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Offensive line struggles and other takeaways from a second viewing of Titans-Steelers

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Breaking down the causes behind all of the Titans issues from Saturday and highlighting some silver linings as well.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

New Titans coach Mike Vrabel hasn’t been shy about doing things his own way since being hired by the team back in January. Whether it’s been where the media can stand during press conferences or treating injuries like top secret government information, Vrabel does what he wants and what he feels is best for the team without apology. That’s his right as the man who has been charged with guiding this team to new heights.

That willingness to be different extended to his treatment of preseason game 3 which has traditionally been used as a “dressed rehearsal” for the regular season with opponent specific gameplanning and starters playing at least until halftime. When asked about how much “Steelers stuff” the Titans had done after a practice last week, Mariota described the Titans as “still in training camp mode”, seeming to indicate that they were still focusing on installing parts of the new offense rather than practicing a Steelers specific gameplan. The Titans starters came out midway through the 2nd quarter in Pittsburgh, making it look like they treated this as just another preseason game rather than any special dressed rehearsal.

Vrabel isn’t alone in this view of the preseason either. The Rams’ Sean McVay — a coach that is generally viewed as above reproach by most media members — has decided to completely exclude Jared Goff and Todd Gurley from all preseason action. Several other coaches have significantly dialed back their star players’ exposure this season. This only adds to the questions of why do there need to be this many preseason games and why does the NFL feel like they can charge full price for the tickets, but that’s a topic for another day.

Going back and re-watching this game wasn’t exactly something I looked forward to after watching it live, but I wanted to get a better feel for what actually caused some of the issues we saw and look back for some under the radar performances that didn’t get noticed.

Mariota-to-Davis missed connections

Let’s start with the play that sent Titans Twitter and message boards everywhere in to a full-scale panic so we can get it out of the way.

I feel like this play has been analyzed and over-analyzed already, but here’s my take on it. First, I’ve seen some speculation that this ball hit a helmet on the way out and that’s what caused it to be short. I don’t think that’s what happened here. For one, the ball doesn’t flutter or change directions, but more importantly Mariota goes to Davis directly after this and is showing him that he expected him to flatten out his route.

This was pretty clearly a miscommunication. The Steelers secondary wasn’t ready for the snap and the safeties in particular look confused. Terrell Edmunds (#34) looks like he’s rotating up at first before suddenly realizing that the other safety has buzzed out to cover the flat, replacing the blitzing corner on the trips side. The coverage really is a mess and I believe that’s what caused this misread between Davis and Mariota.

Davis’ route is likely dependent on reading the middle of the field. If the middle of the field is closed — or “MOFC” (i.e. a single high safety or Cover 3) — he should flatten down underneath the safety with a deep dig route. If the middle of field is open — or “MOFO” (i.e. Cover 2) — he should take the route up the seam with a post. This is a pretty common sight adjustment that gets built in to passing concepts. In this case, Davis sees a MOFO look when he comes out of his break because #34 is out of position, still on the far hash. Mariota is anticipating a MOFC coverage based on the reactions of the other defenders and is expecting Davis to flatten out the dig.

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I can see why there was a miscommunication here. That doesn’t change the bad result obviously, but this isn’t a case of Davis running a bad route or not knowing what to do. I actually would lean towards Davis being in the right here. Leveling off that route would have run him right back in to #34 and bailed the Steelers out of a bust. He saw daylight and ran to it, expecting Mariota to see the same. If Mariota does see it the same way and hits him in stride, it’s a long touchdown and suddenly we don’t have to endure ridiculous hot takes on Twitter about Matt LaFleur, Mariota, and Davis.

The second misfire from Mariota to Davis appears to be a simple miss from the QB. The throw is simply high. The other issue with this play was Taylor Lewan getting beat by a nice inside spin move from Stephon Tuitt which results in a big hit on Mariota, though I don’t think that had anything to do with the poor throw.

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I know that some Titans fans are chomping at the bit to roast Corey Davis for whatever reason, but I wouldn’t put either of these miscues on him. Tennessee desperately needs these two to get things ironed out quickly, but this is what the preseason is for.

Blocking issues

Moving on to the other big story coming out of this game: the offensive line struggles. This was a long day up front for the Titans. In addition to Lewan getting beat on the play above, Josh Kline also had a rough afternoon and it started with the very first offensive snap of the game. Stephon Tuitt surprises Kline with a quick inside swim move and simply overpowers him back in to Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota. Tuitt and his fellow starters along the Pittsburgh defensive line — Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave — are excellent players and they’ll give plenty of offensive lines fits this season, but the Titans need more from a guy they paid big money to this offseason.

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Just like the miscommunication between Mariota and Davis, the line had some communication problems as well. This next snap is a perfect example. The Steelers bring a late blitzer up to the C gap between Dennis Kelly and Luke Stocker who ends up getting doubled, but nobody blocks the 5-tech defensive tackle (Tuitt again). Given that the entire line except for Kelly slides left on this protection, I think this is probably Kelly’s bust.

