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All-22 Review: Titans run defense falls apart while young linebackers continue to make impact

Titans give up a record 281 yards on the ground.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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.

The Titans run defense has been nearly as unpredictable as the team as a whole has been in 2018. After a rough start to the season that saw them give up an average of 123 yards per game on the ground over the first six games, they had bounced back and allowed just 65 yards per game in the four contests leading up to this game.

In Houston the Titans run defense bottomed out, allowing 281 yards rushing which counts as the most the franchise has allowed since moving to Nashville. Lamar Miller’s 97-yard run — the longest run in the NFL this season — was obviously the turning point of the game, but even if you remove that play from the ledger the Titans still allowed 184 yards rushing at a 5.6 yards per carry clip.

The Titans gave up explosive runs of 21, 12, 15, 15, 97, 20, and 34 yards throughout the game. In the four games prior to this game they had allowed a total of four explosive runs which ranked as the third stingiest defense in this category over that time period. It was a total letdown showing that seemingly came out of nowhere.

The Texans passing attack was also pretty efficient, averaging right at 8.75 yards per attempt. It was not a banner day for the Titans defense to say the least. Let’s take a look at what went wrong with the run defense and then we will get in to some silver linings that showed up in the tape.

Titans run defense struggles to account for Deshaun Watson

Yes, Lamar Miller had the big play and most of the yardage, but Watson was the true driving force behind the Texans prolific ground attack on Monday. His presence as a running threat stretched the Titans front and left gaping holes for Lamar Miller to work with.

Here’s an example of the effect Watson had against Tennessee. The Texans have an outside zone run called with Watson faking the boot action after handing it off to Miller. The threat of the bootleg holds Brian Orakpo (No. 98) for a beat and that is all Miller needs to cut it back on the Titans defense. Jurrell Casey (No. 99) and Wesley Woodyard (No. 59) are both flowing with the outside zone action and nobody is left home to pick up the cutback. Watson’s speed forces Orakpo to hold for just an extra moment to make sure he’s not going to keep it and that — combined with Orakpo’s flagging athleticism — make the difference between a short gain and a big play here.

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And here is the reason that Watson’s athleticism must be respected. The Texans run a little split draw action, but the quarterback pulls the ball and keeps around end. It’s a designed QB run all the way, but after giving up a couple big Lamar Miller runs inside, you can see how much more aggressive Orakpo is about crashing inside on this one. As a result, Watson gains the edge with ease and coasts in to the endzone.

This is also the play where Rak’s declining speed became readily apparent. He has no hope of getting an angle on Watson once he has a step on him.

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Not to pick on Orakpo here (he’s one of my favorite Titans of the past few seasons), but he really struggled against the run in this game. Here’s another example. The Titans have Miller bottled up on this play, but he escapes out the backside as Rak just doesn’t have the burst required to get off the block and close down that edge. The result is yet another huge run play.

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Here’s another big run to Rak’s side of the defense. A few things go wrong here for Tennessee. First, Kenny Vaccaro gives himself up way too early taking on the pulling guard. That’s a technique that the Titans coach their defensive backs to use when confronted with a bigger blocker, but Vaccaro commits too soon when he would have been better off keeping his feet.

Orakpo and Wesley Woodyard both get caught peeking inside and Jayon Brown struggles to get off a block which results in a huge running lane for Miller. Someone between Orakpo and Woodyard — the two most experienced players on the defense — was in the wrong gap here.

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OK, let’s look at the big run. It, combined with the failed 4th and 1 attempt by the Titans on the play before, completely altered the complexion of this game. Instead of a possible 17-14 lead, Tennessee was suddenly down 21-10 and chasing the game from that point on.

The play is a relatively simple power run scheme with the backside tackle pulling to lead block for Miller. All the Texans really wanted from this play was a few yards to create some space away from the shadow of their own goalposts. The first part here is Rashaan Evans (No. 54) doing a pretty good job stunning the pulling backside tackle in the hole which is what he’s supposed to be doing here. So far so good.

