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All-22 Review: Titans pass rush overwhelms Texans offensive line

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Tennessee’s defensive front made life difficult for Deshaun Watson.

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.

If you missed the breakdown of the Titans offense against the Texans from earlier this week, you can check it out here. This post will focus on the Titans defense and what they did to hold Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense to just 17 points in a winning effort.

This was always going to be a game that the defense had to win for Tennessee. With Marcus Mariota, Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin, Dennis Kelly, and Delanie Walker all out, the Titans played pretty close to the vest on offense in an attempt to limit big mistakes and lean on the defense to give them a chance to win.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect defensive performance — the Titans allowed 148 yards rushing and over 100 yards receiving to both DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller — but they did enough when it mattered to get the job done. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the game for me.

Titans pass rush dominates

First, let’s start with the caveat that the Texans offensive line is horrific. The starting left tackle was a third round rookie making his first NFL start and the starting right tackle was a second year player making just his sixth NFL start and his first at right tackle. The interior isn’t much better as starting guards Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton were free agent additions this offseason who have spent the majority of their careers as backups or utility linemen and starting center Nick Martin was coming off a bad second season. The Texans are going to give up pressure to a lot of teams this year.

That being said, the Titans dominated to an extreme degree. According to PFF charting data Tennessee generated pressure on 21 of Watson’s 40 dropbacks during the game, easily the best rate in the NFL during Week 2.

I wrote about Harold Landry’s impact earlier this week. The rookie contributed 5 pressures by himself on Sunday, but he was far from alone in getting after the passer. Jurrell Casey (8), Brian Orakpo (5), DaQuan Jones (3), Kamalei Correa (2), and Jayon Brown (2) all had multiple pressures as well.

Let’s take a look at a few of these that may not have been as noticeable during the game. DaQuan Jones was starting to show some ability as a pass rusher right before he got injured against the Colts last season and he started to flash that again versus Houston. This snap was very early in the game and the pass was completed, but this is a great club-swim combo from Jones as he splits the guard and center to get a hit on Watson.

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Landry is the big story as the new guy in town, but Brian Orakpo looked a lot more like his usual, disruptive self on Sunday. He didn’t end up with a sack, but his 5 pressures tied Landry for second on the team and he also contributed by drawing a holding call on the play below. Rak was consistently beating the Texans tackles all game.

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The Titans probably should have gotten another holding call later in the game when both Casey and Orakpo were pretty clearly held coming off an E-T twist. The result ended up being a big completion down field for Watson, but this is good work from both Titans rushers.

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While we are on the topic of holding, the Titans got held a ton against Houston. Here is another blatant example. I understand that holding occurs all the time, but usually it’s called when a pass rusher is closing in on a QB and a lineman has a clear hold of his jersey outside the shoulder pads.

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Jurrell Casey is an incredible football player. That’s hardly news, but I think it’s important to appreciate how good he is. He largely had his way with the Texans interior offensive line Sunday. Here just uses a simple bull rush to walk Senio Kelemete in to the pocket and then scrapes off to grab Watson when Landry flushes him from the edge. Both of Casey’s sacks came with an assist from the rookie edge rusher and those two should continue to complement each other in this defense for years to come.

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This next snap shows a look that the Titans used at times on 3rd downs against the Texans. Dean Pees lines up both inside linebackers in the A gaps with Casey and Orakpo as stand up 3-techs and Landry and Morgan as wide edge rushers. Orakpo and Wesley Woodyard drop off at the snap with the other four rushers coming. Casey rips and bends past Zach Fulton and nearly grabs Watson for another sack, but even after missing the sack, he chases him down field and helps stop him short of the marker to force 4th down.

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Casey’s strip sack, again, came with an assist from Orakpo and Landry who buzzed off the edges and forced Watson to step up. Casey twisted with Morgan on the inside and showed off impressive bend as he cornered around the right guard and got a hand on the ball to knock it out.

