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All-22 Review: The gloves are off for the Titans offense

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Marcus Mariota’s return to full health and Dion Lewis’ promotion to lead back help propel Titans offense to their best performance of the season.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-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.

The Titans don’t often get a chance to play in the national spotlight. Sure, they get their annual Thursday Night Football appearance — seemingly always against the Jaguars — where the national media gets a chance to thumb their nose at the AFC South and throw rocks at TNF’s general existence, but they haven’t appeared on Sunday Night Football since 2009 and had only been on Monday Night Football once since 2014 before their trip to Dallas. It’s part of the reason that NFL fans and media outside of Nashville often don’t know who Jurrell Casey is and even fewer see Marcus Mariota as anything other than a running quarterback.

So while Booger McFarland and Jason Witten may have been shocked by Mariota’s ability to “win from the pocket”, those who have watched this team for a long time know that this type of performance is really nothing new for the fourth year quarterback. Mariota is at his best in the pocket, throwing in rhythm. He’s not the scrambling, play extending “running quarterback” like Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson that he’s too often lumped in with.

On Monday night, Mariota won both in the pocket and out of it, especially on third downs. The Titans converted 11 of 14 attempts on the money down, including 5 Mariota runs. Since Week 5, Mariota is the NFL’s most efficient third down passer, completing 18 of 28 attempts with all 18 completions resulting in first downs. Over the last two games, the Titans are a scorching 20 of 29 on third downs. That rate is almost certainly unsustainable and the team still needs to find ways to score on chunk plays — Tennessee’s offense has still yet to score a touchdown from outside the red zone — but it carried them to their best offensive performance of the season in Dallas.

Quinton Spain and the offensive line rebounds from rough start

Left guard Quinton Spain has often been the Titans best offensive lineman this season and that was certainly the case in this game. He had key blocks on many of the Titans biggest runs.

This is the very first play of the game and the Titans are running a triple option look out of a two-back shotgun set. It’s a play they’ve used variations of over the last few weeks. Spain’s combo block — helping Taylor Lewan contain the 3-tech first and then climbing to the Mike linebacker — creates the space for Dion Lewis to work with. It’s not a big gain, but Spain’s work here is very good.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another nice combo block from Spain. This time the Titans are running a zone lead play with Luke Stocker as the lead blocker for Lewis. Spain does an excellent job of helping secure the 1-tech with Ben Jones and then gets up to run interference with the Dallas linebackers. Lewan also does an excellent job of taking the slanting defensive end and washing him down inside.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s the same play from a different formation. The Titans spread the Cowboys out with 3 wide receivers which leaves just 6 defenders in the box against 6 Titans blockers — an advantage for the offense. Spain puts his defender on the ground and Lewan is able to pick off the Mike linebacker which allows Lewis to get downfield for a nice gain.

NFL Game Pass

While zone runs are still a big part of what Tennessee wants to do with the running game, they seem to have shifted to more gap and read option looks over the past couple weeks. Here’s a nifty inside trap read option that the Titans dialed up. Again, they spread the Cowboys out and get a light front to work with. They game the numbers even further in their favor by using the threat of a Mariota run to hold the defensive end on the left side of the screen which frees up Lewan to climb to the second level. The Titans run a little trap action with Spain who pulls around Ben Jones to kick out the back side defensive tackle while Josh Kline releases to pick off the other linebacker. The running game is all about numbers and angles and the Titans did a great job of manipulating both on this play with their play design.

NFL Game Pass

Here, we go back to another outside zone run, this time with Derrick Henry as the ball carrier. The Titans block this up very well with each lineman executing his assignment and Henry doing a nice job of reading Dallas’ overpursuit and finding the cutback lane. This was encouraging to see.

NFL Game Pass

The read inside trap play shown above works because of plays like this one. It’s a simple zone read and Mariota reads the crashing end perfectly — as he often does — pulling the ball out of Henry’s belly and scooting around the right side for a 3rd and short conversion. Mariota’s ball handling and decision making on these read plays are outstanding.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans rushing attack wasn’t perfect by any means — they averaged just 3.5 yards per carry — but it did enough to keep the team in manageable down and distances for the most part. Dallas is the NFL’s second stingiest run defense when it comes to yards per carry so this was a pretty good overall effort up from from the Titans offensive line.

The Titans ran a lot of formations that featured a tight end — either Luke Stocker or Jonnu Smith — lined up as a fullback which makes me believe we could see Jalston Fowler in the relatively near future. Smith and Stocker both performed pretty well in that role in Dallas, but they aren’t natural lead blockers like Fowler is. I’d expect to see him active and getting 10-20 snaps per game on offense once he’s up to speed on the new playbook.

Screen game finds its footing

One of the staples of a typical Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay offense has always been a robust screen game. The Rams screens are so lethal that Todd Gurley was their leading receiver in 2017 with 788 yards. Those are the offenses that Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has grown up in, but we haven’t seen the screens really click in Tennessee until Monday night.

The results for the screens could have been even bigger if not for Lewis’ decision to double back on this one. The Titans have it set up well with Spain and Jones out front, but Lewis chooses not to follow for some reason, ultimately resulting in a 4 yard loss.

NFL Game Pass

This, however, was a perfectly executed screen that looked very much like one the Rams would use. Watch the Cowboys linebackers react to the play action. First they’re sucked up by the run look, then they recognize it’s a pass and start retreating. Mariota does a nice job of selling a deep shot to the left side of the field quickly before coming back to the screen. The linebackers are completely immersed in the mix cycle 20-plus yards away by the time they recognize Lewis has the ball.