Things fall apart after that. Wesley Woodyard (No. 59) gets held a little bit, but also misses the tackle. Not good. Next, Derrick Morgan (No. 91) isn’t fast enough to catch Miller from behind. Not good. Finally, Kevin Byard whiffs on a tackle. Really not good.

From there Miller is off to the races and he outruns the defense to the endzone despite a valiant effort from Adoree’ Jackson who nearly chases the speedy back down at the end. The primary blame on this play has to fall on Woodyard and Byard who both flat out miss on tackles that they usually make.

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The Texans really worked the read option and added some jet sweep motion in from time to time to further stretch the Titans out horizontally and open up holes. This play is mostly really good design by Houston as the Titans defenders mostly take themselves out of the play.

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The Titans struggles to defend Deshaun Watson and the Texans rushing attack boils down to one thing to me: team speed. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are on the slower end of edge defenders at this point in their career which means those holes and cutback lanes for backs are just that much bigger, especially when they have to respect the quarterback as a real run threat.

Young linebackers continuing to make plays

One possible solution to the problem above is for the Titans to start getting their younger, more athletic linebackers more snaps. Harold Landry, Sharif Finch, and Rashaan Evans are all rookies, but they continue to be some of the more impressive defenders in the Titans front seven week after week.

Landry’s big question mark coming out of Boston College was whether he could hold up at the point of attack on running plays. So far, that hasn’t been an issue at all for the second round pick. Here, Landry (No. 58) does a textbook job of setting a nice hard edge and forcing the play back inside.

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Here’s another great run defense rep from Landry. He destroys the tight end on his way to the ball carrier and helps make a nice stop.

Almost mirroring Landry on the opposite side is Sharif Finch (No. 56). He also shocks and sheds a tight end and collapses in on the running back, helping to make the stop. Finch got more snaps than Kamalei Correa in this game and I wouldn’t be shocked to see his role continue to grow. He keeps making a good impression when he’s in the game (make sure you check out his incredible play from the Colts game in last week’s All-22 if you missed it).

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Back to Landry. We all know about his vaunted speed rush at this point, but he’s been working to add other counters to his game to complement that move since being drafted. Here, the Titans get nice rushes from Orakpo, DaQuan Jones, and Landry to collapse the pocket around Watson. Rak ultimately is credited with the sack, but this is promising from Landry. His bull rush puts the tackle on skates and moves him back in to pocket. That’s an effective counter to the speed rush if he can continue to hone it (along with others).

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The bull rush was an effective move for Landry in this game. Here, again, he pushes the opposing tackle right back in to Watson’s lap and forces him to pull the ball down and take off.

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Landry’s speed rush nearly got home for a strip sack in this game. If Watson doesn’t give that last minute shoulder turn before escaping the pocket, there’s a real good chance that Landry knocks that ball out with his inside arm as he comes screaming around the corner. Evans also does a good job here of getting Watson corralled in the open field to force a 4th down.

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Evans had a couple big 3rd down tackles in this game. Here’s the other one. He does a nice job sniffing out the run quickly, filling the gap, and then hitting with enough stopping power to keep the back from falling forward for the first down. Really nice play from Evans here who continues to look more and more comfortable each week.

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Despite all the struggles for the defense over the last two games, plays like this last one should leave fans optimistic about the future. The Titans line up with Landry and Evans as their edge rushers here, something I think we will continue to see more of as the season wears on. Check out the speed and hand usage of Evans racing around the edge. While he’s too small to play outside linebacker on a down to down basis, using him as a rusher on passing downs will give opposing tackles fits. He’s incredibly quick and surprisingly powerful with an arsenal of pass rush moves that have been honed over the majority of his football career. He doesn’t get credit for the sack here, but he does create the initial pressure. Landry and Casey clean up to split the sack.

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The Titans have to get their young linebackers more snaps down the stretch. Orakpo and Morgan have been great players for this team for many years, but there is no denying that they’ve lost a step at this point. Landry and Evans look like future stars for the Tennessee defense and they seem to make difference making plays at a rate that far exceeds their older teammates. They make the Titans faster and more dangerous on defense.