Derrick Henry gets surprised by the unblocked defensive lineman suddenly in his face before he can even carry out his play action fake. Henry’s in a tough spot here, but he really needs to slow Tuitt down at least a little bit to give Mariota a chance to escape or throw it away. As the icing on the cake, Jonnu Smith is beat around the edge here as well. Just a really poorly blocked play on multiple levels.

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Before we get back to the offensive line specifically, I wanted to point out that it wasn’t all bad from Jonnu Smith as a blocker on Saturday. He was a key part of Derrick Henry’s best run of the game as he pinned the edge defender inside and even finished off the block by putting his man on the ground. Smith is very much still a work in progress as a blocker, but this was a good rep for him here.

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Kline struggled with run blocking as well, too often getting pushed back behind the line of scrimmage by Steelers defenders. He was pulled in favor of Kevin Pamphile for the start of the 3rd drive of the game, but Pamphile got off to a rough start himself. Again, the Steelers blitz with Tuitt taking a hard inside move from the B gap to the A gap as linebacker Vince Williams loops in to the B gap he just vacated. Rather than passing Tuitt off to Jones, Pamphile tries to double him which leaves Williams completely unblocked.

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The Steelers ran a ton of games up front and really confused the Titans protections throughout the game. That was rough to watch this close to the regular season, but it could be a good thing as it gives the coaches some good teaching opportunities with these guys. While this offensive line has been together for a long time now, the scheme is still new and protections/responsibilities when certain looks present themselves are still being worked through. Pittsburgh gave them a lot to look at and learn from in this one.

After the Titans pulled the starting offensive line after the 3rd drive, things went from bad to worse. The Steelers left their starting defensive line in the game in to the 3rd quarter so the Titans were simply out-gunned up front for most of the 2nd and 3rd quarters. You can see an example of that on this outside zone run. The entire left side of the offensive line gets beat badly here. Cam Heyward pushes Corey Levin — who has otherwise played really well in the preseason — a good 4 yards back in to Fluellen’s path while left guard Aaron Stinnie and left tackle Kevin Pamphile also lose their matchups.

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Stinnie, in particular, had a rough day on Saturday. He’s not going to make the roster and Cam Heyward is a Pro Bowler so this isn’t really a fair fight, but this is part of why the offensive line looked so terrible in Pittsburgh. Stinnie just has no hope here.

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That pretty much covers the major issues from the game. After watching it back, I’m far more concerned about the offensive line communication issues than I am about the Mariota-Davis communication issues. Mariota and Davis read a very busted coverage differently. They won’t see that same look very often — if at all — for the rest of the season. However, the blitzes the Steelers were beating the Titans starting offensive line with are things that they’ll see often and they have to get those issues cleaned up. Josh Kline, in particular, needs to play better after the Titans gave him $12M guaranteed on his new deal earlier this year.

Good play from the secondary

The Titans were without Malcolm Butler on Saturday, but the secondary still played very well. They held the Steelers passing attack — who was without Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell — to just 5.5 yards per attempt. Logan Ryan was particularly effective as a blitzer from his nickel position. This is a perfectly timed blitz that forces a rushed throw from Ben Roethlisberger that falls incomplete.

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He also made a big play as a blitzer against the Steelers running game. This time he shoots through the right side of the defense and even though he doesn’t finish the tackle on James Conner, he does force him to go east and west momentarily which gives Will Compton, Kevin Byard, and Sharif Finch time to rally to make the stop. Ryan gets no stat here, but he deserves credit for this stop on 3rd and 1.

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Adoree’ Jackson also played well for the most part despite the touchdown he allowed to Justin Hunter — we’ll get to that in a moment. Here he shows off his crazy athleticism as he bubbles over the pick route from the tight end and then drives down on the shallow crosser, ultimately breaking up the completion.

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Here is the touchdown pass to Justin Hunter that Jackson allowed. Similar to the deep ball that Malcolm Butler gave up in the first preseason game, the coverage here isn’t really all that bad. The throw and catch from Roethlisberger to Hunter was just about perfect and that’s always going to beat good coverage. The only criticism that I have for Jackson here would be to do a better job of pressing Hunter tight to the sideline and use it as an extra defender.

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Further down the depth chart, I felt like Kenneth Durden made a case to make the 53-man roster in this game. He was the 4th corner on the field behind Jackson, Ryan, and LeShaun Sims and he really showed up in a good way. The biggest play that he made was making a nice hit to separate Justin Hunter from the ball, allowing linebacker Robert Spillane to pull it away for an interception.

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Durden signed on late as part of the turnover at the cornerback position following the awful performance in Green Bay and has looked very good in the two games he’s played since arriving. In Pittsburgh, he showed his physicality, coming up to make some really nice open field stops on Steelers running back James Conner.