Spain, Jones, and Kline all do an excellent job of getting out in front and leading the way for Lewis. Tajae Sharpe also does an excellent job going down field and picking up the safety. The result is a huge gain for the Titans offense.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s yet another big screen from the Titans offense. This time they fake the outside zone run as the base and, again, Mariota pulls the linebackers left with his eyes before coming back to Lewis on the screen. The misdirection works and leaves Lewis to follow his blocks to the endzone. Kline, Spain, and Jones all make key blocks.

NFL Game Pass

This next play isn’t necessarily a screen, but it largely functions like one. First, the ball handling by Mariota on the read with Lewis is otherworldly. He holds the fake so long that DeMarcus Lawrence actually tackles Lewis thinking he’d made the stop. The transition to the shovel pass to Jonnu Smith is lightning quick as well. After receiving the ball, Smith does a nice job weaving behind good blocks from Kline and Dennis Kelly to get in to the endzone.

NFL Game Pass

Timing and attention to detail are paramount to the success of screens at the NFL level and it appears the Titans offense is starting to get it down. I believe that the ability to weave the run game, the screen game, and the play action passing game together interchangeably without substituting or alerting the defense is the primary reason for Dion Lewis’ move to the top of the running back depth chart. I still believe Henry has a role in this offense — particularly as a closer when the team is able to carry a lead late in to the game — but Lewis as a lead back gives the offense a lot more flexibility on a down to down basis.

Mariota appears more confident with injury, glove behind him

After hitting rock bottom against the Ravens in Week 6, Mariota looked much better against the Chargers in London, but there was still just a touch of hesitation remaining in his game. That hesitation appeared to be gone in Dallas along with the glove he’d used to help with grip following the nerve injury. I don’t think those two things are a coincidence.

The deep outs and comebacks along the sidelines were noticeably more frequent and they were thrown with plenty of accuracy and zip. This was one of his most impressive throws of the night. It’s third down and the pocket is starting to collapse, but Mariota stands in and delivers a perfect ball with all kinds of trash around his feet. Cameron Batson also does an excellent job of winning on the route against Byron Jones, one of the NFL’s best corners.

NFL Game Pass

Here is the throw that everyone has been talking about this week. The Cowboys do a good job of disguising their coverage pre-snap. They look to be in a Cover 3 zone, but rotate in to Tampa 2 right as the play gets started. Mariota makes the right read and attacks the matchup of Darius Jennings versus linebacker Sean Lee, fitting the ball in right between the converging safeties. Corey Davis also appears to be open running an out and up towards the bottom of the screen, but the safety is wide enough that a throw to Davis would have been tough.

It is a fantastic throw from Mariota and it shows a trust in his receiver to make a play. Jennings rewards him with a tough catch to set up a Titans touchdown a few plays later.

NFL Game Pass

Here is another very confident Mariota throw on a tough third and long. Jack Conklin gets beat on the edge, but Mariota steps up and rifles a strike to Davis down field.

NFL Game Pass

Mariota’s confidence in both his arm and his receivers seemed vastly improved coming off the bye week. This is one of the tougher throws to make in the NFL. It’s a deep comeback right on the sideline and Mariota not only throws a perfect strike, but starts his delivery well before Davis breaks open, trusting his young receiver to win the route and be where he’s supposed to. Davis rewards him and makes the catch to convert a third and long.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another tough throw — a deep out on the sidelines — and again, it’s on a third and long. This time the throw isn’t quite as good — it’s a little behind Taywan Taylor — but it’s catchable and his receiver makes the adjustment and hauls it in for the first down.

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Mariota showed great touch at times during this game as well. Here, he finds Jonnu Smith on the crossing route and feathers it in between the linebackers and the safeties. It was good to see Smith getting involved in the passing game again. The Titans need him to contribute from the tight end position down the stretch and he’s stacked two pretty good games in a row now.

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Missed opportunities

While Mariota was very good Monday night, there were also some missed opportunities left on the field. These aren’t necessarily criticisms of the quarterback, but rather compliments to the offensive coordinator. You know you’ve had a good game as a playcaller when your team scores 4 touchdowns and you had at least 3 more dialed up that didn’t connect.

Here is one that Mariota mentioned postgame. It’s a play action pass and it looks like he’s gunning for Corey Davis all the way despite the fact that he’s pretty well covered. What he misses is Jonnu Smith streaking wide open down the sideline after running a wheel route from the backfield. The playcall is very reminiscent of a play that Smith scored on against the Seahawks in 2017 (and it may, in fact, be an adaptation of that play). This would have almost certainly been 6 if Mariota sees it.

NFL Game Pass

Here is another potential Jonnu Smith touchdown. He’s running a seam route towards the top of the screen, but Mariota chooses the checkdown to Lewis instead. Lewis picks up 9 yards and sets up a 2nd and 1 just outside the 10 so it’s not a terrible result here, but the Titans would miss a field goal attempt a few plays later so this was a missed chance to essentially put the game away.

NFL Game Pass

Finally, we have the missed throw to Davis in the endzone that happened just a couple plays after the play above. Davis is wide open by NFL red zone standards and it’s a throw that Mariota makes 9 times out of 10.

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Despite those few misses, Mariota’s overall play was excellent on a national stage and he looked like a guy who’s finally starting to find both physical and mental comfort. The offense has now moved up and down the field efficiently in back to back games and is starting to look like the offense we all expected to see when Matt LaFleur was hired. The Titans must still find a way to add more explosive plays to the mix, but this is clearly progress.