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.
The Titans defense gave up 20 points and 344 yards to the Chargers in London. While those numbers may not look that amazing by themselves, they are each the lowest totals of the season for the explosive LA offense. In their other seven games of 2018, Philip Rivers and company have averaged 28.6 points per game and 407.1 yards per game so Tennessee’s defense deserves some credit for limiting one of the league’s best offenses.
The numbers get even more impressive when you consider that 14 of the Chargers 20 points and 130 of their 344 yards came on two plays that were clear coverage busts. Obviously, the busts cannot continue to happen — and they aren’t just isolated to this game either — but the defense was near dominant on the other 42 snaps they were on the field for.
Let’s get in to what went wrong on those two plays and what went right for the rest of the game.
Titans miscommunication creates two big plays for Chargers
The Chargers two touchdowns — a 75-yard bomb to Tyrell Williams and a 55-yard strike to Mike Williams — were eerily similar. They both involved miscommunications between Kendrick Lewis and a Titans corner.
Let’s start with the first one which also happened to be the very first defensive snap of the game for the Titans. I should mention that it’s impossible for myself or anyone not intimately familiar with the way the Titans coach these coverages to 100% assign blame on these two plays. I can only discuss how I have seen this coached elsewhere and give an educated guess as to what happened.
The Titans appear to have Logan Ryan (the corner to the top of the screen) and Lewis (the safety to the top of the screen) in “Palms” or “Cover 2 read” coverage which is a popular defensive tactic in the modern NFL. You can read more about it here, but the gist of the coverage is that it’s a switching man coverage. Ryan and Lewis are responsible for covering the two wide receivers they’re lined up across from at the snap, but who takes who depends on the routes the receivers run.
Typically, if the “No. 2 receiver” — the second receiver in from the sideline — is pushing vertical past the linebacker depth, the safety will take him man to man and the corner will take the No. 1 in man. If the No. 2 receiver runs an out-breaking route at or short of linebacker depth, the corner jumps the route and the safety switches to take the No. 1.
The depth or landmark that teams use for the “switch point” can change based on team or opponent, but it certainly appears that Lewis is in the right on this play. Ryan gets reading Rivers’ eyes and trying to make a big play by jumping the underneath route in this Hawk concept and the quarterback makes him pay for it with the deep ball.
The second bust came on what appeared to be the same coverage against the same route combination. This time it’s Adoree’ Jackson playing the corner role in combination with Lewis. The out route from Antonio Gates — playing the role of the No. 2 receiver in this case — breaks right at linebacker level so Jackson jumps it, leaving Lewis to take Mike Williams on the vertical route. Lewis is late to recognize the switch and Williams blows right by him.
I believe the Logan Ryan play was just a case of a player getting his hand caught in the cookie jar — and Ryan has said as much after the game — but the second play is clearly a miscommunication between Jackson and Lewis. Lewis is a veteran guy, but he’s only been playing with Jackson as a starter for three weeks and these are the situations where that lack of chemistry in a secondary shows.
Kenny Vaccaro returns this week which will relegate Lewis to a backup role once again and the Titans have to hope that the communication issues will be better with Vaccaro back in the game, though the Jordan Matthews touchdown against the Eagles came on a very similar miscommunication between Vaccaro and Malcolm Butler.
It’s clear that the Titans are having some issues executing this coverage combination. I would expect the Cowboys to run a few of these Hawk concepts to test whether this is fixed or not.
Malcolm Butler played like a $61M corner
Butler has (deservedly) gotten a lot of heat for his play since signing with the Titans for a 5-year, $61M contract this spring. The massive touchdowns that he’s given up early in the season have resulted in his snap count being reduced against the Ravens and Chargers. He’s no longer the “starting” corner in base defense as the team has decided to go with Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson in that situation for now. Butler, instead, enters the game in nickel packages and plays outside across from Jackson while Ryan mans the slot.