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He pretty clearly looks like the 5th cornerback on this roster to me right now.

Sharif Finch and Matt Dickerson continue to play well

These two have really helped themselves with each game they’ve played this preseason and that extended to this game as well. Both guys are right near the roster bubble. Finch has a pretty good shot — though the addition of Kamalei Correa certainly complicates things for him — and Dickerson is at least in the conversation with Julius Warmsley for the 5th defensive line spot.

While Finch has mostly drawn praise for his pass rush skills, he also has played the run pretty well. Here he and Dickerson combine to completely cave in the play side of this zone run and help make the stop for a loss.

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Finch was mostly quiet as a pass rusher against the Steelers starters which isn’t necessarily surprising, but he had at least one good pressure in the game. He busted out the Reggie White Hump Move for a second time this preseason to beat the right tackle here. He’s a fun guy to watch and while I think Correa is an immediate upgrade, I want to see him make the roster so he can continue to develop here.

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Dickerson also got some work done as a pass rusher, picking up a sack on this rush during the second half. Dickerson makes at least one or two plays a game that have been really impressive and he could have a chance to sneak on to the roster. At least one of him or Warmsley will make it and there is a chance that both do if the Titans like Dickerson as much as I have. I feel a lot better about the defensive line depth now than I did at the beginning of the preseason.

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It’s worth noting that Finch has missed the last two practices since this game. With the addition of Correa, it’s less likely that we will see him playing a prominent role this season and that’s probably a good thing. I still think there is a good chance he makes the 53-man roster.

Harold Landry injury investigation

Speaking of young pass rushers, the most important one on the Titans roster left with an ankle injury during the 1st quarter on Saturday. The rampant speculation during and after the game has been that he injured the ankle while running down on the punt cover team, but that’s actually not true. It’s hard to say exactly the play that he gets injured, but I think this is the one. It looks to me like his right foot — the one he injured — and DaQuan’s feet get tangled up as they collide during their respective rushes.

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The camera pans away before we can see Landry’s reaction after the contact. Skipping to the next snap, however, it looks like Landry isn’t quite moving around just right and at the end of the play he reaches down for his right foot/ankle.

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The very next snap you can see that something is clearly wrong with him. He comes to the sidelines and then finally goes back out for a punt cover snap before the next defensive series and is limping again. That’s when he finally comes out of the game.

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First, Landry needs to take himself out of the game as soon as he realizes something might be wrong. I get that no football player wants to ask out of a game if they don’t have to — at least not the good ones — but he has to understand that this is a meaningless preseason game and pushing through the pain can only hurt the team when it actually counts.

Second, someone on the coaching staff should have noticed this and pulled him out. Shane Bowen has two guys to watch on each snap. One of them is a very important high draft pick. If that guy comes up hobbling, get him to the training staff immediately please.

Lastly, I have seen a lot of criticism of Vrabel for having him on special teams in the first place — even though he clearly didn’t suffer the injury on special teams — but I don’t see that being a ridiculous decision. Most defensive backups have to play special teams. It comes with the territory and Landry is still a backup when everyone is healthy. Sure, he’s a starter for now and maybe even Week 1 if he’s available and Morgan isn’t, but for a guy who has never played special teams in his life, I can understand Vrabel wanting to get him some reps here in the preseason to give him a little experience instead of asking him to learn on the fly during a game setting.

A few random plays that I liked

I felt like Bennie Logan had his biggest impact of the preseason in this game. He was regularly resetting the line of scrimmage and acting as an anchor in the middle of a Titans run defense that allowed just 2.5 yards per carry on Saturday. This was probably his best play as he stacks center B.J. Finney a couple yards back, tosses him aside and then makes the tackle for a loss. Logan won’t give you much as a pass rusher, but he should be a force against opposing rushing attacks when he’s in the game.

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And of course, I have to give some love to my guy Anthony Firkser. He made some big plays in the second half and showed what myself and others had seen from the early days of camp when he kept making play after play. Here he shows off some speed and athleticism working the seam route for a big gain.

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He followed that up with the Titans only score of the day, catching a 3-yard touchdown pass from Blaine Gabbert. He does a nice job of fighting back underneath the defender here and then hanging on for the contested catch. I think the chances are pretty slim that he sneaks on to the back of the roster, but I’ll still enjoy watching him shred the Vikings backups on Thursday night.

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Also, I’ll say that I thought Blaine Gabbert looked pretty good in this game and has overall looked like a pretty massive improvement over Matt Cassel. Gabbert still struggles with resisting the urge to make every throw a 100 mph fastball and his accuracy isn’t always on, but the Titans can survive with him behind center if needed.

The Titans will wrap up their preseason slate on Thursday night at home against the Vikings before they get ready to kick off the regular season in Miami on September 9th.