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.
Playing great defense in the modern NFL is hard. Rules continue to shift in favor of scoring, particularly in the passing game. Scoring is way up in 2018. Teams are averaging 24.2 points per game which would break the all-time record for the league of 23.6 points per game set back in 1948 (the post-merger NFL record of 23.4 was set in 2013).
It’s even harder when you’re playing an elite quarterback and it’s time for Titans fans to once again admit that Andrew Luck belongs in that class. The shoulder surgeries may have sapped a tiny bit of his arm strength, but it’s clear that he’s back to his pre-injury form. In fact, he may be even more terrifying now that he’s paired with a great offensive mind in Frank Reich.
That’s not to excuse the Titans defensive performance on Sunday though. They clearly didn’t do enough to make Luck uncomfortable, creating just 3 pressures during his 29 dropbacks. Just as both the pass rush and coverage deserved credit for shutting down Tom Brady a couple weeks ago, they both deserve blame for this performance. Let’s take a look at some examples of both.
Coverage busts help fuel Colts offense
The Titans secondary had been mostly outstanding over the last few weeks so it was surprising to see the Colts marching up and down the field at will against this group. There were certainly some coverage issues in this game from the Titans, but a lot of credit is also due to Andrew Luck. He’s the rare type of quarterback that doesn’t need a defense to play poorly in order to shred them.
Here’s an example of poor coverage and it’s one of the few times that Luck didn’t take advantage of it. Malcolm Butler (spotlighted) has a deep third responsibility in the Titans Cover 3 zone. The two tight ends to his side of the field both come vertical and then split off with Jack Doyle heading towards the post and Mo Alie-Cox taking the corner. Alie-Cox should very clearly be Butler’s responsibility, but the Titans corner has his eyes on Luck and doesn’t react to the route quick enough, leaving Alie-Cox wide open. Fortunately for Butler the throw misses, but this is the kind of stuff that has plagued his first season in Tennessee.
Butler wasn’t the team’s biggest issue on the back end in this game though. Adoree’ Jackson — who has been excellent all season — had easily his worst game of the year, allowing 10 catches for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns on 11 throws in to his coverage. The tape is a little kinder than the stats for Jackson.
This is the pass interference call that bailed the Colts out of bad field position and set up an early touchdown. The coverage is pretty much perfect, staying in Hilton’s hip pocket throughout the route. The issue comes at the end when Jackson seems to panic and swipe too early trying to knock the ball away. The pass interference flag is a bad call because the ball was clearly uncatchable for Hilton, but it results in a big play for the Colts nonetheless.
Here is the deep touchdown to Hilton. This goes against Jackson technically, but I believe Kevin Byard may actually be the one to blame in this case. The Titans appear to be playing either Cover 3 or single high man coverage. Unless the Titans are randomly in Cover 0 on a 1st and 10 (they’re not) or Byard was expecting Kenny Vaccaro to rotate back to the deep center (possible, but unlikely) it looks like Byard just bites really hard on play action here, leaving Jackson exposed one on one with Hilton. You know it’s going to be a bad day when even Byard is out of position.
Here’s the second touchdown allowed by Jackson and again, its pretty good coverage. He jumps the slant, but is able to recover and get back on top of Hilton’s fade. Luck’s back shoulder throw gives his receiver a chance to make a play and he does, hauling it in for a touchdown.
The Titans struggled with Indy’s seemingly constant barrage of play action looks. Here, Tennessee appears to be in Cover 2, but both inside linebackers and the corner to the top of the screen retreat downfield leaving nobody home to pick up Nyheim Hines out of the backfield. This is a tough play for Cover 2 to defend with two vertical routes to the same side of the formation. The Titans would have been OK if maybe just one intermediate defender dropped deep to help the safeties, but all three dropping makes it too easy for Andrew Luck to take the check down for a big gain.
The Titans defense wasn’t really as bad as the final score line would indicate. They contributed their part — blown coverage by Byard on the first Hilton touchdown and the blown coverage from the linebackers on the play above stand out the most — but great play from the Colts offense deserves the majority of the credit. Good offense is going beat good defense 9 times out of 10. After all, even a cornerback in great position can be beat by a perfect throw and catch.
The Colts also got a little help — not that they needed any — from the refs (the Jackson PI call) and from just regular, old-fashioned luck (not the QB). Here’s an example of the latter. You know it’s not your day as a defense when potential interceptions are getting batted down at the line of scrimmage.
