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 2018 Titans have been full of surprises and Jets-Titans was no exception. Tennessee somehow won a game in which all of the following things happened:
- A pick-six
- A blocked extra point
- A blocked punt
- A 59-yard kick return
- Going 1 for 11 on 3rd downs, including missing on their first 10
- 8 penalties for 75 yards
- Titans got less than 27:00 of possession
In doing so, the Titans became the first team in NFL history to win despite throwing a pick-six, having a 3rd down conversion rate less than 10%, and racking up at least 75 yards in penalties per Pro-Football-Reference.com. I don’t know whether that says more about the Titans’ resilience or the Jets’ futility, but I found it interesting nonetheless.
The start of the game was a complete trainwreck for the Titans in all phases, but the offense was truly terrible early on. By the time the offense hit the field with 2:43 remaining in the first half, they had accumulated just 64 yards oftotal offense which was largely offset by 50 yards worth of penalties. They’d also tossed in a pick-six. I would say that they would have been better off punting on first down in the first half, but they got one of those blocked too.
Things started to turn during the final drive of the first half and over the final 32:43 of game time the Titans produced a blistering 339 yards of offense and 26 points, scoring on five of their last seven drives of the game. In the midst of all of this madness we finally saw a change along the offensive line, just not the one we expected to see. At halftime Quinton Spain was sent to the bench, Ben Jones was moved to left guard, and Corey Levin was inserted at center. The second half also saw the re-emergence of Taywan Taylor and the continued ascendance of Anthony Firkser. In the end it gave us Marcus Mariota’s 12th game-winning drive since entering the league in 2015 and yet another dramatic win in Nissan Stadium where the Titans have now won 14 of their last 17. Let’s get in to the tape and see how this crazy game went down.
Why did Quinton Spain get benched and how did Corey Levin play after the switch?
Let’s start here since this is one of the biggest storylines coming out of this game. There seems to be a split between the way the Titans view Quinton Spain and the way that outside observers view him.
During this past offseason the team decided to extend right guard Josh Kline — perceived by most outside of Saint Thomas Sports Park as the weaker of the two guards — instead of giving a long term contract to Spain. The team also brought in veteran guards Kevin Pamphile and Xavier Su’a-Filo to compete for Spain’s job in camp. Spain won that competition with relative ease, but it’s pretty clear the Titans weren’t 100% sold on him as the long term fit at the left guard spot.
From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand why that’s the case though. Spain has pretty consistently played at a higher level than Kline over the past two seasons and this year it has seemed to be even more lopsided, especially in pass protection. Per PFF charting data, Kline has allowed 30 pressures this season compared to just 12 for Spain.
I know that some believe that the reason Spain was benched instead of Kline was due to the contract that Kline was given in March, but I’m not sure I completely buy that. We’ve seen Malcolm Butler — the crown jewel of the Titans free agent class — demoted to playing only in nickel sets because he wasn’t meeting expectations. We’ve seen Dion Lewis’ carries decline for three straight weeks as his productivity has dropped. We’ve seen Kamalei Correa — a guy the Titans traded a 6th round pick for — fall behind undrafted rookie Sharif Finch in the outside linebacker pecking order. We’ve seen it go the other way too with Cameron Batson and Anthony Firkser rising from the practice squad to important roles based on performance. The offensive line is always a different type of spot, because it is one of the few positions that doesn’t rotate. You’re either in or your out on the line and that make this move seem a bit more Draconian than some of those other tweaks, but it just doesn’t seem to fit the pattern for Kline to be protected due to his contract situation when those others haven’t been.
Instead, I believe the reason that Spain got the hook was simply that he had a horrible first half and the Titans didn’t have time to let him play through it this time. They had to fix it right away or the season was going to slip away from them.
It really started with a false start on the Titans first drive of the game that turned a manageable 3rd and 5 into a much tougher 3rd and 10. That led to a sack — Jack Conklin missed an E-T stunt, but we will get to that later — and a punt. Maybe the sack still happens if it’s 3rd and 5, but maybe not. There are far quicker route options to pick up a 3rd and 5 versus a 3rd and 10 available to the offense.
On the next drive, Spain’s struggles continued. This outside zone run is sort of a mess on the front side all around, but Spain getting pushed almost 4 yards deep in the backfield changes Derrick Henry’s angle of approach and helps contribute to a 2-yard gain on first down.
I’d like to take a minute to point out that I’m cherry picking here. There are several plays in between some of these bad ones that are perfectly fine from Spain. Nothing great, but nothing bad either. The point of showing these plays is to give an idea of why the coaching staff might have pulled him from the game.
