There are many issues with the NFL’s preseason. Four games is way too many and it’s absolutely absurd that the NFL asks fans to pay full price to attend these glorified scrimmages. However, quite possibly the biggest issue I have with it is the lack of All-22 film availability. If the NFL wants to charge full price for attendance, shouldn’t they also be providing a “full price” fan experience as well? Instead, I’m left with nothing to review but those dumb tight sideline shots from the TV broadcast.
My own personal complaints aside, I did go back and re-watch the game and here are my takeaways from that viewing.
Jayon Brown continues to shine
I harp on this all the time, but the jump from Year 1 to Year 2 is typically the biggest for NFL players. This is when the game should start to slow down and allow them to play faster. Last season we saw Kevin Byard make the leap from solid starter to First-Team All-Pro. This year lots of the players from the 2017 draft class are starting to show signs of growth and Jayon Brown is one of them.
Last season Brown was used primarily as a coverage linebacker, coming on to the field for Avery Williamson when the opponent was in an obvious passing situation. He played 45% of the Titans total defensive snaps in that role and played pretty well. However, Brown could be making a case for an even larger role in 2018 with his play in OTAs, training camp, and now preseason. He’s been one of the stars of each segment of the offseason and on Saturday night he got a chance to start next to Will Compton with Wesley Woodyard having the night off.
Brown responded to the increased responsibility by leading the team with 7 tackles — including 5 solo stops — and picking up the lone sack of the night. He was constantly around the ball, including reading and reacting to this screen pass. The right guard is able to engage him, but Brown shows good strength as he’s able to maintain outside leverage without being pushed downfield, eventually forcing Ronald Jones out of bounds.
I thought Brown flashed some ability as a blitzer at times last season and it showed up big in this game. Here is his first blitz of the night. He times it up well and then beats the right guard with a quick jab step outside before knifing back inside. Brown gets his hand on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s arm and nearly forces an interception.
Here’s another blitz. This time the back is there to pick Brown up, but he runs right through him — probably should have been a lowering the head call honestly — and flushes Jameis Winston from the pocket. Obviously, you’d prefer to see him get Winston on the ground, but he does a nice job applying pressure. Also, Sharif Finch loses sight of the ball here and probably should have had contain on Winston once rolls right.
Brown’s third blitz did get home though as the Titans brought a zone blitz that left him completely unaccounted for. He did a nice job of breaking down and corralling Winston this time.
Brown was also excellent in coverage as usual, particularly when left in man-to-man against tight ends and backs. Here he is matched up on Cameron Brate and while he is ultimately defeated by an excellent catch, the coverage is very good and he is on the right track fighting through the hands to try to knock the ball out. Nothing wrong with this effort from Brown here.
Through two preseason games, Brown has clearly outplayed Will Compton. If the season were to start today, I would think that Brown should start next to Wesley Woodyard at least until Rashaan Evans is healthy and up to speed. Inside linebackers aren’t required to be giant thumpers to succeed in Dean Pees defenses. Last season the Ravens defense finished 3rd overall in DVOA with 217 pound safety-turned-linebacker Patrick Onwuasor starting alongside C.J. Mosley. Brown could be a great fit next to Evans as long term starters on the inside.
Corey Levin’s strong preseason continues
Last week, Corey Levin got on Mike Vrabel’s radar in a good way. This week saw more of the same from the second year center/guard. Once again, Levin played behind Ben Jones as the second team center and then moved over to right guard late in the game to get some work there. He also earned more praise from Vrabel.
Vrabel said Corey Levin is becoming more comfortable in the new offense and is having a solid camp.— Terry McCormick (@terrymc13) August 19, 2018
While Levin didn’t have any massive pancakes like he did against Green Bay, he was very technically sound and consistently got the job done up front. This was probably his most impressive block of the game. He takes Bucs defensive tackle William Gholston, turns him and completely deletes him from the play.
Here is another example of Levin just doing his job. Nothing terrible sexy here, but he is able to reach and pin the playside defensive tackle to create a nice lane for Dawkins to get downhill through.
As I mentioned last week, Levin is extremely natural in space. Here is a good example. The Titans throw a wide receiver screen to Devin Ross and Levin is able to locate and eliminate the safety coming up from midfield to help spring Ross for a nice gain. Deontay Burnett also deserves credit for a great block out on the edge. Unfortunately, Ross fumbles at the end of the play, but Levin also comes back in at the end to make a really nice tackle.
Levin is unlikely to unseat Ben Jones or Quinton Spain by the end of preseason, but I think the Titans must be feeling pretty comfortable with their offensive line depth right now. Looking forward to 2019, I think there is a good chance that we see Levin step in to a starting role. Spain will be one of many Titans looking for a new contract without a ton of free cap space to go around and Jones will be headed in to the final year of his deal with little guaranteed money left. Allowing Levin to step in to one of those roles on his cheap rookie contract could save the Titans a few million dollars at a time where every million really matters.
