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All-22 Review: Offensive line woes spoil a near-perfect game from Marcus Mariota

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The Titans have a problem in the trenches.

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

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.

When your quarterback goes 22 of 23 for 303 yards and 2 touchdowns without turning the ball over once, you are supposed to win the game. Here’s the list of quarterbacks who have completed 90-plus percent of their passes for over 300 yards in a game in NFL history:

Craig Morton (September 27, 1981)

Marcus Mariota (November 26, 2018)

End of list.

Since 1950, there have been nine other quarterbacks who have completed over 90-percent of their passes for at least 200 yards (minimum 20 attempts) in a game. Their teams were 8-1 in those games with the sole loss belonging to the 2018 Raiders who lost to the Broncos earlier this year despite Derek Carr’s 29 of 32 for 288 yards and a touchdown stat line.

Marcus Mariota’s numbers over the four games since he shed the special glove that was helping him deal with a nerve injury are even more impressive: 69 of 89 (77.5%), 896 yards, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception, and 9.6 yards per attempt. That yards per attempt number is elite efficiency in the passing game.

So how did the Titans lose a game where their quarterback put up such prolific stats? There are lots of reasons. It starts with 7 rushes for negative yards or no gain, 6 sacks, and 6 offensive penalties. The Titans had 55 offensive snaps and that makes 19 negative plays/penalties. That’s a lot to overcome for an offense no matter how well your quarterback throws the ball.

Corey Davis was great but needs help

While the stats haven’t always been there, I believe Corey Davis has been great all year. In this game he was monstrously productive despite only being “officially” targeted four times — tied for his lowest total of the season. He turned those four targets in to 96 receiving yards and a touchdown while also adding another 39 yards on the ground and another 33 yards on a defensive pass interference call that he drew. That’s 168 yards on the 6 plays that he was involved in throughout the game.

It started early as the Titans went right to Davis on the first drive. This is a simple deep out, but Davis easily beats Jonathan Joseph and is open for an accurate, well-timed throw from Mariota.

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On the very next play the Titans went back to Davis again. They use a pre-snap motion with Tajae Sharpe to give Mariota a man-zone read. Nobody follows Sharpe across the formation so Mariota knows he’s got zone. The Texans appear to be in a pattern-matching quarters look which leaves Davis one-on-one with rookie safety Justin Reid. Mariota likes the matchup and decides to throw it up. Reid tries to ride Davis down and make a play on the ball, but really pushes off at the end to try and make the interception which draws the flag. I like this aggression from Mariota to attack downfield though. It is so hard on defensive backs in the NFL in 2018, especially when they’re one on one against a big, fast receiver like Davis. These are calculated risks that I would like to see Mariota continue to take.

Sidenote: Reid is going to be a really good player for Houston.

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Davis’ early success created opportunities for his teammates as well. Here is the long touchdown to Jonnu Smith that put Tennessee up 10-0 early. Watch No. 32 Tyrann Mathieu. He’s lined up right on top of the Texans logo pre-snap and is responsible for Smith in man coverage here. He sees Smith set like he’s going to stay in and pass block and rather than drop in to a zone and read the quarterback’s eyes, Mathieu immediately peels to double Davis. That takes him completely out of the middle of the field and when Smith releases for a quick hook up, nobody is home to stop him.

From there, this play is all about Smith’s athleticism. He recorded the 5th fastest speed for a ball carrier in Week 12 on this play which is pretty amazing for a guy that’s 6’-3” and 248 pounds. Look at all the angles he erases from the Texans secondary on the way to the end zone. The Titans have to find ways to continue to get him the ball.

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Here’s another deep out to Davis. It’s actually the same route concept from the first play above, just from a different formation/look. Mariota’s throw is absolutely perfect here as he drops a dime right on the sideline. You can really see Davis’ timing with Mariota developing on routes like these. Mariota has to throw the ball prior Davis coming out of his break so this is a spot throw with the quarterback trusting his receiver to both win his route and be where he’s supposed to be. This might be the single most promising development of the 2018 season to this point.

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The Titans also took at advantage of Davis’ skills as a runner with a creative reverse call from a wildcat set. The design fooled both Jadeveon Clowney (No. 90) and Justin Reid (No. 20) while Davis’ speed took care of the rest. This might have gone for a touchdown if Josh Kline (No. 64) had gotten a better piece of Reid at the very end of the run.