This is the kind of play that looks pretty innocuous — Spain’s man doesn’t make the tackle — but any offensive line coach will be unhappy when one of his guys ends up on the ground on a double team block and there isn’t a defender underneath him. Spain getting beat on this double team takes away Henry’s front side read here and forces him to cut it back. Again, Henry does a nice job of making the most of a bad situation to pick up 3 yards.
As a pass blocker, Spain wasn’t really a glaring problem in the first half. He certainly wasn’t as bad as the two tackles. This play is probably his worst pass pro snap. The two Jets defenders on his side both end up trying to wedge through between Spain and Taylor Lewan on the left side. Spain fails to get leverage on the end which results in pressure at Mariota’s feet and an inaccurate throw on 3rd down.
Overall, I think those are probably his worst three offensive plays of the first half and I think you could certainly make an argument that Lewan and Conklin were worse. So why did Spain get the hook at halftime? I think it had everything to do with the blocked extra point attempt. Spain gets blown back and gives up the block.
Obviously, you never want to see this happen, but I think Spain may have been a victim of bad timing as much as anything. A frustrating first half ending in even more frustrating fashion with Spain being the player responsible for that final sour note could have led to an emotional reaction from the coaching staff here. For that reason, I wonder if we see Spain back in the starting lineup tomorrow night. I think there is certainly a chance of that happening.
The Titans offensive line played much better in the second half. Whether that was due to Spain being replaced by Levin or due to a fire being lit under the other four starters or due to scheme adjustments made at halftime is hard to know for certain, but the Titans certainly blocked better after the change was made.
Corey Levin and Ben Jones were really solid at center and left guard in the second half, starting with the very first play after halftime. Levin does a nice job climbing to the second level and getting a nice block on Darren Lee (No. 58). That’s textbook zone blocking from him. Jones does a nice job of getting the nose tackle on the ground which opens up the cutback lane for Dion Lewis.
In pass protection, Levin was pretty close to perfect. Here’s his most impressive rep as he dumps Steve McLendon on his back with a vicious pancake. He was credited with just one pressure allowed per PFF and he did a nice job being strong at the top of the pocket and giving Mariota room to step up when needed.
Here’s Derrick Henry’s short touchdown run. It’s designed to go behind Levin and Jones and both of those guys do a phenomenal job. Levin pushes the nose tackle into the endzone and Jones climbs to Avery Williamson (No. 54) and has him blocked 5 yards deep. Henry should have walked in over the left side if not for Kline getting beat inside by Mike Pennel (No. 98). It wound up not mattering as Henry kept his feet moving an eventually found an opening. Credit is due to Jonnu Smith here as well. He holds his block on Darron Lee (No. 58) for the entire play and that ends up being the block that Henry uses to get home. Good job sticking with it and blocking through the whistle from Smith.
Levin wasn’t perfect by any means. He did get put on the ground once on a running play and failed to reach Darron Lee on the play below. That’s a tough task for any NFL center, but if Levin is able to at least slow him down, Mariota probably walks in for a touchdown here.
Overall, I was impressed with his play though. His biggest problem in the Chargers game was pass protection, but he was very good in that capacity in this game. I thought he was able to consistently generate more movement up front than the other three interior linemen did during this game and that’s enough to make me feel like there is a good chance that he gets the start on Thursday night.
Marcus Mariota starts slow, but finishes on fire
This was such a strange game overall and it was a strange game for Marcus Mariota as well. The Titans quarterback was up and down for much of the day before finishing on a very high note at the end of the game.
The early struggles were — as they often are — a combination of things. First, Mariota didn’t get great protection. Here is the first 3rd down of the game. It had started as a 3rd and 5 before Quinton Spain’s false start penalty, but became a 3rd and 10. The Jets coverage on this play is mostly excellent. Corey Davis comes open late on the deep dig in the middle of the field, but by the time he’s breaking free Mariota is already on the ground due to a missed E-T stunt from Jack Conklin. You can see it on the endzone view below. The defensive end probably gets away with a little bit of a tug on Conklin’s outside arm, but he’s got to get back outside and switch this stunt.
Then we have the next 3rd down on the following drive. It’s the pick-six that helped put the Titans in a big hole early. It’s a 3rd and 4 and the Jets are in a very aggressive look defensively. They have all 11 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage and end up coming with a zero blitz. There are several issues with this play from the Titans. First, I have no idea what Taylor Lewan is doing. He gets an initial hit on the defensive end lined up across from him, but then leaves him to run across and help the right side of the line who doesn’t actually need help. That leaves both Lewan’s man and the free blitzer coming behind him with an open run at Mariota.
