch the backside vertically with three routes at different levels. Here is an example from the Titans-Texans game.

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Look how similar this next play starts, except this time, Mariota stops with a half roll and instead of running a corner route, Corey Davis (spotlighted) runs a deep post as part of a yankee concept. Watch Davis’ route closely. He stems inside and gets vertical just like Tajae Sharpe does on the play above, selling the out-breaking route just enough to widen and slow the corner before breaking it back to the post and slamming on the gas. Mariota delivers an absolute dime despite pressure from Brandon Graham here.

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Here’s another similar look, except again, Mariota half rolls and throws back to Stocker leaking up the backside of the defense.

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This kind of stuff is a nightmare for defenses if the offense is good at disguising each iteration until the last minute. All of these plays start off looking exactly like their base run play, the outside zone. Once the defense figures out it’s a pass, they have to determine which version of play action are they getting. Is it a full bootleg with a flood concept? Is it a half boot with a yankee concept? Do they have a tight end or wide receiver sneaking out the backside?

The other thing that LaFleur does really well is take advantage of expectations. The Titans caught Philadelphia with their hand in the cookie jar on this 3rd and 3 play in the first half. All NFL corners are trained to be keenly aware of where the sticks are on 3rd down. LaFleur and the Titans took advantage of that fact and their own tendencies here. Before I get to some examples of why Jalen Mills (No. 31) was biting on the out, let’s take a moment to appreciate the refinement from Davis. His route running and attention to details in all aspects of the game have really improved this year. You saw it on the post route above and you can see it again here. The hard jab step and peak over his outside shoulder cause Mills to break and gives Davis the space he needs when he turns it up field. Being big and fast is great, but the attention to detail in route running is often what separates the good receivers from the great ones. Davis isn’t a great one yet, but stuff like this makes me really optimistic about his future.

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This out and up works, in part, because the Titans frequently run speed outs at the sticks on 3rd downs. Here is an example from last week against the Jaguars. It’s a simple play, but it’s effective and when you combine it with the out and up, it makes it tough for defenses to really lock in on either one.

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This isn’t a stagnant offense either. The Titans have added at least one or two new wrinkles to the playbook every week that haven’t shown up on tape before. This week it was some 2-back sets with both Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis on the field at the same time. Tennessee jumped in to this look on the 2nd offensive play of the game and ran a read option out of it. Read option is something the Titans have done a lot of over the last couple years now so any defense preparing to play them will have covered how they want to handle a read option during the week.

One popular method for defending read options is a “scrape-exchange” where the defensive end that the quarterback is reading (the far left defensive end on the line of scrimmage in the clip below) crashes down to take the dive and the weakside linebacker or force defender (in this case it’s safety Malcolm Jenkins, No. 27) scrapes around the backside to take the quarterback keeper. However, that doesn’t really work against a 2-back because the offense has a lead blocker that can eliminate the scrape defender as Dion Lewis does on the play below.

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As an offense, there is a lot that you can do out of a 2-back set. It’s a big part of why Kyle Shanahan — one of the greatest offensive minds in the NFL today and Matt LaFleur’s longtime mentor — insists on having a dynamic fullback on the roster. The Titans came right back with the same set on the very next snap, but instead of a read option they sprint Mariota out left and give him some passing targets downfield. Corey Davis is wide open running a deep cross from the backside, but the throw goes just off his fingertips. Tennessee would come back to this package again later in the game and I would imagine it will become something that regularly appears moving forward.

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From a game plan perspective, I think this is much closer to “normal” than what we saw the first three weeks of the season. The run-pass tendencies for certain down and distances certainly flipped this week as the charts from Sharp Football Stats show below.

Titans playcalling tendencies sorted by down and distance for Weeks 1 through 3 compared to Week 4.
Sharp Football Stats

The Titans were much more aggressive with passing the football overall, but especially in 2nd and 4 or more situations. Tennessee passed 14 out of 15 times they faced that scenario against the Eagles. In the previous 3 weeks they’d passed on just 48% of 2nd and 4 chances. One game is obviously not a great sample size, but again, this points to an offensive coaching staff that was ultra-conservative out of necessity instead of preference early in the season and appears ready to open things up as the Titans get healthy on that side of the ball.