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It’s going to be important for the Titans pass rush to continue to get pressure consistently as the season moves on. Jacksonville’s offensive line has been excellent in pass protection so far this season, but with starting left tackle Cam Robinson out, there should be an opportunity for Casey, Orakpo, Morgan, and Landry to cause some problems for Blake Bortles and the Jags passing game.

Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler on opposite ends of big plays

The key to defense in the modern is NFL is having complementary pass rush and coverage. A great pass rush will never get home if wide receivers are running wide open early in the play. Similarly, even the best secondaries can’t cover for forever. It’s an extremely symbiotic relationship.

Never was this relationship more apparent than during the Titans-Texans game. The secondary mostly played well, but the big lapses that did occur were often when Deshaun Watson was able to buy some extra time for his receivers to work open. Let’s start with Malcolm Butler’s day. He’s received a lot of criticism for his play in the first two games, primarily due to the two big touchdowns that he’s allowed. Travis Haney of The Athletic did a good breakdown of all 17 targets that Butler has seen in a Titans uniform earlier this week and came to the same conclusion that I have: there’s nothing “wrong” with what Malcolm Butler is doing in coverage, he’s just been a little unfortunate.

Let’s start with the big touchdown from this week. Last week we looked at the long touchdown to Kenny Stills and saw that he just missed getting a hand in to break up the long pass at the catch point. This week was a pretty similar process and result. Butler is in press man coverage and appears to be using the trail technique — something he does often with great success — which leaves him a step behind Will Fuller. Watson throws a perfect ball and Fuller gets away with a very subtle push off at the last second to create enough room to make the catch. Mike Vrabel hinted earlier this week that the NFL confirmed to him that it should have been called for OPI. Still, Butler very nearly is able to get his hand in the basket and knock the ball out.

I understand that “almost” doesn’t count in football, but as a process over results guy, I have to say that I don’t think this is bad coverage from Butler.

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Later in the game, Butler was able to stay on top of Fuller on a stutter-go on a critical 3rd down.

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The Titans certainly showed a lot of faith in their corners at points during the game, including this zero blitz that resulted in Kamalei Correa’s second sack of the season. Butler is spotlighted and has excellent coverage on DeAndre Hopkins which helps contribute to the blitz getting home.

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Butler was extremely physical with Hopkins throughout the game. Here, he gets a good jam at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the quick slant and force the incompletion.

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He also nearly ended the game on the very first play of the Texans final drive as he broke on the out route to undercut the route from Hopkins.

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Butler is playing better than the numbers that are floating around out there would indicate. The good news is that he isn’t the kind of guy that you have to worry about losing confidence. He plays with a swagger and I would expect the numbers that receivers are putting up with him in coverage to regress to something more in line with his play to this point.

On the opposite side of the field, Adoree’ Jackson got his first interception of his NFL career against Houston and it was a spectacular one. He was in man coverage on DeAndre Hopkins and was able to use his elite athleticism to run right in the wide receiver’s hip pocket and then sky over the top to pluck the ball out of the air before his opponent could get a chance to make the play. Kevin Byard’s positioning on the inside of this route allowed Jackson to be more aggressive in going for the ball so he deserves some credit here as well.

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PFF had Jackson down for just 6 targets against the Texans, allowing 4 catches for just 36 yards. The only passes that were completed on Jackson in this game were short stop routes and slants and he allowed just 3 yards after the catch total on those 4 catches. Here is an example. Jackson is playing off coverage with eyes in the backfield. He reads the slant, breaks, and makes a great attempt to break up the pass. In fact, I’m pretty sure Hopkins is the only receiver in the league that holds on to this ball.

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Jackson’s deep speed is elite. He’s able to stay on top of vertical routes with ease as he showcases here working against Hopkins, very nearly coming up with another interception.

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It was good to see this from Jackson after a relatively rough opener in Miami. He was incredible in camp and I expect him to continue to grow as the season goes on. He and Butler have a chance to be one of the better outside corner tandems in the NFL this year.