Mariota appears to be looking at Dion Lewis initially and he does come open, but I’m not sure he can see him because of the free rushers coming from that direction. Instead, he moves to Cameron Batson running a quick slant on the back side and throws it without looking. This is more a good play by Trumaine Johnson than a bad one by Batson or Tajae Sharpe. Sharpe is trying to provide a rub for Batson to help free him underneath, but Johnson sees it coming and jumps underneath Sharpe, bullies Batson off his route, and picks off the pass. This is where being 5’-8” and 175 pounds can be an issue. Johnson is one of the biggest and most physical corners in the league at 6’-2” and 213 pounds so it’s not exactly a surprise that he was able to muscle Batson off his mark.
I understand the thought process behind Mariota’s mistake here though. He sees it’s man coverage and knows he’s got — at least theoretically — a man coverage beater available. If the rub had been successful there is a chance this is a touchdown for the Titans instead of the Jets.
Some of the pressure that Mariota faced on Sunday was self-inflicted though. This was one of the more frustrating plays to me when watching this game back. It’s a 3rd and 7 midway through the 2nd quarter. The Jets are very clearly in a Cover 2 Man look pre-snap and they don’t change after the snap so this should have been a very clear read for Mariota. The Titans are running the same play they hit Davis on for a touchdown against New England a few weeks ago, but that touchdown was against a single high safety look, not two deep like what the Jets have here. Davis’ stutter-go fade route is always going to be taken away by the deep half safety, but Mariota lingers on this read far too long. By the time he moves on to his next reads — both of which were wide open — he’s rushed and forced to make an off-balance throw that lands at Tajae Sharpe’s feet.
Not only does Mariota linger too long on Davis here, but he also drifts out of the center of the pocket. The left side of the line is in decent shape intially, but when the quarterback moves off his mid-line it changes the angles for the pass rushers which causes the protection to break down. So while, yes, Mariota was under pressure for this throw, it was 100% his own doing.
Mariota started to heat up towards the end of the first half. This play is part of the touchdown drive just before halftime and it’s one of the Titans favorite pass route concepts. It’s the same play that they really struggled to get on the same page with during preseason and early in the regular season, but it’s clicking much better now. The shallow cross from Sharpe and the 5-yard hook from Firkser help keep the linebackers shallow and stretched horizontally which opens up a wide throwing lane to hit Davis behind them. Excellent throw and catch from Mariota to Davis for 22.
While Mariota was much better in the second half, he nearly had disaster strike again on the first 3rd down after halftime. Trumaine Johnson is sitting on this out route from Davis all the way and the wide throw from Mariota hits him in the hands, but he can’t hang on. The Titans didn’t have any open options on this play so I don’t blame Mariota for taking a shot to his best receiver in a one-on-one situation. Unfortunately, Johnson is all over this one.
The hits far outweighed the misses though. The Titans got on a roll with a couple nice play action boot plays off an outside zone look. Here, the defense flows to the run which leaves Sharpe open on the crosser.
They came back to it again shortly after. This time the Jets blitz the edge defender right in to Mariota’s face, but he does an outstanding job of hitting Smith with a great throw despite having to get rid of it quickly. That allows Smith to do what he does best: run after the catch.
Also, that’s Avery Williamson getting lost in coverage. I liked Williamson when he was here, but this is also the reason that Jon Robinson made the right call in not offering him $7.5M per year. He will show up again later.
Let’s skip forward to the final drive now. After a pair of Jets penalties bailed them out of a bad start, Mariota made a massive play with his legs. The coverage was pretty tight downfield and rather than force a tight ball in somewhere, he found a lane and took off. He picks up a big chunk, cuts back inside Williamson, bounces off another tackler and then finally is taken down close to the 45-yard line. The end of this run is both inspiring and probably not the smartest play. Mariota was giving up his body to fight for every yard, but in doing so he exposed himself to the hit that ultimately caused the fumble. He somehow has the presence of mind — and effort — to recover it despite being bodyslammed by Jamal Adams. A facemask penalty away from the play would have saved them either way, but a lose fumble here would have ended the game. In the end, it’s kind of a microcosm of Mariota’s performance in the game as a whole. Great effort and determination with awe-inspiring ability and sometimes questionable decision making.
After a long completion to Anthony Firkser — more on that in a minute — and a couple pass attempts that netted 3 yards, the Titans faced 3rd and 7 with 42 seconds left trailing by 3. After using motion to get a man-zone indicator, Mariota correctly diagnoses the Jets to be in zone coverage. The playcall is a zone beater with three receivers lined up in a bunch. Davis is the point man and he just runs a simply spot route while Sharpe and Taylor run a flat and corner, respectively. That floods the Jets zone and Williamson’s late reaction gives room for Mariota to fit the ball in to Davis, who then fights through two tackles to get in the endzone. It’s a great read by Mariota, great playcall by LaFleur, and a great individual effort by Davis to get in the endzone.
