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All-22 Review: Titans offense taking off behind a healthy Marcus Mariota and an emerging Corey Davis

Matt LaFleur’s offense is beginning to click.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature here at Music City Miracles breaking down the tape from the previous week’s Titans game. The focus will vary d epending 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.

This is it.

We heard about it all summer. A fun, modern offense that would take advantage of Marcus Mariota’s skill set and would finally take the Titans out of the stone age. It took a little longer to get here than expected, but this is what the offense is supposed to look like.

After ranking 29th and 30th, respectively, in explosive run rate and explosive pass rate through 7 weeks, the Titans rank 15th and 4th in those same categories over the past two weeks according to Sharp Football Stats. They’ve nearly doubled their explosive pass total in that time frame, jumping from 9 to 17 total. That’s a massive jump.

The explosive plays really made the performance against the Patriots far more impressive to me than the game in Dallas. Against the Cowboys, the Titans relied heavily on ridiculously good third down and red zone conversion rates which were always going to be unsustainable. Against the Patriots, they fell back to Earth on third downs, converting just 5 of 12. They also were just good, but not great in the red zone, cashing in 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals on 5 trips.

The high efficiency on those critical plays was replaced by explosive plays all over the field. The Titans created 11 explosives — 5 running, 6 passing — against the Patriots, easily their largest single game totals of the season. They had just 11 running, and 9 passing combined over the first 7 weeks of the season.

Since their bye in Week 8, the Titans offense trails just the Bears, Falcons, and Chiefs in explosive pass plays. They’re tied with the Rams over this time span. That’s pretty good company and if the Titans can stick in that neighborhood offensively while continuing to play defense at an elite level, that’s a recipe for massive success moving forward. With that, let’s get in to exactly how the Titans created those explosive plays against the Patriots defense.

Corey Davis dominated Stephon Gilmore

Coming in to Week 10, Gilmore was rated as one of the best corners in the NFL in 2018. He had allowed just 20 catches on 48 targets per PFF charting for a ridiculous 41.7% completion percentage. Those 48 targets had netted just 233 yards for an average yards per target of just 4.9. Almost every cornerback metric had Gilmore producing like a top 5 corner.

The Patriots chose to use Gilmore to shadow Corey Davis on Sunday in an attempt to take the Titans top pass catcher away from Marcus Mariota. It’s something that Bill Belichick has done several times this season, usually with great results. Here are the other 6 receivers Gilmore has tracked per PFF charting data:

DeAndre Hopkins: 6 targets, 4 catches, 50 yards, 0 TD

Donte Moncrief: 6 targets, 2 catches, 18 yards, 1 TD

Marvin Jones: 2 targets, 1 catch, 33 yards, 1 TD

Sammy Watkins: 4 targets, 2 catches, 18 yards, 0 TD

Allen Robinson: 4 targets, 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 TD

Davante Adams: 5 targets, 2 catches, 15 yards, 0 TD

There are some pretty good receivers on that list, but Davis did something that none of them could. He roasted Stephon Gilmore, catching 6 of 8 targets for 98 yards and a touchdown with Gilmore in coverage in a spectacular performance from the 2017 5th overall pick. He also tacked on a 16-yard pass interference penalty and a declined pass interference call on the touchdown.

Let’s start with Davis’ first target of the game as it shows something that I think is important to point out with a young wide receiver. Davis is not the first read on this play. Mariota looks first towards Tajae Sharpe wide right, then comes middle to Jonnu Smith, and then finally works back to Davis on the backside. Sometimes you will see young receivers give less than 100% on a route like this where they know they are unlikely to get the ball, but Davis busts it here. He pushes vertical hard, eats up Gilmore’s cushion and then makes a nice sharp break inside. He’s rewarded for his effort with a good throw from Mariota to put the Titans in the red zone. Giving maximum effort should be the expectation, but at wide receiver that’s not always the case. Davis does not have that problem.

