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All-22 Review: Two steps forward, one giant leap back for Titans offense

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What went wrong with the Tennessee offense in Indianapolis?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-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 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 narrative was so simple. After getting past some early season injury issues and getting their new playcaller broken in, the Titans offense was finally starting to click. The team that shredded Dallas and New England for a combined 62 points was the real Titans offense, not that dysfunctional, broken down unit we saw previously.

I was ready to believe it. Now I don’t know what to believe.

Are the Titans an improving offense who had a bad day at the office? Or are they a bad offense that had a couple random good performances? I suppose the rest of the schedule will answer that question for us, but I can’t remember being further into a Titans season and having no idea what to make of the team I’m watching.

I’m going to skip any big stat analysis up top here this week because there just isn’t anything that interesting about the numbers from this blowout. Let’s just jump in to the tape and see what sense we can make of this mess.

Marcus Mariota reverted back to his early season struggles

The offensive line has taken much of the blame from the fan base for this performance by the offense, but I think the primary issue was the quarterback in this one. After playing two of the best games of his young career in Weeks 9 and 10, Mariota played one of his worst in Week 11. The stat line was rough — 10 of 13 for 85 yards (6.5 YPA), 1 interception, and 4 sacks — but the tape was even rougher.

Let’s start with the very first drive of the game before all the sacks and before the game got out of hand. The Titans are running a play action pass and the pocket is perfect. Not only that, but his primary read, Tajae Sharpe (spotlighted), is wide open. This should be an automatic throw for a big gain. Instead, Mariota checks it down to Jonnu Smith in the flat for a gain of 9 on 1st and 10. A 9 yard gain on 1st down is never a terrible result, but the crosser to Sharpe would have gained at least 20, maybe more. The only reason I can think of for him not throwing the ball is the linebacker sitting near the top of the Colts logo at midfield, but he’s not moving and he’s not in the window that Sharpe was running into. He’s a non-threat to that route.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans had an opportunity for another big play just moments later and failed to capitalize again. It’s a designed fullback wheel route off a play action fake. This is one of my favorite play designs and the Titans get the exact reaction from the defense that they’re hoping for. The Colts are in single high man coverage with a safety responsible for covering Luke Stocker out of the backfield. The safety responds to the run look and by the time he realizes it is play action, Stocker has run by him and is wide open.

The play fails for a couple reasons. First, the Colts get instant penetration from former Titan Al Woods who jumps the snap count. He’s really offsides, but whatever, we’ll get to some worse calls/non-calls later. Josh Kline didn’t have a great game, but I’m not putting this one on him. Sometimes a guy is going to jump a snap and shoot a gap and there really isn’t too much you can do about it. Dion Lewis does an excellent job of cutting him down to buy Mariota time, but the presence of a blue jersey in the backfield makes the quarterback slide off his spot and he ends up having to make the throw from an awkward platform. He ends up leaving the ball short of where he probably wanted it which makes Stocker’s catch tougher. Stocker still had a chance to make the play and I’m sure he would like to have this one back, but it’s a much tougher play than it would have been if the ball is out in front of him.

So really here you’ve got the ripple effect of a guy jumping the snap playing itself out 20 yards downfield. There are reasons for the failure of each aspect of this play that all stem from that good play from Woods, but none of the Titans involved — Kline, Mariota, or Stocker — were able to make up for that initial adversity along the way.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s the play that would end this drive a few plays later. It’s 3rd and 8 just inside the 35-yard line so the Titans are in field goal range. They motion Cameron Batson across the formation to get a man-zone read for Mariota. Nobody comes with Batson and the safety to the side of the three bunched receivers drops down to the line of scrimmage while the corners play off with outside leverage. That should tell Mariota that he’s got a Cover 3 look to deal with.

Even better for the Titans, the Colts defenders tip their hand with the blitz pre-snap. No. 23 and No. 34 both telegraph that they’re coming and Mariota appears to catch it pre-snap. The Colts don’t adjust. They come with the blitz just as they tipped it, but Mariota looks like he isn’t ready for it. He’s got Tajae Sharpe (spotlighted) open flashing behind the bailing linebacker for the first down. He’s also got Cam Batson in the flat who would have some work to do to get the first down, but would be a safe option if he was concerned about the throw over the middle. Unless someone ran the wrong route this is really bad from Mariota. In this down/distance/field position you simply cannot take a sack. You have to have a plan for pressure, especially when the defense shows it to you pre-snap.

