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All-22 Review: The Titans offense comes alive (kinda) in London

The Titans offense moved the ball effectively overseas, but it still didn’t result in many points. What can they build upon from this performance during the second half of the season?

NFL: International Series-Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers Steve Flynn-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.

Better late than never, right?

That phrase applies to both the timing of this article and the arrival of the Titans offense in the endzone in London. After moving the ball effectively, but settling for two field goals and a turnover in the first half, Tennessee finally broke through to the promised land at the end of their first drive of the second half. They would follow that up with a three and out, a missed field goal, and then another touchdown drive to finish the game, but a failed two-point conversion attempt tacked on a third straight loss for the Titans.

If you missed it you can get my full thoughts on the two-point decision here. In short, I agree with Mike Vrabel’s decision to go for the win but not the calls he used to do it. Despite the result, the Titans offense was much better in this game and offers some hope for the back half of the season. Tennessee once again failed to get chunk plays — more on that later — but they were successful on 3rd downs, converting 9 of 15 for a 60% success rate. That allowed them to control possession and keep the always dangerous Philip Rivers off the field. The Titans dominated time of possession 35:23 to 24:37 and ran 23 more plays than the Chargers did during the game.

After two straight weeks of being shut out of the end zone the Chargers game may have felt like a scoring explosion, but 19 points still won’t get it done. Let’s look at what went right and what went wrong for the Titans offense in London.

The blocking was much better with one exception

One of the most noticeable differences in the Titans offense in this game compared to what we saw against Buffalo and Baltimore was the blocking of the offensive line. They allowed just 2 sacks and 8 hurries on 39 drop backs during the game. While that’s not an amazing performance by any means, it’s certainly a big improvement from 11 sacks and 8 hurries on 28 drop backs the week before. The ground game racked up 164 yards on 33 attempts for an average of just under 5 yards per carry, a full yard per carry better than their 3.9 yards per attempt average.

They did all that despite what was, frankly, an abysmal game from Corey Levin. The second year guard from UT-Chattanooga was overwhelmed during his first career NFL start — subbing in for an injured Quinton Spain — and the Chargers took advantage of it. He was consistently the weak link up front and spent entirely too much time on the ground throughout the day.

I will try not to belabor this point — I don’t enjoy highlighting a player’s mistakes, especially a guy who is developing and was clearly not ready for the role he was forced into — but it has to be pointed out because it had a significant effect on the game. This is a good example of the struggles from Levin during the game. Darius Philon (No. 93) beats Levin with ease here. David Fluellen doesn’t help by being way late to recognize that his left guard is in trouble, but Levin’s miss blows this play up. Marcus Mariota does a fantastic job of escaping to avoid the sack and turn this in to a short gain.

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That wasn’t the only time that Levin got beat badly. Here, the Titans were looking to take a play action shot, but Levin is beat so quickly that Mariota is forced to take the quick checkdown — a positive adjustment by both LaFleur and his quarterback from the week prior.

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It wasn’t just isolated to pass protection either. Levin was a liability as a run blocker in this game as well. Here, the Titans have a beautiful lane opening up for Dion Lewis, but Levin gets beat by Corey Liuget who blows up the play. This one could have been a big run, but ends up going down as a one yard loss.

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Despite Levin’s struggles, the rest of the offensive line played very well for the majority of the game. This next snap was one of a couple weird plays at the start of a drive where the coaches mysteriously decided it was time to give David Fluellen a try. Nothing against Flu — he was very good in preseason and clearly earned a spot on this roster — but unless both Henry and Lewis simply cannot go he doesn’t need to be getting carries, especially backed up inside your own 10-yard line. Here, the blocking is quite good. Ben Jones, Josh Kline, and Jack Conklin do a great job of caving in the right side of the formation and Jonnu Smith gets a solid split block on Melvin Ingram to open the windback lane. MyCole Pruitt (No. 85) even has a lock on the safety playing up near the line. The only problem is that rather than running to daylight, Fluellen slams right in to a Chargers linebacker for little to no gain. He’d blow that pass protection referenced above a few plays later and then exit stage right from the back rotation. It was a bizarre decision from the coaches.

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Derrick Henry’s running style has been noticeably different this year in my opinion. It is clear that the coaches — or maybe even his own self-scouting — are in his head about bouncing runs. He is very clearly trying to take what’s there instead of constantly looking for the homerun and it shows in his stats. Despite his yards per carry being way down — 3.3 in 2018 compared to 4.5 and 4.2 in 2016 and 2017 — he’s got the 3rd lowest rate of negative runs in the NFL among backs with at least 50 carries at just 13%. His backfield mate, Dion Lewis, has the 3rd highest rate of negative runs at 27%.

