It is no secret: the Tennessee Titans offense has struggled thus far in 2018.
The run game has sputtered and been mostly ineffective for the better part of 5 games, as evidenced by the team’s current rank of 24th in rush DVOA (which accounts for strength of opponent) according to Football Outsiders.
The Titans have played 21 total periods (counting overtime) this season. They have been held without a touchdown in 16 of those 21 quarters.
#Titans' rankings after 5 weeks:— John Glennon (@glennonsports) October 8, 2018
Overall offense: 29th
Run offense: 17th
Pass offense: 29th
Pts. per game: 29th (17.4)
Overall defense: 7th
Run defense: 26th
Pass defense: 4th
Pts. per game allowed: T-4th (17.2)
The nerve injury sustained by Marcus Mariota, the multiple injuries suffered by Taylor Lewan, the devastating injury that ended Delanie Walker’s season, Jack Conklin’s recovery from a torn ACL, Dennis Kelly’s mystery illness, and the demise of Rishard Matthews have all factored in to the offense’s struggles, no doubt about it.
Tyler Marz struggled mightily filling in for the injured Lewan on Sunday after the league’s highest-paid tackle exited the game with a foot injury.
But the crazy part is that despite all the injuries and all the ineffectiveness, the Titans offense could be doing much better if the team could simply eliminate mental mistakes and execute when it counted.
One position group that has struggled consistently with making mistakes is the team’s pass catchers, particularly when it comes to... well... catching the ball.
The graphic above was posted prior to Sunday’s game at Buffalo, but I can’t imagine the number improved much after Nick Williams’ costly drop in the 4th quarter.
There are lots of things that could be better about the Titans’ offense, but for today’s article, we’re just going to look at the Titans drops, because those miscues are pretty easy to identify, and for the Titans, they’ve come in pretty huge moments.
I reviewed all of the Titans’ incomplete pass attempts since Week 1 and determined that there were 8 (give or take) drops by Titans receivers on balls that should’ve been caught (the most questionable one is the downfield play against the Eagles where Taywan Taylor was egregiously interfered with, drawing no flag).
6 of these 8 drops occurred on third down.
Let’s take a closer look at each painful drop to assess just how much damage the receivers are doing to the offensive production...
This first one came on the Titans’ very first possession of the season. The offense drove to the Dolphins 28-yard line and, facing a 3rd-and-4, Mariota lofted one into the end zone for Taywan Taylor.
Now this isn’t exactly an easy catch, and there may be a small amount of pass interference, but the fact of the matter is the ball landed squarely in both of Taylor’s hands and bounced cleanly out, costing the team a touchdown. This is one you expect your starting-caliber receivers to catch.
And I don’t mean this next part to be blaming Taywan Taylor for the disastrous start to the season, but hear me out - had Taylor caught this ball, every play that followed would have changed (you know, the butterfly effect and all), including (but not limited to) Marcus Mariota’s injury, Taylor Lewan’s concussion, and Delanie Walker’s broken ankle.
So, all in all, a brutal first drop.
The second one came Week 3 against Jacksonville. Rishard Matthews questioned his role in the offense. Perhaps if he had managed to make this simple reception, he would’ve received more snaps...
As you can see from the endzone cam, this third-and-2 pass attempt deep in Jacksonville territory hits Rishard Matthews exactly where quarterbacks are instructed to hit their targets - in the hands directly in front of the facemask.
Naturally, Rishard Matthews did not want to be a Titan anymore so rather than set the team up with a first down in the red zone, he dropped the pass, ending the drive.
Moving on to later in this game...
In the second quarter, the Titans faced a 3rd-and-6 from their own 20 yard line. Tajae Sharpe does a nice job of getting open over the middle, and Mariota delivers a great throw that hits his receiver right between the numbers.
Sharpe tries to corral this pass between his arms as if he’s fielding a punt. As he rolls over, the ball squirts free. Incomplete pass, drive over, Titans punt.
Shall we discuss the next one?
Onto Week 4: here we have one of Mariota’s best plays as an escape artist in the pocket. Notice that it is again third down.
Mariota, evading the rush, somehow keeps his balance and maneuvers back around to find an open Jonnu Smith just beyond the first down marker.
Rather than use his hands, Smith goes for the ole’ bread basket catching technique, and the ball doinks straight off his chest into the ground, killing another Titans drive deep in opponent territory.
Mariota’s reaction is a reflection of how we all felt.
Later in the game...
This one was not on third down, and it should’ve been flagged for a pass interference penalty, as Leodis McKelvin clearly grabs Taywan Taylor’s facemask.
For those reasons, this is the least egregious drop of this breakdown.
Even so, Mariota delivered a beautiful pass that hits Taylor in the hands. PI or not, it’d be nice to see him catch this ball.
Let’s take a look at another...
This next one, again in the Week 4 game, is a bit tougher to see, but using the end zone cam you can tell that this ball hits Taywan Taylor squarely in the chest - again on third down - and Taylor is again unable to secure the pass, thus ending another Titans drive.
This next one belongs in a slapstick comedy routine...
The speedster Darius Jennings runs straight past the Philadelphia defense and Mariota delivers a perfect downfield strike, in overtime, needing a touchdown to win the game.
Jennings feels compelled (for reasons unknown) to jump as the pass is arriving and thrust his chest upwards into the ball while alligator-arming the attempt to secure it.
And so, with the chance to set the Titans offense up inside the red zone, the undrafted free agent proved that he is indeed capable of being yet another Titans receiver to drop a crucial pass.
The Titans are very lucky that this drop did not cost them a win. I wish I could say the same about the next one...
I don’t think I need to elaborate on how devastating this drop was, as Marcus Mariota says enough with his reaction at the end of the play.
Converting on third down is a great way to gain an edge in any given week. If the offense can sustain drives, it keeps the opponent off the field while increasing the team’s chances of putting points on the board. This much is obvious.
So while the Titans certainly have a lot of kinks to iron out with the offense after five weeks, they’d be in a lot better shape if they hadn’t turned 6 sure-fire first downs into incompletions.
Was Mariota throwing shade at his receivers with his word choice during his press conference on Sunday?
(Just kidding, that’s a joke...)
Before we end this breakdown focusing on the mistakes of Titans pass-catchers, I’ll leave you with one more play...
This interception is on Nick Williams. Mariota has to be able to trust his receivers to win inside leverage. Williams lets the defender blast through him to get to the ball. He's gotta do a better job shielding with his body to protect the football #TENvsBUF pic.twitter.com/iZxJPDoed6— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) October 7, 2018