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All-22 Review: Breaking down the tape of the Titans offense in Miami

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A closer look at Mariota’s performance and other takeaways from the mess in Miami.

Tennessee Titans v Miami Dolphins Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

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.

What is it about the Titans in Miami? Last season when Tennessee headed to South Florida we were forced to suffer through one of the worst quarterbacked games in modern NFL history as Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler took turns assaulting the turf at Hard Rock Stadium. The Dolphins prevailed in that game thanks in large part to — and I don’t think there is any other way to put it — atrocious officiating.

Well, the officiating was similarly awful in the 2018 version of this game, but instead of the quarterbacks making the game unwatchable, it was the weather. Lightning strikes near the stadium caused multiple lengthy delays in the action and made Titans-Dolphins the longest game in NFL history, lasting a grand total of 7 hours and 10 minutes. It made for a game devoid of any kind of flow and a thoroughly exhausting experience for everyone involved from players to fans.

With that backdrop let’s get in to the tape review of Matt LaFleur’s first game as an NFL playcaller.

Marcus Mariota’s accuracy

Marcus Mariota’s play seems to be the hot topic of conversation this week, so let’s start there. First, I think you have to toss out the two interceptions that were thrown after he was injured and lost feeling in his throwing hand. If you want to argue that he should have taken himself out of the game or that Vrabel should have taken him out, I think that’s valid, but I find it difficult to fault a guy for floating two passes when he couldn’t grip/feel the football with his throwing hand. That’s fairly important to making accurate throws.

Despite a solid 9 of 14 (64.3%) for 103 yards stat line prior to the injury, Mariota was just a little bit off on several throws which cost the Titans opportunities for additional yardage after the catch, a key component of this offense.

The first — and maybe best — example comes from the very first drive of the game as the Titans face their first 3rd down of the season. They run a play that I’ve already seen a lot in their game. It’s a zone beater concept that’s designed to attack linebackers in the middle of the field. The play works beautifully here as the presence of Delanie Walker and Marcus Mariota’s eyes draw two defenders, opening up a massive throwing lane for the in-breaking Corey Davis behind them.

If the pass hits Davis in stride here, there is only a safety between him and the endzone. At a minimum he picks up and extra 10-15 yards. That being said, I’ll offer a couple points in Mariota’s defense. First, the pocket isn’t totally clean as Robert Quinn’s inside move against Taylor Lewan brings action to Mariota’s feet, causing him to throw this ball a little bit off balance. Second, his eyes moving the middle linebacker really make the play here so he deserves kudos for that. Davis does an excellent job of making a tougher-than-it-looks adjustment here to pick up a big first down, but this could have been a much bigger play.

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Here is an example where my opinion has changed since game day. But first, let’s take a minute to appreciate the play design from LaFleur. Like many of the Titans plays, it starts out looking like a regular outside zone run to the left. They’re in 13 personnel with Corey Davis as the only receiver on the field which helps sell the run as well. However, Mariota bootlegs back to the right, stops, and finds a wide open Luke Stocker running down the seam.

How did Stocker get so wide open? Watch him from the snap (he’s the tight end lined up on the right side of the formation between Dennis Kelly and Delanie Walker). He sells the run block all the way down the line, blending in with the rest of the offensive line, before peeling back up field. Mariota’s pass is just a little behind him, making him slow down a step or two to make the catch and allowing T.J. McDonald to catch him from behind.

Stocker may have scored if Mariota hits him in stride, but here is where my thought process has changed on this play. How bad would we have crushed Mariota if he overthrows him there? We’d say “oh you have to give your guy a chance to make a play when he’s that wide open”, right? Well, that’s exactly what he did. He gave Stocker — who isn’t exactly a guy with an extra gear or vertical to make up for it if the throw is a touch too long — a chance to make the play and put them inside the 5-yard line. I have no issue with the placement on this throw, and frankly McDonald is closing on Stocker even before he slows down so he may not even score with a perfect ball.

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Now let’s take a look at the sequence of plays from the goal-to-go series. The first snap was a give to Henry that gained 2 yards, setting up 2nd and goal from the 3-yard line. Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur dials up a play action boot look with a 2-man concept to the short side of the field with Corey Davis and Delanie Walker. The first problem is that the Dolphins end on that side doesn’t take the cheese on the play action fake. He comes directly up field, cutting off Mariota’s path to the edge. The second problem is that Walker stumbles slightly as he releases outside. If the ball is thrown right away Walker is open, but because of the stumble you can see Mariota double clutches and ends up throwing late which gives the Dolphins defender a chance to recover and make the play.