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As the game wore on the Texans defense paid more and more attention to Davis. Often they would sit in Cover 2 with a sagging corner to Davis’ side to essentially bracket the Titans top target. Even when they used other coverages they made sure that Davis got extra attention. Here, the Texans appear to be in their quarters pattern match look again. That look usually splits the field in half with two defensive backs staying over the top of one side and two staying over the top of the other side. Here, Tyrann Mathieu sees the tight ends on the right side of the Titans formation aren’t coming vertical and he, again, immediately looks for 84. He finds him running a deep post — which would have been wide open — and helps pick it up. Pressure eventually flushes Mariota who runs for a first down, but you can see the focus the Texans had on Davis after his early success.

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Davis would get free one more time later in this game. The Titans get a Cover 3 look and Davis roasts the corner on an out and up (set up earlier in the game with those deep outs). Mariota drops it in before the safety can get there and Davis does a nice job of making a move after the catch to get in the end zone.

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Davis is blossoming as a WR1 this year and that’s great news for the Titans offense. The next step is getting other pass catchers to step up and take advantage of the extra attention that he will attract from opposing defenses.

Offensive line woes continue

In the interest of fairness I should point out up front that the Texans are one of the tougher teams to block in the NFL. J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus are going to make a lot of offensive lines look bad. However, the Titans offensive line has been a problem all season against all different levels of defenses. They’ve allowed 39 sacks through 11 games which is the second highest total in the NFL. The Titans rank dead last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate and 20th in PFF’s pass blocking efficiency metric.

Not only is the Titans offensive line among the worst in the league in pass protecting, they’re also one of the worst when it comes to run blocking. Tennessee’s rushing attack averages just 3.9 yards per carry for the season which is 29th in the NFL. Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards — a metric which attempts to separate the yards generated by an offensive line from the yards generated by the backs — ranks the Titans offensive line 29th ahead of just the Falcons, Jets, and Vikings.

Let’s start with pass protection where the Titans had issues frequently after the first couple drives. Much criticism has fallen at the feet of offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur for not keeping Corey Davis more involved after having so much success going to him early, but the tape shows that they were trying to get him the ball, but the Texans coverage and pass rush wouldn’t allow for it.

Here’s one example. Davis (spotlighted) is running another of those deep outs — something the Titans clearly felt they could attack against the Texans — and he’s open, but Jack Conklin and Josh Kline both get pushed back in to Mariota’s lap and force him to take the quick checkdown rather than waiting for Davis’ route to develop.

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Taking a checkdown isn’t the worst result, but leaving bigger plays on the field when they’re open will get you beat against good teams. The Titans offensive line cost Mariota and Davis another 20+ yard completion there.

Things would get worse though. The sacks really started to pile up as the game went on. The next play here is a 3rd and 9. The Titans had lost 3 yards on first down and then decided to run the ball on 2nd and 13, picking up 4 yards and leaving them in a tough 3rd and long situation.

A quick tangent here... the Titans obsession with running the ball on 2nd and 10-plus will never cease to amaze me. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Titans have run 40% of the time on 2nd and 10 or more which is the 8th highest run rate in the league — the other teams that run more often are not the offenses you want to be associated with — despite the fact that they have a 42% success rate with the pass compared to just a 29% success rate with the run. Running on 2nd and 10-plus gives you a realistic best case scenario of 3rd and long which is not a desirable situation. Against the Texans the Titans went 0 for 8 on 3rd down plays with 8 or more yards to go. They were 4 for 4 on 3rd and 7 or less.

Back to the play. The Titans are facing 3rd and 9 and that’s a tough spot. The Texans defensive backs can guard the sticks and the pass rush can pin their ears back. Houston comes with a safety blitz and combines it with a stunt between Whitney Mercilus (No. 59) and Christian Covington (No. 95). Ben Jones looks completely lost and ends up blocking nobody which leaves Kline hung out to dry trying to block both Texans rushers. Kline does his best here, but this one is on Jones. The pressure is right in Mariota’s face which gives him no chance to step up or keep his eyes downfield.

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This wasn’t a sack, but again, it’s a pressure that forces Mariota to miss an open target downfield. The Texans spent most of the second half sitting in a Cover 2 shell, squeezing the underneath throwing lanes and relying on their pass rush to get home to prevent the Titans from being able to attack their safeties deep. Cameron Batson (spotlighted) is going to be wide open, settling down in a soft spot of the zone on a 7-sit route, but Mariota never has a chance to throw it to him as the Texans overload blitz pushes him off the spot quickly.