It’s a noteworthy demotion for a guy who had big expectations coming in to the season, but it may have gotten a message across from the coaching staff based on Butler’s performance in London. PFF has him down for allowing 2 catches for 30 yards on 2 targets during the game, but that hardly tells the story of the impact that Butler had.
Let’s start with one of the most devastating jams you’ll ever see in a football game. Butler (spotlighted) is in press man coverage against Chargers receiver Mike Williams. Williams is listed at 6’-4” and 220 pounds, but Butler absolutely stones him at the line of scrimmage. By the time the play is over, Williams has failed to get more than a yard downfield. The Chargers end up getting the completion to Antonio Gates for the first down, but Butler completely erased his man as an option on this play.
Butler’s coverage forced Rivers in to check downs or sacks multiple times throughout the game. Here, Rivers’ first read is to Butler’s man, but he’s in great position so Rivers checks down to his back for a short gain.
Here’s another snap where Rivers wanted to go after Butler, but thought better of it. Butler shows great recognition and change of direction here. Watch the distance between him and his receiver. Butler actually closes the gap as the receiver goes in to his break. Rivers is left with no choice but to chuck it out of bounds and get to 3rd down.
Butler’s coverage on this snap helps force the split sack between Kamalei Correa and Jurrell Casey as well. The Titans appear to be in Cover 2 and the Chargers have a route combination that should be a Cover 2 beater called, but Butler recognizes the lack of threat in the flats and carries the corner route far deeper than a Cover 2 corner normally would. It surprises Rivers and allows the pass rush to get home.
The Titans other sack was also influenced by Butler’s coverage. He’s in Cover 3 and stays on top of the vertical receiver all the way. That — combined with Logan Ryan’s excellent route recognition picking up the out from Keenan Allen — takes away Rivers’ passing options and allows Jayon Brown to bend back and pick up the sack.
Butler needs to have more than one great game to justify that deal, but this is a potential confidence builder for a guy that has appeared to be pressing early in the season. He was absolutely outstanding in London.
Titans run defense turning a corner?
Similar to Butler the Titans run defense had really struggled through the first six games of 2018, but they appeared to get some traction against the Chargers in London. The Chargers managed just 47 yards on 16 carries for an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Yes, LA being without top running back Melvin Gordon was helpful, but it’s not like backup Austin Ekeler had been some slouch. He still boasts a 5.8 yards per carry average despite his poor game against the Titans.
One of the biggest standouts in the improved run defense was DaQuan Jones. Jones is frequently overlooked due to the excellence of Jurrell Casey and the fact that he’s far more run stuffer than pass rusher, but he’s still a very good defensive lineman. Here, he blows up Ekeler’s run in the backfield by quickly busting through a tight end’s block to make the tackle for loss.
Here’s a play where Jones doesn’t get credited with a stat, but he really makes the play. It’s a pin and pull outside zone run, but the backside guard fails to reach Jones and he’s able to plug up the cutback lane and spill the play outside where Jayon Brown cleans it up for very little gain.
The Titans also had great games from their edge setters from a run defense standpoint. Here, Kamalei Correa does an outstanding job of stopping the back’s momentum in the backfield which creates the opportunity for the defense to bottle it up for no gain. Making a back slow down or change direction in the backfield is almost always a recipe for a stop.
Rookie Harold Landry did a nice job against the run as well. Here, he recognizes the reverse and contains it. His teammates didn’t do a great job of finishing here, but Landry did his job to perfection.
The Titans run defense will get a huge test against one of the best rushing teams in the NFL in Dallas. They’ll need to continue to play at the level they did in London if they want to have a chance at stopping Ezekiel Elliott.
Overall, it was a strong defensive performance in London. The two big plays have to be cleaned up — and hopefully Vaccaro’s return to the lineup helps with that — but the Titans two biggest defensive weaknesses coming in to this game both turned in their best performances of the year against the Chargers. What Malcolm Butler and the run defense did in this game should be viewed as something to build on as the team gears up for the second half of the season.