The Colts are running a slant-flat pick play to the bottom of the screen and Luck has to get rid of the ball before the pick happens so he’s basically making this throw blind, having faith in his receivers to execute and be open. It’s hard to tell whether he’s throwing the slant or the flat here, but both Titans defenders (Vaccaro on the flat and Jackson on the slant) do an excellent job of navigating through traffic and remaining in great position to defend their man. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the throw had made it through, but the Titans defenders were in position to potentially make a big play. Credit Austin Johnson for a good play to read Luck’s eyes and get his hands in the passing lane though.
Two of the Colts five touchdown drives were of 33 yards or fewer so the offense and special teams certainly weren’t helping the defense during this game. The offense also struggled to give the defense any rest in the first half. After the Titans opening drive went 33 yards on 10 plays, their next four drives went like this: 3 and out, interception after 4 plays, 3 and out, 3 and out. That’s a total of 13 offensive plays over roughly a quarter and a half of game time.
The defense struggled and the lack of a “natural” pass rush is concerning, but considering the circumstances surrounding the game — defensive coordinator Dean Pees being removed from the booth due to a health scare and the offense/special teams leaving them hung out to dry for the entire first half — I don’t think it’s time to panic about the defense.
A few good moments overshadowed by the loss
The pass rush certainly wasn’t great in this game, but it also wasn’t as bad as some are making it out to be. The Colts offensive line is very good and Andrew Luck makes them look even better. This is a really nice rush from Brian Orakpo, but Luck just steps up and keeps his eyes downfield, eventually finding an open receiver for a first down in the red zone. The Titans got a good rush and they had good early coverage, but Luck still beats them. Luck elevates every piece of that Indianapolis offense.
Harold Landry has often attracted extra attention this season as the Titans most threatening pass rusher. Here, the Colts bring an extra offensive lineman in to the game to block Landry instead of leaving him one on one with a tight end. It’s not a phenomenal move by any means, but Landry does a nice job of reading Luck’s movement in the pocket and applying enough pressure to force an off-platform throw that falls incomplete.
Here’s the elite level pass rush move from Landry even though he doesn’t end up getting the sack. Landry gets a one on one against a tackle this time — a rare occurrence recently — and beats him like a drum with a quick dip and rip around the edge. Jacoby Brissett is looking right initially which helps him see the pressure and step up out of the way. Landry still may have gotten home if not for Orakpo also having a good edge rush from the opposite side as the two collided just a yard behind the quarterback here. The book on the Titans right now is to double Casey and chip Landry on pass rush downs. They need some other rushers to step up and help free these guys up.
Jurrell Casey hasn’t been as productive from a pass rush standpoint in recent weeks as he was early in the season — part of that is due to the extra attention discussed above — but he remains a major presence as a run defender. Here’s an example of what Casey can do against the run as he easily disposes of Colts center Ryan Kelly and closes to make the stop.
Jayon Brown also continues to do things that show how special he can be as a defender. Here, the Colts split rookie running back Nyheim Hines out wide and get a one on one look with Hines against Brown. Hines has sub-4.4 speed and played wide receiver in college before converting to running back so getting him one on one with a linebacker is a situation the Colts surely consider a mismatch in their favor. However, Brown does a beautiful job of staying patient against the slant and go and is in position to break up the pass at the goalline. Every week Brown does something special for this defense, even on the bad days.
Rashaan Evans had some good moments in this one too. This blitz from his inside linebacker position shows the potential for him as he continues to get more comfortable in the defense at the NFL level. Again, Luck is able to avoid, but Evans gets quick pressure and moves him off his spot at least.
And last we have one of the most impressive individual defensive plays the Titans have made this season. Sharif Finch (spotlighted) is able to shed a block from Jack Doyle (one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL), jump over him, and then not only make the tackle, but force the fumble as well. The Titans are unable to recover in bounds for what could have been a momentum swinging play, but that shouldn’t take away from Finch’s effort here. His play on limited snaps should be considered a bright spot for this defense.
The Titans defense will have better days moving forward. Sunday’s performance was the result of a mixture of bad defense, good offense, and bad luck. I certainly don’t think the defense is broken or suddenly bad. Instead, I’d chalk it up as a bad day at the office and a reminder that the team could still use some more help in the pass rush. On to Houston.