Julius Warmsley should make the 53-man roster
Entering training camp it seemed like the Titans might be in trouble with their depth along the defensive line, but Warmsley’s play has eased some of those concerns. After making some splashes in Green Bay, he built on that with a strong showing against the Bucs on Saturday night. Warmsley first arrived on the radar for those covering and following the team when Mike Vrabel praised him during a post-training camp press conference. Vrabel specifically cited Warmsley playing with good pad level and leverage which are clearly points of emphasis for this staff. You can see what he’s talking about with pad level here. Warmsley blasts the Bucs starting left guard, Ali Marpet, in to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s feet despite it being a quick throw. Safety Kendrick Lewis also makes a great play on the back end here to bat the ball away from O.J. Howard.
Here’s another good example. This time he takes the left guard and re-establishes the line of scrimmage with heavy hands and then fights through the block to make the tackle for loss.
David King didn’t play Saturday night due to injury, but it’s pretty clear that Warmsley has passed him in the defensive line rotation. I think he’s a virtual lock to make the 53-man roster at this point.
Taywan Taylor’s big night
Taylor was clearly the star of the night for the Titans. His speed and playmaking ability even caught the eye of LeBron James. Taylor had some help on that big play though. Many noticed Nick Williams’ nice block which took out two Buccaneer defenders. Fewer noticed the great cut block from Josh Kline that sealed off the inside of the lane. From there, Taylor’s speed completely annihilated a terrible angle from the Bucs safety.
Taylor stayed in the game pretty late on Saturday. I’m not sure whether Vrabel and LaFleur just wanted to get him some extra reps or if they wanted to give Blaine Gabbert a chance to work with some receivers that will actually be playing if he gets in a live game setting during the regular season, but whatever the reason, Taylor continued to play well. Here he is getting wide open on a deep cross. You can again see Taylor’s elusiveness after the catch as he puts a little hesitation move on the corner to gain a few extra yards along the sideline.
Taylor’s second touchdown catch of the night was pretty simple, but the details on this one are fun. Taylor’s split is a little tighter than normal which makes the corner think they’re setting up to throw the fade. Then Taylor uses a quick move on his release to set up the slant and Gabbert hits him with a nice low ball that helps protect his receiver. Nice design and execution here.
Possibly the most impressive play by Taylor — at least to me — was this catch on the first play of the second half. He’s the off receiver in the two-man stack which allows him free release off the line. He sells the deep route well and then uses his inside hand to subtly push the corner by as he slams on the breaks and cuts inside. If the pass from Gabbert is better Taylor likely has another big gain here as the middle of the field was completely cleared out by the deep crossing route, but he does a nice job of making the grab on the low throw.
Taylor’s playmaking ability is going to be very important for this offense. They should be working to get him the ball in space as often as possible.
Dion Lewis is a tough cover
Lewis’ ability to deliver value as a pass catcher out of the backfield was on full display on Saturday. This play was interesting from a couple different levels. First, we’ve talked all summer about how Matt LaFleur would tie Marcus Mariota’s footwork to his progressions on passing plays and this is probably the clearest demonstration of that we’ve seen so far. SuperHorn put together a great thread about this on Twitter which you can check out here, but if you just watch Mariota’s feet you can see how they time up with his reads and eventually lead him out to Lewis releasing out of the backfield. What’s great about Lewis is his ability to take what should have been a 2 yard gain and turn it in to a 10 yard gain and a first down. The acceleration he shows here is just ridiculous.
Lewis made another play just a couple snaps later. This time he was running an angle route out of the backfield. He leaves Lavonte David — a very good linebacker — on the ground with his break on the route and then makes two fantastic open field moves to turn a 5 yard in to a 15 yard gain. Lewis really shows it all on this play. The route, the open field stop-start ability, the vision, the contact balance. Unfortunately he fumbles at the end, but this type of play will be huge for this offense and especially Marcus Mariota. I highlighted Corey Davis’ block on this play as well. While we would all like to see him more involved as a pass catcher, he did some nice work in other aspects of the game on Saturday.
Lewis’ ability to turn easy passes in to first downs and big gains will make a huge difference for this team.
Fun with young pass rushers
The Titans pass rush wasn’t great overall on Saturday night. They didn’t get much pressure on Fitzpatrick while the Bucs first team offense was out there, but there were some good moments as the game wore on.