While Davis’ route is very good, the play is really made by Mariota. Quinton Spain gives up a pressure, but the quarterback turns his shoulders, steps up in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield, and then fires a strike as he approaches the line of scrimmage. Outstanding pocket management from the young quarterback.

NFL Game Pass

Davis’ route running has been noticeably better this season, but it really showed up in this game consistently. Here, he stems inside, fakes the out route, and then breaks back to the post. Gilmore actually does a nice job of keeping himself from entirely biting on the out fake, but he changes direction enough that Davis is able to create some separation. Gilmore doesn’t really have safety help over the top so he reaches out and grabs Davis to prevent what would have likely been a long touchdown. The result is a 16-yard defensive pass interference penalty that gives the Titans a first down.

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Here’s one of the two most memorable plays of the game from Davis. It’s also the first touchdown the Titans have scored from outside the red zone in 2018.

It starts with an excellent play design. The Titans send Davis in motion to form a tight bunch to the left of Mariota. This accomplishes two things for the offense. First, it gives Mariota a man-zone indicator. In this case, Gilmore follows Davis across which tells the quarterback it is likely man to man coverage with a single high safety. The second thing it does is keep Gilmore from being able to jam and disrupt Davis route at the line of scrimmage. Davis is running a stutter-go, trying to catch Gilmore trying to jump an underneath route. Gilmore doesn’t really take the bait here, but he’s still isolated as Mariota’s gaze holds the safety in the middle of the field looking for a chance to rob the crossers.

Mariota makes a phenomenal throw with a perfect trajectory to give his receiver the best chance at coming up with the catch, but there are a couple things that Davis does here that are very impressive. First, he does a good job of creating late separation while the ball is in the air. It looks like he just hits another gear as he tracks the ball over his head which is an extremely difficult task. Second, he fights through contact from Gilmore who tries to rip through his inside arm before the ball gets there (the flag was obviously declined). Both of those traits are things that separate great receivers from good ones.

NFL Game Pass

This next play features a route we’ve seen Davis run a couple times now. It’s generally termed a “blaze out”, but some just call it the “Julio route” after the NFL’s foremost practitioner of the pattern. Davis’ version is still a work in progress compared to the Falcons star — you’d like to see him make his final break towards the sidelines a little flatter — but it’s effective nonetheless and the catch is excellent.

As usual with any great pass play, the receiver’s role is just part of the equation. Mariota makes another phenomenal pocket maneuver before delivering a great throw. It’s 3rd and 14 and the Patriots come on a delayed blitz trying to hurry up the quarterback’s decision making process. Mariota buys time by stepping up, but rather than taking off on the ground, he keeps his eyes up and delivers a perfect off-platform throw to Davis to convert the big 3rd down. The Titans would punch it in to take a 24-10 lead just a few plays later.

NFL Game Pass

This is another 3rd down later in the game. It’s another great play concept that is designed to take advantage of the way most NFL teams elect to cover bunched receivers. The Patriots align three defensive backs mirroring the Titans three receivers, often referred to as cone coverage. The point man of the cone (the defender closest to the line of scrimmage) is man to man with the point receiver no matter where he goes while the outside off defender takes the first out-breaking or vertical route and the inside defender takes what is left. Teams play it that way — ironically in this case — to minimize the opportunities for collisions between crossing defenders.

The Titans run the point receiver towards the middle on a shallow cross and then have Davis (the inside off receiver) tuck right in behind the vertical route from Batson (the outside off receiver). Batson does a great job running right at the outside defender which forces him to respect the threat of a vertical route. Meanwhile, Davis follows behind for a few steps before breaking outside as soon as Batson is directly in the path of the inside defender (the only option left to cover Davis). The Patriots defensive backs seem confused as to whether or not they were going to switch and they end up simply grabbing Batson to prevent a possible big play. That draws a flag that ends up being negated by one of the best 8 yard catches you’ll ever see.