Vrabel praised LaFleur’s playcalling against Philadelphia, calling it his “best game yet”. I’d imagine that this is a lot more like what both coaches had expected the offense to look like this season. Then again, I have the feeling that the Titans won’t want this offense to become a static, familiar operation. I would still expect to see new wrinkles nearly every week as they continue to try to proactively adapt.

Marcus Mariota is healthy again

There was some question as to how healthy Mariota might be coming in to this game. He had looked good after coming off the bench against the Jaguars the previous week, but the Titans still had played things pretty safe with him. He very rarely attempted passes deep downfield as you can see on the chart below.

Next Gen Stats from NFL.com

Compare that to his chart from the Eagles game.

Next Gen Stats from NFL.com

That’s a pretty stark difference. And it’s not just where the passes were going, but how they were getting there. He was throwing with plenty of zip as you can see on this throw to Taywan Taylor. That ball is on a rope and hits directly between the “1” and the “3” on Taylor’s jersey.

One common theme that you’ll see with several of these clips is Mariota’s pocket movement. This is something he’s become very good at over the last couple years and he’s never been better with it than he was against the Eagles. He has pressure in his lap as soon as his back foot hits the top of his drop, but he calmly side steps, keeps his eyes down field and delivers a strike for the first down.

The last thing I want to mention about this play ties back in to the stuff we looked at with LaFleur and the counters off different looks. Check out the route by Taylor. It’s an out and up with a comeback at the end of it. So now if you’re a corner defending these Tennessee receivers, you have to deal with the out, the out and up, and the out and up comeback. Also, Taylor, similar to Davis on the out and up above, does a nice job of selling the initial out route with a head turn before breaking up field and then snapping off the comeback and driving back to the ball.

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While the nerve issue has hampered Mariota’s throwing up until this week, I’ve thought that his mobility has never looked better. He’s always been fast, but now he looks elusive as well. Here’s an example from a play best remembered for Jonnu Smith’s drop, but check out the play Mariota makes to escape the collapsing pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and then firing a bullet right in to Smith’s chest on the sidelines.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that he’s not wearing a knee brace for the first time since his rookie year or if it’s the fact that he’s had a fully healthy offseason to train — maybe it’s both — but No. 8 looks like he’s on a different level this year.

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Here’s one last example of his pocket movement from this game. Fletcher Cox (No. 91) beats Josh Kline immediately on this 3rd and 1, but Mariota is able to step up in to a very tight pocket and use his quick release to squeeze a pass in to Corey Davis for a big 1st down.

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Mariota was fantastic on Sunday, but of all the things he did well, nothing stood out more than his deep ball accuracy. This is something that has been inconsistent with the Titans quarterback over his first few seasons, but it’s something that I noticed all the way back in training camp. Here’s one of my notes from an early camp practice report:

Marcus Mariota looked sharper today. What is really standing out with Mariota through two practices is his accuracy down the field. Last season, he had a bunch of near misses when looking for the deep ball. The last couple days he’s been lethal over the top with several perfectly placed balls.

We already saw a couple really accurate passes to Corey Davis above with the out and up and the deep post. Here is one to Taywan Taylor that ended up being incomplete due to pretty blatant pass interference that went uncalled, but again, its a near perfect throw from Mariota that travels about 55 yards in the air. If that grip isn’t 100%, it’s pretty dang close.

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Watching it live at the stadium I thought Taylor just dropped this pass, but its hard to blame a guy when he’s getting facemasked and interfered with at the same time. If that’s not pass interference I really don’t know what is.

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While Taylor should be let off the hook for that one, I did think he left one big play on the field. This wheel route concept is something the Titans have shown a few times. The idea is to basically screen off the inside receiver’s man using two slants coming in from the outside. The Eagles do a nice job of switching this so Taylor doesn’t get totally free (though I think they get away with a hold on Corey Davis as part of the switch). However, I believe Mariota is throwing this ball to the back shoulder intentionally here and it’s a play that Taylor could have made.