Sometimes that’s a benefit. On the play below the left side of the line gets good push, but there isn’t really a hole. The Henry of the last two seasons may have stopped and doubled back trying to get outside and gain the edge, but 2018 Henry puts his head down and pushes the pile forward, picking up a solid 6 yard gain.

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However, this practice is also limiting his explosive playmaking ability. Take the next snap for an example. This zone run is really well blocked by the line and Henry has a clear lane to take this around the corner. Corey Levin and Josh Kline have both reached the second level linebackers and there is not an unblocked defender within 20 yards, but Henry puts his foot in the ground and slams it up inside for a gain of 2. Not an awful result, but he could have had much more here.

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Here’s another example. Again, the blocking here is as good as you could ask for. Taylor Lewan and Corey Levin collapse the left side of the Chargers front while Josh Kline and Luke Stocker lead Henry to the hole. Jonnu Smith does a nice job of making sure Lewan has the end pinned before climbing to pick up the linebacker. Henry hits the hole hard and picks up a nice gain, but he had a chance to take this run to the left of Smith’s block and find himself running free with just a safety to beat.

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This isn’t isolated to just the Chargers game either. Henry has been far more disciplined in his running style this year, but he may have gone too far. There has to be a happy medium between the guy that tried to bounce everything in 2016 and 2017 and the guy who is completely ignoring opportunities to get to the boundary in 2018. Henry is saying all the right things about self-improvement so there is some hope that we see him make strides in the back half of the year.

The line also blocked well for Henry’s counterpart. Dion Lewis was easily the more productive back on the day, rushing for 91 yards on 13 carries and then adding another 64 yards through the air. The Titans had some success with Lewis spreading the defense out and then running it at them. Here, they come out in 11 personnel with Jonnu Smith lined up as an offset fullback and three receivers split out wide. That opens up the box tremendously as you can see just 6 Chargers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage at the time of snap. Jack Conklin is able to use Melvin Ingram’s upfield momentum against him while Josh Kline executes a perfect reach block and Ben Jones climbs to cut the playside linebacker. Excellent work by all three of them to clear this lane for Lewis and he makes the most of it.

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Even when the blocking wasn’t perfect, Lewis was able to make it work and that’s the primary difference between him and Henry right now. Jones gets beat inside this time, but Lewis is able to quickly change course and scoot between Kline’s block and Smith’s kickout. Once in the open field Lewis is a monster, he gives Denzel Perryman (No. 52) the dead leg and picks up 10 more.

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This next play is one of the more memorable runs of the day. Lewis is trying to take this outside zone run right, but both Conklin and Smith miss their blocks, leaving him dead to rights well behind the line of scrimmage. However, Lewis is able to escape a couple would-be tacklers and peel back left for an 8-yard gain.

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This next play needs little description. It’s relatively well-blocked, but this is all on Lewis. He squirts through a small hole and then makes life miserable for the entire Chargers secondary. His balance is really his special skill as a player and it’s on full display here.

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Lewis was outstanding on Sunday and the move to bring in a fullback could be a sign of the backfield shifting more in his direction. His emergence as the NFL’s leading rusher over the last half of 2017 coincided with the Patriots shift to more 21 personnel featuring fullback James Develin clearing the way for Lewis.

The offensive line’s performance was encouraging and with the signs looking pretty positive that Quinton Spain and Josh Kline will be cleared to play Monday night, we could finally see them get a chance to get some real traction as a unit. The Titans have only had the regular starting five of Lewan, Spain, Jones, Kline, and Conklin fully healthy for one game this season: the Eagles game. It’s probably not a total coincidence that it was also the offense’s best overall performance of the year.

Matt LaFleur’s playcalling remains up and down

Matt LaFleur is clearly still finding his way as a playcaller and that’s hurting this team in the short run, but there is still some stuff to be excited about. Here’s an example. This is a 3rd and 1 call where the Titans go to 22 personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends) featuring Dion Lewis as the deep back and Derrick Henry as the fullback. It’s essentially a triple option where Mariota can give the dive to Henry or pull it out and run the option wide with Lewis. Here, he plays it safe and gives it to Henry who picks up the first, but a keep and pitch to Lewis could have resulted in a big play if they’d opted to do that. I would have loved to see something like this on the two-point conversion try and I expect we will see some variation of this look again.

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This next play is something that should be a staple of this offense. The Titans spread the Chargers out with Taywan Taylor, Corey Davis, and Tajae Sharpe in trips to the field side of the formation and Jonnu Smith lined up wide with a reduced split to the boundary. They motion Lewis out of the backfield and line him up stacked behind Smith. The three wide receivers pull the single high safety towards them and the motion to an empty set backs the linebackers off.