Could the offensive line have done a better job handling the blitz? There’s no doubt. The Titans have a numbers problem pre-snap to the side that Indy is blitzing from. Josh Kline looks bad here, but he’s doing the best he can in a situation where the Titans are just out-numbered up front. Linemen are taught to handle the most urgent threat first when they find themselves in a spot where they have to choose. Kline chose correctly even if his execution wasn’t pretty. Dion Lewis ends up not blocking anyone here and that’s a problem. He has to pick up the free rusher from the blitz side. Instead, he looks like he’s trying to help Quinton Spain who doesn’t really need help.

This is a bad play on several levels, but if a defense is going to bring 6, the quarterback has to make them pay for it by having a plan and taking advantage of a sparsely defended field. Mariota must improve in this aspect of his game.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another missed opportunity from the Titans offense. It’s 3rd and 7 and the Colts bring another blitz. This time they bring a safety right in to the A gap. Ben Jones either doesn’t see the blitz coming or was sliding towards Spain all the way which leaves Dion Lewis to pick up the free rusher again. Lewis gets creamed and falls back right in to Mariota’s lap which forces him to move off his spot again. However, he’s able to escape this time with plenty of room. It’s hard to fault Mariota for not seeing Batson streaking down the sideline wide open here. He was just trying to keep the play alive and is likely scanning for running lanes as much as he is actually looking downfield. He ends up trying to fit a tough throw in to Sharpe while running to his left and it falls incomplete.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s a play from the next drive. The Titans are still down just 7-0 at this point, but it’s 2nd and 18 after an extremely rare call of offensive pass interference on a screen pass (again, we’ll get back to that later). The Colts rush just four, but the Titans do a pretty good job of picking it up. Jack Conklin is in some trouble early against Jabaal Sheard (No. 93), but does a good job of recovering and locking him out.

Mariota has room to step up in the pocket, but he decides to take off instead, scrambling for 9 yards. Again, this is much easier said than done, but if he keeps his eyes up, Corey Davis (spotlighted) is going to break wide open at the first down marker. It’s actually the exact same concept that Mariota hit Davis on early in the Patriots game when he escaped from the pocket and then fired it on the move for a 20-plus yard pickup, but in this game his eyes often dropped when he started to move in the pocket. Picking up 9 here, again, isn’t terrible, but he could have had more.

NFL Game Pass

Fortunately, the Titans would get a really nice conversion on the very next play that features everything about Mariota that’s promising. It’s 3rd and 9 and — you guessed it — the Colts are blitzing again. They show pressure left pre-snap, but then bring it from the right. The Titans do an outstanding job of picking it up, particularly Quinton Spain who comes all the way from left guard to pick up the nickel blitz from the right. Mariota does his part as well, gliding left to a safe spot in the pocket and then rifling a perfect pass to Corey Davis on the in-cut. These are the moments that give hope.

NFL Game Pass

But then, just two plays later you get the interception. The Colts appear to be in a Tampa 2 zone defense (look at how deep the Mike linebacker is and how he immediately runs with the seam route). I believe Mariota expected this to just be Cover 2 and he’s looking to hit what some refer to as the “honey hole” in that defense — the open area behind the corner who is sitting on flat routes and the deep half safety. In Tampa 2 the safeties play wider because they aren’t responsible for that seam route down the middle and that makes that hole smaller, but a good throw can still beat it.

Mariota is not expecting the corner to sag with the vertical route here. That player is usually responsible for driving down on Derrick Henry’s out route from the slot against this pattern distribution, but Mariota stares this one down and the corner sees where he’s going and follows it right to the ball. It’s not a terrible idea to make the throw, but he throws both late and behind his intended target in this case and the result is a bad interception. Even more unfortunate is the fact that Darius Jennings has the Mike linebacker roasted on the seam route and there are some late crossers from the backside that are going to be open as well if Mariota moves off his first read. Again though, I understand why he went with this throw. It was really more poor execution that did him in here.

NFL Game Pass

After that throw, Mariota appeared even more gun shy. Watch him here as he takes off running on 2nd and 6 despite having multiple targets available. I spotlighted Corey Davis here because he’s the first read on this flood concept. The Colts don’t really disguise their coverage pre-snap at all. This is single high man all the way which should tell Mariota that Davis is going to be open as long as he has outside leverage coming out of his break. Davis isn’t wide open by any means, but he has a step and nothing but green grass ahead of him.

Even if that throw is too risky for Mariota on 2nd and 6, he has Jonnu Smith open on the scrape route right in front of him. As good as Mariota is with the ball in his hands, Smith is better. He needs to get this ball to his tight end and let him work — even more importantly, let him take the hit. The Titans would punt after a failed 3rd and 1 try on the next play.