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This next play was absolutely brutal for me to watch live and it was even worse on tape. Early in the game winning drive in overtime, the Titans dialed up a deep shot to Darius Jennings. To Jennings’ credit, he shows off some jets here as he runs past the Eagles secondary, but Mariota drops an absolutely perfect ball right in to his breadbasket and he lays it on the ground. If the Titans hadn’t gone on to win that game this play would have been agonized over all week, but Mariota’s throw, again, is absolutely perfect.

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Just having these plays on tape this week will be good for the Titans. Teams had been daring Tennessee’s offense to beat them deep because of the injury issues at the quarterback and tackle positions during the first quarter of the season, but now they’ve shown that they can beat you deep. That should start to back those safeties off a little bit and keep the linebackers from playing on their toes all game.

Mariota contributed over 400 yards of offense combined between his passing and running and earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in recognition of this performance. This was the best game of his career to this point and it’s a great sign for the progress of the Mariota-LaFleur partnership.

What’s wrong with the running game?

The Titans running game had another rough day against the Eagles and is really yet to get on track this season. They are currently 24th in the NFL with a 3.6 yards per carry average as a team, and that number is inflated by Marcus Mariota’s 5.6 yards per carry on 20 attempts. Dion Lewis (3.3) and Derrick Henry (3.0) are both averaging what would easily be career lows for them in yards per attempt. So what’s the deal?

For one, the offense has been seeing a lot of defenders in the box near the line of scrimmage due, in part, to the injury situation at quarterback. Derrick Henry has seen 8+ defenders in the box on over 35% of his runs this season, the 5th highest rate in the NFL according to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats. Lewis isn’t far behind at 28%, which ranks 18th out of all backs. That part of things will likely begin to change if Mariota can keep doing the things that he showed above.

The second big factor has been injuries to key pieces on the offensive line. Great tackles are so important to outside zone running teams and the Titans just had their first game with both Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin in the starting lineup. That should also improve as the group gets back in to a rhythm playing with each other.

The third factor is simply the opponents. The Titans have faced 3 of the top 6 rushing defenses in the NFL based on yards per carry allowed. The Eagles are ranked 2nd, Texans 4th, and Dolphins 6th through the first quarter of the season. The Jaguars aren’t too shabby at 14th as well. It’s not like these teams have been allowing huge ground games to other opponents and then only shutting down the Titans. Unfortunately for Tennessee, this issue isn’t going away any time soon as their next two opponents — the Bills and Ravens — both rank in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed.

The last factor — and most concerning in my opinion — is that they simply aren’t getting good enough blocking from the tight end position. When teams can’t run the ball, most point to the offensive line or running backs, but the tight ends are a huge factor as well and the Titans top (healthy) tight end, Jonnu Smith, is simply not playing very well right now.

Here’s an example. Smith (spotlighted) is supposed to be reach blocking defensive end Derek Barnett. The Titans even give him help from Lewan to keep him from having to worry too much about getting beat inside, but he still manages to let Barnett spin outside get in to Henry’s hole. That simply can’t happen.

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Smith is far from the only problem on this next snap as Quinton Spain gets stuck on the double team and fails to climb to the Will linebacker (No. 54), but Smith’s inability to keep Brandon Graham from knifing inside gives Henry no chance to even make a play bending it back to the right.

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Again, this snap is far from just a Smith problem on this snap. Fletcher Cox (spotlighted) is able to beat Ben Jones’ reach block to close down the hole, but Smith’s inability to at least slow down the backside defensive end is frustrating.

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I’m not saying that Smith is the cause of all of the Titans running problems, he’s most certainly not, but I wonder if the Titans won’t consider using Luke Stocker more often. The problem there, of course, is that Stocker offers little as a pass catcher. You could argue that Smith does too right now based on that bad drop shown above, but he did draw a defensive holding call on a nice route during the game winning drive that helped get the Titans in position to hit Corey Davis in the endzone. I know the coaching staff is going to be working hard with Smith to improve this stuff and it needs to get better soon.

