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All-22 Review: Smart game plan gives the Titans offense just enough to get by the Texans

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The Titans squeezed just enough offense out of an extremely injury depleted unit to get by in Week 2.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans isn’t going to go down as one of the best offensive performances in Titans history. Tennessee generated just 283 yards of offense, with 66 of those coming on a fake punt pass. Their quarterback averaged just 5.85 yards per attempt and their running backs combined for just under 3.1 yards per carry.

However, it’s always important to consider context, and the context surrounding this game for the Titans offense was significant. Every time I picture the Titans offensive staff meetings from last week, I think of the scene below from Apollo 13 where a critical combination of problems leaves NASA command team trying to figure out how to rebuild a square filter to fit through a round hole using nothing but the items available to the astronauts on board.

“This just isn’t a contingency we’ve remotely looked at” sounds an awful lot like something Titans coaches would have said last week when suddenly faced with the task of devising a game plan without Marcus Mariota, Delanie Walker, Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin, or Dennis Kelly available to them.

Mike Vrabel hinted at some long nights at the office for the coaching staff in the week leading up to this game. As a football nerd, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall watching these coaches throwing out ideas and trying to figure out how they were going to beat Houston with Blaine Gabbert, Kevin Pamphile, and Tyler Marz as starters at three of the most important positions on offense.

Despite the less-than-great efficiency stats noted above, the Titans offense protected the ball, kept the defense out of bad situations, and did just enough when it counted to earn the win. Here are some things that stood out to me when watching the game.

Offensive line plays well again, tight ends improve

After finishing 1st in PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency metric a week ago, the Titans offensive line ranked 6th for their work against the Texans. Kevin Pamphile, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Josh Kline, and Tyler Marz combined to allow just 1 sack and 2 hurries on 22 drop backs against a talented Texans front seven.

Through two weeks, the Titans line has allowed just 5 pressures total. To put that in perspective, Titans rookie pass rusher Harold Landry got 5 pressures by himself in his NFL debut on Sunday. Tennessee’s offensive line is doing an excellent job of protecting their quarterbacks, but as much as anything, offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is doing a great job of creating game plans that protect his backup tackles. He’s not asking these guys to hold up against J.J. Watt or Cameron Wake while they run slow developing 7-step drops very frequently.

The Titans line is doing OK in the run game based on the tape, though the numbers there aren’t nearly as rosy. Their 3.4 yards per carry over two games is 29th in the NFL and their Adjusted Line Yards — a Football Outsiders metric that isolates yards generated before a ball carrier is contacted by the defense — ranks 25th. They aren’t opening giant holes for Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis to work with, but they’re also facing stacked boxes and linebackers who are playing on their toes because they know Gabbert is less likely to hurt them over the top.

Here is a look at some of the work that they did in the running game. We will start with the wildcat (wildtractor?) series that the Titans rolled out during their second possession of the game. Listening to the quotes from players and coaches after the game, it sounds like this package was put in late in the week — maybe even Friday — once the coaches started to realize that Mariota might not be available for the game. However, the execution was outstanding for plays that the Titans had likely only repped a few times prior to using them in a game setting.

They had a few different variations of the wildcat. This one is a counter with right guard Josh Kline (spotlighted) and H-back Luke Stocker pulling around as lead blockers to the backside of the formation for Henry to follow. Kline’s block is fantastic here as he completely flattens Texans edge rusher Whitney Mercilus and gives Henry a seam to get up field.

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Here is another variation within the package. This looks similar at the snap, but instead of running counter action, they run it as an inside split. Luke Stocker (No. 88) is lined up as an H-back and gets a key block on J.J. Watt who had quickly beaten left tackle Kevin Pamphile. Stocker had a really nice game overall. Up front, Ben Jones and Quinton Spain get key blocks as they get good movement on nose tackle D.J. Reader before Spain climbs to the second level and gets a block on linebacker Benardrick McKinney. I thought Henry did a great job of running in heavy traffic on Sunday and finishing after contact and this is a good example of that.

Sidenote: What the heck are the Texans doing with two deep safeties against the wildcat????

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The Titans also ran the jet sweep off of this look with Taywan Taylor. The timing and execution of these plays is pretty impressive considering they only installed the limited amount of time they had to work on this. Taylor’s speed allows him to run right around Watt and get to the corner with the help of his tight ends Smith and Stocker.

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The Titans ran far less outside zone this week than I would expect to normally see from this offense and that’s almost certainly a direct response to the starting tackles being out of the game. Instead, they took advantage of Texans tendencies to over pursue, leaning heavily on these designed windback counters. Jonnu Smith’s (No. 81) blocking is still a work in progress, but this is excellent from him here. He helps right tackle Tyler Marz pancake the defensive end before effectively blocking both Texans inside linebackers and creating a massive running lane for Henry.

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Corey Davis gets a lot of attention from Titans fans — it kind of comes with the territory when you’re the number 5 overall pick at a very visible position — but I’m not sure if everyone has noticed his blocking this year. He’s taken big steps forward from his rookie season in that aspect of his game and you can see that illustrated here. He is spotlighted before the snap, but keep an eye on his as he takes Texans safety Justin Reid and bullies him all the way across the field to help make room on this Derrick Henry run. That’s not going to make any highlight shows, but I guarantee you wide receiver coach Rob Moore appreciates that kind of effort when they are watching the tape from this game.

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Again, here is another example of the Titans running a windback counter to take advantage of over-pursuit from Houston. Pamphile does a nice job of washing Reader (No. 98) down the line of scrimmage while Spain sneaks up to pin Zach Cunningham (No. 41) on the second level. As I mentioned above, Smith’s blocking was better this week, but still had some inconsistent moments. He at least slows down Mercilus (No. 59) here, but a better block would have given Henry more room to widen and possibly get that lethal right-handed stiff arm on McKinney to turn this in to a bigger gain.