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Check out the snag from Davis here. The vertical and body control here are pretty fantastic and I love the close up shot him going into and out of his break. You can really see the suddenness that he’s able to change directions with.

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The level of opponent is what makes this performance different from Davis’ first breakout game against the Eagles earlier this year. Beating Jalen Mills like a drum is one thing. Beating Stephon Gilmore like a drum is something else entirely. This game adjusts my perception of Davis’ ceiling. I always thought he could be a good WR1 — something that hasn’t existed in Nashville since Derrick Mason left town — but now I think you can start looking at a spot for him on the top shelf of NFL receivers if he can figure out how to repeat this level of play consistently.

Marcus Mariota was outstanding again

Mariota’s game has really taken off over the last few games and while I think the return of his full feeling and grip in his throwing hand is a big part of that, I would argue that his comfort in the offense has been even more critical to his increased level of play. This game was filled with examples of Mariota being a step ahead of the defense and seeing opportunities and threats before they happened. The Titans first touchdown of the game was a good example.

Here, the Patriots are showing 7 potential rushers at the line of scrimmage pre-snap with the other 4 defenders lined up in man over their respective receivers. Mariota knows they’ve got potential protection issues because he’s in a pass play with just a 5-man protection. They don’t have enough bodies to block the Pats if everyone comes so he’s got to have a plan to account for an unblocked defender or two if they come. The defensive end on the left side ends up being that guy (because the Titans slid protection right towards the side with more threats). Normally the play would be to throw the swing to Lewis to that side knowing that the defense doesn’t have a defender with a great angle to cut his back off, but Mariota recognizes the flow of the defense headed that way, sees a soft corner, and chooses to give himself a run-pass option on the right side instead. My guess is that he initially thought he was going to run this in, but Jonnu Smith creates huge separation with his release and is wide open for the easy toss instead.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another great example of Mariota’s comfort level growing in the offense. He motions Derrick Henry out of the backfield looking to get a read on the coverage. That motion ends up exposing the Patriots who were trying to hide a Cover 0 blitz by pretending like Devin McCourty was going to be a single high safety. Whe Henry motions out as a receiver the Patriots know they can’t leave him uncovered so they walk McCourty up to cover him. Now Mariota knows the blitz is coming so he adjusts his protections accordingly and plans on getting the ball out quick to the matchup he liked.

That matchup was Jonnu Smith versus Patriots safety Patrick Chung split out wide to the bottom of the screen. Smith runs a simple stop route, Mariota puts it on him, and then the big tight end breaks a tackle and nearly takes it to the house. A nice punch from Gilmore gets the ball out, but Davis is there to smartly sweep it out of bounds to set up 1st and 10 at the edge of the red zone.

Its a great series of counters between the offense and the defense pre-snap here and Mariota came out on top. It’s also good to see Smith being split out wide again to let him take advantage of some of the matchup problems he can pose. His play has really come on over the past few weeks along with the rest of the offense.

NFL Game Pass

Let’s take a look at another Smith catch while we’re at it. The Patriots get good pressure off an N-T twist which pushes Mariota off his spot. Rather than throwing it away or taking off, he once again maneuvers in the pocket and resets his eyes downfield. Smith does a great job of seeing his quarterback under duress and finding a way to get open off script. He also flashes plus run after catch ability again here.

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The next play we will look at is another interesting pass concept counter that LaFleur has installed. One of the classic Shanahan/McVay/LaFleur playcalls is the “Yankee concept”. It’s essentially a play action shot play with two primary receiving options. One receiver is running a deep post while the other receiver runs a deep crosser from the opposite side of the field. Here is an example of what it looks like in action from earlier in the season.

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This week, the Titans dialed up a shot play that was designed to look like Yankee, except instead of continuing to cross the field, both outside receivers doubled back to the corner. It’s one of the few negative plays from Mariota in what was an excellent game, but I wanted to show it because the concept is really cool.

