The 2018 Tennessee Titans are not a good football team.
Some people realized this quicker than others, but through 12 weeks of the season, it has become clear. This team is not built to compete in 2018.
That doesn’t mean they are a bad football team. They just simply aren’t good enough.
Not that it’s been an easy first season for Mike Vrabel...
There’s plenty of factors one could try to blame (including extreme weather delays, Mariota’s damaged nerve, Delanie Walker’s season-ending injury, poorly timed drops, the wide receiver who quit after a few games, the General Manager who didn’t add more receiving talent, the inexperience of the rookie head coach and first-time play caller, the hospitalization of the defensive coordinator during a game, the inept offensive line, the lack of effective pass rushers, and so on and so on), but the fact remains that barring a miraculous run-of-the-table over the next 5 weeks, the Tennessee Titans’ 2018 season is likely already over.
This team will need to make some serious improvements to the personnel during the offseason, but there are things they can do over the final five games to help prepare them for next year.
In the meantime, let’s discuss some changes the Titans should make for the remainder of their schedule in order to best position themselves for a successful 2019 offseason and beyond.
Switch Up the Offensive Line
Perhaps the biggest failure of the Titans season has been the performance of the offensive line. The interior will need to be totally reconstructed for 2019.
The Titans will need to know exactly how many new offensive linemen to acquire. The first step is gaining a full understanding of the caliber of players currently on the roster.
The first order of business should be moving Josh Kline to the bench. It is no secret that Kline’s play has been detrimental to the entire rest of the offense.
Per @PFF, #Titans' Kline allowed 9 pressures, 8 QB hurries and 1 sack against #Texans.— John Glennon (@glennonsports) November 27, 2018
Here's a full list of pressures, sacks:
Kline (9 pressures, 1 sack)
Lewan (3 pressures, 0 sacks)
Conklin (3 pressures, 1 sack)
J. Smith (2 pressures, 1 sack)
B. Jones (1 pressure, 1 sack)
I’d like to see the Titans tinker with swing tackle Dennis Kelly and current starting right tackle Jack Conklin to find the best combination for the right side of the line.
Conklin hasn’t been as bad as advertised, but he has certainly looked slower this year after recovering from a torn ACL. Is Conklin better suited to play guard? Is Kelly a viable option at right tackle? Or vice versa? The front office needs answers to these questions to help their decision-making come March.
And don’t forget about Corey Levin, the 2nd-year former 6th-round pick, who replaced an injured Quinton Spain during the London game against the Chargers. As Mike broke down already, Levin didn’t perform very well in that opportunity. But perhaps he should receive another chance to show if he can play in this league, whether it be at guard or at center.
The combination I’d most like to see the Titans try for the remainder of this year would be to insert Dennis Kelly at right guard, leave Ben Jones and Jack Conklin in place, and see if replacing Kline improves Jones’ and Conklin’s play at all.
If Dennis Kelly turns out to be anything more than serviceable at right guard, that could mean one less important position to fill in the offseason.
Ride Derrick Henry to the Finish Line
The Titans signed Dion Lewis to a 4-year, $19.8M contract over the offseason and have proceeded to treat him like a feature back.
In total, Lewis has 129 carries for 428 yards and 43 receptions for 311 yards, a total of 172 touches. Compare that to Henry’s 118 carries for 434 yards and 10 receptions for 73 yards, a total of 128 touches.
Lewis is receiving about 60% of the running back workload against Henry’s approximate 40%.
Highest percentage of carries resulting in a loss:— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 27, 2018
1. Tevin Coleman: 19.7
2. Dion Lewis: 18.6
3. Adrian Peterson: 15.9
4. Isaiah Crowell: 14.2
5. Joe Mixon: 13.4
6. LeSean McCoy: 13.2
7. Lamar Miller: 12.7
8. Matt Breida: 12.6
9. Peyton Barber: 12.42
10. Jordan Howard: 12.35
According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, Henry has a success rate of 47%, ranked 20th among 33 qualifying runners. Henry has the 8th highest DVOA of those 33 runners.