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The next snap is a similar concept to the one that Anthony Firkser scored on during the third preseason game against Pittsburgh. The idea appears to be for Davis to give a rub for Walker peel back inside off of, but the Dolphins defenders smartly switch off, effectively eliminating the natural pick there. The protection up from from the offensive line is pretty good. Jordan Phillips gets a bit of a push against Quinton Spain, but the Titans left guard does a good job of fighting him off. That allows Mariota to escape. When I watched this live I thought he had a chance to score with his legs here, but watching back I think the linebacker had the angle on him. He goes to the only option he has left and tries to fit a tight rope ball to Davis in the back corner, but misses just a touch wide.

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Finally, we have the 4th down play. The Titans hurried to the line to catch the Dolphins off guard and ran a simple speed out to Davis, using Rishard Matthews to create a rub on the outside side defender. On first watch, I thought this was just poor placement on the pass from Mariota (throwing inside and forcing Davis to stop his momentum to catch it), but watching back this is 100% a timing issue.

You can see from the end zone view, Mariota takes a little extra stutter step before getting rid of the ball and that makes all the difference here. Davis’ head is turned before the ball even leaves Mariota’s hand. That ball needs to be halfway to him by the time he whips his head around. The hesitation is likely just Mariota trying to see how the Dolphins are covering the combination of routes coming out of that bunch and you would hope that gets a little quicker for him as he gets more comfortable with this specific play.

Most of all though, this is just an excellent play by the Dolphins defense. Even if Mariota gets the ball out quicker and hits Davis’ outside shoulder, it’s no guarantee that he gets in here after watching it from a few angles. Minkah Fitzpatrick plays it perfectly and makes a beautiful open field tackle. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the other team.

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Mariota was just a touch off on another similar throw a couple drives later. Davis is essentially running the same route, though this time it’s a WR screen. The ball comes out on time, but again, its on his back shoulder instead leading Davis which surprises his wide receiver. Davis has the ball bounce off his hands as he tries to adjust late to the ball. It’s a ball that Davis probably should have caught, but Mariota’s placement makes it an unnecessarily difficult catch. Tajae Sharpe gets bullied by Minkah Fitzpatrick here which likely would have blown the play up anyway, but this is poor execution all around.

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So that covers 3 of the 5 pre-injury incompletions from Mariota along with a couple balls that were complete but could have been better. The other 2 incomplete passes were not on Mariota. This is an example where the timing of the offense isn’t completely clicking just yet.

The Titans are trying to set a natural rub for Davis on the wheel route. He’s the No. 3 receiver (3rd from the outside) in the trips set to the bottom of the screen. The No. 1 and No. 2 receivers — Sharpe and Matthews, respectively — are both running slants with the idea being that they only leave room for Davis to slip through the middle and hope that his man gets caught in the mix. Sharpe’s route looks to me like it’s just a touch too deep here which lets Davis’ man easily track through and cut off his path.

I would argue that the Dolphins could have been called for illegal contact here as Davis is more than 5 yards downfield when the defensive back starts to push him off his path, but he needs to do a better job of selling it if he wants a flag here. Otherwise, he needs to continue to run his route. This play is designed to go to Davis all the way, so Mariota is just throwing to a spot.

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Here is the other pre-injury incomplete pass and it’s an inch-perfect throw from Mariota. Taywan Taylor shows of his electric speed here as he runs right by Dolphins corner Bobby McCain who is forced to reach out to try to slow him down. From the All-22 angle it sure looks like he either pushes or grabs Taylor right around the 15-yard line, which again would be illegal contact. However, Taylor is still able to get on top of McCain and Mariota drops a perfect ball in. It looked like Taylor had a chance to catch it until his elbow hit the ground and the ball popped out. This is a very encouraging throw from Mariota though.

This would have been a spectacular catch from Taylor if he’d hauled it in. We’ve seen him make a similar play last season in Jacksonville so we know it’s something he’s capable of. The Titans have to find ways to get him more involved in the offense. Only having him on the field for 9 plays on Sunday was among the biggest head scratchers of the day for me. Vrabel said this week that they need to find a way to get him more involved so I’d expect that number to be on the rise this week.

One other small note. Dion Lewis has an excellent blitz pickup here. We’ll get to more good stuff that he did later.

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This was a play that looked strange live so I was interested to go back and see what exactly happened here. This is very clearly a run call (look at the offensive line), but something must have tipped Mariota off to the double corner blitz call from Miami. Instead of handing the ball off, he simply pops up and throws immediately to Tajae Sharpe. You can see him make a check at the line right before the snap. I’d love to know what he saw or heard that gave it away, but it’s a great pickup by the QB to take advantage of it.