He’s looking for Davis all the way and Davis has his Gilmore beat with ease yet again, but Mariota decides not to pull the trigger for some reason. He also had Dion Lewis wide open in the flat for what could have been a touchdown if he’d seen him. I don’t know what made him pull this one down, but it’s an interesting play concept and I’m guessing we will see it again before the year is over.

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Here’s another counter to a popular LaFleur pass concept. The Titans love to run what I call “four out” from a 2 by 2 set. It’s a simple play, often used on 3rd downs, where all 4 passing targets run 5-yard out routes and the quarterback has the option to pick the matchup or coverage that he likes the best. It’s a play that traces in this system all the way back to the Mike Shanahan coached Redskins teams (and probably further back than that). Here’s an example from the 2017 Rams offense.

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LaFleur’s counter off that look is essentially “four out and up” as all four receivers fake the 5-yard out and then peel up field towards the end zone. It’s kind of a twist on “four verticals” as well.

Here the Titans run it but the Patriots defenders do a nice job of staying on top and not taking the cheese on the head and shoulder fakes to the sidelines. However, Mariota decides to give Tajae Sharpe a chance to make a play. It’s a great decision in my opinion. Any time you have a receiver one on one and the corner’s back is to the quarterback, that’s an open target in my book. The throw is absolutely sublime from Mariota here. He drops the ball in right at the pylon where only Sharpe can get it. His receiver doesn’t come up with the catch this time, but it’s not dissimilar to the throw to Davis for the touchdown shown above. Good things are going to happen more often than not if he keeps taking these shots.

NFL Game Pass

Speaking of elite ball placement, check out the throw to Batson on the sidelines. That’s an incredibly difficult throw. It’s essentially a 25-yard corner route to the wide side of the field and he’s got to fit it over the flat defender, under the safety, and just inside the sideline. Oh and his target is 5’-8” tall. It’s an incredible throw.

While we’re here, allow me to continue to heap praise on Batson. He’s got a ton of qualities to love — smarts, toughness, speed, quickness, run after catch — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him remain a part of this offense the rest of the way. He makes this extremely difficult catch look easy.

NFL Game Pass

You knew I wasn’t going to let this article go without talking about my boy Anthony Firkser. He only played 2 snaps, but he certainly made this one count. It’s 3rd and 2 and the Titans line up in an empty set with Davis, Sharpe, and Batson bunched to the right and Lewis and Firkser split wide left. The right side is basically screaming for attention from the defense and that leaves Firkser and Lewis one on one. Mariota looks like he’s wanting Firkser all the way here despite the fact that he’s matched up with Devin McCourty. Firkser gives a nice shake and then is able to high point a perfect pass from Mariota for the big 3rd down conversion.

Firkser is another guy, like Batson, that just seems to do good things every time he gets an opportunity. With Jonnu Smith and Luke Stocker both playing better of late, it may be tough to carve out many more snaps for Firkser, but he’s a trustworthy option off the bench right now.

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The offensive line is beginning to click with new blocking concepts

Like Mariota’s footwork and the route timing for the receivers, the offensive line has been adjusting to a new blocking scheme early in the season. It’s been a struggle for them despite this being the third consecutive year that the starting five plus Dennis Kelly have been together. Combine the new scheme with the injuries and you’ve got a recipe for problems up front.

However, there are bits of proof in the tape that show a group that’s starting to get this new system down. Quinton Spain has been excellent for most of this season as a run blocker and that continued against New England. Watch big number 67 on this combo block. He helps Jones cave in the nose tackle with a well-placed push. Offensive linemen are often taught to target the hip when helping from the side because you can create great leverage there without too much force as Spain does here. He gives perfect help and then immediately climbs to pick up a linebacker. Henry tucks in right behind him for a solid gain.

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The next snap is an outside zone run from David Fluellen. The Titans create a soft edge for him here as the wide receivers simulate routes and cause the Patriots DBs to follow them while Lewan and Spain both get quality blocks on the end and playside linebacker. From there it’s pretty easy for Fluellen to gain the edge and pick up the first down.