The Titans run a quick screen to Lewis and get Lewan, Levin, and Jones out in front to lead the way along with Smith giving them a big numbers advantage to that side of the field. The linebackers are easier for the offensive linemen to reach because of how deep they set for the empty look. From there, it’s just a matter of Lewis picking the right lanes and using his blocks to pick up about 16 yards. Really good design and execution from the Titans offense.

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This next play is an example of good design but poor execution. The Titans are running the read option shovel pass that teams love to use around the goal line these days. They get exactly the reaction from the Chargers defense that they wanted. Three defenders go wide with Lewis to the point that Josh Kline doesn’t have anyone to block as he pulls from the other side. Watch Lewan (No. 77) after he helps Levin wash down the 3-tech. He turns back left looking for someone to block instead of sealing off the backside linebacker who ends up tackling Smith short of the goal line. It’s sure looks like he should have been sealing up the backside while Kline kicked out left here. If he had, it would have been an easy touchdown for Smith.

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Aside from the two-point conversion attempts, this was the playcall I liked the least in this game. It’s 3rd and 2 in the red zone and the Titans run what is essentially a downfield screen for Corey Davis. It’s a play where there is only one option — the pass to Davis — and if it’s not there the play doesn’t work. The Titans have run this play a lot in 2018 to varying degrees of success. They’ve gotten some quick completions out of it, but it’s also the play they ran on 4th and goal in Miami where Davis got tackled short of the end zone.

It sure looks like the Chargers knew it was coming here. Two defenders are moving towards Davis before the ball even comes out and they force a high throw from Mariota to avoid what would have been a pick-6. I just don’t particularly enjoy packaged plays on 3rd and short. That’s a down and distance where there are so many things that would work. Why not give yourself multiple options rather than putting all your eggs in one basket? Especially when you have a mobile quarterback.

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LaFleur still does a few things that drive me nuts. It seems that he still doesn’t trust the offensive line and the run game on short yardage situations despite the fact that the Titans are converting on the ground at a much higher rate on than they are converting through the air. On 3rd and 4th down plays with 3 yards or less to go, the Titans have run 16 times with a success rate of 69% while passing 20 times with a 55% success rate per Sharp Football Stats. You can’t just line it up and run every time in those situations because you’ll become too predictable, but there is no reason to be throwing more than running right now. Maybe with an intact offensive line we will see LaFleur start to lean on the ground game in these situations more.

Marcus Mariota played much much better

Mariota was very good in this game. The numbers were solid — 24 of 32 (75%) for 237 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and a yards per attempt of 7.41. He was also sacked just twice despite a lot of pass protection issues coming from his left guard spot (a very tough place for pressure to come from).

While the play certainly hurt, part of me is glad that the famous “no interceptions in the red zone” streak finally came to a close. Obviously red zone interceptions are bad, but so is being too risk averse and settling for field goals. I don’t think Mariota spends a whole lot of time thinking about streaks or stats. He certainly doesn’t come across as that type of guy, but part of me has always wondered if that didn’t creep in to his sub-conscience in this area of the field over the past couple years.

Let’s take a quick look at that interception because it has been debated quite a bit. The Titans run quite a bit of window dressing on this to try to pull the linebackers out of position. There is the jet sweep action from Taywan Taylor, the swing action from Derrick Henry, and a pulling guard. Jonnu Smith even fakes like he’s going to lead block for Taylor at first before darting up the seam. All of those are designed to catch the eyes of the linebackers and pull them out of the middle of the field, but it doesn’t really work. Both linebackers just sit and read Mariota’s eyes the whole way. Melvin Ingram makes a great play to tip this pass at the line of scrimmage and make for an easy interception, but I think this pass is picked by the other linebacker even if Ingram never gets a hand on it. Watch him closely from both angles. It really looks like he’s undercutting Smith all the way.

I don’t think this is a terrible play from Mariota though. It’s another packaged type look that just simply didn’t fool the Chargers linebackers. This wound up being an enormous play though as it was 1st and goal here. Even if the Titans didn’t get the touchdown a field goal would have been near automatic from this range.

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This play is one of the snaps that looked like it was from the Baltimore tape. It was early in the game and it’s a play that the Titans run a ton. You may remember it as the play they couldn’t get right early in the season. It’s an intermediate zone beater type route concept and it works to perfection here. Sharpe (highlighted) is breaking wide open and Mariota is loaded up to throw it to him, but instead he pulls it down and takes the sack. I’m not sure what he saw that scared him off this throw here.

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The Titans came back to a very similar look again later in the game though. This time Mariota drills it in to Sharpe for the 1st down.