It looks like Clowney beats Taylor Lewan here, but he’s actually passing the inside rush off to Quinton Spain so he can handle the blitzing Mathieu off the edge. Spain is late to see the inside rush from Clowney and the result is a pressure that forces Mariota to escape and take off on his own.

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Not all the sacks were on the offensive line though. While Mariota played an excellent game overall, he still had some moments where he seemingly passed up open receivers for no reason. Here, Mariota has Davis open on his first read, but he decides to move to his next read instead of cutting it loose. That fact does not excuse Jack Conklin for getting whipped by Mercilus on the speed-to-power rush on the edge which prevents the quarterback from getting to his second read. Not a great snap for either guy here.

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As the game wore on and the Titans offensive line continued to leak, you could see Mariota beginning to lose trust in his blockers. Here, Josh Kline and Jack Conklin both get whipped on the right side which costs the Titans the chance to hit a couple open receivers downfield. Both guys on the right side ended up on the ground far too often in this game.

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Here is the infamous J.J. Watt vs Jonnu Smith play. Matt LaFleur shed some light on this play this week, calling it a “bad design”. The idea was that they were going to quick snap the Texans to try to slow down the pass rush and both Lewis and Smith would double Watt, but the Texans blitz forced Lewis to pick up another player and left Smith on his own against one of the best pass rushers in NFL history. Not great.

Making matters worse is the fact that Sharpe — Mariota’s intended target on the play — wasn’t ready for the snap. He stands still at the starting blocks for a second before realizing the play was underway.

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Mariota was definitely feeling phantom pressure by the end of this game. Here, the pocket actually is pretty much fine. Kline gets pushed back a little — what’s new? — but recovers well enough. Spain ends up getting called for a hold, but he was in good shape at the point where the ball should have come out. Sharpe is pretty wide open on the deep out, but Mariota hurries his read and looks to dump the ball off to Lewis before eventually taking the sack. This is ultimately a Mariota generated sack, but given the protection issues throughout the game to this point it’s not hard to understand why his internal clock might have been a little hurried.

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The offensive line has been a real problem all season. PFF has some metrics that can help pinpoint where the problems are coming from most often. Here are the sacks and pressures allowed by each starter on the season along with where they rank among 151 qualifying offensive linemen in pressures allowed (1st being the best and 151st being the worst).

Quinton Spain - 1 sack, 11 pressures (25th)

Jack Conklin - 2 sacks, 15 pressures (46th)

Taylor Lewan - 2 sacks, 16 pressures (54th)

Ben Jones - 4 sacks, 16 pressures (54th)

Josh Kline - 4 sacks, 27 pressures (123rd)

It’s worth noting that Conklin has started four fewer games than most of these guys. If you extrapolate his rates out he lands somewhere between Jones and Kline as the second worst pass blocker on the team so far.

That largely lines up with what I would have expected to find. Spain and Lewan have largely been non-issues and often actively good on the left side of the line, but the right side and Jones have struggled. Kline, in particular, is a problem right now. No offensive lineman is going to be perfect, but he’s getting beat badly in both the run and pass game several times per game.

If I was Mike Vrabel I would be giving real consideration to benching him. I don’t necessarily think that moving Conklin or Dennis Kelly to right guard is the right answer even though that technically gets your best five on the field at the same time. I’d lean towards giving Corey Levin another look there despite his struggles in the Chargers game earlier this year. You could even look at Aaron Stinnie at that spot. They’ve held on to him all season on the 53-man roster so they must like him as a developmental prospect. Maybe it’s time to see what he looks like in game action.

The offensive line play clearly had an effect on playcalling as well. The Titans didn’t trust the line to hold up in protection long enough for them to be able to take shots down the field. That’s how you end up with a passing chart that looks like this.

NFL.com Next Gen Stats

Instead, Matt LaFleur stubbornly tried to stick with the run game even when the Titans were down multiple scores late in the second half. He was trying hard to protect his quarterback, but it still didn’t work. I would have liked to have seen a bigger dose of the screen game to offset the rush, but there isn’t a ton of options on the table for a playcaller when your guys can’t block the guys lined up across from them.

Derrick Henry needs to be getting more carries

I’m pretty sure this is the third straight season that I’ve stumped for more Henry carries in this space, but here we are again. Before we get in to the tape from the Texans game, let’s look at some stats. Since the bye week and the rumors about Henry being on the trade block, Henry has averaged 4.74 yards per carry compared to Lewis’ 2.70. That’s a pretty massive difference and it’s not like Henry has some huge run that’s inflating his yards per carry over that timeframe.