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Let’s move on from Mariota. On second watch, I am not nearly as alarmed by the lack of accuracy I perceived watching it live. Obviously the two turnovers after he injured the elbow were bad, but prior to the injury he was playing pretty well. Ultimately, the Titans need to see results not glimpses from Mariota, but I would put the panic button away for at least another week.

Offensive line dominates, but tight ends struggle

The Titans offensive line was flat out excellent on Sunday. The team rushed for 116 yards on 29 carries for a 4.0 yards per carry average. That’s an OK number, but when you look at the tape you can see the offensive line deserved more. From a pass rush perspective, the stats and the tape align. The Titans finished first in the NFL in Pass Blocking Efficiency for Week 1 according to PFF, allowing just 2 hurries, 0 sacks, and 0 QB hits despite going nearly half the game with Dennis Kelly and Kevin Pamphile as their starting tackles.

Both guys did excellent work as pass protectors and they did it without the Titans giving them a ton of help against quality edge rushers in Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake. Wake, in particularly, was virtually invisible thanks to Kelly.

Here are some examples of their excellent work in the run game even if the results didn’t always match the offensive line’s effort. Let’s start with the offensive lineman that I thought shined the most on Sunday: Quinton Spain.

The Titans running game featured two primary types of plays in Miami. One was the outside zone — which we will get to in a minute — and the other was the read option. This play is an example of a split zone option. Walker is lined up as an H-back and is responsible for coming across to make the split block on the defensive end. That frees up Taylor Lewan to move up to the second level to block a linebacker in space — something that he’s perfectly suited to do. The key block on this run though, is Quinton Spain (highlighted) caving in the 1-tech defensive tackle. That gives Dion Lewis plenty of space to work with and he uses it to make T.J. McDonald miss in the hole and pick up some nice yards after contact.

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Here is the outside zone. If you want details on the way this play is coached, you should really check out SuperHorn’s excellent piece on it here. Spain again makes the key block on this run. His job is to “reach” the 3-tech defensive tackle lined up between him and Taylor Lewan pre-snap. A reach block requires the offensive lineman to cross the defender’s face and then pin him inside, allowing the back to get to the corner. Spain executes it perfectly here.

One other note on this play. The Dolphins defensive line got away with holding all game. You don’t see defensive holding called as much as offensive holding, but it’s more common with outside zone teams because defenders are taught to keep the “uncovered” offensive linemen from getting to the second level to pick off linebackers. Watch Ben Jones on this play. He is going to reach No. 52 and cut him off if not for that blatant hold from the nose tackle. It happened on nearly every outside zone snap of the game, but was never called. This was very nearly a huge run for Henry.

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Here’s another split zone read look from the Titans. This time it’s Stocker giving the split block from an H-back position. He does an excellent job of getting low to head off the diving attempt from Quinn. However, again, Spain is the guy who makes the key block as he takes the 1-tech defensive tackle and completely tosses him out of the hole, allowing Henry to get downhill through for a nice gain.

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Here is an example of what I meant by the offensive line “deserving” more. The offensive line does their job perfectly here, but the tight ends — Luke Stocker and Jonnu Smith — both miss their blocks and leave Henry in a terrible spot. Henry does an outstanding job of even getting back to the line of scrimmage here.

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The Titans didn’t do a ton of pin and pull on Sunday and this may be why. On this snap they motion Jonnu Smith in tight and want to use him to pin defensive end Robert Quinn (highlighted) so that Taylor Lewan can pull and get out as the world’s most terrifying lead blocker. However, Smith isn’t able to get the pin on Quinn who beats him upfield and makes the big tackle for loss on Dion Lewis. If Smith gets a better block here, the Titans have something to work with on the corner. This is the part of the game that has to get better from Jonnu Smith.

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It wasn’t all bad from Smith though (it usually isn’t). Here he gets a really nice block to pin one of the Dolphins linebackers, but the block I really liked on this play came from Corey Davis. He’s lined up in the slot here and responsible for blocking Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso. This should be a mismatch in favor of Alonso, but Davis manhandles him and allows Lewis to pick up a couple extra yards. Davis’ blocking has really improved from Year 1 to Year 2. I know nobody is putting a wide receiver in the Pro Bowl because they’re a great blocker, but this stuff really does matter. Many big plays in the running game go from 10-yard gains to 50-yard touchdowns because of wide receivers who block downfield.

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For the most part, I thought both Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry had excellent days. Henry’s stats weren’t quite as good, but his blocking wasn’t as good either. This is one that Henry would probably like to have back though. The Titans have this blocked well and he should have continued to press this outside, but he tries to bend it back and ends up tripping over Ben Jones’ foot for a very short gain. This was an outlier though. Henry was very disciplined as a runner in Week 1 which is a very good sign for the Titans.