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Another windback run here. Henry gets nice blocks from Pamphile, Stocker, and Smith on this play which get him on the edge one on one against Johnathan Joseph who he plants in to the Nissan Stadium turf with that stiff arm. Tajae Sharpe misses his initial block on safety Justin Reid (No. 20) who ends up forcing Henry out after he gets by Joseph and likely prevents a long touchdown run here. Sharpe at least does try to make up for it by leveling Mercilus on the way back. In case you can’t tell already, Mercilus had a very very long day.

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The Titans also mixed in some inside zone this week. This was the best blocked run of the game as Spain (spotlighted) gets Reader (No. 98) on the ground for Ben Jones before climbing to pick off Cunningham (No. 41) as well. Spain’s excellent start in Miami continued against Houston. He’s been the Titans best offensive lineman so far this season. Josh Kline also deserves credit here for his work to reach McKinney (No. 55) on the second level.

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Blaine Gabbert plays well, gets some help from young wide receivers

Blaine Gabbert’s numbers weren’t great. He finished 13 of 20 for 117 yards and a touchdown on the day, but most importantly he finished with zero turnovers. Watching the tape made me even more impressed with Gabbert’s day. The Titans coaching staff didn’t ask him to attack much down the field, but that could be as much about a lack of confidence in their ability to hold up in pass protection as much as it was a concern about Gabbert’s ability to execute.

He also got a pretty major assist from young Titans receivers Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Tajae Sharpe. Davis and Taylor, specifically, have helped Tennessee get off to a hot start with regards to generating yards after the catch.

This is an area that the Titans really struggled with in recent years and the big shift is certainly a combination of changes in scheme and personnel.

Below is a small example of Davis being able to create YAC even on a very simple out route. Gabbert hits him on a quick 5-yard out which he then turns up field with a vicious stiff arm of Texans corner/safety Kareem Jackson to pick up an extra 3 or 4 yards.

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That play set up this one from the Titans “other” second-year wide receiver. I start the GIF a little earlier than usual this time as you can see Texans corner Aaron Colvin (No. 22) tip off his corner blitz pre-snap. Gabbert catches it and checks the play, throwing a quick screen to Taylor. Taylor is able to make Johnathan Joseph miss behind the line of scrimmage before picking up a block from Pamphile (No. 66) and then juking Tyrann Mathieu out of his cleats at the 10-yard line. It’s a great job by Gabbert recognizing the defensive call and then outstanding individual effort from Taylor to take it to the endzone. He is absolutely dynamic with the ball in his hands and the Titans need to make sure he’s getting at least 3 to 5 touches per game in my opinion.

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Davis showed some more of his run after catch ability later in the game during the game winning drive. This was the key play of the drive as the Titans were facing 2nd and long just outside of field goal range with just 2:29 remaining. Davis takes the quick screen, gets a nice block from Tyler Marz and then uses his speed and strength to weave his way through the Texans defense. Obviously, you don’t like to see the ball on the ground at the end here, but after slowing it down and studying the fumble, it looks like J.J. Watt actually kicks this ball out of Davis’ arms as he’s spinning him down to the ground. It didn’t look to me like a case of Davis being loose with the ball (something he’s been guilty of in the past). Luckily, Dion Lewis makes a heads up effort play to knock the ball safely out of bounds.

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When the Titans did take shots further down field, they often moved the pocket to keep the Texans edge rushers from being able to hone in on a stationary target. Gabbert executed well on bootlegs throughout the game, showing off his excellent athleticism.

This was a great example of that and it was the play that jump started the game-tying drive after the Texans had put up 17 unanswered to seemingly take control of the game. Matt LaFleur called for a play action bootleg flood concept, but J.J. Watt — who was a nuisance all game despite his lack of sacks — seems to have Gabbert dead to rights until the quarterback turns on the jets and outruns him to the edge. That gives him time to find a wide open Luke Stocker on the shallow cross for the first down. Outstanding job by Gabbert here.

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The Titans ran a similar concept on the game winning drive to the opposite side. Again, it’s a play action boot with a flood concept. Again, the Texans do a decent job of reading the bootleg and cutting him off, but Gabbert is able to quickly reset his feet and deliver an accurate ball to Corey Davis on the intermediate crossing route for a first down on 2nd and 9.

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Gabbert nearly had another big gain on a deep comeback to Davis on the play below, but pressure from Texans rookie edge rusher Duke Ejiofor — who was really good on Sunday — forces a throw that skips at Davis’ feet. Also, check out Spain stonewalling Watt’s swim move on the endzone camera view. It’s hard to overstate how good he’s been so far.

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One of Gabbert’s biggest throws of the game was on 3rd and 3 during the game-tying drive. I actually think the shallow throw to Davis may have been the safer play here, but Gabbert hits Tajae Sharpe on the dig with a great throw (and an even better catch from Sharpe) to move the Titans in to field goal range.

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The Titans offensive game plan masked some matchup deficiencies throughout the game and ultimately was enough to get the win. Blaine Gabbert deserves a ton of credit for executing at a high level and making some clutch plays when it counted the most.

That being said, I wouldn’t read too much in to the stats or the playcalling tendencies from this one. We probably won’t see many more games where the Titans have a 60-40 run-pass ratio in favor of the run unless it’s an absolute blowout. This offense will look quite a bit different when Marcus Mariota, Taylor Lewan, and Jack Conklin are back in the lineup, but it is refreshing to see an offense that can get creative when asked to fit a square peg in a round hole with only spare parts available to them.