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This next play is an example of Mariota’s growing pains in the new offense. We’ve heard Dan Orlovsky and others talk about how your timing and reads are linked to your footwork. Here, Mariota is reading Taywan Taylor on the out route at the sticks first, but he’s not able to get separation at the top of the route (possible hold by the corner there, but it’s tough to tell). Mariota correctly moves to his second read which is Tajae Sharpe who is relatively wide open on the crossing route, but his feet don’t move with his eyes which causes him not to be ready to throw when he sees him. The Chargers have Adrian Phillips (No.31) lurking underneath, but there is plenty of room for him to float that ball in behind for Sharpe.

Not being ready to hit Sharpe causes him to move to his 3rd read which is an underneath check down for Davis. Davis is running a shallow cross that is designed to hold Phillips close to the line of scrimmage and create space for Sharpe running behind. Some criticized Davis for not getting to the sticks here, but if he gets that deep, Sharpe’s route is wasted. I think Davis was in the right spot here even though it left him with no chance of converting the 1st down even if he’d been able to hold on to the pass.

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While there were a couple mistakes, Mariota was mostly excellent during this game. His accuracy was fantastic as displayed on this big 3rd down conversion to Sharpe (again). He holds the linebacker and the safety with his eyes before coming back and hitting Sharpe despite pressure in his face (Levin again). These are the kind of throws he’s capable of when he’s feeling confident and it’s the reason that his skill set is so tantalizing. This is the kind of tight window throw with zip and accuracy that many quarterbacks can’t make. It’s the kind of throw that should give you hope as a Titans fan.

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Mariota’s decision making was mostly excellent as well. Here, the Titans wanted to take a shot downfield to either Taylor or Smith, but the Chargers played over top of Taylor and the read to Smith was less than clear — though I’m guessing Mariota might try that post route if its Delanie Walker running it — so he quickly checks down to a wide open Derrick Henry who rumbles for a big gain.

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We will finish with everyone’s favorite plays from London — the Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor drops. The Davis drop was particularly painful because it came on 3rd and 7 on the edge of field goal range with the Titans down 20-13. Starting with the good, the Titans get a single high, press man look from the Chargers and Mariota, correctly, goes to his best man-beater in Davis. Davis was shadowed all game by two-time Pro Bowler Casey Hayward all game — part of the reason why the Titans chose to attack elsewhere for much of the day — but when they got a man look they still trusted Davis to beat Hayward and he did.

Davis knows that Hayward is going to try to be funneling him back inside where he has help so he takes the free inside release and then slams on the brakes at the sticks and swims over to get outside. He has Hayward beat and the throw from Mariota is good, but Davis tries to grab the ball with one hand and drops it. Davis claimed that the ball got on him quicker than he expected, but I don’t know if I buy that. The end zone view shows his head is looking back at the ball all the way and he should have had plenty of time to reach out with two to grab it. This is the kind of play that shows both Davis’ massive potential (beating a Pro Bowl corner on a must win route) and his inexperience (reaching out with one hand when you don’t have to).

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Here is the other drop. This one was less damaging because it came on 1st and 10 and the Titans were able to convert a 3rd down two plays later, but it’s still very frustrating. This is a designed shot play off outside zone play action. My first reaction to the playcall is why in the world would LaFleur want to run a two-man pass concept where the two available receivers were MyCole Pruitt and Taywan Taylor? I suppose they’re trying to lull the Chargers in to thinking it’s clearly a run call, but it still just seems like a bad idea.

The design of the play itself isn’t bad though. They have Pruitt running a deep post with Taylor running a deep dig in behind it. It works well. Pruitt clears out the middle of the field while Taylor runs in to the space behind him. Mariota does a great job of stepping up to avoid Melvin Ingram’s rush and driving a perfect ball in to Taylor, but it hits him right in the hands and drops to the ground.

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As frustrating as the drops were, this was a pretty encouraging performance from the Titans offense. The run game finally got going and Jonnu Smith played his best game of the season in my opinion. Mariota was nearly perfect through the air against a tough Chargers secondary and the playcalling with a few glaring exceptions was much better.

Getting Quinton Spain and Josh Kline back for the Dallas game will be massive for this offense. The fact that Mariota is getting rid of the glove and now claims to have full feeling back in his throwing hand shouldn’t be overlooked either. Some of the hesitation that we’ve seen from him the last few weeks could still have been tied back to a lack of confidence in his grip as much as a lack of confidence in his receiving options.

It will be interesting to see how they work Jalston Fowler in to the gameplan as well as any changes that may have come from an extra week to spend self-scouting and making adjustments for the second half of the season. While LaFleur’s first 7 games haven’t exactly impressed, it’s important to remember this is his first time as an NFL playcaller. No matter how much you prepare for a job — football or non-football — it takes doing it in live situations for a while before you truly get comfortable and figure out what works for you. There is some hope to be taken from this Chargers game for the Titans offense. If things crash back down to the mess that were the Bills and Ravens games the panic button will be firmly on the table, but there is at least some reason to believe that won’t happen.