NFL Game Pass

The next drive the Titans find themselves down 17-0 and in real trouble all of a sudden, but the same issues with the offense persist. After a screen pass to Batson for 5 yards and a 1 yard run by Henry, the Titans face 3rd and 4. The protection is good and Mariota holds the defenders in the center of the field and then looks right towards Anthony Firkser who is standing right at the sticks, but for some reason he doesn’t pull the trigger, opting instead to try to take off despite the Colts having Darius Leonard spying him the whole way. As soon as Leonard sees the quarterback start to step up, he comes after him and gets the sack.

NFL Game Pass

Mariota mostly stuck with safe throws only after the interception. Here’s another example. He takes the safe underneath ball to Jonnu Smith for a short gain rather than waiting and hitting a wide open Corey Davis on the deep dig. Maybe Smith was his first read on this play and he simply hit him, but it sure looks like the Titans could have had something bigger downfield developing.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another avoidable sack. Colts come on a delayed blitz — something that all teams should be doing against the Titans until they figure out how to deal with it — but the pocket is fine and Mariota had both Batson (running the quick slant to the bottom of the screen) and Smith (spotlighted) open, but decides to tuck it and runs directly in to a sack.

NFL Game Pass

Mariota’s ability to cycle through reads quickly is one of his better attributes, but sometimes he almost seems to rush through them. This is an example. He starts by looking at the double slants on the right side with Batson and Davis. The hook/curl defender doesn’t follow Batson which means Davis isn’t open so Mariota quickly moves on to the backside of the play where Sharpe is running a wheel route with Firkser attacking the seam. Sharpe is absolutely wide open for what would have been a massive gain (if not a touchdown), but Mariota’s feet barely even set before he moves off him and looks to run. Another unnecessary hit and another missed opportunity.

NFL Game Pass

The play where Mariota gets injured is another play where he could have gotten rid of the ball, but chose to hold on to it. I don’t think this is entirely on the quarterback though. Davis (yellow arrow) is open, but he’s not wide open and I can’t fault Mariota for wanting to get to another read. Josh Kline gets beat inside for the sack and takes away his chance to get to the backside of this concept where he would have found at least one open option.

NFL Game Pass

I don’t want to be too hard on Mariota. He’s a very talented player and just last week we saw him using his mind to beat the brakes off a Bill Belichick defense. The problem is his inconsistency. All quarterbacks have bad games and good games. Tom Brady was awful against the Titans in that game and we’ve seen Blake Bortles shred a defense before (remember Week 16 in 2016?). What separates a good quarterback from a bad one is the frequency of the good and bad games.

Right now, Mariota is a 50-50 quarterback. Some weeks, he shows up and can do no wrong. Other weeks we looks like he’s seeing ghosts. For the Titans to take the next step, they need these bad performances to become the exception.

That’s not to put the blame for this one all on Mariota. The defense was awful and the offensive line had some issues as well. Mariota could have played well and the Titans may still have lost, but it’s safe to say that the quarterback will want to put this game behind him as soon as possible.

Run blocking was a mess early on

Mariota didn’t get much help from his running game early on either. Here is the very first play of the game. The Titans are running what appears to inside zone. I’ve diagrammed the blocking responsibilities pre-snap below. The Colts defensive tackles both shift which means the Titans offensive line must adjust their assignments accordingly, but Ben Jones and Quinton Spain don’t appear to be on the same page. Spain should be climbing to the second level to block No. 50 while Jones should be reaching No. 92. Instead, it looks like both linemen try to climb to No. 50, leaving No. 92 as an unblocked defender in the backfield for Dion Lewis to deal with. It’s not too hard to see how this happens. Jones thinks No. 92 is heads up on Spain which would make him Spain’s responsibility, but Spain sees him as an inside shade (which he is) and that makes him Jones’ responsibility.

Lewis is able to make him miss and pick up a couple yards, but these kind of blocking miscommunications shouldn’t be happening this far in to the season for two veteran guys who have played together for three years now.

NFL Game Pass

Quinton Spain wasn’t the guy at fault on that last play (at least not by traditional zone blocking rules), but he didn’t have a great game as a run blocker. Here, he gets beat by former Titan Al Woods (No. 99) who had an excellent game. This play was designed to windback to the left (right on the screen) behind pulling guard Josh Kline, but Lewis gets cut off by Woods before he can get there.

NFL Game Pass

It certainly wasn’t just Spain though. The entire interior line struggled against the Colts who frequently played defensive ends like Jabaal Sheard (No. 93) inside at defensive tackle. The Titans actually have a great look for this playcall here. The Colts are loaded up on the weak side of the formation and the Titans are running another designed windback to the strong side where they have a numbers advantage. The only problem is that Josh Kline gets whipped inside by Sheard which blows up the entire play. Both Kline and Jack Conklin are expecting Sheard to stay in the B gap, and are completely out of sorts when he jumps in to the A gap and is replaced by a run blitzing linebacker. It’s too bad too because Darius Leonard (No. 53) had run himself completely out of position and the Titans had a chance for a huge hole on the right side.