Harold Landry and Sharif Finch were the stars in Green Bay and they were once again the most dynamic of the bunch against the Bucs. Landry was less consistent with his ability to pressure, but he did get one outstanding rush as he was able to dip and bend under former Titans draft pick Brad Seaton’s block and draw a holding call. This would have been an easy sack if not for the hold. Landry is still getting there, but this move is special and is going to cause problems for opposing tackles this season. Aaron Wallace also turns in a nice chop move around the other edge on this snap.
Finch was also active again this week as he continues to push for a spot on the 53-man roster. Here he gets chipped by the back, but continues to work around the edge and uses his speed to flush Jameis Winston from the pocket to force an incomplete pass.
Here is Finch’s best rush move of the night, and it’s a new one from the six he used against the Packers in one drive. He times up Seaton’s punch and swats his hands down to gain the edge. He nearly reaches Ryan Griffin’s throwing arm with his outside hand and if he’s a moment slower releasing the ball it’s probably a strip sack.
Here is one last pressure from Finch. This time he holds up to read the play action, but once he sees the quarterback with the ball, he restarts and manages to gain the edge and force an off-balance throw from Griffin.
Finch’s competition for the 5th spot at outside linebacker is Josh Carraway and he had one of the better pass rush reps that I’ve seen from him Saturday night. Here he gets a great jump on the snap and just beats the left tackle with a pure speed rush to get a hit on Griffin and force the incompletion.
Carraway is clearly behind Finch right now in the rotation and will need a bunch of plays like this to make up ground. Right now I’d be pretty shocked to see Finch not on the 53-man roster.
Jonnu Smith missed a couple blocks
Smith was inconsistent as a blocker last season and he was inconsistent again on Saturday. He had a couple reps where he was able to hold up pretty well blocking Jason Pierre-Paul one-on-one which is pretty impressive for a relatively undersized tight end, however he also had a couple misfires. Here he is responsible for pinning Vinny Curry inside, but he isn’t able to maintain outside leverage, allowing Curry to run down the line and make the play on Henry. There is another outstanding Corey Davis block on this play though if you want to find something positive. Watch him block #23 completely off the screen.
Here is another miss by Smith. He’s supposed to be scraping down the line to crack Pierre-Paul on this inside zone split, but he let’s JPP slide through and make the tackle on Dion Lewis. Smith wasn’t helped by Josh Kline getting pushed back at the snap by Gerald McCoy as you can see Smith has to adjust his path to get around Kline’s feet, but he still should have gotten a better lick on JPP. It wouldn’t have taken much to give Lewis the time he needed to scoot through the hole.
Smith has made great strides in a lot of aspects and is, by all accounts, a diligent worker who is committed to being a great player, but he’s still not a finished product. He’ll need to be better from a blocking standpoint than he was on Saturday.
Four random plays that I liked
One thing that I noticed Saturday night was the defense mixing in some base 4-3 looks in addition to their typical 3-4 base defense. Here is an example of that. The defensive line features Matt Dickerson, Bennie Logan, Julius Warmsley, and Harold Landry from left to right with Aaron Wallace, Will Compton, and Jayon Brown playing as off-ball linebackers behind them. Wallace occasionally lined up as an off-ball backer during his rookie year in 2016 and is athletic enough to pull it off. He makes a great play here as he shoots the gap against the inside zone run to make a big tackle for loss on 2nd and 1. Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees are showing the “front multiplicity” that Vrabel promised during his introductory press conference.
David Fluellen continues to look like the RB3. At the very least, he’s not going to be overtaken without a fight. Fluellen had the most impressive run of the night when he overcame quick penetration from the Bucs All-World defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and broke multiple tackles to turn what should have been a short loss in to a decent gain. Fluellen isn’t a burner and he’s not going to wow you with open field moves like Akrum Wadley or Dalyn Dawkins, but he’s a tough, rugged runner who has good balance. He also takes care of the football and is a reliable special teams contributor and pass protector. He’s had a good preseason.
Being able to pick up 3rd and short on the ground is critical so it was good to see the first team offense convert with an early opportunity here. It’s a little difficult to see from this angle, but Josh Kline does a nice job of peeling off his double team in time to pick up the blitzing linebacker and direct him away from Derrick Henry. The 2017 version of Henry almost certainly bounces this run outside once he sees early inside penetration, but this time he stays patient and works to find a hole inside and fall forward for the first down. It’s still early, but Henry’s willingness to stay patient behind his blocks appears to be much improved under Matt LaFleur and running backs coach Tony Dews.
Taylor Lewan had a nice game. He was often matched up with the Bucs star defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul, and he effectively neutralized JPP’s impact. My favorite Lewan play from the game was this one though. He gets a chance to climb to the second level on this toss play and he latches on to Bucs linebacker Adarius Taylor and drives him a good 10 yards downfield, completely off the screen. Lewan is an animal.