Suffice to say, the energy surrounding the Titans right now is totally different than the one that surrounded them last year as they sat at 8–4 with two road games against poor* competition on the horizon. It’s widely agreed upon that Mike Mularkey’s failure to get the team “up” for that road trip was the beginning of his end in Tennessee.
*To be fair, the 49ers were a good team last year and that game went down to the wire.
At 3-1 and coming off a hat trick of emotional wins, the only thing standing in the Titans’ way as they head to Orchard Park, NY is the potential for a similarly flat performance as favorites. I believe the shift in vibe as compared to last year has much to do with a (so far earned) confidence that Mike Vrabel can keep this team dialed in. For as much of a role as smart offensive and defensive planning have played in keeping the last three games within reach, the Titans have ultimately won thanks to the focused, resilient, positive attitude imparted on them by their head coach.
The Bills have been a hugely inconsistent team week-to-week, drive-to-drive, and play-to-play through four games. In all four phases discussed below, Buffalo has had moments in which they’ve looked formidable and ones in which they’ve looked downright dreadful. Because their ebb and flow doesn’t pick a landing spot within each individual game, the Titans will need to be ready to both weather the good and punish the bad.
The five games I watched were:
When the Titans Run
Statistically speaking, the Bills are an average to mediocre run-defending team according to most metrics. One in which they excel is Football Outsider’s Defensive Line “Stuffed” ranking, which is based on the number of times a defense stops a ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage. Buffalo is second in the NFL in number of times they’ve accomplished that feat. However, when in “Power” situations, in which the offense runs to convert a 3rd or 4th and 2 or less, the Bills tumble to 18th according to F.O. They are in the bottom third of the “2nd Level” and “Open Field” ranks.
The Titans have two backs with boom or bust potential. Despite an ongoing debate as to whether Dion Lewis is more consistent than Derrick Henry as a runner, for any one watching them, it’s clear both excel most past the line of scrimmage.
Unlike last week, this is a game in which accepting some dud runs is likely to balance out with some game-changing gashes. Patience and persistence will pay off. The biggest benefit, in my eyes, to picking spots to lean on the run game will be its effect on Bills’ QB Josh Allen. Allen is chaotic and reckless on the field right now. Keeping him on the sidelines standing still for long periods of time is a good way to encourage him to press when he does get the ball back. The Titans can afford to get into a field position battle, knowing Allen struggles to string together good plays. Between the Tennessee 25 and the Buffalo 40, slowing down the pace and grinding on the ground should prove beneficial in the long run (no pun intended) for the Titans.
When the Titans Pass
We saw a vertical iteration of Matt LaFleur’s scheme last week, and I’m as curious as anyone to see how he modulates off of it. I believe the Bills can be challenged down the field, but I’m not sure that’s the best approach LaFleur can take. Instead, offenses working the short to intermediate middle of the field with precision have proven to be what Buffalo’s pass defense struggles with the most so far this year.
In the Bills lone victory, Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins was putrid with his timing, pocket awareness, and ball placement, especially early on. Joe Flacco and Phillip Rivers were quite the opposite, and Buffalo could not stop an onslaught of middle-of-the-field hitches, intermediate slants and crossers. The Chargers in particular played beautifully off these concepts with Melvin Gordon running two-way go routes and “sneaking” into open space over the middle. Dion Lewis will be active as a receiver.
Against the Packers, Buffalo’s DBs played much tighter to the LOS, and thus didn’t give up as much to the concepts listed above. GB countered this with quick, play-action rub routes to get receivers into space on the outside, as well as screens and occasional downfield sideline throws. There’s a chance this will be the Bills’ defensive approach going forward—passing on them was simply too easy in weeks 1 and 2—so the Titans may need to go back to some of the WR screen concepts we saw used vs. Houston and Jacksonville.