NFL Game Pass

This was one of the more disappointing plays of the game. The Titans have a 3rd and 1 and try to just run a simple dive play up the middle. Kline, Conklin, Stocker, and MyCole Pruitt (No. 85) all do a great job, but Ben Jones and Jonnu Smith both get beat inside and their defenders are able to make the stop on Lewis short of the first down marker, resulting in a Titans punt.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s another bad moment from Spain later in the game. He gets whipped by No. 96 which gives Lewis no shot from the beginning. You can also the difference that Mariota’s presence makes in the run game here. Watch the defensive end No. 94. He crashes down on the dive with zero hesitation because he has no fear of Blaine Gabbert pulling the ball and taking off on a keeper. Gabbert is fast, but being fast and being a good runner aren’t always the same thing. The end doesn’t play this so aggressively if Mariota is in the game.

NFL Game Pass

I thought the offensive line played fine when it came to pass protection in this game. Jack Conklin has caught a lot of flak for his play in this game, but I don’t believe it’s warranted. He wasn’t really an issue at all. If anyone is to blame up front, it’s the interior guys. Spain, Kline, and Jones all had bad moments throughout the game. It’s become a repetitive issue for the team over the past two years now and it’s something that Jon Robinson must address this offseason. In the short term, I think I would at least consider giving Dennis Kelly a shot at right guard and either moving Kline to center or to the bench and see if that helps. Kelly is arguably the Titans 3rd best offensive lineman right now.

The Titans got called for a couple really weird penalties

First, this in no way is meant to put the blame for this loss on the officials. The Titans played awful and deserved to lose. That being said, they got called for two of the weirdest penalties that I’ve ever seen in this game.

First, when’s the last time you saw a wide receiver called for offensive pass interference on a screen play? Tajae Sharpe was whistled for just that on this play. By the letter of the law I suppose this is a correct call, but I have seen receivers do this for years and years and years and never once seen it flagged. I’m not sure if that’s something they are trying to crack down on now, but I’ll be keeping an eye on receivers blocking for screens moving forward.

NFL Game Pass

This next one is even more ridiculous. They flagged Corey Davis for an illegal block above the waist here which is defined as when an offensive player “blocks an opponent (from behind) in the back above the opponent’s waist, or uses his hands or arms to push an opponent from behind in a manner that affects his movement, except in close-line play”. Davis barely puts a hand on the defender’s shoulder. There is zero reason for this to be called. This called changed the down and distance from 2nd and 10 to 1st and 20. Mariota throws his interception on the next snap. Would the Titans have run the same play on 2nd and 10 as they did on 1st and 20? Maybe, maybe not. Either way this is a totally ridiculous call.

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Derrick Henry put together some good runs late

If you want a silver lining from this game, it’s probably the play of Derrick Henry in the second half. He put together some nice runs late and looked like a guy trying to earn a bigger role in the offense.

This is an example of what the outside zone run should look like (besides Spain not getting a bigger piece of No. 55). It’s really a great job by Henry of being decisive and hitting the hole with speed.

NFL Game Pass

Here’s a run that wasn’t blocked quite as well, but Henry makes the most of it. Jack Conklin doesn’t get any movement against Sheard on the right side so Henry cuts it back and runs through at least three tackles before finally going down after an 11-yard gain. This is the back that Titans fans have wanted Henry to be all along.

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It’s pretty easy to run when the defense is backed off expecting pass. That’s a big part of what’s going on with this next play, but Henry still does a great job of getting through the hole and then adding yards to the end of the run with physicality.

NFL Game Pass

There really wasn’t a whole lot to like about the Titans offense in this game. Mariota had one of his worst games of 2018, the line struggled to open holes for the backs in the first half, and they just generally seemed sloppy. Both Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry dropped screen passes in this game. It was just one of those days.

The Titans must figure out how to make defenses pay for blitzing and spying Mariota on 3rd downs. The only way to get them to stop will be to figure out a way to beat it consistently. If they don’t, the walls will continue to close in around Mariota on the game’s most important down.

Tennessee is currently the NFL’s ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team. They’re capable of showing up and destroying one of the league’s best teams one week and then looking completely incompetent against a mediocre team the next. Which version of the Titans will show up in Houston on Monday night?

For more Titans analysis follow me on Twitter @MikeMiracles.