Meanwhile, Lewis has a success rate of just 34%, good for 33rd of the 33 qualifying runners, and he ranks 32nd in DVOA.
The interior offensive line may be broken, but Lewis is no longer mitigating that disaster. Running behind the same offensive line, Derrick Henry is gaining positive yards at a higher rate than any running back in the league, with a considerably higher success rate than Lewis.
Henry has been the Titans “2nd back” for going on three seasons now. It’s time for the team to figure out if Henry can be what a “feature back” in this league, and they won’t find out unless they let him prove that he either can or cannot perform in that role.
If the result is disappointing, at least you know that he’s not your guy moving forward.
If he performs well, maybe you’ve discovered something. If he’s not in the Titans’ longterm plans, at least take the opportunity to “show him off” to the rest of the league and increase his value as a trade asset before his contract is up.
Maybe he’ll even jumpstart a Titans rushing attack that currently ranks 29th in the league with 3.9 YPC — a number that is buoyed substantially by Marcus Mariota’s 5.3-yard average on his 53 carries.
(Corey Davis recorded the team’s longest carry of the season on Monday night with his 39-yard end-around against the Texans!)
Give Harold Landry More Snaps
Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are both set to become free agents at the end of this season. Both players have been massive disappointments throughout 2018, with Morgan missing a big chunk of the season and Orakpo appearing to be finally losing his battle with Father Time.
That means more likely than not, Harold Landry is going to be one of your starting outside linebackers next season, which is a good thing for this Titans defense.
Against the Texans, Landry was in for 36 of 65 defensive snaps, just 55%.
In total, Landry has played 50.07% of defensive snaps this season according to Pro Football Reference. Meanwhile, Brian Orakpo has played 67.62% of the snaps. Let’s invert those numbers for the last five games.
Prepare Harold Landry to step into a bigger role next year by giving him more opportunities to learn, to make mistakes, and to make plays throughout the remainder of 2018.
Give Cameron Batson More Touches
Cameron Batson is an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech that was called up to the active roster following the release of Nick Williams.
All he’s done since then is make plays.
UDFA rookie Cameron Batson @KillaCam_3_ gets separation against Byron Jones - playing better than most CBs in the league right now - for a big third-down conversion. Mariota staring down the pressure and driving the throw #TENvsDAL pic.twitter.com/kg4nZWCxjZ— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) November 6, 2018
Maybe Batson is nothing more than a 4th receiver capable of flashing in a small, gadget-based role.
Or maybe Batson is a gem of a undrafted free agent who could alleviate some of the Titans’ receiver woes.
The only way to find out is to give him more opportunities and see how he performs.
Despite an average of just 3.2 Air Yards per target (the distance each target travels beyond the line of scrimmage), Batson is averaging over 10 yards per catch. The majority of his targets have been screen plays caught behind the line of scrimmage, yet the rookie is averaging a first down on every reception.
Since really joining the receiver rotation in week 8, Batson has played about 50% of the offensive snaps. He’s the Titans’ second-best receiver right now behind Corey Davis. Davis has played nearly 90% of the team’s offensive snaps this season. I’d like to see Batson get closer to 70% over the final five games.
That’s how the team will find out if they discovered anything in this speedster out of Lubbock. Give him more snaps (and more early-read routes) so they know just how glaring their receiver problem is heading into next season.
Run the Offense for the Players, Not the Plays
It’s never easy for a team to admit when they are no longer playing for a chance at the postseason. And until the Titans are mathematically eliminated, there won’t be a person in that building who doesn’t believe they can still make the playoffs.
But the reality of the situation is that this first-year coaching staff needs to do some serious self-evaluation over the final five weeks and determine what their players actually do well... and more importantly, what they don’t do well.
Vrabel: "I believe that players are more important than plays, and it’s always going to be about that."— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) January 22, 2018
I don’t expect the Titans to do anything drastically different, but I would really like to see them take their own words to heart and remember this idea that “players are more important than plays.”