If the Titans can get out to a lead, I believe they should alternate off of the clock-chewing approach I talked about in the first section, and occasionally go to a fast-paced, no-huddle attack focused on wearing out Buffalo’s linebackers in coverage over the middle. Forcing Josh Allen to sit for long stretches and then occasionally flipping the script and making him feel pressure to keep up with the Titans’ no-huddle pace (while he plays from behind) is a diabolically-sweet recipe for a Tennessee blowout victory.
One thing I thought worth mentioning: this may be a week in which we see Jonnu Smith receive more than 1 or 2 targets. Hopefully, he can produce in those spots and give the coaching staff and fans reason for optimism towards him.
The Bills’ pass rush, featuring Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander on the edges and big man Kyle Williams up the middle, is probably nationally underrated, but I think they’ve benefited from poor OL play over the last two weeks. They didn’t show up near as often in weeks 1 and 2, and I’m confident the Titans’ bookend tackles (reunited and it feels so right) can keep Marcus Mariota clean.
When the Bills Run
Shady McCoy has been near invisible in this offense so far, though it sounds as if the Bills hope to change that going forward. Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s as big of a difference between him, Chris Ivory, and Marcus Murphy as there would have been in the past. Ivory is running hard, and Murphy was a preseason standout who shows highlight-reel flashes.
I believe the combination of whichever backs play for Buffalo is a much greater threat to a Titans victory than Josh Allen. The most important thing for the Titans run defense will be clamping down if and when the Bills cross over into Tennessee territory. Allowing big runs in those situations will put the Bills in position to get points without making Allen do his part to earn them.
Buffalo’s OL has not excelled at making life easy on their backs. According to PFF, the highest run blocking grade among Bills starters is 57.0 for RT Jordan Mills. The Bills rank 24th in adjusted line yards, which does its best to isolate OL play from running back performance and normalize the grading curve across teams. To me, this only serves to further the credit due to Ivory, Murphy, and, when he’s played, McCoy—I’ve actually been impressed with their play in spite of non-ideal blocking.
When the Bills Pass
Josh Allen is, in my opinion, being handled poorly by the Bills’ offensive brain trust. I assume their thought process revolves around letting him play “his style”. The problem is, Allen’s current raw, experimental style will rarely win games in the pros. To me, he is simply ingraining bad habit after bad habit into his game.
His rocket arm throws a ball that look pretty for about a second, before it flies 10 feet over the intended receivers’ head and lands 20 feet beyond his position. The Bills offense is doing next to nothing to get Allen to play with timing and rhythm. It’s one thing for a scouting department to believe their coaches can harness and transform a prospect like Allen, but it’s outright stupid to draft him and think he’s going to succeed being given the freedom to figure it out himself.
Unless something radical has changed within the last week, expect to see about 5 throws all game that make you say, “Hmm ... maybe this guy has it.” Expect to see 15 to 20 that make you grimace.
To compound matters, the Bills lack true receiving threats across the board. WRs Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones and TE Charles Clay are all players that deserve roles in the NFL, but none are capable of overcoming stiff competition and none can change the game after the catch. They can’t catch what isn’t thrown in their vicinity and Allen can’t throw it up and depend on them to make a play—it’s a lose/lose situation.
Once in a great while, you’ll see a play call that asks Allen to deliver a pass quickly and he usually hits his target. Beyond that, the remainder of the Bills’ passing offense starts off like this: Allen drops back, looks downfield, doesn’t see any initial openings and decides to scramble. From there, it typically ends in one of three outcomes: Sack. Inaccurate Pass. Interception.
The Titans secondary, as long as they don’t get cocky and try to go off-script, should have a good day all around. The Titans pass rushers should as well. If Vrabel can have his guys locked in, this one should get ugly for Buffalo, and I’m normally very hesitant to pick the Titans to win big. In this case, though, the match-ups all strongly favor Tennessee and Buffalo’s QB play will provide numerous opportunities for turnovers.
Four to Watch
Offense: Dion Lewis
Defense: Harold Landry
Offense: Chris Ivory
Defense: TreDavious White