Season long advanced stats are also heavily in favor of Henry. The third year back ranks 8th out of 33 qualifying backs in Football Outsiders DVOA while Lewis checks in at 33rd (last). Sharp Football’s situational success rates also favor Henry. He has a success rate of 48% (24th out of 47 qualifying backs) compared to Lewis’ success rate of 31% (last again). Seemingly the only advanced metric that likes Lewis is PFF’s elusiveness rating where Lewis checks in at 19th out of 50 backs, but even there Henry is slightly ahead at 17th.

Lewis’ primary issue is a tendency to try to do too much. Ironically, this was Henry’s biggest problem in previous seasons, but now he seems to be the more decisive back. Lewis seems to be overthinking things and this is a good example. He does a great job of juking Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham to the ground, but then doubles back and runs right in to him, allowing him to recover and make the tackle.

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This play is a mess on multiple levels. Kline (spotlighted) gets beat bad by Clowney at the snap and ends up getting called for a hold as he basically tackles him out of desperation. Lewis chooses not to follow the design of the run which would have taken him behind Spain’s pulling lead block. Instead, he doubles back left and runs into trouble, eventually taking a big loss. Though it would have been called back for holding anyway, Lewis appeared to have a lane behind Spain.

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Lewis simply seems to be pressing to make big plays and it’s not working. Instead, he ranks near the top of the league in percentage of runs resulting in a loss.

Meanwhile, Henry leads the league in percentage of carries that result in a gain. He’s consistently taking what is blocked and seems to be running particularly hard since the rumors about a potential trade came out. It’s possible that talk has lit a fire under him.

He’s still at his best when the team can get him on the left edge where he can use that ferocious right handed stiff arm as he does on this speed option play below.

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That’s something that’s always been a strength of Henry’s game, but this next play is something that hasn’t. He doesn’t get great blocking here — Jonnu Smith (spotlighted) whiffs on a kickout block against Clowney — but Henry gets up field and fights forward to turn this in to a positive run for about 5 yards.

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The coaching staff seems to have noticed Henry’s recent success. He was on the field for 49.1% of snaps in Houston, his highest total since Week 3 against Jacksonville. I would expect that percentage to be even higher against the Jets this weekend and it should be.

Give me less Luke Stocker, more Cameron Batson, Anthony Firkser touches

I don’t hate Luke Stocker. He’s the best blocking tight end on the roster — though I don’t think MyCole Pruitt is far behind now that I’ve seen him play for a few weeks — and that has real value... but please stop giving him the ball. Let’s start with the most talked about play from Monday’s game. The situation is 4th and 1 inside the Texans 5-yard line and the Titans come out in a jumbo set with Dennis Kelly in as a 6th offensive lineman lined up left of Taylor Lewan. Jonnu Smith and MyCole Pruitt are both in the game at tight end and Luke Stocker lines up at fullback in front of Henry.

I can see what the Titans were going for. They show a triple option look with Mariota pivoting out with Henry flanking him after giving the handoff to Stocker on the fullback dive. Tennessee was expecting Cunningham (No. 41) to follow Henry out wide which would have left room for Stocker to pick up the first down, but instead Cunningham stays home and gets some help from Benardrick McKinney (No. 55) to make the stop. This isn’t on Stocker really. It’s just a “too cute” playcall in a big situation.

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However, Stocker bogs down the offense at times even when he doesn’t have the ball. Here, his slowness causes him to end up in the way of Corey Davis’ drag route from the backside and one defender is able to effectively cover both of them.

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Instead, I’d prefer to see more of this. It’s an easy, quick screen to Cameron Batson who looks like he’s shot out of a cannon as he weaves his way up field for a first down. Again, good things just seem to happen when they get the ball to Batson.

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The Titans third leading receiver in this game was tight end Anthony Firkser who caught all four of his targets for 52 yards during the game. I get that most of them came during a “garbage time” desperation drive at the end of the game, but Firkser is a guy that just continues to make plays when he gets in the game. He’s caught all 10 of his targets on the season for 132 yards after being called up to the active roster for good in Week 6.

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For a passing attack that desperately needs playmakers to complement the great work they’re getting from Corey Davis, it couldn’t hurt to give guys like Batson and Firkser a bigger opportunity to see if they can continue to perform at this level. Jonnu Smith is also a guy that I would try to get more involved.

However, the big issue, of course, is the offensive line. The Titans have to find a way to both protect their quarterback and create running lanes for Henry and Lewis. If they can’t get the leaks up front plugged up you can expect for the overall offensive struggles to continue.