I can say definitively that Luke Stocker receiving a crucial 4th-and-1 carry — a carry that Paul Kuharsky points out is his first rushing attempt since high school — is not a situation where players are more important than plays, especially given Vrabel’s explanation of the playcall:
Vrabel at the podium now on the 4th and 1 Stocker call: it’s a play that we had seen have some success on film against their goal line #Titans— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) November 27, 2018
That doesn’t sound like a play being less important than the players — in fact, that sounds like a situation where the play was the only important factor in the equation.
The Titans simply do not have the personnel to run the offense they’ve been trying to run this season. They don’t have the blocking tight ends needed to pull off the 2TE heavy run formations. They don’t have the hammering fullback needed to convert a FB dive on 4th-and-1 (although they did two weeks ago). They don’t have the offensive line personnel necessary to “establish the run” by going up the middle repeatedly on first and second down and then running routes that take time to develop downfield.
Turn these weaknesses into strengths. Don’t ask Jonnu Smith to be a blocker — split him out and create mismatches against linebackers (a la Eric Ebron with the Colts). Don’t ask Dion Lewis to be a power back. Don’t ask Luke Stocker to be a fullback. In short, put these players in positions where they can actually succeed!
The coaching staff all season has forced players into roles they do not fit in order to run the offense they wish they had, rather than designing an offense that suits the strengths of the players. Sounds awfully familiar! (Emphasis on “awful”)
An obvious goal for the design of any offense should entail creating plays out of personnel groupings that utilize the offense’s best 11 players. It’s why the Patriots have morphed from system to system throughout Tom Brady’s career as the supporting cast around him changed. It’s why Sean McVay’s Rams run 99% of their plays from 11 personnel.
So it is frustrating that the Titans have routinely trotted out MyCole Pruitt and Luke Stocker as a large part of their offense. Those are two players I would certainly not rank among the best 11, yet one or both of them have played on over 55% of the Titans offensive snaps this season.
And that’s the key word for me concerning the offense: frustrating. There just seems to be so many questionable decisions that have no explanation. Mike detailed that frustration very well in his Winners and Losers article earlier in the week, so I’m going to quote him here with writing that deserves to be repeated:
What bothers me even more than [the decision to give Luke Stocker his first career carry on a crucial 4th-and-1 attempt] (if that’s possible) is insisting on continuing to call run plays on 2nd and long. The Titans called a Lewis handoff on a 2nd and 13 during this game and I nearly flipped the coffee table. What’s the best realistic result there? 3rd and 6 or 7? That’s not a desirable outcome and that’s your best case scenario. In this case the Titans gained 4 on the play, bringing up a 3rd and 9 which yielded a Mariota sack and a subsequent punt. They may as well have punted on 2nd down.
I don’t think the Titans had to completely abandon the run, but when it’s not working to the point that your backs are averaging just 2.4 yards per carry while your quarterback is literally perfect through the air, maybe adjust the gameplan to take advantage of what’s effective? Is that too much to ask? What about getting the ball to Corey Davis more than 5 times in a game where he’s turning in huge plays every single time he touches it? How about finding a way to get Cameron Batson involved more as well? He’s a guy that seems to have some juice every time he touches it, but he finished this game with just one target which he caught and turned into a 13 yard gain. I understand the Titans want to be some tough, physical running team, but that ship sailed weeks ago. It’s time to go with what works for the rest of 2018.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s been some inspired moments of offensive coordination by LaFleur this season. But unfortunately, we’ve seen an equal amount of confusing playcalls and player usage that simply needs to be eradicated from the offense.
Matt LaFleur needs to show over the final five games that he is capable of adapting, both in-game and in-season. Failure to adapt is ultimately what lost the previous staff their jobs. Recognize that the players are incapable of running “the system” and take a different approach. Avoid setting them up to fail (like, you know, asking Jonnu Smith to block J.J. Watt one-on-one).
The Titans can still play to win every game this season while also preparing for next year. By committing to a few minor adjustments, maybe they’ll even get lucky and somehow make the playoffs. We can dream, right?