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While we’re here, let’s look at the Henry TD that got called back. It was a bogus call, but I think what the ref saw was the Dolphins defender’s shoulder turning (as he facemasked Delanie Walker) and then saw Jonnu Smith’s hand on his back and thought Smith was holding him. From the angle I can understand him misreading that action, but that is little consolation for the Titans who had 6 points wiped off the board for no reason.

Up front, the Titans block this outside zone run absolutely perfectly. Luke Stocker gets a great block to seal the edge, Dennis Kelly and Ben Jones both climb to the second level to pick off the linebackers, and Josh Kline is able to do enough to gain outside leverage against No. 96. Outside, Walker and Smith do a good job washing out the other linebacker and corner which leaves Henry in a foot race against safety T.J. McDonald that he wins with ease. If this run isn’t called back, how different does the rest of the game play out and how different is the perception of the Titans ground game?

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The Titans offensive line was excellent up front. If they can continue to get that kind of play from that group and improve the blocking from the tight ends, they’ll have some great success running the football this year.

Other notes from Matt LaFleur’s scheme

LaFleur’s offense looked a lot like what I was expecting it to. The base of the offense is the outside zone run and then play action looks off of that play. They mixed in a lot of zone read in the run game and made heavy use of bunches and rub routes in the passing game.

One of the most popular concepts in this scheme is a post-deep cross combo that some refer to as a “Yankee concept”.

Yankee concept

Here it is in action. This is the play that Mariota sailed after the elbow injury. I have to think the lack of ability to grip the ball affected this throw as he’s throwing from a clean pocket to an open Tajae Sharpe. This is a play that we will see quite a bit of this year.

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One big difference between last season’s offense and the first game of Matt LaFleur is the spacing of routes. Far too often under Mularkey and Robiskie, we saw only two or three receivers in a pattern and those receivers were regularly too close to each other. Here’s a good example of the opposite of that. The Titans spread the Dolphins out with Dion Lewis split wide to the bottom of the screen and Walker lined up inside of him. They have three wide receivers to the top of the screen which immediately gives Mariota a man-zone read. The corner stays outside with Lewis which means the Dolphins are likely in zone coverage.

The No. 2 and No. 3 receivers at the top side of the screen both flood in to the safety on that side’s zone. Gabbert takes the easier throw on 3rd down — I can’t blame him for that — but he could have had Sharpe in the endzone if he wanted him too. The Titans would score on a Dion Lewis run shortly after.

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Receivers were running open pretty regularly on Sunday. This play ended up getting negated by a facemask penalty against Taylor Lewan as he got beat by Robert Quinn (one of the few losses for the Titans offensive line on the day), but it’s too bad the protection didn’t hold up because Tajae Sharpe was going to be wide open on the dagger concept over the middle.

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I liked LaFleur’s debut for the most part, though his commitment to the run on first downs may have been a bit overkill as Warren Sharp pointed out on Twitter.

That could have been a game plan specific outlier, but it left the Titans behind on down and distance too often on Sunday. Tennessee faced 2nd and 8 or more 14 times against the Dolphins. They saw 2nd and 7 or less just 7 times. More troubling, the Titans ran the ball on 2nd and 8 or more 6 times.

Again, now is not the time to panic about these tendencies. In fact, I’m not even sure you could call them tendencies at this point, but it bears watching moving forward to see if the Titans adjust their approach to these situations.

Dion Lewis is a lot of fun

The Titans have one of the best backfields in the NFL. I thought Derrick Henry’s day was underrated, but the raving about Dion Lewis is deserved. He was excellent in Miami and clearly brought a different element to the Titans offense that was missing in 2017.

This play really sums up Lewis’ ability well. It’s another outside zone run, but Lewis reads the cutback lane, gets in it, and then explodes down field before making Dolphins Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones whiff with a nasty spin move. I’ve said it before, but Lewis is among the best backs in the league when he’s healthy.

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Lewis was also a factor in the passing game (though he did have a couple drops late in the game). This is a route that we will see a lot of from Lewis in 2018. It’s an option route where he essentially has a two-way go. He can read the defender and then either break inside or outside. This time he breaks in, but what he does after the catch is really special. Watch carefully as he catches the pass he peaks over his left shoulder which makes Jones completely whiff when he turns back the other way. Lewis is an expert at reading defenders and using his body language to set them up for failure. Mariota having the option to check down to Lewis and let him turn an easy pass in to a big gain should be a huge help to his game this season.

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Here is the move from the TV broadcast angle in slow motion. It’s just beautiful.

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If you’re feeling down about the Titans after Week 1 and looking for a reason to watch, I think watching Dion Lewis play football is a pretty good reason.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of the Dolphins All-22 later in the week covering the defense, penalty controversies, and special teams.