Corey Davis and the other young receivers step up

First, allow me to pat myself on the back real quick. Last week, this is what I wrote about Corey Davis versus Jalen Mills in my Titans-Eagles matchup piece.

With Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews no longer with the team for very different reasons, Davis is the clear focal point of the passing game for the Titans. He has played well through three games, but the numbers haven’t followed, largely due to the lack of downfield passing mentioned above. If the Titans do open things up more this week — and I expect they will — Davis could have a breakout game.

I’m far from the only one to call for a Corey Davis breakout game. It was fairly apparent if you watched what he was doing over the first three weeks in spite of the conservative game plans, but boy was it spectacular.

Davis showed the full package in what you want out of a WR1. He’s always had the size, speed, and power, but now he’s adding the detailed route running and even some feisty blocking that can take a receiver to the next level.

We’ve already looked at several great Davis routes and catches above and we will get to THE play in a minute, but first I wanted to show one more snap that caught my eye. This route is sometimes referred to as “The Julio Route” because of Julio Jones’ perfection of it. Davis doesn’t run it as well as Jones does here, but he puts Jalen Mills in a big enough bind to cause a defensive pass interference call, setting up the Titans first touchdown of the game.

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Here is Julio Jones running it if you want to see what it looks like when it’s been perfected. It’s something that Jones picked up when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta (Matt LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach).

Here is a route that Davis did perfect on Sunday. It’s just a post route, but the details, again, are what makes it so effective. Davis’ hard jab step outside and then explosion back inside to cross cornerback Avonte Maddox’s face is what makes his potential so special. Most receivers can’t move like that, much less 6’-3”, 210 pound ones. Davis also keeps his route flat which keeps Maddox from being able to work back underneath him. Finally, Davis goes up high and attacks the football with his hands to bring down the game winning touchdown. It’s moments like this when you need a WR1 and the Titans finally have one.

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Davis isn’t the only receiver that’s making noticeable strides for the Titans. Taywan Taylor’s play has really improved from week to week early in the season. Like Davis, the biggest difference is showing up in his route running. Here, Taylor is running a 7-stop route — essentially a route designed to look like a corner route before the receiver sets it down for a stop — and he really does a nice job selling the corner with a hard cut before sinking his hips and coming back to the ball. This is the kind of stuff that was pushing Rishard Matthews down in the receiver rotation, eventually leading to his departure from the team.

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Tajae Sharpe wasn’t quite as productive as Davis and Taylor, but he made a great play on the go ahead touchdown. First, part of the reason that Sharpe is open is because the Eagles had bracket coverage on Corey Davis. That may be something that the Titans see more often moving forward as Davis will now be firmly on the radar of defensive coordinators each week.

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The close up view of the play better shows Sharpe selling the flat route and then getting his inside arm on Maddox (No. 22) to give him a little shove by as he cuts inside for the touchdown. It’s subtle enough to not draw the attention of the refs and gives him the advantage he needs to get open for the touchdown.

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Sharpe’s other catch in the game was a big one as well. He got wide open on a 3rd down play for a nice gain. The reason he was so open is a coverage bust created by Nick Williams. They’re stacked tight to the line on the right side of the formation here with Jonnu Smith essentially forming a tight bunch. The way teams usually defend bunches is the point defender (closest to the line of scrimmage) takes the wide receiver on the line of scrimmage in man no matter where he goes. The inside defender then takes the first in-breaking route while the outside defender takes anything breaking outside. Here, Williams sells the quick slant and attracts the attention of the inside defender before getting vertical. That allows Sharpe to run underneath and get wide open for a big 3rd down conversion.

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Williams also did an excellent job selling the pass interference call that picked up the 4th and 2 on the game winning drive. The Titans receiving corps stepped up in the first game without Rishard Matthews which was huge to see.

This is the Titans offense that everyone wanted to see when Matt LaFleur was hired. Mariota and Davis both looked like stars against a very good Eagles defense and came up big in the clutch situations at the end of the game. At the end of the day, this is just one game, but it’s hard not to be pretty excited about the possibilities of this offense based on what we saw on Sunday. If they can build on this performance and continue to play strong defense, Tennessee could be a true contender.