Mariota’s play in the second half was much better than the first. We will get to some of his better throws in the sections below, but he continues to be clutch when it counts and he certainly appeared to be willing the team to victory down the stretch in this one.
Taywan Taylor’s deep speed makes a huge difference
The Titans have struggled to find consistency with the deep passing attack in 2018 for multiple reasons. Early in the season Mariota’s nerve injury and injuries to the starting tackles were the primary culprits. More recently, the Titans have been missing the speed of Taywan Taylor — the team’s most credible vertical threat — as he sat out with a foot injury suffered against the Cowboys. He returned against the Jets and made an immediate impact. Taylor got behind the Jets defense three times in the second half, catching two of them on his way to his first career 100-yard receiving game.
The concepts the Titans used to get Taylor free aren’t new — Tennessee has been running these plays all season — but they were far more effective against a Jets defense that was squatting on underneath routes. The first attempted shot to Taylor was on the Yankee concept that we’ve talked about in this space several times this season. The shallow cross that is supposed to go with Taylor’s deep post here falls down (Sharpe), but it doesn’t matter as Taylor blows by the defense and is wide open. Mariota just barely overthrows him here and I’m sure he wanted that one back in a big way.
The Titans would come back to Taylor again on the next drive though. This time it’s a more straightforward “9” route as the Jets showed that Cover 0 look again and Mariota takes advantage. Taylor runs right by corner Mo Claiborne and then finishes with a fantastic diving over-the-shoulder catch.
The Titans would go right back to Taylor on the first play of the next drive one more time. They get a Cover 3 look from New York this time and that tells Mariota that Taylor’s deep post route is going to be matched up one-on-one with safety Terrence Brooks which is an advantage for the Titans. This is a phenomenal throw from Mariota who drops the ball right in the basket to Taylor for a 55-yard gain.
The ability to create explosive plays in the passing game is something that this offense has struggled with all season. If Taylor is able to emerge as a legitimate deep threat, that is something that can really make a difference moving forward as it will open up space underneath for other guys to work. I also noticed that Taylor did a nice job as a run blocker in this game. Hopefully this is the start of a strong run for a guy that feels — to me at least — like the missing piece to this passing offense.
Anthony Firkser is actually good
I have been on the Firkser bandwagon since July 29th, 2018.
Vrabel giving tight end Anthony Firkser some love in the press conference. He’s a guy that has flashed to me over the first few practices. That’s a tough position to sneak on to this roster, but he could be one to watch.— Mike Herndon (@MikeMiracles) July 29, 2018
At first, Firkser’s status as an unlikely training camp/preseason star was an entertaining storyline that seemed likely to end with him being a tough-luck cut at a deep position when the 53-man roster deadline arrived. However, he stuck on the roster initially and has now carved out a role for himself as something of a 3rd down tight end. He excelled in that role against the Jets — the team that originally signed him after he went undrafted, but later released him — catching 3 passes for 42 yards and a touchdown.
Let’s start with quite possibly my favorite route from a Titans pass catcher this season. This is from the final drive of the game so that tells me that the coaches trust him in a big spot. The Jets show him some respect by covering him with a cornerback instead of a linebacker or safety. Firkser’s route is gorgeous here. He starts by winning a clean release against press at the line of scrimmage and proceeds to stack the defender directly behind him. That’s an important step here because it essentially makes the corner defend a two-way go at the top of the stem. Firkser gives a hard jab step — complete with a head and shoulder fake — towards the sidelines before bursting back inside to grab the pass and put the Titans on the doorstep of the endzone.
This is top level route running by Firkser here. I’m not comparing him to this guy, but it kind of reminds me of the nuance and suddenness of Adam Thielen’s routes. That’s about the highest compliment that I could give to a route runner right now. Obviously, Thielen is a faster player — and plays a different position — but these types of routes are the reason that Firkser needs to continue to play more. He’s capable of beating man coverage and he catches — literally — everything thrown his way.
Speaking of catching everything, check out this one-handed stab by Firkser on the sidelines.
Finally, let’s take a look at his first NFL touchdown. He’s just running a simple mesh concept with Tajae Sharpe, but the Jets defense fails to pick him up at all. Avery Williamson is standing still in the middle of the field guarding grass while there are two guys covering Cam Batson in the endzone. Not a great look for New York, but it was cool to see Firkser get in the endzone for the first time.
It’s just one game, but this performance has to be encouraging for the Titans with regards to their pass catchers. In addition to Taylor and Firkser, the Titans also got a pretty good game out of Jonnu Smith (dropped touchdown pass aside), a couple nice screens to Batson, and of course another game winner at home for Corey Davis. The Titans offense really did come alive in the second half and gives them something to build off of for the stretch run, starting tonight.