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While we are here, the play where Fluellen gets injured may be one of the best blocked Titans runs of the season (unfortunately). Great blocks from Lewan, Spain, Stocker, Jones, and Sharpe open a massive lane along the left side.

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More great stuff on the left side of the line. Once again it’s Lewan, Spain, Jones, and Stocker who open a big hole and Lewis is able to do his part running through contact and picking up a big gain. Lots of Patriots end this snap on the ground thanks to the boys up front. This looks light years better than what we’ve seen for most of the year. Spain, in particular, is getting really good at the combination blocks where he helps Ben Jones pin the 1-tech and then bounces up to cut off the Mike linebacker.

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The right side wasn’t too shabby in this game either. Here, Kline and Jones create huge movement up front on the nose tackle while Kelly rides the end down inside to give Lewis some room to work with.

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Here’s another relatively well blocked play. Most of the line gets good push, but Taylor Lewan gets beat inside by a slanting Deatrich Wise. Fortunately, he’s bailed out by a nice job from Jonnu Smith (spotlighted) getting a solid block on Patriots star defensive end Trey Flowers. Smith’s blocking struggles have been well-chronicled this season, but this is much better from him. Corey Davis (coming in from the right side) does a nice job sealing off Patrick Chung (No. 23) to the outside as well.

NFL Game Pass

However, this next play is the one that really tells me that this offensive line is starting to get comfortable in the new blocking scheme (even if the result isn’t great). One of the easiest ways to blow up an outside zone run is to have your playside defensive end slant hard inside of the playside tackle. The tackle is focused on reaching the end’s outside shoulder so he’s going to step hard outside at the snap. That leaves him open to getting beat inside if the end crashes and suddenly you have a defender right in the back’s lap.

The play below is a great example. On this outside zone run, Lewan is tasked with reaching the defensive end and trying to get him pinned inside while Spain is supposed to get up field and cut off the playside linebacker, Jones is to reach the 1-tech, Kline climbs to the backside backer, and Kelly reached backside defensive tackle. The Titans alignment with two tight ends stacked on the line to the right of Dennis Kelly creates some pretty good angles for the offensive line to work on the weak side.

However, when the ball is snapped, the defensive end lined up outside Lewan shoots inside. Instead of panicking and doubling back, Lewan and Spain coolly switch responsibilities. Spain picks up Lewan’s defensive end and Lewan climbs to the linebacker level. Now the execution could have been better from Lewan here, but the fact that he and Spain were able to adjust on the fly to the inside slant is promising moving forward.

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The Patriots front isn’t going to be confused with well... the Titans front, but they’re an average to above average rush defense by most metrics and Tennessee’s rushing attack rolled up 150 yards and helped pace the offense throughout the day. That’s now the third straight game that they’ve reached at least 125 yards on the ground.

Vrabel pulls off ultimate coaching troll job

We will wrap it up with this play. Vrabel pulled off one of the only in-game trolls that I can ever remember in NFL football when he called the exact same trick play less than a minute of game time after the Patriots ran it. Here is the sequence of events to remind you how blatant this was.

3rd and 7: Patriots run “Philly Special” trick play for gain of 6.

4th and 1: False Start.

4th and 6: Pass incomplete, turnover on downs.

1st and 10: Titans run nearly identical “Philly Special” play for a gain of 21.

NFL Game Pass

Mariota wasn’t too far from scoring on this play. Jason McCourty was tracking Darius Jennings on the reverse action in man coverage and recognized the play just in time to save the Patriots the embarassment of Mariota taking this thing to the house. It’s nice execution from the Titans here as Jennings’ throw is on the money despite some pressure from Deatrich Wise and Mariota makes a nice grab for the big gain.

I can’t remember ever seeing a coach openly mock another coach with a playcall during a game, but that’s certainly what this felt like watching it live. It was truly the cherry on top of a beautiful performance from the Titans offense.