Titans issues in run defense

The Titans used nickel personnel for almost every snap in the game against Houston regardless of who their opponent had on the field. Here are the snap counts for the secondary from the game:

Kevin Byard 67 of 67

Kenny Vaccaro 67 of 67

Malcolm Butler 67 of 67

Adoree’ Jackson 64 of 67

Logan Ryan 63 of 67

LeShaun Sims 1 of 67

Dane Cruikshank 1 of 67

I took that as an intentional strategy of making life tough on Deshaun Watson through the air, even if that meant being a little lighter against the run than they normally would like to be. I will be interested to see if they use this snap distribution moving forward. Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, and Logan Ryan are absolutely 3 of the 11 best defenders on the team and this is a way to get them all on the field as often as possible.

The result of that strategy was, in part, the Texans averaging 5.7 yards per carry for the day. Even if you remove Watson’s 5 carries for 44 yards, the Texans backs combined for a 5.0 yards per carry average. The Titans run defense through two games is giving up an average of 4.9 yards per carry, 6th most in the NFL.

It’s been a far cry from the stout run defenses we’ve seen the past two years. There is no doubt that the team is missing Avery Williamson in this aspect of the game — though I’ll still argue that his inability to cover made letting him walk the right decision — but there have also been some assignment busts that are resulting in some of the bigger gains.

Here is an example of one of those busts. The Titans have all the gaps covered at the snap, but the Texans pull the right guard for the counter run. Inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard (No. 59) shoots a gap inside to try and make a play, but doesn’t get there. Orakpo (No. 98) tries to shoot inside of the pulling guard and gets taken out of the play. Those two guys took a risk that didn’t pay off and left Lamar Miller with a huge hole to run through. Woodyard particularly likes to shoot gaps and he’s usually very good at it, but this time he gets burned.

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I have felt like Will Compton has struggled a little bit at times as well. He’s a smart player who knows where to be and how to get everyone lined up correctly, but I think the run defense will get better once Rashaan Evans gets up to speed and ready to contribute.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. Compton reads the play right, but he’s just a tick too late to react and it leads to Miller getting the edge and picking up a big gain. Adoree’ Jackson needs to take a better angle here as well.

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Bennie Logan making an impact

The Titans added Logan to the defensive line rotation in the offseason and I’ve felt like he’s really made the most of limited snaps through two games. After starting the season with just 13 snaps against Miami, he was up to 20 snaps against Houston despite the Titans spending the entire game in a nickel package defensively. I would imagine that number continues to grow based on Logan’s play in Week 2.

Logan consistently resets the line of scrimmage in the run game. This time he takes Texans center Nick Martin and pushes him back a couple yards as he scrapes down the line and ultimately causes the pile up that stops Lamar Miller.

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Logan is really a run stuffer, but he his ability to push the front of the pocket can be useful in pass defense as well. Here, he pushes three Texans defenders back in to Watson’s feet. There isn’t any real edge pressure on this snap so Watson is still able to deliver the ball unaffected, but this kind of push will help when it is synced up with Harold Landry and Brian Orakpo screaming off the edge.

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This next play isn’t really a great football play, but it’s kind of funny and it shows how powerful Bennie Logan is. He puts Texans right tackle Julie’n Davenport (No. 70) on his back so hard that he ends up tripping over Davenport’s feet. That’s quite a punch.

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If I was Dean Pees, I would be finding a way to get Logan more snaps this week against a Jaguars offense that wants to get downhill with the power run game.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty strong defensive effort. The Titans gave up a bunch of yards, but they came through with big stops when they needed them. The pass rush was on fire all game and the corners largely played well, especially Adoree’ Jackson.

I am interested to see if Rashaan Evans gets worked in to the defensive game plan this week. He was limited to just one special teams snap and zero defensive snaps in his debut against Houston. His physicality in run defense and ability to rush the passer could be a big help to this team once he’s ready.